Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

The follow-up to Pinker's groundbreaking The Better Angels of Our Nature presents the big picture of human progress: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science. Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this eleg...

DownloadRead Online
Title:Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Author:Steven Pinker
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress Reviews

  • Jillian Doherty

    Ever since Bill Gates tweeted his endorsement for Pinker's Better Angels, fans have rushed to support his writing of big ideas by big thinkers!

    Enlightenment Now illustrates Pinker's practical yet tangible style, but is freshly positive as well. His explosive understanding toward social science and political empathy will appeal to all big thinkers and affirmative readers alike.

  • David

    A few months ago, I heard Steven Pinker give a talk about this book. I must say that his speaking skill did not impress me. However, his writing skill is brilliant. This is a very important book--epic in scope, comprehensive, well thought-out and structured, incredibly well researched, and full of some very important messages.

    The book begins with a student's question

    To which Pinker answers with a profound interpretation of the "meaning of life". I won't repeat his complete

    A few months ago, I heard Steven Pinker give a talk about this book. I must say that his speaking skill did not impress me. However, his writing skill is brilliant. This is a very important book--epic in scope, comprehensive, well thought-out and structured, incredibly well researched, and full of some very important messages.

    The book begins with a student's question

    To which Pinker answers with a profound interpretation of the "meaning of life". I won't repeat his complete answer, but he writes,

    Pinker writes that the Enlightenment helped us escape from superstition and ignorance. It increased our understanding of ourselves through science. Also, Humanism is a secular foundation for morality. And, it is individuals who are sentient, not the tribe. The Enlightenment helped to abolish cruel punishments and slavery. Also, Humanism helped bring about an increase in peace.

    The Enlightenment has helped to eradicate some terrible diseases. Science is the most unambiguous achievement by mankind. Science helped to eradicate smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease that killed 300 million people in the 20th century. And, we have forgotten that on April 12, 1955, "people observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, ... took the day off, closed schools, ... and forgave enemies." That was the day that Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was declared to be safe.

    Pinker extols the virtues of genetic engineering, that can accomplish in days what farmers accomplished over millennia, and what Norman Borlaug took years of "mind-warping tedium" to accomplish. Hundreds of studies, every major health and science organization, and over a hundred Nobel laureates have testified to the safety of transgenic crops. Nevertheless, some traditional environment groups persist in denying them to the world.

    I just loved this quote from the book:

    Pinker devotes chapters to improvements in the environment, and the problem of climate change. He shows that there is virtually no dissension among scientists that climate change, and specifically global warming, is a significant problem. However, he is optimistic that these issues can, in principle be solved by courageous governmental action.

    The book describes the growth of democracy around the world--not steadily, but in waves. Democratic countries have higher rates of economic growth, fewer wars and genocides, better-educated citizens, and almost no famines. The best reason for democracy, stated by Karl Popper, is that it is a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed. And, it gives people the freedom to complain.

    Pinker shows how disbelief in human-caused climate change is not correlated with scientific illiteracy, but is due to allegiance to values held by one's social circle. Political tribalism is decried as the most insidious form of irrationality today. And this tribalism exists on the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Pinker writes,

    Pinker lists all of the ways in which President Trump has resisted progress, and backtracks to a less advanced way of life: Reversal of health care, reversal of globalism, reversal in the growth of wealth, reversal of the environment, safety, law and order, international trade, equal rights, tolerance, and the judicial system. The president has all the hallmarks of a dictator; he is impulsive and vindictive.

    The last chapter of the book is about humanism; the chapter starts out well, but then briefly becomes too philosophical and abstract for my taste. Then the chapter returns to a more accessible, concrete structure. It becomes obvious that Pinker is an atheist. He writes that the "existence of the God of scripture is a perfectly testable scientific hypothesis." And, he list some experiments that could be performed to test the hypothesis. He also shows how the religiosity of nations, and even from region-to-region within the United States, is inversely related to happiness and well being. The United States, being more religious on the whole than West European countries, has higher homicide rates, abortion, STD's, child mortality, obesity, educational mediocrity, and premature deaths. And, Pinker points out that non-religious people in the U.S. tend not to vote--that helps explain why we have Trump in office today.

    This is such a fascinating book; it takes up arguments where his earlier book

    leaves off. This is the seventh book that I have read by Steven Pinker--and this one is just as wonderful as his previous books.

  • Atila Iamarino

    Tudo o que esperava e um pouco mais. O livro é uma continuação do

    , onde o Pinker escreve porque a humanidade está progredindo em quase todos os sentidos, apesar de termos a impressão do contrário.

    Para alguém como eu, que não tem a menor bagagem filosófica, esta obra foi excelente. Pinker explica muito bem o que foi o Iluminismo (na interpretação dele) e porque o humanismo foi tão importante para mudarmos conceitos éticos, políticos e

    Tudo o que esperava e um pouco mais. O livro é uma continuação do

    , onde o Pinker escreve porque a humanidade está progredindo em quase todos os sentidos, apesar de termos a impressão do contrário.

    Para alguém como eu, que não tem a menor bagagem filosófica, esta obra foi excelente. Pinker explica muito bem o que foi o Iluminismo (na interpretação dele) e porque o humanismo foi tão importante para mudarmos conceitos éticos, políticos e culturais. Na argumentação dele, ainda estamos surfando as mudanças trazidas pelo humanismo e os métodos nos quais ele passa a se basear (como a ciência). E o livro traz uma discussão sobre todo tipo de índice de desenvolvimento, econômico, de saúde, de violência, de educação, etc. para mostrar que esse é o caso.

    Grande parte do miolo do livro funciona como uma repetição do

    que, na minha opinião, dispensa a leitura do livro anterior. Traz também avanços em democracia, saúde, ambiente e desigualdade que não lembro muito de aparecerem no livro anterior. Se você não leu Anjos Bons, parta direto para este que traz uma lição mais abrangente e mais bem argumentada, ainda que menos detalhada, sobre como a humanidade está avançando a passos cada vez mais rápidos.

    O destaque para mim ficou com a parte 3 onde ele combina ciência, razão e conhecimento para argumentar por onde poderíamos caminhar para avançar ainda mais rápido. É a área que ele mais domina e traz contribuições que achei muito mais pertinentes do que autores mais ligados à humanidades que já li.

    É uma das obras que coloco como recomendadíssimas para qualquer um. Sapiens me explicou muito bem como chegamos aqui, Homo Deus para onde vamos. Este livro me explicou muito bem onde estamos.

  • Bill Gates

    For years, I’ve been saying Steven Pinker’s

    was the best book I’d read in a decade. If I could recommend just one book for anyone to pick up, that was it. Pinker uses meticulous research to argue that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. I’d never seen such a clear explanation of progress.

    I’m going to stop talking up

    so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book,

    , is even better.

    For years, I’ve been saying Steven Pinker’s

    was the best book I’d read in a decade. If I could recommend just one book for anyone to pick up, that was it. Pinker uses meticulous research to argue that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. I’d never seen such a clear explanation of progress.

    I’m going to stop talking up

    so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book,

    , is even better.

    takes the approach he uses in

    to track violence throughout history and applies it to 15 different measures of progress (like quality of life, knowledge, and safety). The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better. It’s like

    on steroids.

    I read the book slowly since I loved it so much, but I think most people will find it a quick and accessible read. He manages to share a ton of information in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and easy to digest.

    It opens with an argument in favor of returning to the ideals of the Enlightenment—an era when reason, science, and humanism were touted as the highest virtues.

    I’m all for more reason, science, and humanism, but what I found most interesting were the 15 chapters exploring each measure of progress. Pinker is at his best when he analyzes historic trends and uses data to put the past into context. I was already familiar with a lot of the information he shares—especially about health and energy—but he understands each subject so deeply that he’s able to articulate his case in a way that feels fresh and new.

    I love how he’s willing to dive deep into primary data sources and pull out unexpected signs of progress. I tend to point to things like dramatic reductions in poverty and childhood deaths, because I think they’re such a good measure of how we’re doing as a society. Pinker covers those areas, but he also looks at more obscure topics.

    Here are five of my favorite facts from the book that show how the world is improving:

    —and that’s not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. It’s because we have better weather prediction capabilities, improved safety education, and more people living in cities.

    This might sound trivial in the grand scheme of progress. But the rise of the washing machine has improved quality of life by freeing up time for people—mostly women—to enjoy other pursuits. That time represents nearly half a day every week that could be used for everything from binge-watching

    or reading a book to starting a new business.

    Every year, 5,000 people die from occupational accidents in the U.S. But in 1929—when our population was less than two-fifths the size it is today—20,000 people died on the job. People back then viewed deadly workplace accidents as part of the cost of doing business. Today, we know better, and we’ve engineered ways to build things without putting nearly as many lives at risk.

    Kids’ brains are developing more fully thanks to improved nutrition and a cleaner environment. Pinker also credits more analytical thinking in and out of the classroom. Think about how many symbols you interpret every time you check your phone’s home screen or look at a subway map. Our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age, and it’s making us smarter.

    This idea seems obvious. But before the creation of the United Nations in 1945, no institution had the power to stop countries from going to war with each other. Although there have been some exceptions, the threat of international sanctions and intervention has proven to be an effective deterrent to wars between nations.

    Pinker also tackles the disconnect between actual progress and the perception of progress—

    . People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones? He does a good job explaining why we’re drawn to pessimism and how that instinct influences our approach to the world, although I wish he went more in depth about the psychology (especially since he’s a psychologist by training). The late Hans Rosling explains this more fully in his excellent new book

    .

    I agree with Pinker on most areas, but I think he’s a bit too optimistic about artificial intelligence. He’s quick to dismiss the idea of robots overthrowing their human creators. While I don’t think we’re in danger of a

    -style scenario, the question underlying that fear—who exactly controls the robots?—is a valid one. We’re not there yet, but at some point, who has AI and who controls it will be an important issue for global institutions to address.

    The big questions surrounding automation are proof that progress can be a messy, sticky thing—but that doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction. At the end of

    , Pinker argues that “we will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing."

    The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture.

    is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.

  • David Wineberg

    You’ve never had it so good, and Steven Pinker has the stats and charts (over 70!) to prove it. Wars are fewer and less severe, homicides are down, racism is in decline, terrorism is a fading fad, democracy rules, communicable diseases and poverty are on their way out. Life expectancy is up, and police are killing fewer people, both black and white. Even the poor have refrigerators. Inequality is a requisite sign of success. So appreciate the wonderful state of affairs you find yourself in. This

    You’ve never had it so good, and Steven Pinker has the stats and charts (over 70!) to prove it. Wars are fewer and less severe, homicides are down, racism is in decline, terrorism is a fading fad, democracy rules, communicable diseases and poverty are on their way out. Life expectancy is up, and police are killing fewer people, both black and white. Even the poor have refrigerators. Inequality is a requisite sign of success. So appreciate the wonderful state of affairs you find yourself in. This is the message of Enlightenment Now, with a title that sounds like a protest placard, but which is actually a survey of the world by the statistics that states collect.

    We’re so “progressive”, we’re beating back entropy itself. Steven Pinker takes 500 pages to create a world where everything is so fabulously much better than it ever has been, that anyone who says different is perpetuating an intellectual lie. This is why it is your enlightenment. The book is an endless, uplifting editorial. If you’re buying.

    He’s at his best criticizing politics and science. He shows precisely how our biases prejudice our most thoughtful conclusions, and bemoans the lack of respect for science and the humanities. He says science is presented in some schools as “just another narrative, or myth”. Humanities are in danger of extinction, and they are critical to progress.

    Pinker has a nice tendency to support his arguments with examples and charts. Unfortunately, he balances this with a tendency to ignore states or countries that don’t conform to his claims, and he swings numbers around to make them look better. He claims when he measures what people consume as opposed to what they earn, the poverty rate in the USA is 3%. So really, everyone is thriving. Even if they’re visibly not.

    I fully realize Pinker is untouchable and slated for sainthood, but many things he says don’t add up, and a lot of it is just outrageous on its face. Let him speak for himself:

    -On war: “Virtually every acre of land that was conquered after 1928 has been returned to the state that lost it.” (Something must have happened in 1927 for him to pick 1928, but he doesn’t say). Where do you even begin to refute this? Kaliningrad? Mauritania? The South China Sea? Crimea? Donbass? Palestine?

    -He defends the demolition of the middle classes in the West. Yes, a hundred million Americans are worse off. But a billion Chinese are better off. “The tradeoff is worth it,” he says. That the extremely rich got fabulously more rich is fine with him, too.

    -On terrorism’s “decline”, Pinker points to recently low numbers of victim deaths to show how safe we really are. He doesn’t mention all the freedom of movement, assembly and privacy we have lost to the terrorists. He’s satisfied they don’t kill that much, and that they will eventually fade away.

    -On the mellowing of war: “Weapons don’t come into existence just because they are conceivable or physically possible.” Yes, they do. And worse, everything can be weaponized, from food to mouseclicks. Pinker goes even further, claiming “most historians” don’t think the atomic bombings caused Japan to surrender in three days, but rather it was the potential of Russia turning its attention from west to east.

    -There is a great deal of nonsense about how much cheaper life is today. The provision of a light indoors would have cost the equivalent of £40,000 in the middle ages (if anyone could read), while today, lights cost fractions of pennies. And 100 years ago it took 1800 hours’ work to afford a refrigerator (among too many more such examples). But Pinker never bothers with the other side of the coin. That today, everyone must spend $150 a month on cable, $125 on phone (after purchasing a phone every two years, with each costing more than the fridge), a $20,000 car, a mortgage, and $50,000 in school debt (none of which were factors in the cost of living in the middle ages ) or be unable to function in society. His endless comparisons are pointless.

    -He keeps repeating that because even the poor have flush toilets and refrigerators, they are much better off today than ever. He says even the fabulously wealthy Rothschilds didn’t have a washing machine like nearly everyone (80%) now supposedly has.

    Pinker dismisses ecology as a pastime of the affluent. The more educated and wealthy we become, the more eco-conscious we become, so everything works out. He completely ignores the fact we have crossed the red line. That the oceans are toxic, that there is trash and plastic everywhere, that the carbon levels are at unseemly record levels. That the Paris Accord has not dented the damage one bit. But, he says, the air over London is no longer purple every day.

    The book ends with an interminable bashing of religion, which Pinker considers “intellectually bankrupt”. He cites all the usual contradictions and hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and longing for a cleaner era that never existed. Basically, religion and enlightenment are oil and water.

    So you can look at Enlightenment Now in two ways, according to your own various biases. Either the greater message of positivism is too important (and correct) to criticize Pinker’s maddening claims, or the maddening claims make the whole exercise suspect.

    David Wineberg

  • Charles

    As with Steven Pinker’s earlier "The Better Angels of Our Nature," of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extr

    As with Steven Pinker’s earlier "The Better Angels of Our Nature," of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.

    I like Pinker for his clarity of mind. And since I have been reading a steady diet of books whose central claim is that the Enlightenment was a mistake, and moreover I am personally enamored of Reaction, the idea of creating a new thing by reference to the old, it is only fair that I consider the opposite ideas presented as well as possible. Moreover, this book claims to answer exactly a current question of mine—is the material marvel that is the modern world the child of the Enlightenment? I was not disappointed; this book is just what the doctor ordered, at least to clarify my own thoughts, though probably not with the result Pinker intended. He wants to prove the Enlightenment is responsible for everything that is good in the modern world, and every good thing that will be in the future, but he ends up, for the most part, refuting himself on all his key claims. Still, the ride is interesting enough and that alone makes his book worth reading.

    On the second page of his book, Pinker enunciates the core of his argument, by referring to “the Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.” The next sentence, by implication, defines the Enlightenment further as “the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress.” The following paragraph says the Enlightenment is “also called humanism, the open society, and cosmopolitan or classical liberalism.” All this creates a somewhat confused definition, but once you read the whole book, it’s evident that to Pinker, the middle sentence is the key—the Enlightenment consists in the primacy to human societies of “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” His book revolves around these four concepts, and we will return to each of these concepts in turn.

    Pinker divides his book into three parts. The first, shortest, part expands on what Pinker means by “the Enlightenment.” Here, Pinker begins by turning to the driver of all the progress that he details at great length later in the book, namely, the Scientific Revolution. “The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two-thirds of the 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century.” Given that the term “Age of Reason” is only used in one other place in this book, at the very end in a similar context, while the terms “Enlightenment” and “Scientific Revolution” are used continuously, it seems fair to conclude that Pinker believes that the Scientific Revolution (actually beginning in the 1500s, and possibly earlier, not “in the 17th century”) was the necessary first step that combined with the Enlightenment to produce the benefits of the modern world. Pinker reinforces this conclusion by summarizing the modern understanding of scientific progress to include entropy, evolution, and information. Grasping these three underlying drivers of scientific progress, Pinker tells us, allows a more complete approach to scientific understanding, and thus of the Enlightenment.

    All this is true. The problem with this definition of the Enlightenment, though, is that it is all about the Scientific Revolution, from its inception to today, and when you look closely at it, has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution led to technology, which ultimately (with some other drivers that are endlessly debated) led to the Industrial Revolution, which created nearly all the progress Pinker spends the second part of his book documenting. But this eliding of the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution is the fatal error of Pinker’s entire book—every chapter, and practically every page, is shot through with it. Pinker claims for the Enlightenment, a system of political and philosophical principles with a nearly exclusive focus on increasing liberty, the advantages of created by the Scientific Revolution, a pre-Enlightenment happening whose success, and whose single-handed creation of the modern world, had essentially nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Pinker does this because he wishes to advocate for Enlightenment principles (in particular, emancipation and atheism), but justify those principles almost wholly by reference to the achievements of the Scientific Revolution. This is a neat parlor trick, but intellectually dishonest. I cannot tell whether Pinker realizes the dishonesty, or merely has wandered so far into the weeds he cannot think clearly. In either case, the effect is to make some parts of the book fascinating, and others risible.

    There are many, many claimed reasons for why the Industrial Revolution occurred, and why it only occurred in the West. But no serious historian claims that it was the Enlightenment that caused the Industrial Revolution, which is no doubt why Pinker glosses over the supposed linkage and offers no citations tying the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution (or, for that matter, to the Scientific Revolution). For a man dedicated to carefully parsing the evidence and linking causal chains through reasoning, this is a glaring omission. Fortunately for the reader, though, these first philosophical musings, or ramblings, only take up the first thirty-five pages of the book. The next 300 are an endless, and endlessly fascinating, series of statistical analyses about various forms of (mostly material) progress. In the final sixty pages, the last third of the book, Pinker returns to philosophy, attempting to synthesize the progress he has demonstrated with his other claimed keystones of the modern world, reason, science, and humanism.

    Pinker’s basic point about progress is a broadening of his claims about peace in "The Better Angels of Our Nature"—that those who think the world is getting worse are wrong, not (mostly) from malice, but from various forms of psychological bias, such as the “Optimism Gap” (people see their own lives as better than other people’s); “Availability Bias” (we make decisions based on data easily available to us, which is often weighted toward the negative); and “Negativity Bias” (it’s easier to imagine how things could be dramatically worse than how they could be dramatically better). To prove this, Pinker offers fourteen separate chapters, each covering a totally different area of progress, demonstrating that since the Scientific Revolution human conditions have gotten better.

    Pinker starts with Life—he shows how life expectancy, both at birth and at later periods of life, has dramatically increased over time—or, rather, since the Industrial Revolution in the West, and since the early twentieth century in much of the rest of the world. Next is Health, to much the same effect. In both chapters, Pinker relies heavily on Nobel Prize-winner Angus Deaton’s "The Great Escape," a fascinating book. But Pinker’s philosophical confusion shows up every time he makes other than statistical claims—for example, he tells us that “Deaton notes that even the idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment—knowledge can make us better off—may come as a revelation” to some (i.e., the non-Western) parts of the world. There are two problems with this. First, that is not the “idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment,” it is in an idea that, in the West, far pre-dated the Enlightenment, as I discuss further below. More to the immediate point, that’s not what Deaton says (since I have a copy of his book, I checked). What Deaton actually says is that people in poor countries are often satisfied with their health, not knowing it can be better. He saying nothing about the Enlightenment, or knowledge in general. Unfortunately, such appeals to authority are common in Pinker’s book (surprising, since appeal to authority has been identified as a basic logical fallacy for millennia), and when the authority is mis-cited, it makes matters worse. (The reader’s suspicion is further exacerbated by Pinker’s frequent habit of not offering page cites, just footnotes to books as a whole, though he does give a page cite to Deaton’s book.)

    Anyway, Pinker next turns to food (Sustenance), where he again talks about the Scientific Revolution (including its modern continuation in Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution) feeding the world, and then tries to claim that it was an accomplishment of the Enlightenment, and failure to feed people as shown by Stalin’s terror famines was because (supposed) Enlightenment values weren’t honored. That’s a stretch. Next is wealth, where Pinker focuses on GDP per capita, showing the takeoff since the Industrial Revolution in the West and more recently in some Asian countries, and the reductions in extreme poverty in other countries that have not experienced the same kind of takeoff.

    Following is Inequality, which Pinker acutely and subtly analyzes (channeling Thomas Sowell in some cases—you can tell that Pinker is, in many areas, broad-minded by the several times he cites Sowell for different propositions, since Sowell is anathema to doctrinaire leftists). Then Environment, noting that other than global warming, the environment is doing just fine and shows every sign of doing better in the future, on every metric. In particular, he notes how resource apocalypses, from Peak Oil to supposed shortages of rare earth elements, are invariably falsified, by technology in general and by hard work enabling us to produce better things with less material. He also covers Peace, updating his earlier book Better Angels, and Safety, noting the declines in homicides and accidents. He quickly dismisses Terrorism as a tempest in a teapot.

    It’s not just material progress that Pinker covers, although that’s the focus. It’s also moral progress—we are, among other things, nicer to people. Less torture, fewer executions, more value assigned to human life and happiness. True enough, but a necessary leg of Pinker’s entire argument is that there was no significant moral progress prior to the Enlightenment, since prior progress would disprove the causation he claims. But prior progress in the West was very great, as anyone with any grasp of history knows. Christianity immediately obviated many of the worst moral behaviors of the Ancient World (variants of which are still common in non-Christian cultures), from infanticide to the Roman practice of starving children to death in sight of a banquet, to distill their organs into love potions that would enhance desire. Christianity further led to the rule of law and was instrumental in the creation of the institutions that made possible the Scientific Revolution. All these moves forward, as Pinker documents while glossing over their cause, led to further moral gains. To hide his embarrassment at these pre-Enlightenment advances, Pinker chants, over and over again, the same trite phrases about “endless religious wars” and repeats boring anecdotes about witchcraft and bearbaiting.

    After these convincing chapters (convincing for their substance, at least), Pinker covers some softer topics, somewhat less successfully. Generally, the less harder-edged and susceptible to statistical analysis the topic, the worse Pinker does in showing that actual progress is being made. In fairness, though, it is true these softer topics, to the extent one agrees they constitute actual progress comparable to that covered in the earlier chapters, are more tied to actual Enlightenment ideas.

    First up is Democracy, which he claims is increasing, but Pinker helps himself over the finish line by defining democracy as basically any good government, one which “threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself.” That, along with other definitional broadening from Karl Popper and John Mueller, means that democracy is redefined as any government with the rule of law and some responsiveness to public opinion. But in any case, there’s more democracy, however defined, and that’s Progress. Next is Equal Rights, where Pinker goes full Left, trumpeting all emancipation as good for what ails a society, and all failure to emancipate as evil incarnate (although he seems confused, since what is evil, anyway, to someone who denies the reality of moral abstractions other than utilitarian ones?) He does try to give a scientific gloss to his philosophical attachment to emancipation, ascribing it to more wealth means more people seek self-actualization, and want the same for others. This he then extrapolates to a claim that liberal values are spreading everywhere, with a lot of graphs (though we’re never told what “liberal values” are being measured, but by implication they overlap with “emancipative values”).

    Then Knowledge (we know more, and we’re getting smarter); Quality of Life (we work less and both the necessities and luxuries of life are cheaper); and Happiness (we are happier, largely because we’re richer, though Deaton covers this much better and more subtly). Along with Daniel T. Rodgers, Pinker huffily rejects Robert Putnam and others who point to the atomization of American lives as a problem, with the flip response that “Users of the Internet and social media have more contact with friends” and they “remain as satisfied with the number and quality of their friendships as in the decade of Gerald Ford and Happy Days.” But this is obtuse. Putnam’s claim wasn’t that people didn’t have friends anymore, it was that the intermediary institutions that were the entire basis of the success of any successful, and in particular, the successful American, society had been completely destroyed, resulting in the cascading baleful effects that Tocqueville and Robert Nisbet had earlier identified and feared. Pinker totally fails to make this connection, or more likely deliberately obfuscates it (which is probably why he refers to fears of social atomization as a “hysterical misconception”—that’s protesting too much). Not to mention that Putnam would have told him, too, that the problem was well under way by the time of Gerald Ford, so the 1970s are probably not the best comparison decade to today.

    Finally, Pinker points out that Existential Threats, from Y2K to bioterror, are grossly exaggerated. Sure, we can’t know the future, but on balance, we’re not all likely to wink out of existence next week, or next millennium. Of the supposed threat from artificial intelligence, he says “the scenario makes about as much sense as the worry that since jet planes have surpassed the flying ability of eagles, someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle.” Ha ha. He’s also heinously sexist. “There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors. Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They’re called women.”

    I like all this, and agree with much of it (although I could do without the constant references to Mama Cass and the Beatles, reminding me Pinker is stuck, in many ways, in the 1960s). I am mostly a techno-optimist myself. However, Pinker’s greatest technical error, as opposed to failure of vision, is to believe (like Joseph Tainter) that if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist. I’m a quantitative guy, personally—I have an MBA with finance and accounting concentrations from the Booth School of Business, and my wife correctly says I view the world as Neo does in the last scenes of "The Matrix"—as cascading columns of numbers underlying the perceived, but merely surface, reality of things. Certainly, non-quantifiable views of human flourishing are subject to errors of perception, which is probably why Pinker repeatedly excoriates the Romantics. But Pinker is too quick to reject that humans seek transcendence, and all the new flavors of Doritos and life extension in the world isn’t going to change that. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Pinker is fond of quoting Jesus, always with a sneer, but he does not offer us that truth, because it scares him, since it cannot be quantified.

    But the unquantifiable aspects of progress are a topic too long to get into in this review. Pinker wraps up Progress by talking about its future. He does this by making totally unsupported claims about the origin of Progress. “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81.” “The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” Therefore, it’s going to continue, don’t you know? No logic is offered, just repetition of the mantra of “knowledge” and trying to tie the Enlightenment to the Scientific Revolution by repeatedly mentioning them in the same breath. It’s not convincing; in fact, it comes across as desperate.

    Embedded within all this proof of progress (for proof is what it is—we can quibble, or call it incomplete, but only a fool would say that material progress since the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution has not been immense), is the truth, difficult for some to accept, that all this progress was caused purely by, and until recently only affected, the West. It is the Western world has gotten better—and finally, after 400 years, some of those benefits have been adopted by others. That’s it. This is not a global phenomenon in cause, and it may not be a global phenomenon in effect, if the inferior cultures of the world, for whatever reason, refuse to accept the gifts offered by the Western Scientific Revolution. Pinker doesn’t make this point, either, though I can see why—it’s inflammatory and distracts from his argument. (He does admit that his first love, the Enlightenment, was a wholly Western phenomenon, a topic he shuffles away from quickly, mumbling about how ideas have no home, which may be true, but they do have a birthplace.)

    [Review continues as first comment.]

  • Emily May

    Steven Pinker makes a strong argument for enlightenment principles and, essentially, not giving up on the world because Donald Trump is president. We are not, contrary to popular belief, going backwards, and have in fact made astounding progress in all measurable areas, such as wealth, health, safety, education and equality.

    Faced with the numbers, it's hard to disagree, though I went into this fairly convinced already. We do not, by any measure, live in a great world, but we do live in a better

    Steven Pinker makes a strong argument for enlightenment principles and, essentially, not giving up on the world because Donald Trump is president. We are not, contrary to popular belief, going backwards, and have in fact made astounding progress in all measurable areas, such as wealth, health, safety, education and equality.

    Faced with the numbers, it's hard to disagree, though I went into this fairly convinced already. We do not, by any measure, live in a great world, but we do live in a better world than we did fifty, one hundred, one thousand years ago. Pinker presents this information, using charts and tables, in this extensively-researched book.

    However, some of his claims are not really backed up by the evidence, either because he uses limited sources or engages in some avoiding the issue fallacies. The lengthy breakdown of how much things cost compared to how much they cost in, say, the Middle Ages, is irrelevant to the discussion of wealth because Pinker doesn't consider new kinds of expenses - mortgages, insurance, electric, gas and phone bills (etc.).

    I also looked up a couple of the references he uses and now I'm skeptical about the others.

    One example I checked on was his source for the claim that black people are no more likely to be shot by police than white people in America. Obviously, this is a hot topic and a controversial claim to make. His single source for such a bold claim -

    - actually found that black people

    more likely to be shot by police than white people, but offered an opinion as to why this might be.

    .

    He arrives at a number of these grand conclusions based on a single article, which is often an opinion piece. He cherry-picks information to suit his argument and relies on the unlikelihood that anyone will go check his sources.

    It's a shame, to be honest, because I think the central argument is a strong one: that we are indeed making progress. There's a whole lot to suggest that the world isn't going to hell in a handbasket. But Pinker actually risks fuelling a bleak opposite of societal pessimism. While I don't disagree that we are faced with a lot of doom-foreshadowing news stories, there is also an ever-growing misconception that inequality is over. That our society is colourblind and that women are now treated no different to men. Pinker's distortion of facts often supports this theory and it is incorrect.

    Things

    , overall, getting better, but over-exaggerating the extent to which improvements have been made does not help anyone. Well, other than making rich white men feel better about the state of the world they rule over.

    |

    |

    |

    |

  • Gary

    When this book was not boring me it was irritating me.

    All of the author’s anecdotes I had read elsewhere. Science is good. I don’t need convincing. Vaccines work. Poverty is bad and is getting better throughout the world. Everyone who wants to know this stuff already knows it.

    Why equate Al Gore with Theodore Kaczynski (The Unabomber) as the author seems to do regarding the environment? Is Fox News really right when they said the poor can’t be poor because they have cell phones and air condition

    When this book was not boring me it was irritating me.

    All of the author’s anecdotes I had read elsewhere. Science is good. I don’t need convincing. Vaccines work. Poverty is bad and is getting better throughout the world. Everyone who wants to know this stuff already knows it.

    Why equate Al Gore with Theodore Kaczynski (The Unabomber) as the author seems to do regarding the environment? Is Fox News really right when they said the poor can’t be poor because they have cell phones and air conditioning today? The author defended that absurdity though he doesn’t mention that Fox used to argue that when Obama was president.

    And why did the author make a false equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Trump? Sanders didn’t believe ‘climate change is a Chinese Hoax’, or pick someone in his cabinet who thinks vaccines cause autism, or wanted to build a wall and claim Mexico will pay for it, or feed our hate against Muslims, Browns, Asians or anyone who strikes his fancy for the day even kneeling football players.

    This author always seemed to have some pie in the sky anti-humanist post-modernist Strawman he was easily demolishing for some reason I couldn’t figure out. He mentioned the in-gratitude were in the 9th circle of hell and implied Dante had a point and people most of us have never heard of such as Heidegger, Adorno, and Neitzsche, and I think he also mentioned Marcuse belonged there for their in-gratitude. (I’m going to venture a guess, since I didn’t read all of the book: the author doesn’t like ‘identity politics’ and gets bothered by ‘political correctness’ and thinks ‘both sides’ are to blame. I don’t know if that’s where he was going, but I wasn’t going to find out by wading thru a familiar story I’ve read better told in other books).

    The author is completely out of his depth on economics and inequality. I suggest you read Piketty’s book instead of this author’s poorly constructed deconstruction of Piketty’s wonderful book, and then tell me again why inequality is not real or not a big deal! His Enlightenment and Romanticism knowledge seemed superficial. Of the 8 or so Voltaire quips he provided, I had heard them all elsewhere.

    I stopped this book after 5 hours. I got my credit back from Audible. I seldom do that. This author was teaching me nothing I didn’t already know, and worse than that seemed to have a disregard for the truth by trying to defend his own thesis beyond what the facts would take a reasonable person.

  • Trevor

    Why I won't be reading this:

Best Free Books is in no way intended to support illegal activity. Use it at your risk. We uses Search API to find books/manuals but doesn´t host any files. All document files are the property of their respective owners. Please respect the publisher and the author for their copyrighted creations. If you find documents that should not be here please report them


©2018 Best Free Books - All rights reserved.