Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Seven years after his The Better Angels of our Nature, the book in which he presented abundant statistics and reasons why violence has declined, Steven Pinker has published an even more ambitious tome defending the idea and ideals of Enlightenment. The controversy that arose from the ‘cautiously optimist’ view he presented in 2011 might have come as a surprise to the esteemed Harvard professor and has likely motivated him to double down on his claims in this new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress‘.

It is a delight to digest the statistics of progress (decline in crime, war, disease, poverty, slavery, racism) that Pinker presents and discusses in the second and strongest part of the book, although at times it seems that prof. Pinker has made the stats look prettier than a scientific worldview would allow. In that sense, the book is Enlightenment propaganda, and this has backfired as we can read in the many reviews on Goodreads and especially in this in-depth rebuttal by Jeremy Lent and this critique by Guardian columnist George Monbiot that focuses on the environment.

Every serious critic agrees with Pinker’s enlightenment worldview. Unfortunately, as these critics have pointed out, he might have succumbed to enlightenment zealotry, which might have led hem to defend the Enlightenment against a benighted strawman rather than against its own unforeseen and unwanted consequences. There are some occasions of cherry-picking and rather annoying ridicule of Marx, Nietzsche, environmentalism and the dangers of strong AI.

The Enlightenment cannot function without a healthy dose of skepticism. Monbiot writes: What looks like a relentless enhancement in human welfare could emerge instead as an interlude between one form of deprivation and the next. Another reviewer accuses Pinker of defending an ‘anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.’

The story he presents at places like the Economic Forum in Davos, the story that is bought by the likes of Bill Gates, is a heart-warming and hopeful one, to be sure. The idea that we humans have come so far can foster more solidarity as we go forward solving the remaining problems – and the new problems that will arise as an indirect result of the enlightenment, such as environmental degradation and rising inequality, which Pinker has attempted to defuse out of fear they could be used as an argument against enlightenment thinking. There is the irony of this book: By exaggerating and massaging the numbers on the enormous progress we have made he seems to obfuscate the most important property of an enlightened position: that of relentless self-criticism and the willingness to engage with opposing views, so long as they are reasoned.

This critical self-awareness has now come from his serious critics – a reminder that the Enlightenment is indeed not advanced by lone intellectual behemoths, but by the concerted efforts and dialogue of humble minds. It is Pinker’s merit that he uses data rather than ideological narrative, and his book is a fruitful starting point of a debate that eschews the ideological in favor of the factual. That doesn’t make the vitriol of either ideological camp disappear, but it forces both sides of the aisle to think more scientifically. A world in which both progressives and conservatives are equipped with better reasons is a better world;-

Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker was originally published on Meandering home

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Meditation on reality

First we breathe in and feel blessed. What inspired our meditation about reality must have been our involvement with it, in some way. There are people who think that what we call reality is ‘in reality’ a fiction. The universe is empty space laced with energy and some of this energy takes on a special form we call ‘matter’. Most of this matter is still empty space, traversed by particles of which we can’t determine momentum and location at the same time, etcetera, blah blah.

Reality for most thinkers means shared reality. Our dreams can be as real as the electricity in our brain, they are still less real than the common fictions we use to cope with life: Money, laws, organizations. We don’t need to expand that. Breathe some more and call reality whatever our friends call reality. Could it still be a dream? Of course, we could never rule out that theoretical possibility. All our friends could be in on it, elaborate hallucinations created by our brain to entertain itself. I would argue that this absurd possibility can never formally be disproved because it is a fundamental quality of consciousness that it cannot be sure that it is confronting something outside of itself.

So, reality is the world we talk about. In an extreme case of a group of people taking so-called reality altering drugs, when they share their experiences with each other, reality will indeed be different for them. If all of humanity uses such drugs, human reality will be different than the reality we talk about. The molecules are still the same, but the altered humans are for example not able to distinguish colors. There will still be different levels of light absorption and reflection, wavelengths hitting our retinas, but no colors. Breathe out.

Isn’t that too easy? How can a collective psychosis change reality? Here is the materialist point of view: I just want to mean the underlying atoms or protons or whatever when I talk about reality; I’m not interested in what we ‘mean’ by reality. Fair enough. But as soon as we charge it with meaning, as soon as we talk about it, reality is already more than ‘just’ the constant flux of the configuration of the cosmos. It requires the interpretation that distinguishes it from fantasy.

We keep breathing and think some more about this concept of reality. We cherish the irony of our consciousness that is fundamentally incapable of being absolutely sure something outside of it exists (bishop Berkeley) and at the same time presupposes reality for meaning and interactions with others. We realize (reality as a verb) that there is this Gordian knot at the heart of the concept. The Cartesian uncertainty can’t be cast aside by the notion of ‘hard reality’; absolute certainty is beyond consciousness. That doesn’t make the world less real. It just points out a very specific characteristic of reality that is us.

Drawing by Ianbourgeot.com

Meditation on reality was originally published on Meandering home