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

Conversation and Correspondence

It has been said – I heard the physicist Freeman Dyson relating it – that the human urge to converse is akin to the termite’s instinct to build castles. Perhaps the truth of this becomes most clear in the edge case of the hermit who converses or corresponds with an imaginary interlocutor. Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden for an audience; Nietzsche’s deep loneliness is ultimately a yearning for company. Perhaps this yearning, the more intensely it is experienced, invokes the fear that the desired union gets tainted, leading to a gesture of postponing, the bittersweet thought that ‘true’ friendship is always a thing of the future. Nietzsche had his own disappointments with Richard Wagner or his ménage à trois with Lou Salomé and Paul Rée. His Übermensch is above all else capable of friendship, i.e. noble, witty, deep conversation.

We could learn a great deal from intellectual history, and I relish in Peter Watson’s books about it, but I want a working answer for myself. Can the notion of good Conversation (with good wine of earthly, not aquatic, origin) deliver on the promise to give us enough meaning to live fulfilling lives? And can it do this without the backlash of fanaticism, a cult, say, that enforces certain rules of conversation and punishes those who fail or refuse to follow them? Can our idea of conversation become something sacred without the symbolic scaffolding of explicit rules?

I think this is an okay question. Wittgenstein pointed out we always follow public language rules, consciously or not; Habermas attempted a Theory of communicative action as a new foundation of philosophy herself. If we officially elevate conversation to the status of ‘ultimate’ source of meaning, does that destroy the very vitality we had imagined would quench our thirst?

Conversation is the practice of relentless critical interest in each other’s mind that must in my view defy any definite rules, including of course the rule that there are no rules. Provisionary, pragmatic rules are thus indispensible but they are more like patterns than like laws. As soon as we enshrine them (I choose that term deliberately), conversation can find a way around it. It can always find a way to mock or subvert these rules. In more technical words, conversation will never be Turing decidible.

This elegant openness is wonderful and it would be all too human to assert some sort of élan vital at work underneath our endearing attempts to join each other in conversation. Some sort of metaphysical redeeming Truth that appears but through human minds who are ultimately rewarded with the Platonic Union when the lights go out.

In other words: Let us just talk with each other. And believe one thing if you must: After you leave the scene, you will have gotten away with it.

Conversation and Correspondence was originally published on Meandering home

What do I think about Zizek?

What is he thinking?

As a learned philosopher with a funny blog, I should have an opinion or two about the Thinking Beast of Ljubljana, the populist, famous, celebrated, roaring, one and only, please welcome Slavoj Zizek (the adornments on the Zs are intentionally left out) who twists psychoanalytical theories together with rabid Marxism and generates a steady stream of anticapitalist thoughts with a dangerously early expiration date. I remember that he once proudly proclaimed that he didn’t watch the movie Avatar, but had seen the poster and read a synopsis or something and considered that enough to burn it to the ground in one of his countercynical reviews. I hereby proudly proclaim that I never went cover-to-cover in any of mr. Zizek’s books (but ind of did get the gist and the jest of that body of his texts). I also grow a beard now.

Some criticize Slavoj because he abuses Lacanian thinking for his own purpose, others think his rhetorical ardor precludes engaging and meaningful discussions of his work. He is turning himself into a caricature faster than anybody would be able to escape such a fixation. But still, what can we distill from his philosophies? We could – and should – have a good laugh with the Elvis of cultural theory, and learn not to take ourselves too seriously. Disappointing? You want to gain wisdom, you want to know the true essence of society, the inner workings of revolutions, crises, and submission to the capitalist beast? I don’t think you’ll find that in Zizek’s philosophies. You can find a lot of controversial material, I mean the man calls himself a “friendly Stalinist” and I overheard him once in Berlin after a lecture where he was basking in self-indulgence, “Oh how smart we are…” – his interlocutor was Peter Sloterdijk and the venue the Rosa Luxemburg theater;- But “real” communists find him dangerous too, because he is to wild to be a dogmatic anything. The 4th International over at WSWS calls him a “charlatan” and “puerile thinker“, and their argument is, as far as I can see, mere non-compliance with Marx and denial of the existence of the working class.

Where he would get interesting for us is the moment he turns his Heraclitian rigor toward the planet. He is worried about ecological disasters like the BP oil spill, and climate change related forced migrations. Yet what I miss is a scientific understanding of the world. That is my main concern with Žižek (here my friend, I gave you back the toboggans on your Zs), when I hear him talk I miss a scientific understanding. I want to hear him explain in some depth the depletion of groundwater levels, the dangers of fracking, the destruction of the Amazon, the melting of glaciers and the pollution of rivers. Why? Because it is a basis we don’t need to fight over. The blind fanatics and their spasm of denial of natural realities will die off quickly after nature makes her cold breath felt.

What we need is a philosophy – and philosophers – with a firm ground in science, not political theory or economy. Perhaps, ideologues and anti-ideologues have in common that scientific (ecological, geological) knowledge doesn’t affect the core of what they want to say. While they diligently absorb ecological disasters into their theories, they are merely there because they illustrate the bankruptcy of the System (our artifact), not because we are a species among other species that are about to fuck up the planet – and ideology is piled up with anti-ideology on the trash pile of petty righteousness called “history”.

Back to nature, less meta-reflection, and better sex.
At this point, I could suggest a counter-philosophy, and engage in some kind of dialogue with monsieur Žižek. But I leave that to the reader as an exercise. Please inflate your own balloons of meaning. What I see as the role of philosophers does have something to do with ideology and dialectics, precisely because these beasts of mass culture are not going do disappear (‘t would be naive to think that). A philosopher knows what she needs to know about metaphysics, and should tirelessly criticize new ideologies, be it ecofascism, post-capitalism or new age collectivism. And precisely because they have a firm base in scientific understanding, they can differ and digress and do that what Nietzsche’s old, halkyonic pharmacy once prescribed: bearing the largest possible contradictions in our chest. I hope this account wasn’t too šcattered, and its intuition more or less clear.