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

Be careful

Be particularly careful about the following four words: sacrifice, eternity, purity, redemption. If you hear any of these, sound the alarm. And if you happen to live in a country whose leader routinely says things like ‘Their sacrifice will redeem the purity of our eternal nation’ – know that you are in deep trouble. – Yuval Noah Harari, 21 lessons

Be careful was originally published on Meandering home


last night, ancient starlight fell onto your arm
it was billions of years old
and had traveled the entire time only
to smash into your barren wrinkled skin.

there was a team of people who rushed in
to help you wonder, and to make sure
you understand the grandure, the sheer
magnificence of it all.

they held your hands and used strange words
for the starlight, and still stranger ones
for the wondering. You frowned at me,
lost, as if in a foreign plot.

Starlight 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

Clickbait: A thought about Jordan Peterson

Recently, I fell for the hype and listened to some interviews with the Canadian professor of psychology Jordan Peterson. I don’t find him controversial and his appeal to a healthy debate bypassing the left-right dichotomy sounds healthy. In the videos I watched, he often stressed scientific and statistical rigor, and I like that.

Jordan likes to makes controversial claims and seems to enjoy the relatively sudden fame the Internet has bestowed upon him. His view of religion (in his debate with people like Sam Harris) is informed by a radical relativism (which is to say: it will pop up as absolutist claim further on). Peterson follows Carl Gustav Jung when he talks about archetypes of religion and considers every axiomatic belief system, with or without deities and diets, a religion. Presenting religion as something we cannot live without is the first step in an argumentation that defends any and all religion.

Peterson says he is against any type of ideology (pop! there you have it). His reasons are the laudable core of what we call the Enlightenment, but I wish his art of suspicion (as Paul Ricœur said about Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) doesn’t stop there. We must also ask ourselves if we are completely free of ideology (free of sin… the parallel to Christian ethics is obvious) and when we come to the conclusion that we might be the vehicle of our own implicit ideology, we should adjust our anti-ideology motto.

Peterson could try to make his own ideology explicit. This might be less exciting than his vitriol, but it could introduce a more or less scientific way of thinking into the emerging political middle.

Clickbait: A thought about Jordan Peterson was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Ships by Tomaž Šalamun

Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014) was an adventurous, I think people say ‘avant-garde’ poet from Slovenia. I like what I see (or could we say: read) because it is mysterious and our world feels sometimes like mystery has been painted over. Here’s ‘ships‘ in a translation by Brian Henry:

I’m religious.
As religious as the wind or scissors.
It’s an ant, she’s religious, the flowers are red.
I don’t want to die. I don’t care if I die now.
I’m more religious than the dust in the desert.
The mouth of a child is round. My eyes are
syrup, dripping cold.
Sometimes I think I baked nettles, but
I didn’t. Sometimes I think I’m miserable, but
I’m not.
I’m religious.
I will throw a barrel into the river.
If bees rushed into my face, I’d scratch
at them with my hand and would see
I don’t get upset.
The soul presses like the crowds at the door.
When I die, oxen will graze the grass just like this.
Houses will glimmer just like this.

I don’t normally quote poetry about religion, but when I do it makes sense of that phenomenon. As religious as scissors, an object with an imposed purpose to cut, that might be worshipping the great cutting edge. Ant, flowers, huh?

The line about not wanting to die but not caring is awesome. I get an idea of his religion: he is awestruck by what he sees through is syrupy eyes. Red flowers, children with round eyes. Yes, it’s real. You didn’t bake nettles or any hallucinogens, and you’re not miserable. It’s just that the way you look at things exalts and you can’t reduce it to science. You like everything you see, the more you look, a little bit like Basquiat the painter.

You know the world will not give a f. if you die. The pressing soul ‘like the crowds’, like the (big) other, are they demanding their right to give recognition, their right to think this poetry/this man changes anything, are they pressing to bask in the illusion that something matters? Well, it doesn’t. That’s what good religion is for.

Reading: Ships by Tomaž Šalamun was originally published on Meandering home