ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR SCIENCE, REASON, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS
Steven Pinker | 543 pages | Viking | 2018 | ISBN: 9780525427575 | $35
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now has been in stores for a few weeks now, and I need not devote much space in this review to detailing Pinker’s many failings. Other reviewers have more than adequately demonstrated that Pinker’s Pollyanna pronouncements on the utopian glory of modern society are shortsighted, and his grasp of the Enlightenment, the putative topic of his book, is incomplete at best. Pinker makes almost no mention of the individual philosophers of the Enlightenment, nor does he take time to note the differences among them, subsuming all of their many and varied opinions on reason and science to the skepticism of David Hume and the veiled atheism of Voltaire. He also fundamentally misunderstands the Enlightenment as the pursuit of pure reason against all emotion, a fact belied by no less a figure than Immanuel Kant, who literally wrote a book entitled Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) in which he stated that his purpose was to criticize “the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience.” More directly relevant, while Pinker claims Enlightenment figures bowed before reason, Hume actually discounted the power of reason to discover moral truth: “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals” (Treatise, 188.8.131.52)
Fortunately for us, Pinker seeks to restore reason to a semi-mystical status, an analogue for the Gnostic Sophia in an atheist cosmos. It’s all to the good since the Enlightenment disappears from the book after the opening chapters, replaced by modern secular humanism and scientism.
Since Pinker’s failings in historiography, scholarship, and reasoning have been amply demonstrated, I will use my space instead to talk about how Enlightenment Now is a secular humanist polemic masquerading as a work of objective science; indeed, the final quarter of the book is both essentially and literally an argument against Donald Trump and his voters, showing that the book is little more than an update of his earlier Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) to address the first year of the Trump presidency, rendering the book too of-the-moment to have lasting worth. The question left to address, therefore, is whether Pinker knows this or whether he is so far indoctrinated in the modern skeptical / scientific humanist / atheist cult that he genuinely believes that his ideology is objective fact.
The first thing that I noticed upon opening Enlightenment Now is that its rhetoric is almost verbatim identical to that used by the other horsemen of the atheist apocalypse. It’s clear that Pinker is of a piece with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer, all of whom echo Paul Kurtz, the late philosopher of secular humanism and the longtime head of the Center for Inquiry. It is his wrongheaded belief that science can establish objective moral truths that governs this school of thought. While I expected this much, I was genuinely surprised to see these men using the exact same talking points in the same words. Pinker writes that “As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish.” Shermer writes, “The arc of the moral universe really is bending toward progress, by which I mean the improvement of the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings.” As Shermer himself admitted, he took the language from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (2010), but Shermer revised Harris’s “well-being of conscious creatures” to the “flourishing of sentient beings,” and Pinker has simply adopted the new phrasing wholesale as though it were his own. All of these men borrow from and build upon one another’s books, erecting an impressive, if self-limiting, bibliography of mutual reference. Those inclined to onanism might think of a less polite term.
All of them are struggling, sub rosa, with the unprocessed cultural trauma of 9/11. (Pinker, who identifies as an anti-Trump liberal, has been embraced by the alt-right for some of his views.) They have all made unflattering statements about Islam and its culpability for the moral evil of terrorism, for example. Similarly, they are all bizarrely fixated on college students’ youthful extremism and professors’ liberalism—things that have virtually no effect outside of campuses and Fox News. (This is probably due to the fact that most of them are professors and tour campuses on the lecture circuit.) But what is equally interesting are the differences that emerge when we look more closely at these generally similar authors. Harris, for example, dogmatically and wrongly asserted that morality is reduceable to a quantifiable science. Shermer originally adopted that same claim but was forced to concede, in the face of withering social media criticism, that there is no scientifically objective morality absent the assumption of an end goal: the prosperity of the human species. Pinker is the winner here, though, because in Enlightenment Now he correctly recognizes that the universe is utterly indifferent to humanity and science can only tell us how to reach moral goals arrived at through other means. In this case, he advocates for his moral program on the grounds that “it works” in terms of improving health and material wealth, essentially masking a capitalist utilitarian pragmatism under the cover of a grand universalist narrative. The problem is that his careful caveats tend to disappear under his growing pronouncements about the power of science to solve moral problems.
“The notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering is considered crass, naïve, wimpy, square,” Pinker complains, offering a strawman argument against any philosophical system that does not place the lowest rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy as the greatest good. He dismisses art as “elite” and the humanities as hostile to scientific truths. He rejects nobility and heroism as (of all things) racist (wrongly thinking Nietzsche—whom he appears never to have read—was some kind of Aryan supremacist) and singles out anyone who sacrifices himself for the greater good of the collective as a fool, even though evolution favors kin selection, thus underlining the difference between Pinker’s professed claim to apply the logic of nature to human societies and the ideology of American individualism that lurks beneath his Muppet-like public persona. Large parts of the book are dedicated to complaining about his fellow professors for being politically liberal and philosophically postmodernist, though near the end, he at least concedes that politicians hold more power, so their biases are more concerning.
Shermer, for his part, dismisses criticism of Pinker, claiming that critics are merely “hostile to the idea of progress” and “wedded to declinism & pessimism,” as he wrote on Twitter this weekend. Apparently, it isn’t possible to disagree with faulty scholarship even when agreeing with the primary message. So, let me start by making this much clear: The average person of today lives a healthier, longer, and more luxurious life than in any previous era. Our world is, in general, in a period of peace born of a reaction to the horrors of World Wars I and II that is unmatched in modern history. None of this means, however, that Pinker’s slipshod scholarship and ideological posturing is a replacement for deep engagement with difficult ideas. I don’t necessarily disagree with Pinker’s end goals. A pragmatic morality grounded in the use of scientific findings to evaluate the results of proposed decisions in order to align them with preferred results is perfectly reasonable. Where I disagree, however, is with the idea that what is basically rule utilitarianism with rules drawn by wealthy Western men (Pinker denies it is Western, claiming that reason is “universal”) is the teleological culmination of the scientific project. It just isn’t.
In the opening to his book, Pinker delivers a contradictory message. He wishes to lay out a polemical argument in favor of Western values and Western civilization, but also to claim that this social and political world order is the inevitable result of scientific inquiry, in other words, that our current civilization is ordained by the very laws of the universe and reason itself:
This book is my attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century. I will first lay out a framework for understanding the human condition informed by modern science—who we are, where we came from, what our challenges are, and how we can meet them. The bulk of the book is devoted to defending those ideals in a distinctively 21st-century way: with data. This evidence-based take on the Enlightenment project reveals that it was not a naïve hope.
Because the atheist cosmos has no divine sanction, data takes the place of commandment, and faith in numbers serves as a secular cult of saints. The goals of scientific morality, Pinker says, should be “longevity, health, understanding, beauty, freedom, love” and “progress.” That’s nice, but hardly objective. Try defining “health” or “freedom” or “understanding” and see how far science will take you. How can science decide whether the “correct” conception of freedom is that of the Founders or that of FDR, or even Ayn Rand? Is quantity of life or quality the “healthier” measure?
As the book progresses, the limits of Pinker’s plan to quantify the qualitative become increasingly evident. Science might tell us, for example, that human beings are living longer lives than ever before, but they cannot tell us whether an additional five or ten years tacked on to the end of life is qualitatively an improvement over a shorter but more intense lived experience. Similarly, when he complains that “intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress,” he has a terrible time defining what counts as progress. The closest he comes is to declare it “one of the easier questions to answer” and to proceed to say that “progress” is defined as, basically, twenty-first century American values, the meaning of which he does not question:
Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.
Consider the galling lack of insight in this list. Once we get above the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the “obvious” nature of these values breaks down. “Freedom” has contradictory definitions depending on your values; is he speaking of freedom to or freedom from? In most cases, you can’t have both at the same time. Equality is another nebulous concept at the macro-level, as indeed is the concept of natural rights. Happiness is exquisitely subjective. For example, when one territory declares independence from another, is this “progress” because it increases self-determination, or a regression because it erects barriers and divisions that hobble the free flow of trade, people, and ideas? What happens when “freedom,” “progress,” and “understanding” are in conflict with one another? Pinker, with his blithe assumption that progress is obvious to all, offers no answers.
It is telling that in attempting to quantify all of these terms, he largely restricts his analysis to North America and Western Europe, with rare examples from non-Western industrialized countries. The second half of the book is almost exclusively America-centric, with other cultures used in passing to reinforce his opinions about America. He makes no effort to explore the Third World, indigenous peoples, etc. Even when speaking of the West, he is blind to history. He argues that quality of life improved because we work fewer hours than in the nineteenth century, but the idea of separating time into (paid) work and (unpaid) leisure is an invention of the industrial age, and simply can’t be extrapolated back to ancient or medieval times. You can’t hate your boss in an age before there were industrialized jobs with bosses to complain about. To quantify it, as Pinker likes to do: Preindustrial workers worked much less, with shorter hours and many more holidays. You can’t restrict your global analysis to the years 1900 to 2018 and declare a universal pattern. When it comes to happiness, his data are worse, limited to only a few decades of the Western experience, comparing the recession and inflation years of the late 1970s to the prosperity of the mid-2000s housing bubble, far too little information to draw universal conclusions. What of Minoan Knossos, the Moche culture of ancient Peru, or even the early American frontier? His data are a mere snapshot of a fluctuating set of political and social situations in the West. So Americans are happier than in the 1970s. What does that tell us about Sri Lankans in the Middle Ages or Aboriginal Australians in the colonial period?
But in order to reach quantitative measure of qualitative ideas such as “happiness” and “progress,” Pinker attempts to use the Enlightenment to justify raising the overweening individualism of recent American decades to a universal truth, indirectly therefore declaring the rugged America of popular myth as the only rational and scientifically correct society:
[The Enlightenment] laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion. It is individuals, not groups, who are sentient—who feel pleasure and pain, fulfillment and anguish.
And yet the very Enlightenment thinkers he praises would not have agreed with this. Witness Thomas Jefferson’s reasoning in the Declaration of Independence—a document Pinker quotes obliviously—that it was not individuals but peoples who seized destiny and that the Americans were a separate nation. Similarly, the U.S. Constitution speaks of “We the People,” not “These various persons…” and ascribes to them collectively, not individually, many of the rights enshrined, slightly later, in the Bill of Rights. “People” meant something different than “persons” back then, but it is testament to the radical individualism of modern America that the distinction collapsed in the twentieth century.
A second strand of Pinker’s poor thinking is the lazy effort to argue that civilization is a hedge against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as though entropy—the tendency for disorder among matter to increase over time—is strictly applicable to fictive constructs like government, which are not made of matter but of ideas. Besides, human societies are not closed systems, so they have no fixed state of equilibrium they are striving to reach. But in citing the fight against entropy as the driving force of “progress,” Pinker therefore claims that improvements in agriculture around 500 BCE allowed for the end of sacrificial rituals in favor of philosophy, and the Industrial Revolution’s increase in the “energy” available to society made an end to slavery and the establishment of equal rights possible. He sees this as a “natural” consequence of scientific laws of nature, but a more depressing possibility has better evidence: powerful elites loosen their authoritarian control over the less powerful when there are more economically attractive ways to collect power and money. This reading is less a testament to the liberal soul of scientific laws than to the dismal fact that “progress” is heavily dependent on whether those with power feel threatened by it.
Pinker doesn’t like this reading because it contradicts a reading of the Enlightenment that he prefers, specifically that bad things in society “may be no one’s fault” (emphasis in original). Here we start to see some of the disquieting themes that creep up throughout the book. Bad things are uncontrollable; they just happen. Read another way, this is an admonishment to the powerless, telling them to suck it up. You’re poor and miserable because entropy made you this way, and don’t think the people with less entropy are going to do anything about it. This is also the underlying theme beneath his repeated claim that as a species, humanity has never had it so good. In general terms, Pinker is right that the average human lives longer, has more nutrients available, and has less manual labor to perform than his or her counterparts in previous ages. But averages are deceiving, and the benefits of modern society are not spread evenly. By implying otherwise, Pinker is again reinforcing the idea that those who are discontented with current social structures have no real right to complain and should instead be thankful for the trickle-down effects of “scientific” progress.
“Poverty, too, needs no explanation,” he writes. “In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind.” This is entirely false; in the hunter-gatherer world, the so-called “primitive abundance” (while overstated) is the closest we have to a “default” state of humanity, comfortably collecting food from nature and working relatively little while enjoying great leisure. Poverty is the result of civilization, itself an artificial imposition on the primitive state. Accepting poverty as the state of nature is to excuse the failures of civilization and capitalism to live up to the social contract. In the past that might have been possible, when open borders and sparsely populated lands made it possible to pick up and find a new life elsewhere, but another intentional choice—to close borders, restrict freedom of movement, and extend governments’ writ to every corner of the Earth—turned the act of finding a better life without permission into a crime. Consider: In the nineteenth century, if you were poor in Europe, you could (with some effort) flee to America, and in America you could flee to the frontier (unfair as it was to Native Americans), where government’s reach did not fully extend. If you are poor in America today, there is nowhere to go. These are deliberate policy choices, not facts of nature.
And this is where the mechanistic universe he envisions fails, because it is not entropy or the moral arc of the universe or even reason itself that creates social, political, or economic progress. On one hand, we can read events in mechanistic terms. Russia’s serfs earned their freedom because Russia needed more human and agricultural energy. Gay marriage became legal in America because social acceptance increased beyond the point when businesses determined it was unprofitable to support discrimination. But this belies the messiness of the actual events involved. Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs in Russia in part because of his own heart and feelings, and any other member of his family would never have done it. He even said explicitly that he wouldn’t wait for nature to take its course: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for that time when it starts to abolish itself from below.” Gay marriage is legal in the United States because a single old man, Anthony Kennedy, decided he no longer thought gay sex was icky. Pinker celebrates the Oberfell ruling as an inevitable result of progress, but this was not an inevitability. The 5-4 Supreme Court decision came down to literally one man’s choice. Individuals made decisions, and vast groups of people spent decades laying the groundwork for them with decades of protests and lawsuits and appeals to the powerful to enact change. Vast campaigns across time and media gradually changed minds, and none of this is the inevitable result of semi-mystical laws of nature. Real people, not entropy, had to involve themselves in advocating for change. After all, the most orderly societies in the world are totalitarian dictatorships, which impose strict controls on entropy and yet remain decidedly unprogressive.
Consider Pinker’s charmingly naïve explanation for why American-style democracy will always produce a moral and effective policy result:
When a wide enough circle of people confer on how best to treat each other, the conversation is bound to go in certain directions. If my starting offer is “I get to rob, beat, enslave, and kill you and your kind, but you don’t get to rob, beat, enslave, or kill me or my kind,” I can’t expect you to agree to the deal or third parties to ratify it, because there’s no good reason that I should get privileges just because I’m me and you’re not.
And yet somehow we ended up with a Republic in which white people did exactly that to enslaved Blacks and to Native Americans. Indeed, virtually every society had a powerful group that held power and privilege above all others. This is because democracy isn’t the same as consensus, and defining who counts as a “person” is half the battle. The people with the most arms and a bare numerical majority can impose their will on those who lack both. Keep the minority divided—Blacks vs. Natives vs. Latinos, etc.—and suddenly “the conversation” looks a lot like Pinker’s supposedly impossible option. Give one group the power of the state and close to a monopoly on legitimized violence, and it becomes inevitable. Pinker, however, thinks that everyone will come together for mutual aid once the benefits become clear. He has clearly never met a real live capitalist, despite his book’s efforts to apologize for capitalism.
Pinker relies too heavily on The Idea of Decline in Western History by popular historian Arthur Herman, and he scoffs at those who claim that Western society is in decline. “Apparently the world has been coming to an end for a long time indeed,” he laughs. But he misses the point: The world is coming to an end, and it ends every day. Change is inevitable, and the old world familiar to us passes away inexorably and invariably. People die, buildings collapse, old things get replaced. And the world is also being born anew each day. New people are born, new buildings rise up, and new things are invented. The loss of familiarity and indeed enchantment in the face of modernity, as Max Weber understood, is disorienting, uncomfortable, and very much like the end of the world. It is unpleasant to always be dazed and confused, and the speed of change in the modern world makes that all but inevitable. Pinker’s lack of empathy leads him to see change as an unalloyed good, regardless of its day-to-day impact on individuals’ lives.
Pinker is for individualism without the individual, where each member of society is free to flourish but never to rise to the heights of a hero or aspire to nobility, and where “progress” is a function of the collective in a philosophy that denies the power and existence of collective groups. He believes in a world governed by entropy that will nevertheless inevitably become more orderly. His is a “Harrison Bergeron” morality, where the average is all that matters, and so long as the average gradually moves toward Pinker’s preferred goalposts, the fate of any one individual or group isn’t important.
Ultimately, the message of Enlightenment Now is one of empowerment—for rich old straight white men, preferably American, or British in a pinch--or more accurately, those who are already comfortable. By telling readers that things are good and only getting better, that academic elites and the national media are trying to prevent the poor and the oppressed from discovering how good they have it, and that science itself gives objective proof that modern American society is objectively the best that ever was, Pinker is also telling readers to sit down and shut up. In his world, good things happen to those who wait because invisible forces of science cause progress to emerge spontaneously, without effort. Those who have grievances against the status quo should passively sit and wait for science and their wealthy overlords to trickle down the benefits of progress onto them.
Enlightenment Now is not a book about humanity; it is instead a polemic about America in the 2010s, searching for evidence to fight back against the perception that the United States is an imperial power in decline. It is a book looking for a cultural revitalization to restore a materialist and literal reading of the American Dream, and at that level Pinker is a mirror of the televangelists who imagine that the Republican Party is inaugurating God’s Kingdom on Earth. Steven Pinker is to secular humanism what Joel Osteen is to Christianity, cheerfully telling the comfortable that they deserve their good fortune and the afflicted that they ought not to complain because they’ve never had it so good, and it will only get better, as long as they passively accept their fate and wait for unseen forces to reshape the world. Everything is going to be just fine… Right? Right? … Right?
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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