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Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason,…

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

by Steven Pinker

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Excellent book. Each page has two or three ideas, knowledge nuggets and interesting perspectives on history, religion, politics, health, equality etc. Pinker is pushing his agenda for secularization, science and reason. You may not agree with his conclusions but you have to agree he makes a very persuasive case.

Listed below are some notes from the book...

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 and spilled into the heyday of classical liberalism of the first half of the 19th. Provoked by challenges to conventional wisdom from science and exploration, mindful of the bloodshed of recent wars of religion, and abetted by the easy movement of ideas and people, the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought a new understanding of the human condition.

The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwelt on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise.

As impressive as the conquest of infectious disease in Europe and America was, the ongoing progress among the global poor is even more astonishing. Part of the explanation lies in economic development because a richer world is a healthier world.

Together, technology and globalization have transformed what it means to be a poor person, at least in developed countries. The old stereotype of poverty was an emaciated pauper in rags. Today, therefore are likely to be as overweight as their employers and dressed in the same police, sneakers, and genes.

Though terrorism poses a miniscule danger compared with other risks, it creates outsize panic and hysteria because that is what it is designed to do. Modern terrorism is a byproduct of the vast reach of the media.

As states try to carry out the impossible mandate of protecting their citizens from all political violence everywhere and all the time, they are tempted to respond with theatre of their own. The most damaging effect of terrorism is countries' overreaction to it, the case in point being the American led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11.

Could the world be getting not just more literate and knowledgeable but actually smarter? Might people be increasingly adept at learning new skills, grasping abstract ideas, and solving unforeseen problems? Amazingly the answer is yes. IQ scores have been rising for more than a century, in every part of the world.

A high IQ is not just a number that you can brag about in a bar or that gets you into Mensa; it is a tailwind in life. People with high scores on intelligence tests get better jobs, perform better in their jobs, enjoy better health and longer lives, are less likely to get in trouble with the law, and have a greater number of noteworthy accomplishments like starting companies, earning patents and creating respective works of art – – all holding socioeconomic status constant.

What can be done to improve standards of reasoning? Persuasion by facts and logic, the most direct strategy, is not always futile. It’s true that people can cling to beliefs in defiance of all evidence, like Lucy in Peanuts who insisted that snow comes out of the ground and rises to the sky even as she was being slowly buried in a snowfall.

... the world’s fastest growing religion is no religion at all...

Why is the world losing its religion?... The most obvious reason may be reason itself: when people become more intellectually curious and scientifically literate, they stopped believing in miracles. The most common reason that Americans give for leaving religion is " a lack of belief in the teachings of religion.” We’ve already seen that better educated countries have lower rates of belief and across the world, atheism rides the Flynn effect: as countries get smarter, they turned away from God. ( )
  writemoves | Jun 17, 2019 |
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker is a book that champions science and clear, rational thinking. It is difficult to read in some cases because the opinions of the author somewhat resonate with mine and there is only so much you can do to convince the masses of the truth of a statement.

Pinker goes over a number of subjects that are covered by human endeavor. From how wind and solar power isn’t capable of powering all of our cities effectively to how the crime rate overall has fallen precipitously in the last century. Now you may cite such events as school shootings and micro wars and so on. Well, if you look at the data that is available on homicides and war, we no longer champion the idea of warring with each other. Furthermore, the world as a whole is getting more wealthy. Granted, there is a local situation in the United States where a lot of people lost their jobs, but if robots can do the work faster and cheaper, there isn’t really an incentive to provide that job to a human anymore. Sad, I know.

Returning to the idea of power supply, the only thing we can probably use is Nuclear Power. Now I know what you might be saying, ‘nuclear is dangerous; just look at that random event that taught us a lot and didn’t kill many people!’ I am sorry to say, but the world is hungry for electrical power, and while we may ‘care’ about the environment while driving our Prius to work and not using our air conditioning, most developing nations don’t mind all that much. They are eager to match the developed world in terms of GDP and other parameters that show a success.

Pinker also covers another sore spot for me; namely, the idea of GMOs and trying to make food organic and ‘natural.’ Considering that agriculture is several millennia old and that we have modified wheat and rice and other foodstuffs to our tastes and to produce more per acre, all the people who believe that there is even a possibility of making food GMO-free are either delusional or stupid. I think the problem is that people, in general, are scientifically illiterate. They think that Genetically Modified Organisms are all grown in test tubes by ‘heartless people in white coats’ or something like that. Another problem I have is with ‘Organic’ food. First off, organic isn’t sustainable. The amount of land necessary to grow it is way too high compared to non-organic. Secondly, organic is more expensive, so it is mainly for rich people to show off how rich they are by buying organic apples and celery.

Pinker’s main premise is that human knowledge and insight has overcome a number of things and can continue to overcome more. Being pessimistic about the future is not the way to go about it. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
This book is very controversial because it deals with such a large subject. Having just finished this book and the 3 books by Yuval Hurari, I find that together they give a very global perspective about where we are at this moment in history. Pinker uses a lot of data to illustrate his main point. It is that things have never been better as it relates war, health, crime, poverty. He charts the progress from the beginning of the 18th century and graphically shows the remarkable progress humanity has made in the last 250 years. Despite the critics who dismiss him as too optimistic, he does acknowledge that we have a long way to go and many problems that need to be solved. He does talk about climate change but does show faith in our ability to tackle the problem(not sure on that one). Pinker is a globalist and throughout the book he does go after Trump and his nationalistic approach. He definitely goes after religion and although he shows examples of the positive parts of belief in a higher being, he does show many examples of the problems of organized religion in terms of halting the progress of science. Because bad news sells more than good news we have a tendency to see the world in a more negative light than we should. Pinker's book displays the big picture. We can only judge the world from our perspective and experience. If you live in the USA and have an upper middle class life as does all of your peers, then you take this somewhat for granted. Reading Pinker should give you a sense of how incredible your life is and create a little more humility. Because he is a globalist he tends to see the loss of American manufacturing jobs that lead to improvements in other parts of the world as a positive thing. Of course those impacted by this have a different viewpoint. A book this large and dealing with so many issues will always create positive and negative reviews. I thought this was an excellent book but it is long and Pinker can be a bit verbose at times, but his message aligns with my world view on the subject so for me it was a must read. ( )
1 vote nivramkoorb | Mar 11, 2019 |
“…. if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.”
—Barack Obama, 2016 [1]

Most of humanity would agree with Barack Obama. Life is better than ever for most of humanity; despite a barrage of media that paints a dismal picture of life on Earth. In “Enlightenment Now”, Stephen Pinker provides a quantitative assessment of how life has improved over the course of human history. He asserts:
“…. I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. …. I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.”[2]

The book starts with three chapters that explain the Enlightenment, some basic science, and the counter-Enlightenment. The majority of the books, seventeen chapters, deal with progress in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety terrorism, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life and happiness. The final three chapters deal with reason, science and humanism in our world.

First, Pinker asks: What is the Enlightenment? He starts with Immanuel Kant’s 1784 definition:
“Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!" -- that is the motto of enlightenment.” [3]

Of course, if the Enlightenment was so great, why aren’t all human problems solved? Pinker says:
“And if you’re committed to progress, you can’t very well claim to have it all figured out. It takes nothing away from the Enlightenment thinkers to identify some critical ideas about the human condition and the nature of progress that we know and they didn’t. Those ideas, I suggest, are entropy, evolution, and information.”

Pinker next explains entropy, evolution, and information. I found this chapter a bit hard to grasp. Perhaps my engineering background causes me to yearn for straightforward definitions. Let’s say that entropy is the tendency towards disorder (such as my office) and that energy is required to counteract entropy. A brief synopsis of Pinker’s description:
[Entropy]“Living things are made of organs that have heterogeneous parts which are uncannily shaped and arranged to do things that keep the organism alive (that is, continuing to absorb energy to resist entropy).”

[Evolution]“The replicating systems would compete for the material to make their copies and the energy to power the replication. Since no copying process is perfect—the Law of Entropy sees to that—errors will crop up, and though most of these mutations will degrade the replicator (entropy again), occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that’s more effective at replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition.”

“Information may be thought of as a reduction in entropy—as the ingredient that distinguishes an orderly, structured system from the vast set of random, useless ones.” [4]

Here’s a summary of why we should care about entropy, evolution, and information:
“Getting back to evolution, a brain wired by information in the genome to perform computations on information coming in from the senses could organize the animal’s behavior in a way that allowed it to capture energy and resist entropy. …. Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny.” [5]

Next chapter, there are some details of the counter-Enlightenment. Pinker provides four alternatives:
1. Religious faith
2. “People are the expendable cells of a superorganism…”
3. [declinism] “One form of declinism bemoans our Promethean dabbling with technology.”
4. [scientism] “… the intrusion of science into the territory of the humanities ….
A brief summary of why the counter-Enlightenment should be transcended:
“Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance—a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.”[6]

The majority of “Enlightenment Now” deals with progress in many areas of human life. Here are a few of my most significant findings from Pinker’s extensive research, supported by much data.

“ … in spite of burgeoning numbers, the developing world is feeding itself. Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated from all regions outside Africa.” . … “Famine as an endemic problem in Asia and Europe seems to have been consigned to history.” …
“Once the secrets to growing food in abundance are unlocked and the infrastructure to move it around is in place, the decline of famine depends on the decline of poverty, war, and autocracy.” [7]

“Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created. It is created primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor. The corollary, just as radical, is that we can figure out how to make more of it.”
…. “Also, technology doesn’t just improve old things; it invents new ones. How much did it cost in 1800 to purchase a refrigerator, a musical recording, a bicycle, a cell phone, Wikipedia, a photo of your child, a laptop and printer, a contraceptive pill, a dose of antibiotics? The answer is: no amount of money in the world. The combination of better products and new products makes it almost impossible to track material well-being across the decades and centuries. “ [8]

“Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing.”

… “As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative, or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved,….” [9]

“The key idea is that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge. …. humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide.”

“An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them.” [10]
“Homo sapiens, “knowing man,” is the species that uses information to resist the rot of entropy and the burdens of evolution. ….
But some of the causal pathways vindicate the values of the Enlightenment. So much changes when you get an education!
• They are less racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian.
• They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech.
For all these reasons, the growth of education—and its first dividend, literacy—is a flagship of human progress.” [11]

[The Future of Progress]
“Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades into what we might call civilization. . . . [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect. Which is why I tell people that my great optimism of the future is rooted in history.”

Hans Rosling, who, when asked whether he was an optimist, replied, “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist.” [12]

The final part of “Enlightenment Now” explains the importance of reason, science, and humanism. Pinker makes a strong case for the use of reason in explaining the world. Here’s a brief selection of why reason matters:

“Making reason the currency of our discourse begins with clarity about the centrality of reason itself.”

“The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place.”

“People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems. A second impediment to effective teaching is that pupils don’t spontaneously transfer what they learned from one concrete example to others in the same abstract category.” [13]

Pinker advocates that science is the best tool humanity has to understand the world. Here is his explanation of what distinguishes science from other exercises of reason:
“All the methods are pressed into the service of two ideals, and it is these ideals that advocates of science want to export to the rest of intellectual life.
1. The first is that the world is intelligible.
2. The second ideal is that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.
When scientists are pressed to explain how they do this, they usually reach for Karl Popper’s model of conjecture and refutation, in which a scientific theory may be falsified by empirical tests but is never confirmed.” [14]

The final chapter of the book is an explanation of humanism, why it matters, and how it should be substituted for religion in the modern world. Here are some of Pinker’s explanations of humanism:
“Spinoza: “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.” Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish. The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism.”

“There is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.”[15]

Pinker addresses many of the deficits of religion in this chapter. It’s not really possible for me to synopsize all his arguments but here one quote that stuck in my mind:
“To begin with, the alternative to “religion” as a source of meaning is not “science.” No one ever suggested that we look to ichthyology or nephrology for enlightenment on how to live, but rather to the entire fabric of human knowledge, reason, and humanistic values, of which science is a part.”[16]
One issue I see, current representations of all of human knowledge aren’t in a holistic framework that cover “entire fabric of human knowledge” that’s accessible to most humanity. It would be useful to have an accessible form of humanism, the closest that I’m aware of are Unitarian Universalists.

To summarize, “Enlightenment Now” makes a strong case, using data, references and cogent explanations, that life is improving for most of humanity. As Pinker asserts:
“As always, the only way to know which way the world is going is to quantify.” [17]

The author makes a strong case that reason and science are the root cause for the progress of human life across many dimensions. In contrast, while Pinker well explains the importance of humanism, in the end, I’m not sure how to truly put humanism into practice in my life and community. That said, “Enlightenment Now” is a profound and encouraging book. I agree with Pinker:

“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.” [18]


[1] As quoted in “Enlightenment Now”, Part III
[2] “Enlightenment Now”, Preface.
[3] Kant, Immanuel. "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" (Was ist
Äufklarung?), 30 September, 1784. Pinker translates the Latin “Sapere aude!” as “Dare to understand!” Instead of “Have courage to use your own reason!"
[4] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 2. I’d note that the majority of living things are single cell organisms but that doesn’t change Pinker’s observation. The complete essay can be found at http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/KantOnElightenment.htm accessed 6 February 2019
[5] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 3.
[6] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 3.
[7] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 7.
[8] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 8.
[9] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 9.
[10] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 10.
[11] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 16.
[12] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 20.
[13] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 21.
[14] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 22.
[15] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.
[16] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.
[17] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 14.
[18] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23. ( )
1 vote brewbooks | Mar 7, 2019 |
“There is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

  eraderneely | Feb 14, 2019 |
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Sixteen years ago, in his book “Blank Slate,” he acknowledged that false conceptions about human nature in unequal societies make it “easy [for the rich] to blame the victim and tolerate inequality.” He allows that if “social status is relative,” then “extreme inequality can make people on the lower rungs of society feel defeated.” He sees real consequences.... But in “Enlightenment Now,” Pinker celebrates inequality as “a harbinger of opportunity.” Observing these differences in his work some 16 years apart, it seems that he has not become the champion of Enlightenment ideas in this respect, but rather has forgotten them without even noticing.
Enlightenment Now ... is a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history and a starkly technocratic prescription for the human future. It also gives readers the spectacle of a professor at one of the world’s great universities treating serious thinkers with populist contempt. The genre it most closely resembles, with its breezy style, bite-size chapters, and impressive visuals, is not 18th-century philosophie so much as a genre in which Pinker has had copious experience: the TED Talk
added by rybie2 | editThe Nation, David A. Bell (Mar 8, 2018)
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The second half of the second decade of the third millennium would not seem to be an auspicious time to publish a book on the historical sweep of progress and its causes.
What is enlightenment?
In the course of several decades giving public lectures on language, mind, and human nature, I have been asked some mighty strange questions. [Introduction]
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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. Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature--tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking--which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation.… (more)

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