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The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Did you enjoy Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature?
If so, then wait till you get to know with its follow-up:
Who Should Read “Enlightenment Now”? And Why?
Let us answer these questions with a question: why wouldn’t you read a much-talked-about book by one who is casually deemed one of the most influential intellectuals of our time?
If you happen to find an answer to that question which will exempt you from reading Enlightenment Now – by the way, you know you’re nitpicking, right? – then here’s another one: wouldn’t you want to read Bill Gates’ favorite book of all time?
The book all believers in reason and readers tired of all this negativity around need to read, Enlightenment Now is a thoroughly researched vision of human progress, and, in case you need an injection of optimism, the very next book on your reading list.
About Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American award-winning linguist, cognitive psychologist and a renowned popularizer of science. He is widely considered one of the most influential intellectuals in the world today.
Pinker earned his reputation as the author of eight language-related Chomsky-inspired books, the most well-known among these being The Language Instinct, first published in 1994.
During the last decade, however, he has reached a much wider audience through three popular science books (The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and this one, Enlightenment Now) in which he argues that our future is not that bleak and that, far from being a failed species, humans are actually awesome.
Find out more at https://stevenpinker.com/.
“Enlightenment Now PDF Summary”
A worthy follow-up to The Better Angels of Our Nature, Enlightenment Now is a research-based, graph-filled, quotes-adorned apology of Enlightenment values (i.e., reason, science, and humanism), embellished with a firm belief that, unless we stray off this agenda-less path, we are bound to create a better world for all humans.
And you can get this feeling already from the two epigraphs of the book.
The first one is by Baruch Spinoza, one of the original Enlighteners, who probably needs no further introduction: “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.”
The second one is by David Deutsch, a physicist, one of Spinoza’s modern descendants, a guy whose seminal TED Talk on the nature of explanations we encourage you to see right now: “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.”
Now that we got you a bit warmed up, time to move on to our summary proper, dividing it (just like Pinker’s book) into three unequal and unsymmetrical parts.
Part I: Enlightenment
Pinker’s book starts with a self-quote, embellished, in his own words, “by the distortions of memory and l’esprit de l’escalier, the wit of the staircase.”
It was his “reasonably creditable answer” to “the most arresting question” he has ever been asked: “Why should I live?”
It’s merely an introduction to his discussion, but, honestly, we firmly believe that it is one of the most quotable parts of an otherwise highly quotable and enlightening book.
So, let’s go over it.
The Pinker Version: His Reply to “Why Should I Live?”
“In the very act of asking that question,” replied Pinker to his curious student, “you are seeking reasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the means to discover and justify what is important to you. And there are so many reasons to live.”
And then he went on:
As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness of the natural and cultural world. As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn. You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy—the ability to like, love, respect, help, and show kindness—and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.
“And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you,” Pinker goes on, steering his discussion in the direction of ethics, “you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself.”
In other words, “you can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.”
A Reason to Live
In the first part of his book, Pinker’s outlines the ideas and values of the Enlightenment in three chapters.
The first one of these three, “Dare to Understand!” is an introduction to these ideas and values; the second one analyzes why they are important; and the third one rallies against all those who question or subvert them, consciously or unintentionally.
“The Enlightenment has worked,” writes Pinker, and this is “perhaps the greatest story seldom told.”
It is exactly because this triumph is so unsung that “the underlying ideals of reason, science, and humanism are unappreciated as well.”
“Far from being an insipid consensus,” Pinker goes on, “these ideals are treated by today’s intellectuals with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt. When properly appreciated… the ideals of the Enlightenment are in fact stirring, inspiring, noble—a reason to live.”
Chapter 1: Dare to Understand!
If you read Pinker’s quote just above this section carefully, you already know that the ideals and values of the Enlightened his book is interested in are reason, science, and humanism.
If you are like most people, you probably take them for granted nowadays, which, in a way, doesn’t make you that better than the counter-enlighteners.
Because, you see, though they have prehistory, reason, science, and humanism are actually pretty new additions to the wide-ranging spectrum of human achievements.
You can trace them back to the second half of the 18th century when, according to Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment,” humankind emerged from “its self-incurred immaturity,” its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority.
The Enlightenment’s motto?
Sapere aude, dare to understand!
Its values and ideals?
• Reason: the idea that some things in this world are facts and are, thus, non-negotiable; in other words, some things are true regardless of what the so-called religious or political authorities say;
• Science: structured reasoning; the idea that we can both discover some facts about our existence though experiments and pass them on to future generations as proven;
• Humanism: the idea that all of us are in this thing together and the revelation that tribalism and random groupings are as primitive as voodoo-magic.
Chapter 2: Entro, Evo, Info
If you don’t understand what the title above means, don’t worry – it’s just a fancy Pinkerian way of saying “entropy, evolution, information.”
Why the three?
Well, first of all, because, whether we wanted or not, we are all necessary victims of entropy – the Second Law of Thermodynamic.
According to its most famous formulation, the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, i.e., a closed system inevitably becomes less structured until it slides “into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and [stays] there.”
But how is entropy relevant to human affairs?
Well, many people nowadays (aka, the Counter-Enlightenments) believe that humanity is not an exception.
Things go from bad to worse day in day out, and one day we too should experience the inevitable end and become a monotonous grey equilibrium of failures.
Pinker begs to differ.
Stats seem to show otherwise: we seem to evolve, and it’s time we admit that things are getting better all the time.
And why is that?
Well, for one, because we are not an isolated, closed system: ever since the Enlightenment, we are an outrageously huge, smart, and interconnected organism justly called Humanity.
And if we want to continue evolving, we need to commit even stronger to these ideals?
Want a proof?
Well, inform yourself.
Because, if you are factful, you’d already know that things are better than you think.
Chapter 3: Counter-Enlightenments
Of course, many people say that Pinker and people who are optimistic about this stuff are just plain wrong.
After all, stats are correct only until subverted by the outliers or the black swans, i.e., the things not taken into consideration because of their rarity, but also the things which tend to have such a devastating effect that they
Pinker acknowledges that the impact of the highly unpredictable should not be waved away, but, still, he demonstrates that, these spikes of bad things aside (colonialism, World Wars, Chernobyl, etc.), humanity is obviously getting better and better.
And all those right-wing nationalists or leftist rebels-without-causes would do much better for their own wellbeing (and the wellbeing of everybody) if they just listen to what reason and the data has to say.
Part II: Progress
And this is the reason’s gospel:
If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.
Of course, these are Barack Obama’s (and not Pinker’s) words, but either way, they make Pinker’s point clear: we’ve progressed a lot, and people should just stop being progressophobs (theirs is Chapter 4) and rejoice instead.
And here’s the data.
Chapter 5: Life
Not that it’s new information, but conspirators of future dystopias and counter-Enlighteners seem to enjoy ignoring this: people are nowadays living longer than ever:
Before the Enlightenment, as you can see from Pinker’s graph, an average person couldn’t expect to live more than 35 years – even in Europe.
Nowadays, the average life expectancy in Europe is over 80!
The best news:
This trend is worldwide.
Meaning, even in Africa, people are nowadays living far longer than they did a century ago!
Chapter 6: Health
Of course – and this goes to all the anti-vaxxers out there! – we owe this to many creative and smart members of our species who discovered various real sources of diseases and finally substituted prayers, sacrifices, and homeopathy with actual cures, thus saving billions of lives.
Here are just a few of them:
|Abel Wolman (1892–1982) and Linn Enslow (1891–1957)||chlorination of water||177 million|
|William Foege (1936– )||smallpox eradication strategy||131 million|
|Maurice Hilleman (1919–2005)||eight vaccines||129 million|
|John Enders (1897–1985)||measles vaccine||120 million|
|Howard Florey (1898–1968)||penicillin||82 million|
|Gaston Ramon (1886–1963)||diphtheria and tetanus vaccines||60 million|
|David Nalin (1941– )||oral rehydration therapy||54 million|
|Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915)||diphtheria and tetanus antitoxins||42 million|
|Andreas Grüntzig (1939–1985)||angioplasty||15 million|
|Grace Eldering (1900–1988) and Pearl Kendrick (1890–1980)||whooping cough vaccine||14 million|
|Gertrude Elion (1918–1999)||rational drug design||5 million|
And there are more!
John Snow was the first epidemiologist, the man who started it all; Karl Landsteiner discovered blood groups; Ignaz Semmelweis and Joseph Lister first introduced equipment- and hand-sterilization into medical practice; and Jonas Salk – well, he discovered the vaccine against polio.
And this is how that day looked like in the States:
“People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes… took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies.”
You know why?
Because millions were saved.
Chapter 7: Sustenance
But what about the poor and the hungry, you ask?
Well, they are better as well.
Just a simple comparison:
A century and a half ago, Swedish children were starving to death during the winters; nowadays, it is basically impossible for someone living in Sweden to die.
Chapter 8: Wealth
We didn’t forget the poor.
And we know that it is all but a fact that 99% of the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of the people.
However, Pinker says, it is also a fact that most of the other 99% aren’t doing that bad themselves, especially the ones who rage against the system.
Just two centuries ago, about nine-tenths of the world were living in extreme poverty, and nowadays, countries such as Vietnam, Rwanda and El Salvador (to say nothing of the G8 or economic miracles such as South Korea or Singapore) are doubling their income ever two decades!
The rich are indeed getting richer; but (and this should be shouted out loud as well) so are the poor.
Chapter 9: Inequality
Now, of course, with that much wealth, inequality is all but expected.
However, according to some of our most renowned economists, inequality should level itself out in the long run.
The first name that Pinker throws in the discussion is that of Simon Kuznets, whose hypothetic U-shaped curve argued that as money multiply, inequality rises, but, in time, market forces decrease it.
There are many factors which contribute to this, one of which is something called the Adolph Wagner’s law, according to which the wealthier a country gets, the smarter and more active its people become, resulting in political pressure for that country to spend money on social and welfare programs.
We have to note that, in our view, this chapter is by far the least correct in Pinker’s book.
Not only he dismisses – by the way faultily, mixing absolute and relative wealth – Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century – which has all but demonstrated that Kuznets is wrong and that inequality is raging – but he also interprets much of the data in a rather unscientific manner, to suit his argument.
And this despite the fact that he acknowledges that he can’t pretend here that all the trends are positive.
Chapter 10: The Environment
Speaking of a domain where humanity can fail its host, the Earth – here is how things stand with regard to our relation to the environment:
Strangely enough, capitalist progress hasn’t resulted in an environmental horror, nor the data suggest that more care for the environment should hinder it.
“These diverging curves,” writes Pinker commenting the graph above, “refute both the orthodox Green claim that only degrowth can curb pollution and the orthodox right-wing claim that environmental protection must sabotage economic growth and people’s standard of living.”
Chapters 11–13: Peace, Safety, and Terrorism
It seems plainly wrong, at a day and age when we hear about violent deaths on a daily basis, to argue that the Earth is now safer and more peaceful than ever.
And yet, the data shows that this is true:
More people are nowadays committing suicide than dying in a terrorist attack, and there are far fewer wars and homicides (the United States being, unfortunately, the only highly developed country where the latter are a problem).
Also, the world is a far safer place to live in today than fifty and hundred years ago – in just about any category: work-related deaths, plane crashes, vehicle accidents, drownings, fires – and even falls!
Chapters 14–17: Democracy, Equal Rights, Knowledge, Quality of Life
During the fascist uprisings of the 1920s, there were only 12 democratic nations in the world.
As of 2015 – there are 103!
Some may say that democracy is overrated, but it is not: it is the best idea the enlightened minds of the 18th century devised as a way to fight against autocracy and leadership breakdowns.
Think of it this way – as bad as it is, democratic nations almost never experience bloody revolutions because you can always vote for another Party four years later.
Of course, the more democratic a country is, the more equal the rights of its citizens.
China may be the second most powerful country in the world, but as far as regular humans are concerned, they’d probably choose to live in South Korea, because their rights are much more protected there:
And as history has proven, knowledge and education evolve far better in democratic countries, and, during the past century or so, this has all but annihilated sexism and racism.
True, they are still there, but bear this in mind: with the exception of Vatican, women can vote everywhere nowadays, something which was unimaginable just a hundred years ago even in the most developed societies!
Chapters 18–20: Happiness, Existential Threats, and The Future of Progress
Back to terrorism, unhappiness and other existential threats.
As you can only suppose by now, Pinker is not that bothered by them.
And, to cut the long story short, you shouldn’t be either – and for a very simple reason: the graphs above.
After all, if you’re more likely to die due to a bee sting or a suicide than a terrorist attack, then why all this dread?
The days when nuclear wars seemed possible are long gone. The world is much wealthier, healthier, and safer. There are two superpowers (China and the USA), but they are not nearly as antagonistic to each other as the USSR and the USA.
Ironically, you feel so much dread and anxiety exactly because you’re living at the best time of history. Your education and knowledge make you wonder about things your predecessors never did.
Fight this dread with more knowledge – because the data is on your side!
Part III: Reason, Science, and Humanism
After outlining the ideas of the Enlightenment in the first part and demonstrating that they actually work in the second, Pinker wraps up his defense of the Enlightenment in the short, concluding third part of his book.
Here he tries to defend science against the attacks of all those Luddites who blame everything from eugenics through racism to Nazism on the ideals of the Enlightenment.
However, Pinker confidently shows that the idea of the Aryan race was devised by a fiction writer (damn you, Arthur de Gobineau, damn you to hell!), that proponents of eugenics are rarely for sterilizing “unfit” people and always for incentivizing talented people to procreate, and that climate change is real and not a Chinese conspiracy.
Donald Trump, Pinker’s looking at you!
And he thinks that you are an outlier, a statistical mistake. The educated didn’t vote for you, just as they didn’t vote for Brexit.
And just as they will never vote for autocratic, religious, tyrannical governments which oppress human freedom and believe in things eighth-graders know to be wrong nowadays.
Key Lessons from “Enlightenment Now”
1. The Enlightenment Believed in Reason, Science, and Humanism
2. The World Is Getting Better
3. Counter-Enlighteners Are Outliers
The Enlightenment Believed in Reason, Science, and Humanism
Before the second half of the 18th century, the world was much bleaker than the world of today.
There were no facts, and people in positions of power could use their influence to fabricate reality.
However, then a group of scientific-minded philosophers decided that we must restructure our world; and so, they did, rebuilding it upon the foundations of reason, science, and humanism.
The world of today, better than ever.
The World Is Getting Better
Regardless of whether we’re talking about life and health, or wealth, inequality and sustenance – people are nowadays better off than they were before the Enlightenment.
The same holds true with regard to safety and democracy, to equal rights and education, and even with regard to happiness.
In one sentence, the world is – statistically and factually – getting better.
So, stop moaning!
Counter-Enlighteners Are Outliers
Speaking of moaning, there are quite a few important people nowadays who believe in unscientific things (anti-vaxxers, racists, hardcore environmentalists, alt-rightists, far leftists, religious people, etc.)
The bad news: there always will be.
The good news: they are fewer and fewer.
And even though it may seem that nationalism and racism are on the rise, they are not; in a few years, Trump, Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Le Pen – they shall all pass, and the world will go on marching forward.
The way it has for the past two centuries.
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“Enlightenment Now Quotes”As we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen. Click To Tweet There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today until it is superseded by tomorrow. Click To Tweet People see violence as moral, not immoral: across the world and throughout history, more people have been murdered to mete out justice than to satisfy greed. Click To Tweet But it’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come. Click To Tweet Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Enlightenment Now made the headlines even before reaching the shelves since, a month before its scheduled publication, Bill Gates dubbed it his “new favorite book” in a January 2018 tweet.
Most of the critics agree with Gates’ praise: “In an era of increasingly ‘dystopian rhetoric,’” wrote a Publishers Weekly review, “Pinker’s sober, lucid, and meticulously researched vision of human progress is heartening and important.”
“Barring a cataclysmic asteroid strike or nuclear war,” added The Economist, practically summarizing Pinker’s main point, “it is likely that (the world) will continue to get better.”
And we kind of feel the same.
And we firmly believe that you’ll lose nothing getting familiar with both Pinker’s and Taleb’s arguments.