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Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
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Things we take for granted today: 80 year + life expectancy, markets overflowing with food, clean water with the flick of a finger, and waste that disappears as quickly, pills to stop a painful infection, sons whoare not sent of to fight, daughters who can safely walk the streets, critics of the regime not shot or imprisoned, the world's knowledge available in your pocket.
Frederick Hayek's "If old truths are to retain their hold on mens' minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations."
David Deutsch writing in The Beginning of Infinity: By optimism I mean the theory that all failures are due to insufficient knowledge. Problems are inevitable, bc our knowledge will always be incomplete. Some problems are hard, but that doesn't make them insoluble. An optimistic society is not afraid to innovate, or to criticize. It's institutions keep improving, and the most impt knowledge is how to detect and eliminate errors.
The Enlightenment doesn't have a clear start and finish date like the Olympics, but it's conventionally placed in the last two-thirds of C18, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revn of C17, and it spilled into the first half of C19. Four ideas held it together - reason, science, humanism, progress.
Reason was the foundation - the insistence that you base ideas on objective fact rather than faith, dogma, charisma, authority or gut feelings.
It was Reason that led most Enlightenment Thinkers to reject the idea of an anthropomorphic God who took an interest in human affairs. Reports of miracles are dubious, holy writers and saints were all too human, natural events unfolded with no regard for human welfare, and different cultures believed in mutually incompatible deities, none of them more or less likely to be the product of human imagination.
The Enlightenment also known as the HumanitarianRevn, bc ended many barbaric practices that had endured for millenia - slavery, despotism, execution for minor offences, and sadistic punishments such as flogging, amputation and burning at the stake.
Criminal punishment is not a mandate to impose cosmic justice, but part of an incentive structure that discourages antisocial acts without causing more suffering than it deters.
Counter-enlightenment movements. Doomsayers who see civilization collapsing bc tech gets out of control or bc society getting more and more violent. Many intellectuals have a deep disdain for science - only good for fixing mundane problems, while the meaning of life can only sorted out by people with theright education and culture.
The Optimism Gap - people consistently say their condition will get better, but the country's will get worse, that there is less crim in their area, but more in country as a whole, etc. Part of the problem is today's news cycle. Where once a daily pressure to fill a front page, today it's hourly. And it is mostly crap - if a newspaper was published just once every 10 years, it wdn't be filled with celeb gossip and minor pol crises, it wd be filled with momentous global changes like disease cures and new inventions.
People base their estimate on how likely something is to happen, by how easily they can recall an example of it. Which worl=ks well most of thetime, except for things that were particularly riveting like plane crashes or front page violence Plane crashes make the news whereas car crashes generally don't, so people are afraid of flying but not of driving, even though the latter is way more dangerous.
Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature detailed the way civilization has improved.
The Pacification Process was a fivefold reduction in the rate of death from tribal raiding, the consequence of effective states exerting contol over their territory.
The Civilizing Process was a fortyfold reduction in homocide following the entrenchment of the rule of law in early modern Europe.
The Humanitarian Revn is another name for the Enlightenment-era abolition of slavery, religious persecution and cruel punishments.
The Long Peace is term for the decline of interstate war after WW2. And following the end of the Cold War, the world has had a period of New Peace, with fewer civil wars, genocides and autocracies.
And since the 1950's, the world has been swept by a cascade of Rights Revns - civil rights, women's rigths, gay rights, children's rights and animal rights.
Weare predisposed to be pessimistic. If ask someone to imagine something to happen that wd make their lives a lot better, they might come up with a couple of ideas ('win the lottery'). But if ask them to imagine what cd go wrong, the list is endless.
People dread losses more than they look forward to gains, they dwell on setbacks more than they savour good fortune, and they are far more stung by criticism than they are buoyed by praise.
What is progress? Not hard to answer - everyone agrees that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, sustenance is better than hunger, safety is better than danger, freedom is better than tyranny, equal rights are better than bigotry and discimination, literacy is better than illiteracy, knowledge is better than ignorance, happiness is better than misery.
And, the world has made spectacular progress in every one of those measures of human well-being.
Isaac Chotiner: What is it that you think we misunderstand about our current moment in relation to our past?
Steven Pinker: The heart of the book is a set of graphs showing that measures of human well-being have improved over time. Contrary to the impression that you might get from the newspapers - that we're living in a time of epidemics and war and crime - the curves show that humanity has been getting better, that we're living longer, we are fighting fewer wars, and fewer people are being killed in the wars. Our rate of homicide is down. Violence against women is down. More children are going to school, girls included. More of the world is literate. We have more leisure time than our ancestors did. Diseases are being decimated. Famines are becoming rarer, so virtually anything that you could measure that you'd want to call human well-being has improved over the last two centuries, but also over the last couple of decades.
What do you want to get across other than, 'Things are better'? Are you just trying to set the record straight, or are you trying to get us to think differently about the way things are now?
No, I'm absolutely trying to get people to think differently.
I put the facts of progress in the context of the ideas that made it possible, because one has to ask, Why have things been getting better? Does the universe contain some mystical force or arc bending toward justice or dialectic that just make things better and better over time? The answer is, 'Surely not.' I attribute it to particular ideas and values that came in around the time of the Enlightenment and the second half of the 18th century, and when they were embraced, they made progress possible in the past, and therefore if we embrace them now, they'll make future progress possible.
These ideals I boil down to reason, science, and humanism. Reason - that we should apply rationality to analyzing our situation and our problems as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, gut feelings. Science - we should consult our best understanding of reality rather than superstition and folklore. And humanism - that we should prioritize the well-being of sentient beings, especially human beings, rather than the glory of the nation or the spread of the faith or the triumph of a race or ethnic group.
One critique of your book and your last book is essentially that it's a way of making people who are in positions of power or wealthy people now feel good about where we are. Your book has gotten great praise from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. A friend of mine proposed I ask that, if we were looking back 115 years, and someone said that the richest people in the country - the Rockefeller types - had said that some book about our current moment was really speaking to reality and what was correct and so on, we would probably look back on that with a certain bit of a jaundiced eye. There is something that we should be skeptical of the fact that people like Gates or Zuckerberg would feel so positively about this book that it's somehow understating aspects of reality, maybe, that we don't want to pay attention to.
It doesn't seem like much of an argument - that is, if Bill Gates likes it, then that suggests that maybe it's not right. I don't really see the logic of the objection, and Gates does deserve credit because unlike philanthropists of the past, he didn't just use his fortune to get the naming rights of concert halls, but applied a humanistic ethic, namely, "How would this fortune go the furthest in making the most people better off?" He decided that combating infectious disease in the developing world would bring the greatest human life and happiness for the amount of money that was available. There are a lot of other things he could have done with the money.
I'm not trying to say that Gates is a bad person. You write in the book, for example, "Notwithstanding the habitual self-flagellation by Western intellectuals about Western racism, it's non-Western countries that are the least tolerant." It does seem that one of the things that you're trying to do in the book is say that self-flagellation is something that is not great, that we're maybe too hard on ourselves.
This gets to the Gates and Zuckerberg question. Wherever you think we are in relationship to where we were 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago, it does seem you can take two approaches to that. One is that things are getting better and we should celebrate it, and the other is that no, we really should be flagellating ourselves no matter what the circumstances were 100 years ago, because there are still so many problems with the world.
There are problems with the world, but self-flagellation doesn't make the problems any better. If I feel guilty about poverty in the developing world, and I flagellate myself, I haven't saved any lives. I haven't fed any children. We should analyze problems and solve them. I think the mindset behind the question is: Aren't rich people bad, and aren't we compelled to condemn rich people and condemn the status quo? I do argue against that because that doesn't make anyone better off.
I was not trying to imply that what Zuckerberg or Gates likes means it's not good or that we should be going after rich people for liking a book or for being rich in and of itself. I was trying to get at the larger attitude that we take to these things. It's interesting that you said that you don't think self-flagellation brings things about. I'm not sure that that's not true. I think that the self-flagellation that we see in Western societies, because the quote I was reading was about Western societies, about racism or misogyny probably has had a role in helping ameliorate them.
Certainly, just as individuals, we have to be self-critical. As a society, we must be self-critical as well ... which, in practice, means flagellating other people in your society. There aren't that many people who say, "I'm a racist or a sexist." They're basically condemning all the other guys in their society, but simply confessing, flagellating, putting on hair shirts, making conspicuous sacrifices, that helps our social capital in our peer group. It doesn't make other people better off. It doesn't cure disease. It doesn't topple tyrants. The point of propelling moral progress is obviously not to accept the status quo, but it's to identify problems and identify the solution to the problems, not to identify villains and flagellate the villains. That is a difference.
By the way, the comment about the self-flagellation of the West pertains specifically to a set of worldwide opinion polls where the citizens of various countries were polled in terms of whether they believe in gender equality, whether they believe in rights for religious and racial minorities, and it was simply the fact that it's actually the Western societies that are the least prejudiced, and there are actually countries like India where people have contempt for those of other faiths. It's not an excuse for the racism and ethnocentrism that remains, but a diagnosis that says that this is a peculiar problem of the West is just factually wrong. This is, I think, part of human nature that we tend to disrespect groups other than our own, and it is one of the gifts of the Enlightenment that we are pushing back against that. By the way, it's all countries that are improving. Just some have gone further than others.
A lot of people think the two biggest threats to the steadily improving (even if insufficient) progress we've been making are nuclear weapons and global warming. Nuclear weapons are something that we've made via scientific ingenuity, and global warming is a result of many things, but one of them is economic growth and modernizing societies. I think that you and I would both agree that they're both existential threats to everyone. How do you fit them into your larger idea about science and progress and what they've offered the world?
"All countries are improving. Just some have gone further than others."
- Stephen Pinker
The extraction of energy, mainly via fossil fuels, has until now been an enormous boon to humankind. It has led to the abolition of slavery, to the emancipation of women, to the education of children, to lengthening lifespans, to richer experiences, but obviously it can't continue in the way it has through massive burning of fossil fuels. It's true that if, in 100 years time, the planet is despoiled because no one did anything to curb greenhouse gas emissions and just continued with business as usual, then at that point you can raise the philosophical question: Would we have been better off if we stayed in a lifestyle of the middle ages, had a life expectancy of 30, and a literacy rate of 10 percent, but at least we wouldn't have had global warming? I don't know how you would answer that question, but we're not at the point at which that question has to be answered.
Likewise, if there was a nuclear holocaust, then whoever survived it, looking back, can raise the question: Was it all worth it? But I don't think we're at the point where we have to pose the question in that way. I think we're at the point where we have to say: Having enjoyed the benefits of science and technology, how do we avert these potential catastrophes? How do we decarbonize? How do we denuclearize? [We should] put our rhetorical energy into correcting a course that we could go on if we're not sufficiently aware of it.
It seems to me that the threat of global warming, even if it hasn't realized its worst potential yet, is scary enough and bad enough and there's a possibility that it could lead to such catastrophic outcomes that it does feel like even if we don't want to judge individual people 100 or 1,000 years ago, it does seem like maybe we should change how we think about the notion of progress a little bit.
It clearly requires some changes, but the change that it requires, at least so I argue in the fairly extensive discussion of climate change that I have in the book, is that we have to figure out how to get the greatest human benefit with the least environmental cost. In particular, the least emission of greenhouse gases. In fact negative emission [of greenhouse gases], because we've got to pull some of that CO2 out of the atmosphere at some point during this century. The way to deal with it is not to say, "Was progress a big mistake?" because I think that just doesn't give us a way to go forward. It leads to what are probably imponderable questions, but rather, how do we continue a process that has already begun of extracting energy from the universe with less carbon emissions?
To turn to nuclear weapons, I don't know what the odds are of a full-scale nuclear war. I don't know if India and Pakistan are going to go to war, or the United States and North Korea, but it does seem like, again, that we've put ourselves in a position where the unthinkably awful is possible, and that whether the contingency plays out, it's worth thinking about how we think about what progress is, because we've put ourselves in such a huge threat. It does seem like that should call into question a little bit how we think about progress.
It does. I would say that the invention of nuclear weapons has been our species biggest blunder, and probably occurred as a result of a number of historical contingencies surrounding World War II. Namely, we rushed to develop them before the Nazis did, and it's quite possible that if there was no Hitler, there'd be no nuclear weapons today. But at the extreme end of the unpleasant-to-think-of contingencies, there is the fear of nuclear winter or at least nuclear autumn. I mean, that would be close to the existential threat. There are horrific but not species-ending scenarios, such as an exchange of a few nuclear weapons, which would be unspeakably awful but not even necessarily worse than some of the atrocities that our species has gone through in the past, like the European wars of religion and the conquests of Genghis Khan. So yes, at the extreme end, there's a kind of damage that we never had to deal with in the past that is nuclear winter, and then there are a number of other possibilities that are horrific but not existential and clearly we ought to prioritize avoiding.
In that regard, I'm not saying that we should accept the historical course or the trajectory that we're on, particularly the trajectory that has recently been bent by the current Trump administration, that this very much should be publicized more than it is. In the last presidential election, for example, it figured pretty much not at all, and instead there was enormous discussion of relative trivialities like terrorism, police shootings, email servers, economic inequality - all of which are issues, but compared to the threat of nuclear war, they're less consequential. I would like to see a greater discussion of our nuclear strategy, our nuclear posture, our nuclear weapons trajectory.
What would falsify your argument in your mind? If nuclear war broke out, and the conditions were horrific everywhere, would you say, "Oh, I attribute part of that to Enlightenment thinking and our focus on science?" Or would you say that that was actually a betrayal of it?
It's some of each. The knowhow to wreak that destruction was clearly a product of science, but the value system that allowed it to happen would be the most flagrant contradiction one could imagine of humanism. That was certainly the historical genesis in the ideology of Nazism, which is pretty much the opposite of humanism, and seeking the glory of the race over the interests of individual people and of the various escalations and saber-rattling and conflicts over territory and ideology that would have taken the world to that place.
We are a country that likes to think that it was impacted by Enlightenment ideas and has used those ideas to prosper and become the richest, most powerful country on Earth. Has Trump's election shaken you in any way about how you view America and our embrace of those ideas? I ask about Trump specifically because he himself is such a rejection of them in so many ways in terms of who he is as a person, almost to an unimaginable degree, which I think is part of the reason why people were so shocked, myself included, that he won.
Yes. In many ways, the United States is not at the forefront of the Enlightenment project, even though the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution were the earliest and greatest gifts of the Enlightenment. The United States was conceived as an Enlightenment nation, but it always entertained counter-Enlightenment forces of cultures of honor; of manly self-defense; of a kind of millennial, quasi-religious, messianic role of the United States in particular as the indispensable nation, the city upon the hill - both very counter-Enlightenment notions. Trump himself is quite obviously an exponent of counter-Enlightenment ideas. This was most obvious when he was influenced by Steve Bannon, who explicitly cited some crackpot European fascists of the first decades of the 20th century who almost set themselves in opposition to the Enlightenment. Many of Trump's themes, such as nationalism, such as the racialism that is always lurking behind his comments, such as a withdrawal from international cooperation, such as protectionism as opposed to international commerce - these are all deeply counter-Enlightenment ideas.
It was for me in the course of writing the book - and the Trump election occurred in the middle of the process. It certainly represented a bigger pushback of counter-Enlightenment forces than I would have liked to see in terms of the progression of history. It didn't shock me in the sense that I didn't believe that the West or the United States had ever been all in for Enlightenment values. There had always been a tension between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment values, but I have to admit that I did not expect him to be elected, and I did not expect the counter-Enlightenment pushback to be as successful as it was.
The sort of counter-Enlightenment pushback, as you call it, which we see with Trump and we see varieties of it throughout Europe, and we see varieties of it through the Middle East and South Asia and East Asia and all around the world, to what extent are you worried about that as a serious, long-term threat to the progress that you're detailing? Or do you see it as unlikely to be more than a hiccup?
I think I would see this somewhere between a hiccup and a reversal. The fact that authoritarian populists have gained control of a number of countries, including the United States, is certainly worrisome, and indeed, real damage could be done. The nuclear war being the most obvious example, but also a corroding of the system of international norms that deserves much of the credit for reducing warfare, a pushback against democracy, and all of the other threats that we're all too well-aware of. The long-term trajectory - there are some forces that are pushing back against it. One of them is sheer demographics. Authoritarian populism is far more popular among old people than young people. It drops off like a cliff. I have a graph in the book that plots support for Trump, for European populism, and for Brexit, and all three curves are kind of cliff-shaped, where millennials just have not fallen in love with populism in the way that aging baby boomers and silent generation types have.
That's one reason to suspect that over the long term, this is not the wave of the future. The other is that there really has been a process spanning many decades, at least 50 years, of liberalization across the world. This is something that's visible in the World Values Survey, where every generation has become more tolerant than the one that preceded it. The progress has been uneven across regions of the world. There's just no question that Western Europe is more liberal than the Middle East and North Africa, but the tide has lifted all the boats so that a twentysomething in the Arab world today is in many ways more liberal than a Swede in the early 1960s, as hard as that is to believe. Now, that's a force that has been pushed along by affluence, by education, by connectivity, by mobility, but all of the cosmopolitan forces of modernity, to the extent that this is a real process, it's unlikely to go into reverse overnight. In general, younger people, more connected people, better educated people just don't subscribe to the same kind of racism and sexism and homophobia and nationalism as their elders.
You don't think that's a change that will happen with generations in the sense that when the millennials become 75, they're going to be complaining about immigrants coming over or whatever it is?
Yes, right, like the old saying that if you're not a socialist at 25, then you have no heart, and if you are a socialist at 55, you have no head. No one knows who said it first, but it's attributed to many people. It turns out to be false as a demographic fact about attitudes. It is not the case that as people get older, they get steadily more conservative. So it's much more likely that people carry their values with them as they age and that as one cohort replaces another, the population as a whole shifts.
'My other books have generated interest – The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Blank Slate - but nothing like this.' Steven Pinker is in the middle of an afternoon of back-to-back interviews. Again. It is fair to say his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress has touched a cultural nerve. Some, such as Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates who declared it 'my new favourite book of all time', have been inspired, while others have been piqued. One prominent Guardian columnist even went so far as to declare it 'contrary to reason'.
It is not hard to see why it has proved so polarising. Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and linguist by training, and a public intellectual by inclination, has mounted a defence of what he identifies as the key Enlightenment principles of reason, science and humanism – and he has done so on practical and evidential as much as philosophical ground. They are important, he argues, because they have worked to our collective betterment. Thanks to our adherence to ideas first formulated during the Enlightenment, our lives over the past 250 years have improved by every conceivable measure – we are wealthier, healthier; we are more equal, more knowledgeable; we enjoy greater peace, greater security. We are therefore in the midst of and enjoying clear, quantifiable progress. To those loyal to reason, humanism and indeed liberalism Enlightenment Now reads like a vindication. To adherents of environmentalism and identity-obsessed particularism, it reads like a reprimand.
Look beyond the polemics, however, and you will find Enlightenment Now to be at the very least a richly stimulating, edifying book. And, while it contains an element of uplift, its impetus is principally critical - critical of the resurgent counter-Enlightenment, of those who would sacrifice the pursuit of truth at the altar of politics, of the anti-science sentiments now gaining ground. To discuss some of these elements of Enlightenment Now, we spoke to the man himself.
spiked review: You write of the excessive pessimism of the present, of 'progressphobia' (which you counter in Enlightenment Now with our all too verifiable progress). But given the note of alarm you strike about the abandonment of Enlightenment principles, are you guilty of something similar? Are you overstating the animus towards Enlightenment principles?
Pinker: The reaction to the book would tend to suggest otherwise. Any suspicion that Enlightenment values are so accepted as to not need a case, I think has been refuted by some of the vituperative reviews I've had - which I anticipated. The value of reason and science and humanism is by no means trite, or banal. There are factions, including many in academia, who are dead set against them.
review: Some critics have drawn attention to your lack of in-depth treatment of the actual Enlightenment, but Enlightenment Now was never meant to be a scholarly treatment of the past, was it?
Pinker: That’s right. It's not a book that tries to vindicate the work and thought of a bunch of guys - from Voltaire to Kant - who wrote in the second half of the 18th century. In fact that itself would contradict the value of reason and disinterested inquiry, because no group of guys could figure it all out. They were human, they were the products of their time. As I mention in Enlightenment Now, several of them were slave holders, some others were racist, some anti-semitic and some sexist. It’s not the historical personages I’m promoting; it’s a set of ideas. And all ideas have to come from somewhere – there has to be someone who first articulated ideas in a way that continues to stick. So I chose the Enlightenment as a rubric for this family of ideas. But it's the ideas that count, not those particular guys.
Science doesn't tell us that we should cure disease instead of letting it fester, but given that we do think we should cure disease, science is very relevant as to how we cure it.
review: And you hold those ideas responsible for what you identify as the progress of the past 250 years?
Pinker: That’s right. It’s the application of reason and science and humanism that deserve much of the credit for the progress I try to document.
review: I wonder, though, if you could be accused of attributing too much to Enlightenment ideas? For example, you write of democratic progress, of the increase in democracy across the world over the past two centuries. But was, say, the political progress in 19th-century England, of the struggle for male suffrage on the part of the Chartists, and then, in the early 20th century, of the struggle for female and therefore universal suffrage on the part of the Suffragettes – was that democratic progress really best understood in terms of the power of Enlightenment ideas? Are there not other factors in play here? The struggle for certain material and political objectives and so on.
Pinker: Well certainly it would be hard to gainsay the importance of the idea of equality in motivating the suffragists for example, and the arguments for women's equality were motivated by the arguments against slavery. Mary Astell, a 17th-century writer who may perhaps be called the first feminist, was precocious in that she wrote before the era we traditionally label the Enlightenment. But she was echoing the arguments made against slavery, namely that there is no evidence one class of people is inherently inferior to another, nor does any human have the right to exert arbitrary power over another. And these are ideas that come about from the exercise of reason, and the questioning of dogma and authority and tradition that are very much part of the Enlightenment project I’m championing.
This is not a book of intellectual history. I’m not tracing a thread of influence that can unambiguously be rooted in this particular era. I do think there was a concentration of these ideas - not least because the Enlightenment thinkers influenced each other. Some of the ideas developed earlier, some later.
And also, speaking perhaps directly to your question, there are certain types of progress that perhaps should not be attributed directly to Enlightenment ideas. The decline, for example, of personal violence, starting in the late Middle Ages, which the German sociologist Norbert Elias attributed to a civilising process that was instigated when central states imposed the rule of law over the medieval patchwork of anarchic feasts. That itself was a kind of progress that did not depend on Enlightenment ideas.
Likewise there may be certain benefits to human flourishing that come about from the sheer rise of prosperity, itself a product of the industrial revolution, which was influenced by the growth of science. But there were many benefits that may come about simply from a society becoming richer, regardless of its ideas.
review: Regarding those Enlightenment ideas, why did you single out reason, science and humanism in particular? Why not, for example, autonomy, that principle of self-government that seems so central to Kant's definition in What is Enlightenment, which you yourself quote from?
Pinker: Well, I would assimilate autonomy in part to reason, namely that the ability to know, and not to accept authority is itself a result of reason. That is, there’s no particular reason to believe that just because someone has power that they are correct or sound, nor that the fact that a society has adopted a belief as part of its conventional wisdom is itself a motivation to believe it. So the autonomy of thinking, of arguing, of free speech, is an implication of reason. And the autonomy of the individual, who is to be free of arbitrary power, I would assimilate to humanism. That for humans to flourish, they should not be subject to the arbitrary power of others.
This is not a knockdown argument as to why one shouldn't privilege autonomy, which I actually think is an important value. One can partition the different values in different ways, draw the lines between different ideas in different ways.
review: Now, you write of the 'stigmatisation of science', that there is 'an anti-science agenda' today. Which might sound counterintuitive to many, given the myriad ways our lives rely on the application of scientific knowledge. So what is this ‘anti-science agenda’, and where has it come from?
Pinker: The simple analysis would be that it comes from turf battles within intellectual life and within the university, that science, which has so self-evidently grown and benefited humanity, has provoked resentment among intellectuals in other fields. They feel that the sciences are encroaching on their turf, particularly when it comes to subjects traditionally confined to the humanities such as the analysis of art, the analysis of politics, of history. But, as I point out, the Enlightenment thinkers drew no such boundaries between subjects, and they were eager to apply what we would today call cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, in their ethical, historical and political debates.
Since the Enlightenment, universities have become more specialised, intellectual life has become more organised, the efforts to pick up on the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge has often been met with resistance among defenders of their traditional turfs who are jealous at the incursion of unfamiliar ideas and possibly with the expansion rival factions at what they percieve to be at their own expense.
There was a reply to my 2013 article in the New Republic, 'Science is not your enemy', by Leon Wieseltier called 'Now science is poised to invade the humanities, don't let it happen', which captures this bunker mentality perfectly. Indeed, it was one of the inspirations for me to write Enlightenment Now.
I don’t see what is so hot about a tradition-oriented worldview. I say good riddance to it.
review: In Enlightenment Now you write that ‘The call for everyone to think more scientifically must not be confused with the call to hand decision making over to scientists’. Given this caveat to your defence of the importance of science, I wondered what you made of the use of science to authorise and legitimise political or moral decisions? You can see this in the climate-change debate where you get formulations along the lines of ‘The science says we must reduce our consumption levels’ and so on. Do you think that is an abuse of science?
Pinker: By science, I don’t meant the particular opinions of people who call themselves scientists, but rather conclusions that are justified by our best science, that can be defended by methods of scientific validation and often confirm any one of our policies that hinges on the understanding of the world. Now if there is enormous overwhelming evidence that continuing to burn fossil fuels will lead to rising sea levels, crop failures and displaced peoples, that doesn’t automatically mean we should decarbonise the economy. But if we value human wellbeing, combining that value with the evidence that fossil-fuel burning will increase those harms, leads to a particularly strong argument for decarbonising the economy.
As a matter of pure logic, no fact by itself can justify a policy. But when you have values that are very widely shared, and when you have facts that are pretty well established, I think, in combination, that militates pretty strongly to certain courses of action.
So just as an analogy, if you have a child suffering from a particular disease and there’s a drug available that will save his life, it’s not a logical error to withhold the drug from the child, but assuming that you do have the value that life is good, and premature death is bad, then the scientific facts are highly relevant as to whether the child ought to receive the drug.
review: It can sometimes seem, though, that you’re asking science to stand in for ethics, to tell people what they ought to do?
Pinker: No, I explicitly deny that, and categorically deny it as a statement. However, I would argue that given certain values, such as life is better than death, health is better than sickness, prosperity is better than poverty and so on, which themselves cannot be directly justified by science, if you combine those with certain scientifically supported propositions, then there is a moral course of action that is justified.
One prominent humanist said to me that humanism is the belief that our moral systems should be based neither on religion nor on Nietzsche.
So, yes, science doesn’t tell us that we should cure disease instead of letting it fester, but given that we do think we should cure disease, science is very relevant as to how we cure it.
review: You mention values there, and one of the post-Nietzschean, counter-Enlightenment positions that you touch upon in Enlightenment Now is the argument that our use of our own reason, rather than other external, say, religious authorities, has led to the so-called disenchantment of the world, and a lingering sense of nihilism...
Pinker: Yes, instead of disenchantment, the phrase I'd use, which I’ve borrowed from Carl Sagan, is that we have escaped from the demon-haunted world, a world in which evil spirits awaited at every turn, a world in which your ancestors’ past lives impact on your current life, the fear of eternal damnation and so on. So I don’t see what is so hot about a tradition-oriented worldview. I say good riddance to it. And I would deny that it leads to a worldview that is meaningless. The idea of curing disease, of ending hunger, of curing extreme poverty, extending human lifespans, adding to human knowledge - they're all plenty meaningful. For someone who says saving human lives, bringing peace to the world, ending violence to women, 'that's all meaningless' - I respectfully disagree. They're plenty meaningful.
review: In Enlightenment Now, you say that with our growing freedom, comes a degree of uncertainty, and therefore 'a modicum of anxiety' - but that it's a price worth paying. It almost seems a proto-Existentialist position.
Pinker: In a way it is. As we mature, which Kant identified as the key Enlightenment theme, leaving behind our self-imposed immaturity, one of the burdens of maturity is to be aware of threats and challenges of which our ancestors might have been oblivious. The fact that today we're more aware of threats, from ill health due to a lack of exercise or an unhealthy diet, to too much exposure to ultraviolet rays, or societal threats, such as being aware of racism and sexism and poverty and so on, may add to our personal burden of anxiety. But that is to be preferred to living in unspoken complacency.
review: You also touch on the unpleasant, unfree reality of living in a small, tradition-bound, tightly-knit community, for which which some counter-Enlightenment thinkers seem almost nostalgic.
Pinker: Yes precisely. That’s another part of the answer. Before we get too nostalgic about close-knit village and family life, we should remember how hard our ancestors struggled to escape it. That is why the suffocating norms of bourgeois and aristocratic and, for that matter, rural culture, was a major theme of the 19th-century novel.
review: On the counter-Enlightenment, I wonder if Nietzsche does too much work in your account? He’s almost the demiurge of all that is wrong in Enlightenment Now.
Pinker: He is the embodiment of much of the opposite of Enlightenment values. One prominent humanist said to me that humanism is the belief that our moral systems should be based neither on religion nor on Nietzsche.
Not only does the content of Nietzsche’s ideas oppose the ideas of the Enlightenment, such as universal human flourishing, such as progress, such as reason and the search for objective truth, but also, historically, the most toxic anti-Enlightenment movements, such as fascism, such as Nazism, such as the alt-right today, and the revival of fascism, explicitly credit Nietzsche as an inspiration. So even though defenders of Nietzsche say that he was not himself a German nationalist or an anti-Semite, which is true, his valorisation of a superior breed of human, the Übermenschen, is but a small step away from valorising race and nation. As opposed to universal human flourishing, which he identified with Christianity, but could just as well be identified with secular humanism.
review: You mention the threat posed by the alt-right, which, in Enlightenment Now, you say has contributed to the politicisation of public debate at the expense of reason. Do you feel that the left has had a similar impact on the academic sphere? Are Enlightenment ideals - from freedom of inquiry to Kant’s 'Sapere Aude' - now under threat even in institutions, such as universities, which are meant to enshrine them?’
Pinker: Yes, there is a left-leaning orthodoxy in some parts of the academy, particularly in the humanities and social sciences (though it varies across departments - I sense that psychology and economics are somewhat more ideologically diverse than other fields). Certain classes of hypotheses are neglected, even unmentionable, which can send entire fields of inquiry down blind alleys for decades. And the reputation for political bias in the worst sectors (particularly as imposed by the student-life and other bureaucracies, which have little adult supervision and no commitment to intellectual freedom) taints the academy as a whole, making it easy for politicised critics to dismiss anything they don’t like which comes out of a university, even if it is intellectually impeccable.
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