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Enlightenment Now

by Steven Pinker

Pinker's subtitle: "The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress."

Stephen Pinker is a scientist — a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author). Science played an important role in discourse and thought that produced the Age of Enlightenment — the Age of Reason. In this book, Pinker is an advocate for science, reason, democracy, and the scientific tradition of access to ideas unfettered by political authority. Pinker is a secular Humanist — a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value of critical thinking, reason and empiricism over dogma or superstition.

Pinker describes us as seeing in our second decade of the 21st century "the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment." He describes these movements as:

tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.

Pinker is not a fan of impulsive or gut responses. He believes in passion but criticizes the counter-Enlightenment German philosopher Johann Herder (1744-1803), who said, "I am not here to think, but to be, feel, live!"

Pinker writes that "no Enlightenment thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently rational," but he believes we use reason in our daily lives and believes that we should at least try to put our thoughts together rationally. Those who argue against rationality, or argue for or against anything, he points out, are contradicting themselves: argument is an attempted appeal to reason.

Pinker mentions Europe's anti-Enlightenment conservatives standing against reason in favor of the emotionality of religious devotions. He writes of the bloody conflicts that came with tribal attachments and martial glory having superseded reasoning, negotiations and compromise.

Rationality deals with knowledge, and he writes that the 21st century is "an age of unprecedented access to knowledge" (provided by science). He describes the denial of science, the denial of evolution, vaccine safety, the denial of anthropogenic climate change as troublesome, and the promulgation of conspiracy theories as irrational. He faults a mediocre education system that "has left the populace scientifically illiterate, at the mercy of their cognitive biases, and thus defenseless against airhead celebrities, cable-news gladiators, and other corruptions from popular culture."

Pinker complains of some on the Left and the Right thinking like secular religionists, providing a "community of like-minded brethren," a demonology and beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause. (Leftist rah-rah passion and narrow-mindedness did help make a mess of the French Revolution.) He thinks he grasps Marxism well enough to classify today's Marxists as irrational. He sees the political entity called North Korea as irrational (as do many of us). And he considers China — another one-party state — as other than a democracy. Pinker is a liberal, and I suspect that he includes among the irrational those who refuse to differentiate between Marxists or Communists and all those others to the left of center.

Pinker writes that "though our ignorance is vast (an always will be), our knowledge is astonishing, and growing daily... Scientific discoveries continue to astound... Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty." He writes that scientists are not at war with the liberal arts. He sees science as friendly with all good thinking. He accuses the American editor/critic Leon Wieseltier of building a wall around science, Wieseltier having said, "it is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy." Pinker describes Wieseltier as confusing propositions with academic disciplines. Scientists, he writes "are not under a gag order forbidding them to discuss conceptual and moral issues, any more than philosopher must keep their mouths shut about the physical world."

Pinker criticizes the idea of science moving from one absolutistic block of theory to a new and contradictory block of theory, the new block to be eventually rendered as not true. He writes of science having been employed by those who built now discredited racial theories. This use of science, according to Pinker, is no reason disparage science itself. Scientists, instead, did their thing and advanced their science working with the particulars that corrected previous errors. Pinker sees science as building an interconnection of ideas that advanced with research and more experience. (The genetics that Darwin didn't understand has improved our understanding of evolution.)

Pinker's last chapter is titled "Humanism." Science, he writes, is "not enough to bring about progress." The goal of "maximizing human flourishing ... may be called humanism." (Despite the word's root, he isn't excluding the flourishing of animals.) He's writing about the valuation of "life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience." He draws from the Humanist Manifesto (2003) which affirms that,

Pinker sees humanism's roots in Spinoza's view of impartiality, Hobbe's social contract, Kant's categorical imperative, Locke and Jefferson's self-evident truth that all people are created equal, and he sees its roots in the Golden Rule of "hundreds of moral traditions." (I can hear the cynical dictator Victoriano Huerta, portrayed in the movie "Viva Zapata", complaining about the "stench of goodness".)

Pinker mentions the philosopher Martha Nussbaum recognizing people having a right to health, safety, literacy, free expression, play, and emotional and social attachments.

Pinker's humanism is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft — which he describes as "by no means a vapid or saccharine lowest common denominator." It is "the moral code that people will converge upon when they are rational, culturally diverse, and need to get along."

Pinker writes:

History confirms that when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge toward humanism. The separation of church and state in the American Constitution arose not just from the philosophy of the Enlightenment but from practical necessity... The only way to unite the colonies under a single constitution was to guarantee religious expression and practice as a natural right.

Pinker discusses Biblical alternatives. He asks whether we can have good without God. He has enough confidence in himself to believe that individuals are capable of choosing what is best without responding to supernatural authority, without a theistic code or the kind of pressures similar to Santa Claus knowing "if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake."

Pinker favors people developing their own awareness, maturity, and abiity to choose. He goes on for more than ten pages, describing religiously based morality as drawing from earthly prophets and messiahs, as dependent on the parochial dogmas of a tribe, and as essentially relativistic.

To anyone who would inject atheism into the question of moral alternatives, he writes that "obviously atheism is not a moral system... It's just the absence of supernatural belief, like an unwillingness to believe in Zeus or Vishnu."

He sums up with the statement, "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." It's a story, he writes, that "belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity" ... it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance."

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