Steven Pinker, has written an amiable, good natured book. Reasonable optimism breaks out everywhere. The title, though, is a little misleading. It brings to mind someone like Buddha and his kind of enlightenment. It isn’t about that, it’s about the historical Enlightenment and its values – reason, science, humanism and progress. “The Enlightenment, after all”, writes Pinker, was “humankinds’ emergence from its self-incurred immaturity.”[p289] If anyone suspects a hint of anti-religious polemic in that, they’re right.
The book is about how Enlightenment values are faring now. Pinker proves beyond reasonable doubt that they continue to deliver the goods. Prophets of doom are buried beneath mountains of data. The following is a sample of how the argument proceeds:
“Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th Century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81. When the Enlightenment began, a third born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; to-day that fate befalls 6% of the children in the poorest parts…”[p322]
The parade of Enlightenment successes goes on:
“Not only are richer people in a given country happier, but people in richer countries are happier, and as countries get richer over time, their people get happier.” [p.268]
Pinker has the data to prove it. Nor is there anything crude about his analyses. For example, he makes an important distinction between happy people who live in the present, and those with meaningful lives who have a narrative about their past and a plan for their future. And his figures are right up to date. He writes that populism is an old man’s movement, shown by the fact that in all three of its recrudescences – Trump, Brexit, and European populist parties, voter support falls with year of birth [p.341].
Pinker can justifiably conclude
“…more than two centuries [after the Enlightenment] we can say that it has worked: we have seen six dozen graphs that have vindicated the hope of progress by charting ways in which the world has been getting better.”[p326]
Nevertheless, Pinker is open to challenge on a number of points, especially in his account of humanism, in which he holds that the mind is the brain. That invites the following objection. Once I dreamed that I was close to a bushfire and was impressed by the vivid orange of the flames. No one looking into my brain at the time would have seen them. They were not in physical space; they were, as we say, in my mind. Pinker acknowledges that there is a problem here, but he contends that it is a conceptual problem. It isn’t. It’s a problem about what is real. The orange flame was an appearance, but it was real, and it was beyond physical space.
Pinker is a scientific triumphalist in that he expects scientific explanations to prevail. They may, but they may do so with entities which are not material. There is a trend in that direction already. Within physics there are material objects – billiard balls, planet earth, human bodies, nuts and bolts etc. These objects are solid, but some objects are not e.g., gravitational and electro-magnetic fields. Gases are also not solid, but they contain molecules which are. Space-time is not made of any material e.g. wood, steel, hydrogen. It is not that kind of thing. The trend within physics to non-material objects may continue.
Pinker insists that the universe is indifferent to humanity. He is denying that there is a power directing the universe for our good. In his great novel, The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov asserts that everything will be as it should be; that is how the world is made. There is a huge amount of human experience behind that view.
Enlightenment Now:The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism And Progress by Steven Pinker. Published by Allen Lane. Great Britain.2018. pp. 556. isbn: 978-0-241- 33701- 1
Reg Naulty, Canberra Regional Meeting.