Light of Enlightenment allows no shades of meaning

Peter Stupples reviews Enlightenment Now: a Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker. Publisher:  Penguin Random House.

The Enlightenment Project of the mid-late 18th century in Europe and the North Eastern States of North America was elaborated in the context of the Science Revolution, leading to the Great Convergence.

The political and philosophical project and the developments in science fed each other with ideas, information and the energy of their trajectories. Steven Pinker argues, with a raft of statistical examples, that this energy created the momentum that has propelled the improvements in health and sanitation, longevity and social welfare, peace and prosperity that has made the world a better place to live for most people in the 21st century.

He argues that religions and customs, embedded in ancient traditions, are manifestly unreasonable and only act as an impediment to the further advance of the Enlightenment Project in the darker recesses of human society.

The evidence he brings forward, the product of decades of improvements in life-enhancing technologies in particular, are illustrated in chapter after chapter of statistics with all the confidence of a cognitive psychologist and cogent philosopher.

In addition to the evidence, entirely convincing, that we have made giant strides to make life better for more and more people over time, Pinker also outlines his philosophy of "reason''.

"We don't believe in reason; we use reason ... Though reason is prior to everything else and needn't (in fact cannot) be justified on first principles, once we start engaging in it we can stroke our confidence that the particular kinds of reasoning we are engaging in are sound by noting their internal coherence and their fit with reality.''

"Stroking our confidence''? That Freudian slip surely makes the reader suspicious of Pinker's hubris.

It is reason, Pinker argues, that demonstrates that the scientific-technical advances of the last 200 years are underpinned by the growing wealth, initially, of the West, followed, in the 20th century, by the rest of the world. It is also reason that shows the error of our beliefs, that are associated with archaic aspects of our identity, holding back our further advance into a humanist cosmopolitan paradise of liberal social democracy aided by a politically restrained but ever innovative capitalism. The only real threat to unfettered happiness is climate change.

Pinker's arguments are laid out over 450 pages (plus another 100 pages of notes, bibliography and index), somewhat over the top for a manifesto. A good editor would have cut this down somewhat. There is a great deal of repetition. Concision would have sharpened the message. For message it is.

Pinker has no patience for those who disagree with his position. He is clearly preaching to the converted and only making his enemies even more intransigent. But I suspect he is also likely to rile even those who agree with much of his thesis. For example, his chapter on "existential threats'' makes grim reading, and his readiness to bat them away as "figments of cultural and historical pessimism'', or genuine "but we can treat them not as apocalypses in waiting but as problems to be solved'', may read as too glib by many.

Though Pinker is no lover of Trump or right-leaning Republicans, he seems blind to the deep rifts within American society that may not be such easy "problems to be solved''; such as the gap between the haves and have-less or rising white supremacism encouraged by a complicit White House.

It is probably unreasonable to look for elegance of prose and a sense of humour in a message of this seriousness. However, it is not unreasonable to expect more understanding of the historical circumstances of the position taken by those he regards as benighted ignoramuses, if Pinker is to get them to listen to what he has to say.

Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago


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