Enlightenment Now

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Enlightenment Now
Enlightenment Now.jpg
AuthorSteven Pinker
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
SubjectSocial philosophy
PublishedFebruary 13, 2018
PublisherPenguin Books Limited/Viking
Media typePrint, digital
Pages576
ISBN978-0-525-42757-5 (Hardcover)

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is a 2018 book written by Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. It uses statistics to argue that health, prosperity, safety, peace, and happiness are on the rise, both in the West and worldwide. It attributes these positive outcomes to Enlightenment values such as reason, science, and humanism. It is a follow-up to Pinker's 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Thesis[edit]

A commonly-held lay public perception holds that the world is in terrible shape; for some, 2016 was the "worst year ever" and the death of liberalism. In contrast, Pinker argues that life has been getting better for most people. He sets out 15 different measures of human wellbeing to support this argument, with the most obvious being the uncontroversial fact that, statistically, people live longer and healthier lives on average than ever before. As another example, while fears of terrorism are often voiced in U.S. opinion polls, Pinker shows that an American is 3,000 times more likely to die in an accident than in a terrorist attack.[1] As in Pinker's previous The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker ascribes modern improvements to trends of liberal humanism and scientific rationality that first took root in Europe around the 17th and 18th centuries.[2]

Pinker argues that economic inequality "is not itself a dimension of human wellbeing" and cites a study that finds inequality is not linked to unhappiness, at least in poorer societies. He also points out that the world as a whole is becoming more equal, and states that even within increasingly unequal areas, the poor are still getting wealth and benefit from technological innovations. For example, it is clear to Pinker that an innovation that makes the poor slightly richer and the rich massively richer is a positive rather than a negative achievement. In contrast, critics hold that enhancing social mobility and combating "inequality as a result of unfairness" are important legitimate ends in and of themselves, beyond any effects of reducing poverty.[2][1][3]

On topics such as nuclear weaponry, Pinker places the blame on anti-Enlightenment forces. Scientists working on the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons did so because they needed to beat Hitler; Pinker states "Quite possibly, had there been no Nazis, there would be no nukes." In contrast, critics point out that science lacks any ethical logic of its own. They argue that scientific progress is liberating but also threatening, and can present dangers precisely because of how hugely it expands human power.[2] Pinker expresses concerns about potential human extinction from nuclear weapons or from global warming, but categorizes existential risks overall as a "useless category", stating that "Sowing fear about hypothetical disasters, far from safeguarding the future of humanity, can endanger it". In particular, Pinker departs from scholars such as Nick Bostrom regarding the possibility of accidental existential risk from artificial general intelligence, and makes a controversial reductio ad absurdum argument that self-driving cars provide evidence that artificial general intelligence will pose no accidental existential risk.[4][5]

The book concludes with three chapters defending what Pinker sees as Enlightenment values: reason, science, and humanism.[6] Pinker argues that these values are under threat from modern trends such as religious fundamentalism, political correctness, and postmodernism.[7] In an interview about the book published in Scientific American, Pinker has clarified that his book is not merely an expression of hope—it is a documentation of how much we have gained as a result of Enlightenment values, and how much we have to lose if those values are abandoned.[8]

Marketing[edit]

On 29 January Bill Gates tweeted praise for Enlightenment, calling it "my new favorite book". Gates stated he agreed overall with the techno-optimism of the book, but cautioned that Pinker is too "quick to dismiss" the idea that artificial superintelligence could someday lead to human extinction. Citing reader interest due to Gates' endorsement, Viking moved the publication date from 27 February 2018 to 13 February 2018.[9][10]

Reception[edit]

Publishers Weekly gave the book a glowing review, concluding that "In an era of increasingly 'dystopian rhetoric,' Pinker’s sober, lucid, and meticulously researched vision of human progress is heartening and important."[11] The Times also gave the book a positive review, stating that Pinker's arguments and evidence are "as entertaining as they are important", and expressing hope that Pinker's defense of the forces that have produced progress will be successful.[12]

The New York Times described the book as "an excellent book, lucidly written, timely, rich in data and eloquent in its championing of a rational humanism that is — it turns out — really quite cool."[13] The Economist agreed with Pinker that "barring a cataclysmic asteroid strike or nuclear war, it is likely that (the world) will continue to get better".[14]

In Skeptical Inquirer Kendrick Frazier concurs that Pinker "argues [his] case eloquently and ... effectively, drawing on both the demographic data and our improved understanding of human biases that get in our way of seeing the truth."[15]

Kirkus Reviews called it "overstuffed", and noted though Pinker is progressive, "the academically orthodox will find him an apostate".[7] The Guardian and The Financial Times dismissed Pinker's contention that the left is partly to blame for anti-reason rhetoric and objected to Pinker's criticism of groups such as postmodernists, de-growth environmentalists, and social justice warriors.[1][2]

Some reviewers disagreed with Pinker's quantitative approach to assessing progress. Booklist stated that "(Pinker's) seemingly casual dismissal of ethics concerns surrounding the Tuskegee experiment is troubling to say the least."[16] In Nature, Ian Goldin wrote that Pinker should have focused instead on future risks rather than the accomplishments of the past.[17] A review in the London Evening Standard agrees with Pinker's summary of how rationality has improved the world, but argues that there are some aspects of the world that have not improved in this way, with countries such as Afghanistan becoming less liberal due to the rise of Islamism.[18]

Writing in Jacobin, Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss posit that Pinker's Enlightenment "is shorn of its most egalitarian and democratic elements — it no longer resembles the intellectual ferment of the French Revolution. Instead, Pinker’s 'Enlightenment' mimics the hierarchy, conservatism, and authoritarianism of the ancien régime — that historical enemy of Radical Enlightenment."[19]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "Is the world getting better or worse?". Financial Times. 14 February 2018. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d Davies, William (14 February 2018). "Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker review – life is getting better". the Guardian. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  3. ^ Anthony, Andrew (11 February 2018). "Steven Pinker: 'The way to deal with pollution is not to rail against consumption'". the Guardian. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  4. ^ "Could science destroy the world? These scholars want to save us from a modern-day Frankenstein". Science | AAAS. 8 January 2018. Retrieved 29 July 2018.
  5. ^ Clifford, Catherine (1 March 2018). "Elon Musk responds to Harvard professor Steven Pinker's comments on A.I." CNBC. Retrieved 29 July 2018.
  6. ^ Can Science Justify Itself? Ada Palmer. Harvard Magazine, March–April 2018.
  7. ^ a b ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. (2017). Kirkus Reviews, 85(24), 1.
  8. ^ The Secret behind One of the Greatest Success Stories in All of History. Gareth Cook. Scientific American, February 15, 2018.
  9. ^ Berger, Sarah (29 January 2018). "Bill Gates' new 'favorite book of all time'—and how you can download a free chapter". CNBC. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  10. ^ Ha, Thu-Huong (2018). "Bill Gates has just read his "favorite book of all time"". Quartz. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
  11. ^ "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress". (2018). Publishers Weekly, (51). 157.
  12. ^ Aaronovitch, David. "Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker — don’t believe the false doom-mongers". The Times, February 17, 2018.
  13. ^ "Steven Pinker Continues to See the Glass Half Full". New York Times. 2018. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  14. ^ "Stephen Pinker's case for optimism". The Economist. 2018. Retrieved 23 February 2018.
  15. ^ Frazier, Kendrick (May–June 2018). "Why We Can't Acknowledge Progress". Skeptical Inquirer. 42 (3): 4.
  16. ^ Mondor, C. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Booklist, (9-10). 20.
  17. ^ Goldin, Ian (16 February 2018). "The limitations of Steven Pinker's optimism". doi:10.1038/d41586-018-02148-1. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  18. ^ McDonagh, Melanie. "Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker - review: 'The human condition is a little more complex than Mr Cheerful makes out'" Evening Standard, February 15, 2018.
  19. ^ Frim, Landon; Fluss, Harrison (October 10, 2018). "Steven Pinker: False Friend of the Enlightenment". Jacobin. Retrieved October 10, 2018.

External links[edit]