Enlightenment Now

The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

[Amazon Link]

As I'm sure I've mentioned before: I'll read anything that comes of Steven Pinker's keyboard. Fanboy here. Despite the fact that I am now ElderlyOnAFixedIncome, I sprang for the dead-trees hardcover at Amazon.

This book consists of two main themes: first, it's sort of a sequel to Pinker's 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I reported on here). The positive worldwide trends he reported in that book continue: our Collective Statistics continue to improve, we're living longer, healthier, wealthier, safer, smarter lives, increasingly free of violence, pollution, and despotic governance. What's not to like?

The second theme, which I think he hits more strongly here than he did in Better Angels, is when he describes the likely causes and possible future of such progress. Basically, he sees our Enlightened history as a long process of shucking off the chains of tribalism and superstition. And our future progress depends on continuing that trend, and embracing an (explicitly atheistic) humanism. And, oh yeah, he despises Donald Trump. And Republicans, generally.

Pinker is a very good science writer, one of the best popularizers. But when he wanders outside of his professional fields of psychology, linguistics, and cognition, he can seem more than a little glib. When he gets into the philosophical/political/economic realm—as he does here, to I think a greater extent than in previous books—he manages to appear both strident and simplistic. (For example, he rails against "populism", but it becomes clear that he's using that term to mean "political positions I don't like". Fine, I don't like most of 'em either, but your terminology is non-standard, Steve.)

To be fair, I think Pinker can be an equal-opportunity offender: he has zero patience with left-wing PC Progressivism when it serves the forces of irrationality, intolerance, ignorance, and global pessimism. As a result he's been smeared by (some) leftists. So good on him for that.

But he seems to have his own faith. He's a big believer in "problem solving". As if the divisive issues confronting us were simply more advanced versions of the end-of-chapter exercises in math textbooks. Hey, just plug the numbers into the formulas, and they'll tell us technocrats what to do, and we'll just make that happen! There are no trade-offs.

While he gives lip service to "the freedom of people to screw up their own lives" (p. 344), it's unclear what that implies. He never seems to come to grips with it. Frustrating to those of us with libertarian sensibilities.

Added later that same day: Tyler Cowen calls this review ("Why Steven Pinker is Wrong") "one of the very best". I think we're in agreement: read Pinker, but don't take his philosophical/historic musings as gospel (heh).

Last Modified 2018-03-03 5:46 PM EST