Thursday, March 8, 2018

Enlightenment Now: A Book Review


Every morning I get the New York Times’ ‘morning briefing’ in my inbox, waiting there patiently, until I have had my first cup of coffee and am as ready as I can be, to brace the calamities of the day’s news.

Some of today’s headlines read: Trump imposes tariffs on steel and aluminium imports. Hope Hicks resigns after testifying for 8 hours before the House Intelligence Committee. Nepotism rampant in the White House. Freezing temperatures caused by a weakening polar vortex are battering Europe. Putin is threatening Western nations with a new generation of nuclear weapons.

And those are just the main points. It doesn’t say how many people were shot, how many children didn’t have enough to eat, how long Medicare will survive or whether access to birth control will be made more difficult.

The only thing that gives me hope, is that we, the people can still disagree, gripe, bitch, whine and kick up a fuss about how we are governed. but does that make an iota of difference? Does it decrease poverty, crime and corruption? Does it make us progress?

In ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress’, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, shows that we are, indeed, making progress, regardless of what the New York Times tells us.

Pinker's clear intention is to take the wind out of every imaginable argument against the case for human progress. To me, reading this book felt like a breath of fresh air. Is he too optimistic? Many people think so, including social philosopher John Gray, whom Pinker calls a progressophobe.
In the chapter ‘Entro, Evo, Info’ (for entropy, evolution and information), he uses entropy, as the most salient anti-progress force in nature. There are so many more ways to fight progress than to advance it. It doesn’t take any energy to leave bacteria free to infect people, but it takes an enormous amount of concentrated energy to fight infections. So, in a way, progress is an anomaly in nature.

But then Evo comes along (evolution) and through natural selection helps the human species survive, especially by giving it the capacity to acquire Info (information).

DEMOCRACY: Pinker’s definition of democracy is brilliant. He sees it as ‘trying to steer a course between the chaos of anarchy and the violence of tyranny’. Of course, there is more to democracy than that one simple sentence, but like Churchill said: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ And to add weight to his case, Pinker shows that over the past century, the count of democratic countries went from 29 to 103!

The death penalty is the ultimate example of government power over its citizens, i.e. its ability to take someone’s life. In the Middle Ages the death penalty was used as a generalized form of punishment, including stealing or deviant sexual behavior. Today, of the 198 countries in the world, 58 of them still have the death penalty, but just four countries considered to be industrialized still execute criminals: the US, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. I would call that progress, wouldn't you?

One of the reasons progress is often unrecognized, is that it has a tendency to erase its own tracks. Once slavery becomes illegal, once women acquire the right to vote and child labor is no longer permitted, people slowly take these advances for granted. It is impossible for our society to re-instate slavery or take away women’s right to vote. The sacrifices that were made to acquire those rights are forgotten and we take those rights for granted, like expecting the sun to come up tomorrow.

KNOWLEDGE: Pinker explains that not only do we know more today than yesterday, but we are also smarter. It is hard for me to imagine that I am smarter than my grandmother who spoke 11 languages, translated from most of them and published numerous books. Just because I was born two generations later? But Pinker is not one to be sidetracked by individual details. The wealth of statistical tables in his book shows that he looks at the ‘big picture’, maybe ignoring the exceptions that might weaken his ultimate argument. This book is an all-out war on the unbeliever, the skeptic, the pessimist and if it takes putting blinders on for the personal and individual exceptions, so be it.

INEQUALITY: As I was reading the chapter on Inequality, I couldn’t help but wonder if his easy dismissal of the corrosive effects of inequality on our society was worthy of his formidable mind. Yes, Americans are better off than a century ago, and so are the poor, relatively speaking. But that fact doesn't help the millions who cannot afford health insurance or have to beg for a handout to feed their children.

QUALITY OF LIFE: Until not so long ago, there was no such thing as retirement and paid vacation was unheard of. In fact, progress has given us time and light. Time because we now have dishwashers and washing machines, and light because half of our time doesn’t have to be spent in the dark.

Some progressophobes argue that once our basic needs are met - food, shelter and safety, all that extra affluence only encourages shallow consumerism. Especially the intellectual elite has warned against the empty life of the petty bourgeois. But here Pinker harnesses the help of philosophers like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, whose ‘Capabilities Approach’ is a good description of what quality of life really is all about. Life itself, health, education, freedom and yes, leisure, are all human capabilities and they should be valued in their own right.

He admits that Populism and Authoritarianism are on the rise, but whether this is temporary or permanent, he cannot say, since he is not clairvoyant. As Yogi Berra once said: “it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

REASON, SCIENCE AND HUMANISM: One thing he is sure of: the solution can only be found in reason, science and humanism. Pinker demolishes the anti-reason argument with clear logic: being against reason refutes itself. If there is no such thing as reason, than that statement is unreasonable. Reality and the selection process itself are enough reasons to believe in reason. If you insist that the tiger chasing you is  a cute little kitten, your chances of survival are substantially reduced.

Finally, Pinker argues for a morality based on Humanism rather than on faith. Again, he turns to Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Capabilities Approach’. The right to life is self-evident, since you cannot talk about morality if you are dead. But all the other capabilities that are on her list and that progressophobes consider ‘non-essentials’, such as rationality, pleasure, comfort, curiosity, beauty, stimulation, love and sex are all necessary, since they are the links in a chain that allowed human minds to come into existence. If people didn’t seek to realize those capabilities, they wouldn't be people.

Pinker ends his book with these words: ‘The story of human progress is truly heroic. We are born into a pitiless universe, in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, and at times astounding stupidity.’

Yet human nature also has the power of reason and if you believe that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, freedom is better than coercion and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance, then you believe in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment ideas are not the natural state of affairs, they are hard-won and should be cherished and protected both by us and future generations.

So the next time you feel like committing Harakiri after reading your NYT morning brief, take a step back and remind yourself that we have made (a lot) of progress and that we will continue to do so. leave comment here