Making the case for the importance of reason
In 2011, Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker published “The Better Angels of Our Nature,’’ a massive book arguing that, over time, the world has become a less violent place for humans to inhabit. His new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,’’ somewhat less massive but still formidable, builds on the themes of that earlier one and broadens them, retaining the essential quality of optimism about human progress. An important tenet of “Better Angels’’ was that the decline in all sorts of violence, from domestic to state-supported, could be attributed to the growing influence of reason. This insight moves to the center of the new book, which attributes Enlightenment values of rationality to improvements in all the things that make life worth living: health, peace, and safety leading to increasing longevity; prosperity; freedom; education; and, best of all, a Pinkeresque optimism that humans can solve the greatest problems facing them.
Pinker learned from the reactions to “Better Angels’’ that pessimism is a difficult worldview to take on. In this new book, he blames intellectuals for thinking that skepticism makes them seem more serious, journalists for valuing bad news over good, and he concludes that the public at large suffers from “progressophobia.”
As a social scientist, and a successful one, Pinker is dedicated to the proposition that various aspects of progress can be measured, and some 75 graphs show dramatic swoops downward for subjects such as child mortality and age of retirement and upward for per-capita GDP, IQ, international travel, and so forth. The book is also densely argued and heavily referenced — the sheer amount of information that Pinker has mined and marshaled is mind-boggling and somewhat exhausting. He has also delved in a serious way into dozens of fields beyond his own: philosophy, economics, physics and other hard sciences, and public policy, to name a few. As a demonstration of the value of reason, knowledge, and curiosity, “Enlightenment Now’’ can hardly be bettered.
Pinker’s subtitle makes clear that this is a book of argument. As an advocate for rational discourse, then, he might be expected to make his case modestly if forcefully, take seriously views different from his own, admit that the same data can be read in more than one way, and point out that knowledge tends to be provisional and subject to change. Pinker indeed does all these things at various times in the book.
But a countervailing tone is also evident in “Enlightenment Now,’’ one of brash certainty and overstatement; of contempt for those he considers anti-rationalists, such as people of faith; and of sneering dismissal of those he might be likeliest to win over with his argument, such as intellectuals, essayists, critics, and journalists. Early on, he writes of two “shockers”: “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being” and “Almost no one knows about it.” And in similarly overbearing fashion:
“The traditional causes of belief — faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, hermeneutic parsing of texts, the glow of subjective certainty — are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.’’
Or, most succinctly, “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.”
Such pronunciamentos raise the question of whom this book is intended to persuade. If they are meant only to give comfort to the likeminded, then that seems a sadly modest goal for Pinker’s extraordinary and commendable labor. If the book seeks to bring into his camp those who are skeptical that science has all the answers or who believe in subjective paths to knowledge (poetry, say), how does failing to seriously engage them achieve this goal? And most obvious, if he hopes to make any sort of dent in the still vast (if declining, as his statistics point out) number of Americans who profess to being deeply religious, then a statement like “there is no good reason to believe that God exists,” even leaving aside whether it is true, does not get you very far.
For Pinker, the fallacy of religious faith leaves the question, “Can we really have good without God?” — or what is the basis for morality without the laws of religion and the threat of eternal damnation? His answer is the movement called Humanism, which has its own manifesto that encourages us to behave well towards each other because we are all in the same boat and to derive meaning from what we share as humans and from making the world a more congenial place for others. As for ultimate questions that grow out of the tussle between faith and reason, such as where does the universe come from or what is the source of consciousness, Pinker seems confident that science will eventually solve the former and somewhat punts on the latter, conceding that the “last dollop” in a theory of consciousness “may have to be stipulated as a fact about reality where explanation stops.” So we will have to take it on faith?
“Enlightenment Now’’ leads inevitably to the battle between science and the humanities. As Pinker quite rightly points out, “The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness.” He suggests that science could help save the liberal arts, at least on campus, and that a “Third Culture” to combine C. P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures, or the theory of consilience of Pinker’s eminent colleague at Harvard, E. O. Wilson, which seeks to unify all human knowledge, is the way forward. As a first step, the skepticism about science that Pinker detects in many people in the liberal arts might have begun to be allayed had Pinker given more than lip service to their forms of intellectual inquiry, not to mention to the arts themselves.
“Enlightenment Now’’ is a valuable if at times an irritating book, but if you’re looking for an argument for consilience that weighs in at under 500 pages, I’d suggest John Keats:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, 556 pp., illustrated, $35
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Robert Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar. His biography of P. T. Barnum will appear in the fall.