Waiting for Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment

Waiting for Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment

The PowerPoint Philosophe

Waiting for Steven Pinker’s enlightenment.


Is Steven Pinker a modern Enlightenment philosophe? In some ways, the comparison seems reasonable. Like the French philosophes, but unlike most contemporary intellectuals, Pinker writes with enthusiasm about a wide range of human knowledge, from the humanities to the social sciences to physics and biology. He is himself an eminent experimental psychologist. Like the philosophes, but again unlike most contemporary intellectuals, he knows how to appeal to a broad general audience. Enlightenment Now is only the most recent of his best sellers, following on the heels of his defense of evolutionary psychology in The Blank Slate and his argument that we are witnessing a centuries-long decrease of human violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

But as Enlightenment Now clearly shows, Steven Pinker is no philosophe. The great writers of the Enlightenment, contrary to the way they are often caricatured, were mostly skeptics at heart. They had a taste for irony, an appreciation of paradox, and took delight in wit. They appreciated complexity, rarely shied away from difficulty, and generally had a deep respect for the learning of those who had preceded them.

Enlightenment Now has few of these qualities. It is a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history and a starkly technocratic prescription for the human future. It also gives readers the spectacle of a professor at one of the world’s great universities treating serious thinkers with populist contempt. The genre it most closely resembles, with its breezy style, bite-size chapters, and impressive visuals, is not 18th-century philosophie so much as a genre in which Pinker has had copious experience: the TED Talk (although in this case, judging by the book’s audio version, a TED Talk that lasts 20 hours).

Like a TED Talk, Enlightenment Now is easy to summarize. Despite all the doom and gloom bandied about today, Pinker argues, things are good—in fact, the best they’ve ever been. More specifically, human beings today lead longer, safer, healthier, wealthier, and indeed happier lives than at any point in recorded history, and they do so thanks to the Enlightenment. The nay-saying that is so prevalent in our culture is simply an error, the product of cognitive biases compounded by the influence of foolish intellectuals and ignorant politicians.

It is not entirely clear what Pinker means by “the Enlightenment.” At one point he calls it “a cornucopia of ideas, some of them contradictory,” but at another a coherent “project.” He locates it in the last two-thirds of the 18th century but makes little reference to the actual thinkers and writers of the period. Instead, he points to four “themes” that he highlights in his book’s subtitle: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Some of these terms he defines very broadly: Science is “the refining of reason to understand the world.” But by “humanism” Pinker essentially means a rigid, Richard Dawkins–style atheism. He calls a belief in the existence of an immaterial soul “factually dubious and morally dangerous.”

But the book isn’t really about such definitions. Pinker devotes two-thirds of Enlightenment Now to surveying the stupendous advancements that the human race has made in modern times according to a dizzying range of metrics: life expectancy, hate crimes, famine deaths, leisure time, nuclear proliferation, pollution, democracy, human rights, “liberal values,” literacy, levels of extreme poverty, “life satisfaction,” and much, much more. He previewed some of this material in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), in which he argued that the world has seen a decline in violence and war, but now he’s attempting to generalize about virtually all of modern existence, complete with more than six dozen charts to visualize his flood of data. “The Enlightenment has worked—perhaps the greatest story seldom told,” Pinker proclaims. We still face many challenges, he continues, but if we trust scientific experts, we can overcome them.

To be fair, Pinker is right that much good news today tends to be underreported, even unreported. Most Americans probably don’t realize that rates of extreme poverty worldwide have fallen over the past few decades, along with the worldwide rates of battle deaths and deaths from infectious disease. Pinker is also right that many prominent observers in the past grossly underestimated the ability of the human race to extract more resources from the environment and grossly overestimated the odds of imminent apocalypse. He quotes, to comic effect, a long string of mid-20th-century Cassandras who confidently predicted that civilization would come to an end long before now thanks to nuclear war, overpopulation, or environmental catastrophe. (Of course, one could also point to a long string of intellectuals, from the Enlightenment onward, who predicted the imminent arrival of paradise upon earth—but no matter.) And he is right that even if some of the predicted disasters do come to pass, humanity will probably not be reduced to fighting for survival in a Mad Max–style dystopia. “Even Hiroshima continues to exist,” he points out, though the statement is not quite as comforting as he seems to think.

If Pinker had simply made these points, Enlightenment Now would have its uses. But he wraps his arguments up in such a thick layer of exaggeration and misinterpretation that the book does more harm than good. It makes use of selective data, dubious history, and, when all else fails, a contempt for “intellectuals” straight out of Breitbart. Pinker might not have intended the book to do so, but it will bolster the claims of populist politicians against intellectuals and movements for social justice while justifying misguided, coldhearted policy choices in the name of supposedly irrefutable scientific rationality.

Let’s start with the exaggerations. For all of Pinker’s apparently exhaustive command of statistics, the situation of humanity is hardly as rosy as he claims. The number of refugees worldwide, for instance, has climbed vertiginously over the past few decades, and is now approaching levels not seen since World War II. Pinker dismisses concerns about rising economic inequality with the blithe assertion that inequality matters less than actual levels of income and comfort. He barely raises the question of what it might mean for a society to have the lion’s share of its economic resources and power concentrated in a tiny number of super-wealthy hands. He acknowledges only in passing that real wages in the United States and many other economically advanced countries have stagnated for several decades, and he has even less to say about the increasing precariousness of employment for millions of workers.

Pinker uses IQ tests—whose biases, especially with regard to data from the early 20th century, are well-known—to make this incredible statement: “An average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards.” He spends considerable time pronouncing about the state of contemporary democracy and liberalism, claiming that two-thirds of the world’s population now lives in “free or relatively free societies.” But he takes his data here from a source that gives Hungary and Poland perfect scores and counts Russia as more democratic than not. Most experts on Russia would argue that it has grown more repressive over the past two decades. The same is true of China, an even larger and more powerful country.

But even if we grant that in many domains human life has indeed improved enormously over the past two centuries, there remains a simple question: Can we count on the progress continuing? What, for instance, about climate change? Pinker is no climate-change denier, and admits that “the challenge is daunting.” But then he quickly pivots from his position that things are getting better and better to say that we can avoid the looming doom if only we start taxing carbon emissions, increase the use of nuclear power, and engage in deliberate climate engineering to lower global temperatures.

He largely disregards the fact that the political will to move in any of these directions is wholly lacking and will remain so as long as the party that controls the White House and Congress refuses to admit that a problem even exists. When it comes to his favored technological solution, nuclear power, Pinker also seems determined to ignore the problem that the people who manage plants do not always follow their own safety procedures and cannot plan for every possible natural disaster (as Fukushima showed all too dramatically). The industry, he insists, has learned from its mistakes. But has it?

Then there is the matter of Pinker’s version of history. Why did the indisputable improvements of the past several centuries take place? What does it mean to attribute them to “the Enlightenment”? In his account of progress, Pinker singles out for particular praise the inventors of vaccines, the developers of chemical fertilizer (two of whom “saved the greatest number of lives in history, with 2.7 billion”), and the “unsung cadre of inventors, engineers, policy wonks and number-crunchers” who have made daily life safer. Occasionally he also invokes “paternalistic legislators” and “humanistic moral campaigns,” and he gives a quick shout-out to Nobel Peace Prize winners like Malala Yousafzai. But when it comes to issues like “democracy” and “equal rights,” Pinker seems to believe that progress has occurred almost by itself, as a result of whole populations spontaneously turning more enlightened and tolerant. “There really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” he writes. Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes. The arc bending toward justice is no mystery: It bends because people force it to bend.

Pinker’s history is just as problematic when it comes to the Enlightenment itself. Since he does not engage in any serious analysis of Enlightenment authors, he avoids having to contend seriously with the awkward fact that by far the most popular of them, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a fierce critic of most forms of progress, and that Denis Diderot, the editor of its single most important publication, the Encyclopédie, had some pretty severe doubts about the subject as well (read his “Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville”).

Pinker might also have to concede that, especially outside of France, most Enlightenment thinkers did not oppose reason to religious faith, as his book implies. They certainly did not consider forms of belief “generators of delusions” or consider a belief in the existence of the soul dangerous. He might have to admit that it was not just brave atheists, but devout Christians, above all Quakers, who were among the first who organized to fight the most barbaric European practice of all, namely slavery.

Historians know that there was in fact no single, monolithic “Enlightenment project,” and that the Enlightenment can be generalized about only with great caution. Throwing this caution to the wind, Pinker has taken his own 21st-century values and projected them back onto the intellectual scene of the 18th century. He has described his work as an “evidence-based take on history,” but by “evidence” he clearly means numerical data. Aren’t books evidence as well?

Meanwhile, Pinker fails to acknowledge how very closely his own radical optimism echoes some of the wilder—and more misguided—pronouncements about the human future from the Enlightenment itself. “The human species…is capable of…unbounded improvement…mankind in a later age are greatly superior to mankind in a former age.” This is not Pinker, but Joseph Priestley, writing in 1771. “No bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties…the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite.” This time, the words come from the Marquis de Condorcet, in 1793–94. Even as Rousseau denounced progress, and Diderot and Voltaire cast a skeptical eye toward it, many other philosophes confidently predicted the end of war, the eradication of disease, and the worldwide spread of liberty. That few of these things have been fully realized after more than two centuries should, perhaps, have given Pinker pause. So, too, should the enormous spread of imperialism, the exploitation of indigenous peoples around the globe, the slaughter of world wars, the Holocaust, atomic weapons, and anthropogenic climate change, all of which followed the Enlightenment. A few months after writing his paean to human perfectibility, Condorcet committed suicide in prison during the Reign of Terror.

Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.

Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted. Again, progress did not just occur because the ideals of the Enlightenment mysteriously percolated out through society. It occurred because men and women fought, and sometimes died, for progressive moral values.

It is the critics of science who most greatly annoy Pinker, and they drive him to the sort of populist anti-intellectualism more usually found on Fox News than at Harvard University. “Intellectuals hate progress,” he declares, apparently forgetting about the many generations of socialist and liberal intellectuals who could more easily be accused of fetishizing it. “A loathing of industry has been a sacred value of…literary intellectuals,” he continues, disregarding those many writers and artists whose hearts leapt at the sight of Soviet smokestacks. And he repeatedly accuses “intellectuals” of treating the ideals of the Enlightenment “with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt,” as if a long, long tradition of intellectuals, from the 18th century to figures like Jürgen Habermas, had not devoted their careers to defending those ideals.

But Pinker is not exactly reliable when it comes to the intellectuals and their ideas. He takes as his guide to intellectual pessimism a book titled The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman, a far-right author whose most well-known book is a rapturously favorable biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Pinker credits Friedrich Nietzsche with the idea that “all statements are paradoxical” and that “works of art are tools of oppression,” raising the question of whether he has actually read Nietzsche or just relied on the summaries by Herman and others. (He also dismisses Nietzsche as “repellent and incoherent.”) Pinker rightly criticizes those who issue blanket condemnations of modern science without bothering to understand it. But he himself has not taken the trouble to understand serious and difficult writers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, since he lumps them together into the “disaster of postmodernism” and seems to think that their work can simply be reduced to a “relativist” denial of truth.

It is true that intellectuals, like journalists, tend to pay more attention to bad news than to good. They do so in part, Pinker argues, because of a sort of cognitive malfunction. Here, he relies on the psychological concepts of “Availability bias” and “Negativity bias,” which hold that people judge events to be more probable if more instances of them come to mind, and that negative events and ideas have a deeper psychological impact than positive ones. But this very strategy of Pinker’s shows how greatly he has misconstrued what journalists and intellectuals actually do. One of their prime responsibilities, after all, is to identify problems, abuses, and threats, to help the public and policy-makers understand them, and to search for solutions. If one chemical factory dumps dangerous waste products into the water supply while a hundred others obey environmental regulations, it is not “Negativity bias” to give that one offender the lion’s share of the coverage. And if this coverage then gives readers the impression that the problem is more widespread than it actually is, the “bias” might still have useful consequences. It might, for instance, encourage the formation of citizens’ groups to monitor the chemical industry and prevent further abuses. Running a story proclaiming that 99 percent of the chemical factories are doing just fine, on the other hand, might just encourage some factories to start skimping on their own observance of regulations.

Given Pinker’s scorn for intellectuals and disregard of social movements, it is no surprise that his politics, and his hopes for the future, can best be summed up as technocratic neoliberalism. He puts his trust in free markets and the guidance of enlightened scientists and moguls (is it really a surprise that Bill Gates calls Enlightenment Now “my new favorite book of all time”?). Let the rich get very, very rich, as long as everyone else’s income is rising, and don’t worry about the power they may be accumulating in the process. And when it comes to public policy, trust an expert class that proclaims its allegiance to science and progress alone and believes it is beyond politics. “To make public discourse more rational,” Pinker proclaims, “issues should be depoliticized as much as is feasible.”

If protesters start to march and shout in the streets, calling for politicians to respect the will of the people, then what is called for is “effective training in critical thinking and cognitive debiasing” so the people will respect the will of the experts. And, Pinker continues, “When people with die-hard opinions on Obamacare or NAFTA are challenged to explain what those policies actually are, they soon realize that they don’t know what they are talking about, and become more open to counterarguments.” It’s a revealing sentence. Why do people with “die-hard opinions” not know what they are talking about? Are the “experts” always right?

Enlightenment Now is not a book that deserves a wide readership, but much like Dan Brown’s new novel, Origin, piles of it loom wherever books are sold. Oddly, Enlightenment Now has several points in common with Origin. They both, for instance, have long, windy passages musing about the relationship of the second law of thermodynamics to the meaning of life. Brown, riffing on the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Jeremy England, proposes that life is “the inevitable result of entropy. Life is not the point of the universe. Life is simply what the universe creates and reproduces in order to dissipate energy.” Pinker, alternately, believes that the “ultimate purpose of life” is “to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy.” The principal male characters in Origin are a wise Harvard professor and a farseeing tech mogul, and the climax is a TED Talk–like lecture in which the mogul reveals the destiny of the human race. But while Origin does little more than provide transient entertainment, Enlightenment Now may well have real influence.

In a 2004 profile, Time magazine suggested that Steven Pinker “crystallizes an intellectual era.” Fourteen years later, what Pinker has actually crystallized in books like Enlightenment Now is our anti-intellectual era, one in which data and code are all too often held to trump serious critical reasoning and the wealth of the humanistic tradition and of morally driven activism is dismissed in favor of supposedly impartial scientific and technological expertise. These attitudes in no sense stem from the great movement of thought of 18th-century Europe. They are not “progress,” as the philosophes understood the term. The philosophes, in fact, would have condemned them. They are not enlightened. They are benighted.

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