"Fear will not leave. / Assurances never suffice. / Invite fear to dance." – John Paul Lederach
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Steven Pinker, Viking 2018
Review by Wayne Dodge.
Steven Pinker is a psychologist at Harvard who studies cognition, language, and social relations. He is also the author of recent best sellers like The Better Angels of Our Nature (which covers similar material as this book – basically showing that humanity is not in a terrible spin into chaos, despite daily news cycles, but is consistently improving) and The Sense of Style (which discusses language at its core). He is committed to Reason (in a reasoning way) and Science and this book is his strongly persuasive text that you should consider being so committed as well.
This book is long (453 pages of text with an additional 100 pages of notes, bibliography and index) and jam-packed with information from the psychology, sociology, economic and neuroscience literature. Yet it is NOT a dull read – just dense. And the rewards of a read are great.
Some of the ideas that caught my attention while reading include:
- “Thought experiments suggested by [Amos] Tversky. How much better can you imagine yourself feeling then you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling? In answering the first hypothetical, most of us can imagine a bit more of a spring in our step or a twinkle in our eye, but the answer to the second one is: it’s bottomless" (p. 47). This explains much of the Eeyore-ness of life – and a major impediment to being ‘happy’ (Pinker devotes an entire chapter to the topic of happiness).
- “The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.) One exception to the Negativity bias is found in autobiographical memory. [...] We are wired for nostalgia: in human memory, time heals most wounds. Two other illusions mislead us into thinking that things ain't what they used to be: we mistake the growing burdens of maturity and parenthood for a less innocent world, and we mistake a decline in our own faculties for a decline in the times” (p. 48). This is not new information to me – but Pinker highlights this process so well that I have deeper understanding of this ‘normal’ process that has shaped so much of my view of my own life.
- Pinker reports data that challenges the current belief that our attachments to electronic media are the cause of increased loneliness – and even the assumption that Westerners have been getting more lonely over the past decades. According to data quoted by Pinker, the amount of loneliness in the US student population has decreased between 1978 and 2011 on a consistent basis.
- I really enjoyed the concept of ‘blue lies’. A white lie is told for the benefit of the hearer; a blue lie is told for the benefit of an in-group (originally, fellow police officers). So much of what is currently happening in politics (of all shades) and society has been blue lies. This slime(the use of a partial truth to create some favorable outcome for myself – Pinker doesn’t use the term, but I think it fits) is nothing new – but the proportion of slime in the general discourse appears to be greater. Pinker’s plea is to use Reason as a protector against these.
- Which would include for Pinker the subjecting of various pundits, op-ed writers, new ‘personalities’ to empirical tests about the outcomes of their opinions and predictions. Any commentator who has been around for more than five years or so should have enough of a track record to do such testing.
- Pinker also takes on – in an excellent discussion – the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. “In the end I still think that the hard problem is a meaningful conceptual problem, but agree with Dennett that it is not a meaningful scientific problem.”
This is only a small sampling of the issues that Pinker takes on – and illuminates – including: Progressophobia (the fear of progressive change), Life, Health, Sustenance, Wealth, Inequality, The Environment, Peace, Safety, Terrorism, Democracy, Equal Rights, Knowledge, Quality of Life, Happiness, Existential Threats, and The Future of Progress. He is not without courage.
I think you can tell that I’m enamored of this book and its writer. I would encourage expending the effort to read it – and encourage any book groups to engage with the ideas Pinker proposes. It's something of a New Horizons Phase III experience in a book!