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Is Ours the Best World Ever?

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment

Someone keeping up with high intellectual culture in the twenty-eight years from 1748 to 1776 could have read as they appeared Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, the first volumes of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Émile, Beccaia’s On Crimes and Punishment, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Those years were the center of the roughly one-hundred-year explosion of ideas that we call the Enlightenment. Almost everyone agrees that the Enlightenment’s questioning of established intellectual, religious, and political authorities has a great deal to do with the nature of the new “liberal” world that began in Europe and America and is still, sometimes fitfully, spreading across the globe. From the beginning, fervent supporters and opponents have contested its merits—not always just in words.

Steven Pinker’s view is unambiguous: the Enlightenment is the best thing that ever happened to humankind. He understands the Enlightenment in terms of two commitments: first, an ethical and political commitment to equal rights and opportunities for all (as opposed to privileging elites) and, second, a cognitive commitment to reason and science (as opposed to authorities such as tradition and faith) as the best way to understand our world and ourselves. Over the course of just two centuries, he maintains, these commitments have produced a far better world than any before, and they hold the best promise of overcoming both present and future obstacles to human flourishing. Pinker deplores the fact that so many today don’t agree with his assessment, and Enlightenment Now is his passionate and persistent effort to convince anyone willing to listen. 

He begins with a barrage of data showing that, by just about any measure available, things have gotten enormously better as Enlightenment ideas have come to shape the modern world. Average life expectancy, stuck for millennia around thirty years, began increasing in the nineteenth century and now stands at around seventy worldwide; the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent in the early nineteenth century to under 10 percent today; world literacy has risen from about 10 percent in the early nineteenth century to over 80 percent today; homicide rates per 100,000 people in Europe have decreased from twenty to sixty in 1300 to low single digits today. Naysayers may cite the deaths, destruction, and moral depravity so prominent in daily news headlines; but Pinker rightly reminds us that the news cycle highlights dramatic evils precisely because they stand out against a much larger background of commonplace goods. To get an accurate picture, we need to look at the dominant trends over long periods, where it becomes clear that we are lucky to live in such a relatively safe and prosperous time.   

A more serious objection notes that Pinker’s many graphs (“jaw-dropping” the blurb tells us) often track not the actual number of terrible events—which often grow larger as population increases—but the percentage of such events relative to the population. World War II, for example, killed 55 million people, far more than any previous war, but the ratio of deaths to total population was smaller, and so by Pinker’s reckoning, an improvement. Pinker can defend his approach on the grounds that what matters is our living in a much safer world. Critics can grant this but note that technology inspired by the Enlightenment has, in some important respects, made it much easier to kill large numbers of people.

What good are all our modern health, wealth, and safety if we aren’t living happier lives?

In any case, Pinker’s argument falters when he comes to the crucial question of happiness. What good are all our modern health, wealth, and safety if we aren’t living happier lives? Pinker is confident that psychologists can measure happiness just by asking people—either in surveys (“On a scale of 1-7, how satisfied are you with your life overall?”) or in real-time responses to a beeper signal (“How happy do you feel right now?”). Of course, such methodologies ignore the ease with which we can deceive ourselves about how happy we are and, especially, the extent to which we aren’t sure what real happiness would be. More generally, they ignore any aspects of a phenomenon that fall outside the idealizations needed for rigorous empirical analysis. But even waving such difficulties, it turns out that there aren’t good data about how happy people have been over the ages. Pinker can only display graphs showing increases in reported happiness in most countries over the last thirty years. (But even so, the United States is an outlier and, he admits, “hasn’t gotten systematically happier over the years”.)

As a result, Pinker has to retreat to an argument based on the correlation between wealth and happiness: “we now know that richer people within a country are happier, that richer counties are happier, and that people get happier as their countries get richer (which means that people get happier over time).” But even if people in, say, medieval or early modern times got happier over the years, it doesn’t follow that their absolute felicity at any given time was lower than ours. In particular, they may, despite relative poverty and other material lacks, have had a much stronger sense of leading meaningful lives, perhaps due to religious belief and sustaining social values. Pinker finesses this last point by presenting happiness and meaning as separate components of a “good life,” in the sense, he says, of Aristotle’s eudaimonia.  But given this distinction, Pinker should make the good life rather than the merely happy life the standard for evaluating societies overall. Since he offers no evidence that life in our world is sufficiently meaningful to outrank life in earlier times, his case for a decisive improvement in human life over time grinds to a halt— particularly given the Enlightenment’s penchant for undermining traditional sources of meaning.

But the greatest challenge to Pinker’s picture is the new possibilities of global catastrophe produced by modern technological progress. He spends too much time deflating dubious speculations (the Y2K panic, human enslavement by evil robots, a takeover of our computers by a maniacal hacker) before he turns to the serious present threats of human-induced climate change and of nuclear warfare. He offers a careful analysis of the climate issue, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation, but arguing that the direst projections may be very unlikely and that, for less desperate scenarios, we may find technologies for mitigating the worst effects. This is not an especially consoling analysis, but Pinker’s response to the nuclear threat is even less reassuring. He admits that levels of nuclear armament well below current levels would still risk annihilation in a nuclear war, noting, however, that we’ve managed to avoid such a war for over seventy years. But in the end he has to admit that the probability of future nuclear annihilation is “disconcertingly greater than zero” and can only suggest possible paths to nuclear disarmament that currently have little promise of success. So even if we agree that the Enlightenment’s scientific advances have so far produced a much better world, it’s not clear that this is anything more than the calm before a cataclysmic storm.

The reservations I’ve expressed so far do not alter the fact that Pinker has developed an impressive positive case for the Enlightenment, one that any critic needs to take seriously. He keeps to his admirable goal—so often ignored in popular polemical writing—of presenting “arguments to people who care about arguments.” Unfortunately, he falls far short of this goal in dealing with religious and philosophical opponents. 

Even if we agree that the Enlightenment’s scientific advances have so far produced a much better world, it’s not clear that this is anything more than the calm before a cataclysmic storm.

On religion, Pinker is in the camp of the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, et al.), holding that “the findings of science imply that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions . . . are factually mistaken” and that “the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.” Pinker is aware that thoughtful believers have responded to scientific challenges, but he allows no middle ground between anti-intellectual fundamentalism and a “benign hypocrisy” that uses “rabbinical pilpul and Jesuitical disputation that allegorizes, compartmentalizes, and spin-doctors the nasty bits of scripture” to provide cover for “Cultural Jews, Cafeteria Catholics, and CINOs (Christians-in-name-only).”

Specifically, he disallows any intellectual basis for religion other than science, rejecting suggestions that there could be an autonomous domain of religious knowledge (à la Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” view) or even a distinction between the empirical issues treated by science and “moral or conceptual issues” that require philosophical thinking. The latter distinction seems both obvious and important, but Pinker will have none of it. It falls, he says, into “a logical error, by confusing propositions with academic disciplines.”  He agrees that “an empirical proposition is not the same as a logical one, and both must be distinguished from normative or moral claims.” But, he insists, this doesn’t entail that “scientists are under a gag order forbidding them to discuss conceptual and moral issues any more than philosophers should keep their mouths shut about the physical world”. True enough, though I’m sure Pinker would insist that philosophers who make factual claims about the physical world need to be well versed in the best available scientific discussions. But, similarly, scientists who take up conceptual and normative questions need to be aware of the state-of-the-art in philosophical discussions of the relevant issues. 

In fact, many of Pinker’s claims about religion are open to serious philosophical challenge.  Here are three examples.  Pinker says:

(1) “The Cosmological and Ontological Arguments are logically invalid [and] the Argument from Design refuted by Darwin.”

But there are recent sophisticated versions of these traditional arguments for God’s existence (e.g. by Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne).  These arguments do not show that it’s irrational to be an atheist, since they are based on one or more controversial assumptions (that is, assumptions a rational person could either accept or not). But it’s equally true that someone who has understood and carefully considered one of these arguments could reasonably accept its assumptions and therefore be rational in concluding that God exists.

 (2) “To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason by definition.”

But philosophers at least since Aristotle have known that we can’t avoid having beliefs for which we do not have good reasons. If every belief requires a good reason, then every good reason will require another good reason—and we’re on our way to an infinite regress. Further, recent epistemological discussions (e.g. by William Alston and Alvin Plantinga) have shown the difficulty of specifying what sorts of belief we can properly hold without good reasons, and suggested that some religious beliefs may be among them. For example, it’s hard to see how some fundamental religious beliefs are more questionable than fundamental ethical and political beliefs.

(3) Religion’s “ethical tenets depend entirely on whether they can be justified by secular morality.” 

But philosophers such as Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor have made strong cases for the inability of secular philosophies to justify morality, and for the role religious traditions can play in grounding a reasonable commitment to morality.

I’m sure Pinker would insist that philosophers who make factual claims about the physical world need to be well versed in the best available scientific discussions

Perhaps the work of these philosophers would not hold up under close scrutiny. But Pinker cannot responsibly make claims like these without paying careful attention to such important opposing arguments. The problem is that he never discusses any of this work, and none of the authors I’ve mentioned appear in his bibliography. He even ignores the most informed and cogent popular critiques of religion by important philosophers such as Philip Kitcher and Michael Ruse—critiques that give considerably more credit to religion than do Pinker’s New Atheist polemics.

Pinker also refuses to engage seriously with the major philosophical critics of the Enlightenment such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, and Foucault. He offers a ludicrous summary of their thought, claiming that they “are morose cultural pessimists who declare that modernity is odious, all statements are paradoxical, works of art are tools of oppression, liberal democracy is the same as fascism, and Western civilization is circling the drain.” The first and last statements are just crude ways of saying that they raise serious questions about the Enlightenment, which, given their influence over many years, should make them essential targets for Pinker. In fact, except for perhaps Heidegger, all of them are best seen as Enlightenment thinkers, extending its critical project to some of the Enlightenment’s own intellectual weaknesses. Moreover, none of them would assert that all statements are paradoxical or that works of art are tools of oppression; and only Heidegger might be inclined to equate fascism with liberal democracy. But even if these crude slogans were acceptable summaries of these thinkers’ conclusions, rejecting those conclusions would require careful consideration of their detailed analyses and arguments.

Pinker does devote a few pages to refuting Nietzsche, but to very poor effect. He portrays Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi, who “argued that it’s good to be a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath.”  He bases much of his account on Bertrand Russell’s notoriously unreliable (and long outdated) A History of Western Philosophy, and on three books of intellectual history that discuss, but are not primarily concerned with, Nietzsche.  He supports his reading of Nietzsche with five quotes, with disconcerting references to “annihilation of decaying races,” the “merciless extermination of everything degenerate,” and, of course, the famous “Thou goest to women?  Do not forget thy whip.”

Three of the quotations come from a collection of fragments that Nietzsche had not organized for publication and that his sister, a fanatical Nazi sympathizer, published as The Will to Power after his death. Pinker does not mention this and doesn’t give any interpretative context for the other seemingly outrageous quotes. He simply takes them as definitive of Nietzsche’s core position and concludes that Nietzsche would have “helped inspire romantic militarism that led to the First World War and the fascism that led to the Second.” Pinker ignores the consensus of leading Nietzsche scholars (none of whom he cites) that Nietzsche was far from a proto-Nazi ideologue. Here’s an analysis from one of the best commentators on Nietzsche, Brian Leiter from the University of Chicago:

Nietzsche was no Nazi. . . . This created a lot of problems for the Nazis. They had to edit the texts quite selectively because he hated German nationalists, he hated anti-semites, he hated militarists. . . .  On the other hand, . . . Nietzsche is deeply illiberal. He does not believe in the equal worth of every person. Nietzsche thinks there are higher human beings. His favourite three examples are Goethe, Beethoven and Nietzsche himself. . . . At the heart of his critique of morality is that he thinks creative geniuses like Beethoven, had they really taken morality seriously, wouldn’t have been creative geniuses. Because to really take morality seriously is to take your altruistic obligations seriously . . . . It’s a very striking and pessimistic challenge, because the liberal post-Enlightenment vision is that we can have our liberal democratic egalitarian ethos and everyone will be able to flourish. Nietzsche thinks there’s a profound tension between the values that traditional morality holds up and the conditions necessary for creative genius.

It was very disappointing to see Pinker giving us the old discredited Nietzsche-as- Nazi, when he could have deployed his knowledge of psychology to evaluate Nietzsche’s striking challenge to Enlightenment morality.

Steven Pinker is an excellent scientist and engaging popular writer. He’s an amiable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy guide to the many empirical issues that come up in his defense of the Enlightenment. But there are, as he admits, also conceptual, logical, and normative issues. He seems to believe that a smart and good-willed person like himself can competently handle these issues without taking seriously the relevant work of philosophers and other humanists. This isn’t true, and the result is a book that, for all its merits, is as flawed as those (and there are many) by humanists who pontificate about science without really knowing what they’re talking about. 

Published in the May 4, 2018 issue: 

Gary Gutting is emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.  His most recent book is Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (Norton).

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