Rational Optimism: Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Book Author: 
Steven Pinker

Pinker is a conditional, rational optimist, not a Panglossian, about the prospects for continued global economic and moral progress. There is much we need to do, and can do, if we set our minds to it, to advance human flourishing and protect against existential threats. Besides making the rational case for science and reason itself, his book offers guidance on defending and augmenting the success we’ve achieved on multiple fronts, economic, political, and social. Hope for the human project is justified if we act on behalf of, and on the basis of, the Enlightenment ideals that Pinker argues account for our progress thus far.

With the very idea of a shared, objective reality in question, we’re fortunate that Steven Pinker offers a spirited defense of reason and science, and the progressive, humanistic fruits thereof, in his new book Enlightenment Now. Elaborating on a theme of his earlier publication, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker marshals a wealth of evidence for the proposition that globally we’ve made immense progress in just about all domains of human flourishing. He finds fault with the “progressophobes” who, he says, unreasonably deny or downplay the hard facts of our betterment over the centuries: we are as a species richer in opportunity, education, freedom, security, human rights and social equality than ever before. True, there’s a long way to go in many parts of the US and the planet to reach anything like an optimum distribution of such goods, but the arc of progress thus far is irrefutable according to the meticulously researched data Pinker presents, averaging a graph every three or four pages in the middle chapters. The writing in between is always engaging despite being so faithful to facts, the recitation of which in other hands might prove tedious. In Pinker’s it will sometimes prove discomfiting, since you’ll likely find yourself corrected in your (as it turns out) under- evidenced conclusions on one or more sensitive topics. Although he’s a (non-dogmatic, thoughtful) progressive, Pinker has plenty of admonitions for his own kind; so whether liberal or conservative, you’ve been warned.

Why would anyone dispute the fact of progress? Pinker explains that human nature being what it is, we are cognitively biased to perceive potential threats as more salient than possible gains. News outlets, pundits, and the “chattering class” pander to this bias both as a business strategy and to enhance their reputations for seriousness, thus blinding us to our own relatively good fortune. The solution, Pinker says, is to get real about numbers – to see what the research data actually say concerning war, crime, accidents, health, scarcity, overpopulation, fascism, despotism and the like. The truth is that we’re far less likely than earlier generations to succumb to any cause of premature death or disability, or suffer social and economic disadvantage. Liberals, sensitive souls they be, will usually focus on what’s still lacking, so will remain unimpressed with progress thus far. This might seem morally unexceptional, except that pessimism can undercut motivation to further improve and protect our lot. If all is going to hell, what’s the point? Ignoring the arc of human progress, therefore, is a serious liability according to Pinker: “By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers who can consolidate the tremendous progress we have enjoyed and strengthen the conditions that will bring us more.”

Although he’s largely optimistic about our prospects, even regarding climate change, nuclear war, authoritarian populism (democracy in the US will likely survive Trump) and the rise of supersmart AI (we’re not destined to become organic batteries for bots), Pinker is very much a conditional, rational optimist, not a Panglossian. There is much we need to do, and can do, if we set our minds to it, to further the cause of human flourishing and protect against looming existential threats. The book is therefore part how-to manual, offering guidance on defending and augmenting the success we’ve achieved on any number of fronts, economic, political, and social. Hope for the future is justified if we take concerted action soon.

As he sees it, the moral and material progress we’ve made is a legacy of the Enlightenment: the rise of science and efflorescence of knowledge and education, the control of nature allowing vast economic growth, the development of democratic institutions, the secularization of ethics, and the widening moral circle of human sympathies. Under the Enlightenment, there is no defensible hierarchy of human worth based on gender, race, ethnicity or any other classification, no rational basis for supposing we’re not all equally deserving of the good life, of which there is an abundance. But it needs protection, enlargement, and better allocation.

Pinker understands that there is no irreversible triumph of Enlightenment ideals we can count on, no “end of history” that terminates the struggle for universal well-being. Hence the other main mission of this book: to champion the cognitive and moral values that have made progress in human rights and economic security a reality, and that might extend it much further. Pinker enjoins us to make an unapologetic commitment to the epistemic virtues of science, empirical evidence, rational argument, self-criticality, and open-mindedness. For progressive secularists such as myself, these virtues are dead obvious, but they don’t get the airplay or explicit defense they deserve in the wider culture, what the book aims to remedy. If cultivated, they can often (not inevitably, and not without economic security) support the flowering of humanistic, “emancipatory” values that are the hallmark of social progress as many in the West understand it: personal freedom, autonomy, individuality, creativity, and political participation in an open society; all these for everyone.

It’s an interesting and open question, however, how widely Pinker’s call for reason, science, humanism and (further) progress will resonate. Can Enlightenment ideals sell – be rehabilitated among intellectual trend-setters and take root in the minds of regular folks? Can they win the day against sectarian worldviews, authoritarian populism, and romantic nationalism? The argument (necessarily “directed at people who care about arguments”) is that if we listen to reason, we’ll see that reason has an inescapable claim on us no matter where we fall on the ideological spectrum. Acquiescence to reason – admitting that one needs to justify one’s views using logic and evidence – thus constitutes, or should constitute, the common ground on which arguments can proceed. Just about everyone agrees that opinion is just that until backed up by that thing called truth; unfortunately, not everyone agrees on how to arrive at it.

Pinker is an indefatigable master at gathering and deploying evidence (citations abound) in persuasive arguments about our true situation in a host of domains, but a sticking point will be whether you accept his sources as authoritative. His primary source, of course, is science, so if you want to challenge him on the facts (you likely won’t win on logic) you’ll have to point to different and better science, or have a better idea than science as the basis for factual truths (good luck with that). Pinker’s natural enemies, therefore, are those conservatives who claim mainstream scientists are largely in league with liberals seeking the triumph of collectivist big government, postmodernists who see science as a tool of white male dominance, and religionists who posit that there are facts bearing on social policy (e.g., abortion, end of life, marriage, equal rights) discernable only by a sensus divinitatus, sacred texts, or other non-empirical routes. These groups are probably unpersuadable for the most part, but we can hope that Pinker’s arguments, should they come to their attention, will win some over.

What’s also dicey is getting from the truth claims of science to the normative claims of the emancipatory values mentioned above. According such rights and opportunities to everyone – gay, atheist, anarchist, whoever you find most objectionable – is a patently liberal, progressive proposition, so will stick in the craw of regressives (e.g., white supremacists) who take themselves to be perfectly rational and fact-based. They will want to see the logical implication from taking science as one’s arbiter of facts to, for example, taking universal human rights as a central value commitment. Some, such as atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris, have argued that the is-ought gap can be closed (or doesn’t exist in the first place), and that science logically leads to progressive values, but not many have been persuaded (including me). A better bet, perhaps, is to argue that science can’t demonstrate that, whatever differences exist between classes of humans (men vs. women, gays vs. straights, blacks vs. whites, believers vs. non-believers) there are principled justifications for unequal treatment; social Darwinism is one failed attempt at such a demonstration. Claims that we should deny equal access to rights and opportunities have to find justification from outside science, since science, a descriptive enterprise, remains neutral on value propositions. Outside science are various non-empirical worldviews and ideologies proclaiming the rightful pre-eminence in the human hierarchy of one class or another. We can see, therefore, that sticking with science in forming one’s worldview, for instance worldview naturalism or naturalistic humanism, the subject of Pinker’s last chapter, can help to insulate us from such pretensions, thus leading to liberality. 

Moreover, liberality might lead to science. Attitudes about science seem to be influenced by personality traits that discriminate liberals from conservatives. Chris Mooney (The Republican War on Science, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality) presents a well-researched case that psychological traits associated with conservativism – authoritarianism, doxastic inflexibility, less “openness to experience,” aversion to uncertainty  make conservatives less science-friendly than liberals. Oppositely, liberals, perhaps more curious about the world and not as averse to changing their minds in light of contrary evidence, would be more likely to freaking love science. It’s possibly no coincidence, therefore, that the presumptively truth-seeking academy, in particular science departments, breaks progressive and thus, as Pinker points out, often leads the way in social change. So although there’s no logical inference from science to liberal orientations, there’s nevertheless a mutually supportive relationship. Pinker tells us that we liberals accept the reality of climate change not because we know more about climate science than the skeptics, but because…we’re liberals!  But that’s to be expected since we’re more likely to accept science, period (including the empirical case for science itself as the unrivaled arbiter of factual truth), and thus trust the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming. Not that we don’t have our own ideological blind spots and shibboleths, for which Pinker has little patience.

If liberals are in fact more congenial to science and open-mindedness, and less authoritarian, it would be nice to engineer more of them to further the Enlightenment cause. One key, of course, is education, and another is contact with those of different backgrounds and tastes, as happens in urban centers and international travel and commerce. The trends toward globalization and information access therefore promise to produce growing numbers of tolerant, ecumenical cosmopolitans who are more likely to endorse emancipatory values and put planet before, or at least equal to, party or country. Unfortunately, the wired world can also instigate tribalism, political and otherwise, via targeted networks and news outlets that cater to true believers, reinforcing the irrationalities and alternate realities that sometimes define one's identity.

Whether the cosmopolitans will come out on top is thus a very open question, and indeed may never be settled given the devils of our nature. We are, after all, inherently groupish, hierarchical, and competitive creatures to whom “the appeal of regressive ideas is perennial.” The stark divergence in worldviews and values of different human tribes makes reaching consensus about a single, objective reality a fraught prospect. But we humans also share a strong, innate moral sense, have basic needs and capacities in common, are educable into the ways of science and reason, and thus all potential members of, simply, the human tribe as a consciously embraced identity – the tribe of all tribes. Seeing through the lens of science the sheer contingency of your being just this sort of person (white male, black female, gay atheist, whatever) can broaden your conception of self, broaden your sympathies, and thus promote inter-tribal collaboration instead of conflict. Such collaboration, as opposed to identity politics or authoritarian populism, will be necessary if we are to address the ideological and material threats to progress Pinker acknowledges lie ahead.

Enlightenment Now will increase the chances of long-term success in the human project if it is widely read and discussed, which seems likely. Anyone interested in the actual current facts bearing on those chances, and how we might best act to improve them, can do no better than take Pinker’s sharp, witty and (no exaggeration) encyclopedic instruction. Disabused of fashionable but unwarranted pessimism, apprised of progress thus far, and bucked up by Pinker’s rational optimism, we’ll be motivated to embrace, or renew our commitment to, the Enlightenment cause. To unabashedly advertise the values and fruits of reason and science is not, unfortunately, to state the obvious as it appears to many folks, so we must get cracking.