I thought this was an interesting modern take on an age-old dynamic tension.
I just started listening to Enlightenment Now by Steve Pinker, and came across this Andrew Sullivan article that sums up my initial impressions of it pretty well today. To be fair, I cut Pinker some slack because while he does kinda come off as if he’s ranting a bit, one of my pet peeves is to talk about a legitimate ill - however clumsily (in my case, not Pinker’s) - and get a response of “Well you sound like you’re just venting” or (if you’re talking to a yogi,) “I think you’re being overly reactive”. The tone in which a message is delivered - eloquently and measured, blurted out in frustration, or with a distinct ‘yes I have a chip on my shoulder about this one’ vibe - are a separate thing from the message itself. So yes, I think Pinker comes off as somewhat frustrated and more than a bit biased in places, but an incomplete picture is not necessarily an incorrect one, it’s just part of a correct picture. And I think Pinker makes plenty of valid points, he just comes across as a bit out of touch when he says things like…
Enlightenment humanism, then, is far from being a crowd-pleaser. The idea that the ultimate good is to use knowledge to enhance human welfare leaves people cold. Deep explanations of the universe, the planet, life, the brain? Unless they use magic, we don’t want to believe them! Saving the lives of billions, eradicating disease, feeding the hungry? Bo-ring. People extending their compassion to all of humankind? Not good enough—we want the laws of physics to care about us! Longevity, health, understanding, beauty, freedom, love? There’s got to be more to life than that!
But it’s the idea of progress that sticks most firmly in the craw. Even people who think it is a fine idea in theory to use knowledge to improve well-being insist it will never work in practice. And the daily news offers plenty of support for their cynicism: the world is depicted as a vale of tears, a tale of woe, a slough of despond. Since any defense of reason, science, and humanism would count for nothing if, two hundred and fifty years after the Enlightenment, we’re no better off than our ancestors in the Dark Ages, an appraisal of human progress is where the case must begin.
Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (pp. 35-36).
...I find his psychoanalysis of the average human a bit off. The idea that people aren’t interesting in ideas that improve human welfare “unless they use magic”, for example, leaves out the alternate explanation that one finds so readily described in eastern philosophy - that anything that gathers together will disperse, anything that is born will die, anything with a beginning has an ending, and anything conditional is subject to constant and permanent change. I don’t think it’s surprising at all that the idea of lasting, unchanging, indestructible well-being via spirituality continues to appeal more to people than saying “Hey, good news! As a human species, it turns out that via causality, we are capable of walking a tightrope of causes and conditions wherein we can engineer the environment to be relatively more pleasing to us in many instances, providing it doesn’t all go to hell in a hand basket in the blink of an eye of unfortunate circumstances, which, when it’s not actually happening, you will constantly have to worry about as a looming possibility! Yay!”. That or, you know, heaven, nirvana, the end of all suffering, etc. Of course the latter is more appealing.
I mentioned this recently in another post - it seems to me that we still haven’t figured out what to do with groups vs. individuals in the modern era, or the related spectrum of prudence vs. passion. On the one hand we call Western societies hedonistic, lacking in spiritual brotherhood (and sisterhood), and all about impulsive, materialistic instant gratification - on the other, we condemn the many places where humans are asked to learn self restraint and, as Sullivan says, “freedom from our natural desires and material needs” as soul-destroying, sheep-producing, assembly-line-esque. The traditional classroom, workplace cubicle culture, 9-to-5’s, and so on. On the one hand we think longingly about the ideals of community and kinship, on the other we shudder at the idea of people who would sacrifice a personal ideal in order to accommodate one.
Enlightened Humanism provides a buy-in for everyone, regardless of origin, similar to Monotheistic religions.
The disconnect comes from the supposed ideal that is a Human and the endless progress in all aspects of humanity that science can bring: by inventing something better, we are implicitly stating that the old wasn’t good enough - a a big problem for people who derive their sense of self from their past.
I think there are far more obvious problems with scientific progress than a sort of wistful nostalgia though, yes? I mean that’s not to say science has doesn’t have incredible utility, but to say almost anything has only an upside and no downside is probably unrealistic. Consider:
- One nuclear holocaust would mean we would indeed have been far better off freezing scientific progress at almost any point in human history before the invention of nuclear weapons. And are we going to avoid this situation forever? Once the technology was there, North Korea was able to build new nukes, and Putin is now threatening to use the old ones. (in an ironic, Orwellian loop, “Becoming the thing you most fear and hate” manner, I should add, since I believe his interpretation that he originally became President because he wanted to create order and avoid the chaos that was so prevalent earlier in his life - now he’s literally threatening to blow up the entire world, which is a level of entropy quite a bit beyond what he was trying to avoid in the first place.) Even if they don’t, what are the odds that some rogue or terrorist group won’t get their hands on some nukes eventually, given enough time? In which case, who would have better well-being - our hunter gatherer ancestors, pre-science, or the modern day survivors of a nuclear holocaust, stumbling around dying of radiation poisoning, alone in piles of rubble?
- A small, elite segment of the world uses some enormous percent of the world’s resources (and creates corresponding pollution). There is no realistic way we could have equality of resource use at the levels seen in first world countries, because there is no way that dynamic would be sustainable for more than a tiny fraction of the global population.
- Even given this dynamic, there is little way to square our current use of technology with ecological sustainability. The oceans are full of plastic and mercury, the land is full of trash heaps that have nowhere to go, and no one is 100% sure what the end result of global warming will be or how far down that path we are already.
Again, I am all for science, but I think the old saying about “If something sounds too good to be true…” probably applies. Even things like the rate of children with developmental disability are exponentially higher in developed countries. This is not ‘all upside’.