What did people think of Steven Pinker’s presentation, or his book? A few days before watching to the Book Club video I posted a review of Enlightenment Now on my blog, available here, if anyone is interested (https://analyticphilosophy.net/enlightenment-now/). Overall I found that his presentation confirmed my impression of the book, but I admit it did make me wonder if I’d missed the point somehow. I mean, does he really think the meaning of the Enlightenment is “using knowledge to solve problems.” Isn’t that idea as old as technological knowledge itself, even if conceptions of true knowledge have differed? In any case, I didn’t see a discussion thread for Pinker, so here’s one. I have some thoughts on the specifics of his book, and I’d like to hear other people’s.
I haven’t finished it yet (listening to the audiobook in my car but I’ve been cooped up in the house between a cold and snow days), but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard so far.
On the positive side, I think he makes some important points that we tend to forget about, especially as political mud-slinging and a media that survives on clicks and views usually means pointing out flaws and problems, to the point where it often sounds as if our world is nothing but horrible problems. I think it’s important to have a realistic standard for comparison, in terms of the big picture, when we think about where we are now vs. 50, 100, 400, 1,000, 10,000, etc., years ago. Catastrophic rhetoric can be a motivation for positive growth to a point, but only to a point - after that I think it causes people to throw up their hands and give up. A reminder that humanity’s efforts really are paying off, in many ways, is an important one, I think. I think a fair bit of the criticism comes from “Only Our Ideology can save you!” camps, who of course have a vested interest in convincing people that they are in dire need of salvation in the first place. Saying the world is sunnier than it appears doesn’t align well with that message.
In terms of criticisms, it does sound as if Pinker takes an almost stubbornly optimistic tone in the view. Some of that is subjective, but as someone who lives in a wealthy country, it just feels more appropriate, in terms of a response, to say “Some people are living on a dollar a day. We should take heart in that a few thousand years ago, they were living on less than a dollar a day. This is encouragement that human efforts do pay off, and some progress has been made. However, the fact that some people are living on a dollar a day is still not a good thing.” Vs. saying “Hey, a dollar is clearly more than nothing, so things are better.” and leaving it at that. Also, I feel like he downplays catastrophic possibilities (to be fair, he does give a nod to these, and acknowledges that climate change is quite worrying, so again, some of this is subjective.) If the world improves on 99 billion measures and gets worse on a single one that happens to end it, well, the 99 billion to 1 ratio still isn’t all that encouraging. It might make our remaining time somewhat more pleasant but won’t extend it, and likely won’t apply to anyone who survives a cataclysmic event. This is where I do feel that something like spirituality or mind training is important (yes, I’m one of those, apologies if you are a staunch non-spiritual atheist, ha ha!) in that this is simply the nature of things and no amount of scientific progress can ever totally insulate us from pain, sickness, and death, whether on an individual or a societal level.
What you write makes sense to me. Although personally I didn’t need an antidote to pessimistic thinking, I can see how one is useful, especially given the tendency of the media to report where things go wrong instead of offering stories where things go right. As to that tendency, I guess too it depends on what one consumes. Most of what I read and listen to (which is certainly not representative) doesn’t give the impression of doom and gloom, and part of me thinks that reporters should focus on what goes wrong, simply because a story like ‘99% of drug companies don’t fabricate data’ when one does really downplays by context the gravity of fabricating data as much as failing to report frequencies and context up-plays it if all one focuses on is the bad actors. I don’t recall, but does Pinker offer specific advice to improve journalism; to improve reporting bad events without losing context. I know PBS News Hour does well with this—a good 10 minutes per story, with a lot of depth and context. But I don’t recall any specific models or much in the way of advice, though I remember something vague about it.
I do think Pinker overplays his hand about some of the news. For instance, I’ve learned that crime in NY city is at a 50 year low by reading the NY Times, or that crime across the board is down in the US, recovering to 1950’s levels—all from reading popular media. I could say the same about many of the measures he discusses, since none of it was news to me. And to the contrary point, one stat just blew me away yesterday, this time going the other way. Based on national headlines, availability bias, and my own self-selective memory, I would have expected about 20 or 30 school shootings since Newton in 2012. According to the NY Times, the actual number is about 230, with, I think, about 430 wounded and 138 killed. I was dumbstruck, and outraged, really. I never would have known this was such a national problem reading national headlines since 2012. Did I miss something?! So here, unless I am just way off in not being representative (which is entirely possible), the media is vastly under-reporting school violence. No wonder, it seems to me now, that hundreds of thousands have marched on DC, with 800 other demonstrations around the country. No wonder the recent one is turning into a “tipping point.” Shit, with that many school shootings…. In any case, I think Pinker may overplay pessimism in the media to make his point—i.e he may have his own availability bias fueling a self-selective sampling.
I hear you on the stubbornly optimistic tone. Like with health care in the US, conceptually solving the problem of global warming isn’t all that difficult. We have the technologies and some of the right ideas. But politically, both in the US and abroad globally, the problem is nearly insurmountable. Every “solution” he offers requires the so-far absent political will and coordination, coordination problems which are well studied, for which there is plenty of reason to be pessimistic. If Pinker has solved politically the free-rider and global commons problem—politically, not conceptually—I’d like to see it. What, for instance, would he say about half the world’s population wanting to rise up to European levels of production and consumption, which would in effect add to global carbon emissions by 50%, even as the trend needs to be to eliminate them. Where is the political coordination to solve both the development and the emissions problem converging in the developing world? Simply re-mouthing the obvious technical and economic solutions absent these political solutions is to simply mouth, in my opinion, platitudes. He is at his worst here, as far as I can tell—a typical ivory tower academic with a non-sequitur solution.
If global climate change is one of those measures that can so cataclysmically wreck the other ones, then I fully take your point about another kind of training or thinking being required in addition to “scientific enlightenment”. I am certainly not a non-spiritual kind, and something besides science and its enlightenment is going to give people both something to live for and a reason to live it in such a way that the living becomes sustainable and self-sustaining. Like I said, what needs to happen is relatively easy to see (I don’t think we even need science for most of that, even as we need it for the ‘how’ of doing it). But putting in place and force the “why” and “wherefore”, the direction and motivation…I simply don’t see what science and reason have to say about that, and simply saying “human flourishing” is too abstract. To this point, I think Pinker wrongly downplays counter-Enlightenment forces—strawmans them, even—because those forces sought to put back in place the very blood to life that Pinker’s vision drains out. As much as I work in science (and it is my career), nothing I have read or done in it has enhanced my personal life, but reading Camus, for instance, has. So has Nietzsche, once I got past his adolescent rhetorical fireworks (something Pinker has failed to do). None of those folks offer concrete solutions to practical problems, much less insight into scientific ones, but they speak to the nuance and meaning that makes those solutions worthwhile. I think Pinker completely misses this, and maybe even covers it up with his cheery-cheerleading for science and reason.
AP… After thinking about this a bit (and sharing some of your “Hey, whoa whoa whoa there Pinker!” reactions,) I think what stands out to me is that it’s difficult to say in any concrete terms where Pinker is empirically incorrect, and yet something about his sentiments seem to rub people the wrong way.
I think this is perhaps for a few reasons. As I said, earlier, I think there is a negativity bias in the news and politics for logistical reasons (I see what you’re saying about school shootings, but my feeling is that it’s not like that open airtime was filled with happy stories about how more people are volunteering these days. If one tragedy doesn’t get covered, it’s generally simply a time constraint in the face of another.) I also think the weakest point in Pinker’s argument is not accounting enough for the results of a catastrophic event, and that he gets into a bit of a ‘rant’ mode in places in the book. All things that may have resulted in a critical reaction to the book.
One reason that I find a bit more philosophically interesting, however, is that Pinker in some ways resurrects history and almost provokes the same Romantic-era backlash that Wikipedia tells me was the historical blowback to Enlightenment era thinking (I try to honestly represent my knowledge in a given area, ha ha!). And I think those more passionate sentiments might actually be important in our history as well, even though historically we are not sure how to feel about them (If I remember correctly some people linked Romanticism to the nationalist fervor that led up to Nazi Germany. Then again, some people blame Nietzsche for that as well - as no one knows what caused that dynamic, I think there is a general distrust of anything that immediately preceded that time.)
Anyways - this is anecdotal, but I recall as a child listening to Broadway musicals on car trips. It strikes me that Jean Valjean said things like “Come Cosette, say goodbye, let us seek out some friendlier sky”, not “Hey Cosette, what are you bitching about, at least you’re not starving to death or anything which your agricultural era predecessors might have been”. Kim in Miss Saigon implored the universe “You will be who you want to be, you can do whatever heaven grants… as long as you can have your chance”, not “You will at least have adequate amounts of food to eat and live on a dollar a day, which, according to historical data, is a big improvement compared to ten generations ago…” Perhaps those lyrics were just really hard to set to a musical score, but it seems to me that they have never really been a part of our mindset. Patrick Henry got fired up about “Give me liberty or give me death!!” not “Give me liberty or give me… I dunno, I mean, realistically, maybe a 20% improvement in quality of life compared to five generations ago? That’s really a pretty big improvement when you think about it…”
I have mixed feelings as a meditator about that kind of continually dissatisfied stance toward life. I think it has resulted in tremendous progress but probably led to a culture of over-consumption as well. And perhaps I shouldn’t link it with Romanticism, maybe this is simply human nature, I dunno. But either way, I wonder if part of the sharp criticism to Pinker’s book (again, kinda surprising considering most people don’t really doubt his actually data or claims, it’s much more subjective,) is the perception that, rather than endorsing Enlightenment era thinking, he’s dulling down the passions of Romantic era thinking, encouraging people to ‘settle for good enough’, when in some ways a history of discontent may be as fundamental to the progress we have made as a commitment to scientific thinking.
I feel this gets back to the old facts-value gap. It seems to me that Enlightenment ideals encompass the former while Romanticism encapsulated the latter. I’m no history buff so that may be way off base, but just my pop-culture-observation-based musing.
I think one thing that rubs some people the wrong way about Pinker is his focus on aggregate global averages instead of individual and group differences; that in his focus on averages, a lot of problems that matter get lost. In this way, his optimism obscures the problems to be worried about, even as and probably because it paints a rather rosy picture in the name of progress.
For instance, sure, sustenance has increased globally since the Enlightenment, and even quite sharply in the last 25 years. On average great strides have been made reducing world hunger. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa, wasting and starvation is a problem for some hundreds of millions of people, and in India it’s proportionally even worse, where about 18% of the population is starving. Yet in his “sustenance” chapter he says “on average” people in India have access to 2400 calories per day. No doubt that’s true, but it’s also kind of irrelevant, since the “average” only obscures the real problem, namely, that 21% of children are wasting away and some 200 million people are starving (some folks clearly have “access” to far more than they need, hence those that don’t disappear in the average). Anyway, the sources I’ve read on famine in India generally acknowledge that globally sustenance is improving, and that even India has improved, but they don’t obscure the problem that remains with rose-tinted averages. Pinker’s ‘average calories per day’ only obscures the real, underlying problem in places like India and sub-Saharan Africa.
I think by omission Pinker is just as guilty of the opposite problem he detects in the mainstream media. In his focus on averages as the evidence for progress, the individual differences that make the difference get lost, if not obscured and implicitly denied. I don’t remember anything in the sustenance chapter about just how bad the problem in India is right now, much less an analysis of the problem in terms of causes and what to do about them. Sacrificing awareness of that kind of problem in order to make a point of progress is disturbing to people who care about individuals, not averages, and it’s a sacrifice Pinker makes many times throughout the book. For instance, in his “look how much war has disappeared” analysis he doesn’t even mention the central African regional war over Congo’s resources, yet it was 5 years long, embroiled 9 nations, cost 5.4 million civilian casualties and resulted in 2 million refugees. How does that exception to peace and the causal story it permits about war not even merit a mention?!
To both your point and the point I am making here, imagine Pinker in 1950 writing about how “on average” blacks are so much better off in 1950 than in 1850. Wouldn’t such an analysis would be implicitly derogatory of the civil rights movement? Then and now it doesn’t matter one bit that blacks in 1950 were “on average” better off than blacks in 1850; that “progress had been made” relative to slavery and Jim Crow lynching. That Rosa Parks couldn’t sit at the front of the bus and that blacks as a group were systematically mistreated compared to whites—a group difference only obscured by an “on average” account of their progress—was the problem that needed to be addressed. I see nothing in Pinker’s “glass mostly full” analysis that motivates or even contextualize something like the civil rights movement. Activists reading Enlightenment Now in 1950 would be furious at anyone pointing out how “on average” the situation for blacks had improved when individually and by group comparison they were still so bad.
Sorry if this is long and preachy. I happen to be one of those folks irritated by Pinker’s rosy cheerleading for science, reason, humanism and “progress”. To my mind, too much gets lost, a loss I can encapsulate into a single methodological point.
Methodologically speaking, focusing on global averages tends to obscure the individual and group differences that make the difference; that is, the differences that interest social scientists (at least this one) are lost. Simply put, putting all one’s eggs in one population basket, as it were, makes differences between groups barely, if at all, detectable, and in any case causal inferences about what’s driving these differences can’t be made. Yet causal inferences are precisely what we need if we are to continue the progress that has, “on average” been achieved—progress that in some groups has been achieved spectacularly. Recurring to the Congo war example, what about those 9 nations and their motives separates that war causally from the lack of any such thing ever happening in Europe? As a causal story, where has progress been made? Lumping all nations into a global average with a peace index not only obscures this question; it makes it impossible to answer, since all you can do, in effect, is make inferences from a trend in a single sample of one. Any such trend observed will be either merely descriptive or speculatively causal, since no comparison between groups has been made. I had this same problem with The Better Angels of Our Nature, and I was disappointed to see the same methodology applied here.
To my mind, Pinker’s emphasis on lumping global averages might work for defending a thesis in a high school debating society, but it fails as serious social science. In this respect, I was more disappointed than not even with the empirical side of the book. The useful data it retains is scattered in what I think is an empirically pointless conceptual framework—to wit, global “on average” measures on human metrics made in the name of detecting “average” progress. As a scientist, I want to know what causes group differences, not the trend in the global “average.” To my mind, no serious person has ever doubted the “big picture” of progress since 1750, even if they ignore it in favor of the problems that remain for them. For those folks who care more about the differences than the averages, Enlightenment Now offers more irritation and exasperation than information. At least that’s my experience.
AP - I think in general what you’re pointing to is a disagreement over framing and emphasis (as a side note, I will add that I disagree that Pinker does not talk about causality, but I don’t think that’s your main disagreement with him.) If I hear you correctly, to you the book reads as a ‘count your blessings’ message, which can sometimes be appropriate (if said to, say, a well-off teen complaining she doesn’t have the newest iPhone,) and can sometimes be very inappropriate (if said to that same teen if her parents beat her - we would consider a person an enabler if they said “Well, remember that you have a roof over your head and be happy with that.”)
I think this comes down to perceived motivation, which of course is more or less impossible to pin down. I am inclined to view Pinker’s motivations fairly sympathetically. I think his intent is not to downplay problems in the world but to defend Enlightenment thinking, which he sees as being under attack, in part because people have an idea that if the world isn’t perfect yet, Enlightenment thinking must not work. On the one hand, I think his views on how bad that problem is are likely skewed by him being a Harvard professor, where I think one’s perceptions of what ‘most’ people think would probably be skewed via environment. I don’t think the average person is on some kind of post modern slippery slope (scientific progress is so integrated into our life now that you can’t do that for very long before colliding with reality - the most fanciful person tends to get pretty empirical when considering the safety of vehicles or medicine.) On the other, even if that is the case, sometimes those views do have a way of trickling down from the Ivy Leagues over time, meaning addressing them is important.
I suspect Pinker’s intent is to up-play the Enlightenment rather than downplay any problems, though I would add that his methodology leads, at least potentially, to downplaying them, even as his actual focus tends to. He does say often that the world is not perfect, that many problems remain. But since the two examples of India and the Congo are just a sampling, not the extent, of his omissions, I think the net effect is unhelpful cheerleading more than instructive analysis. Like you, I think, I just don’t see anyone disagreeing that “overall” or “on average” the world is a better place in 2018 than it was in 1718, if by “better” one means ‘any measurable metric of well-being one cares to name’. I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t agree to that either outright or with just the simplest of prodding, illustration, and examples. Literally, as far as I know, no one.
This point goes to one I only touched on in my review, namely: just who is this audience than needs convincing about the benefits of the “Enlightenment.” If the lesson of the Enlightenment is the anodyne thesis that “knowledge can be used to solve problems” and that “progress solving them has been made,” then there is no audience that needs convincing. I think we agree: that idea (or at least its results) is so permeated into the contemporary zeitgeist that everyone believes it, even the most social justice warrior post-modern leftist. But—and this is my main point—that simplistic thesis is not what the Enlightenment was about, and I think Pinker cheats by reducing it to that thesis in his empirical analysis (Part Two), even as he promotes scientific knowledge as the ultimate good for solving problems (Parts One and Three)—a promotion that in and of itself amounts to a caricature of what the Enlightenment represents, but nevertheless it’s the caricature he defends. Pinker seems too self-saturated with post-modernists who don’t like science the way he does to see that there is simply no audience that needs “the case” to be made that ‘knowledge can be used to solve problems’ and that ‘progress can, and has been, made’ in solving them. The net effect of this myopia? I think in the end he creates his own echo-chamber where a strawman is rebutted using a trivialization of the Enlightenment, all to defend a caricature that counter-Enlightenment figures are right to reject (alas, post-modernists included, just for all the wrong reasons, lol). In this way, I think he does the legacy of the Enlightenment a horrible injustice. He sets its true legacy back, as it were, in his trivialized promotion of it. I think that’s a problem.
On the side note, you are right my main disagreement with Pinker isn’t that he doesn’t talk about causality; it’s that I think his causal claims are unhelpful because they amount, in the end, to the claim that the right knowledge ‘causes’ problems to be solved. To that end, he seems to wrap that causal mechanism up into an omnibus notion of “reason,” “knowledge” and “science,” with which he then juxtaposes empirical work on measures where things have gotten better. But as I point out in my review, the cause of the much of the improvement in many, if not most, of those measures is not scientific knowledge per se; it is as much industrial, technological and practical knowledge, which though not entirely different from scientific knowledge anymore remains both presently and historically separable. Again, I think Pinker cheats by empirically relying on a generic sense of “knowledge” to indicate causes of progress, even as he explicitly argues that it’s scientific knowledge that has (mostly or exclusively?) caused the progress. As an empirical matter, either claim is demonstrably false, as any detailed account of industrialization, engineering, and technological advancement from 1750 to 1850 (and even later in some areas) shows. As much as it might be integrated now, far more than scientific knowledge has moved the needle of human progress on most of the measures Pinker covers. Far more. But you wouldn’t guess that reading him. At least I wouldn’t.
Perhaps we agree more than we disagree here, though it seems we place the emphasis somewhat differently. Does that sound right?
Like you, I think, I just don’t see anyone disagreeing that “overall” or “on average” the world is a better place in 2018 than it was in 1718, if by “better” one means ‘any measurable metric of well-being one cares to name’. I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t agree to that either outright or with just the simplest of prodding, illustration, and examples. Literally, as far as I know, no one.
I think one has to be careful not to get into a ‘reverse bubble bubble’ though, ha ha! Sort of an ironic loop wherein strange bubbles of thought exist, they sound so strange to ‘regular’ people that they insist they can’t exist, and then the bubbles grow or there are more of them and it is the ‘regular’ person who is now out of touch. I am inclined to believe Pinker when he implies that he is surrounded by worrisome anti-Enlightenment sentiment (I like Sam Harris’s 10% rule - there is almost no proposition so bizarre that, if you did a poll, you wouldn’t find that about 10% of people believe it). I just think that it would be more relatable to most people to present it as just that - an unusual bubble, not an assumed shared understanding of how daily life works.
Perhaps we agree more than we disagree here, though it seems we place the emphasis somewhat differently. Does that sound right?
I see a potential case for most of what you’re saying, which seems to boil down to (and thanks for your last post, it was clarifying on that point):
- Pinker assumes that ‘Enlightenment era’ thinking was responsible for progress in areas that it may not have been
- Attributing such progress to Enlightenment era thinking and then talking about how we would be lost without Enlightenment era thinking is a circular argument if the causal link has not been firmly established, akin to saying we know God is good because the world has gotten better, and if you argue, well, how can you deny all these instances of the world getting better?!
Sorry if I mischaracterized, but I surmise that’s at least a broad summary?
Again, it’s not that I disagree with this possibility entirely, I think it’s a matter of degree. If someone wrote a book about how Scientology has been responsible for so much human progress, I would be up in arms about it. If someone wrote a book about how dentistry is the unsung hero that has been responsible for so much progress in the world, I be more “Uh huh, I wonder what profession the author of this book has? Total mystery. Well, it’s good that they’re proud of dentistry, I think it’s done the world a lot of good, although I think it’s a stretch to say that reduced tooth pain probably led to the amount of increased worker productivity that they posit…” A much more ‘meh’ reaction, I guess - I think I lean more towards the latter attitude and you lean more toward the former.
Point taken on the regressive potential of bubbles. Perhaps we’ll just agree to disagree on whether or not there really are people who doubt the thesis Pinker actually defends. I’ll grant that there are plenty of post-modernists hostile toward science and leave off with the suggestion that Pinker confuses that hostility toward science with hostility toward knowledge in general.
Actually, I would summarize my argument this way.
1) Pinker’s interpretation and defense of “the Enlightenment” is fatally shallow. It amounts either to the defense of a trivial thesis (‘knowledge can be used to solve problems’) not specific to the Enlightenment, or to cheerleading for an untenable position that amounts to a caricature of what the Enlightenment thinkers collectively stood for (to wit, ‘using science to enhance human flourishing is the ultimate good’). It succeeds in the first precisely because the thesis is so non-controversially obvious, and it fails in the second because such a naïve “scientism” is doomed to fail. The diversity of the Enlightenment thinkers shows they had better sense.
2) Pinker’s assertion of causality is misplaced, based as it is on an explicit reliance on “knowledge in general” as the cause of human progress, coupled with an implicit argument that scientific knowledge is the principle cause. However, at least as much as causality can be attributed both to non-Enlightenment sources and to non-scientific knowledge in general as can be attributed to Enlightenment-driven science per se, specifically with respect to the Industrial Revolution and the resulting kind of knowledge that accomplishment created.
3) His treatment of so-called counter-Enlightenment thinkers or movements is as shallow as his defense and trivialization of the Enlightenment. On them he doesn’t even reach the level of Pauli’s famous “not even wrong.”
Since I’ve not discussed 3 yet, take Foucault as an example. Contrary to what Pinker believes, Foucault is as much a pro-Enlightenment as a counter-Enlightenment thinker. He laid out his own position on the Enlightenment in a short essay called “What is Enlightenment?,” in which he offers an interpretation of Kant’s essay by that name; then he situates his own work as an Enlightenment-legacy thinker relative to the meaning of that historical movement. Specifically, Foucault notes that “the relations between the growth of capabilities and the growth of autonomy are not as simple as the eighteenth century [“the Enlightenment”] may have believed”; then he adds that our task as the Enlightenment’s heirs is to explore the conjunction of capacities in empowering control via knowledge with ways in which those very capacities turn back and exert repressive control over us, however intended or unintended those effects may be. In other words, not only does Foucault grant that knowledge in the arenas of ‘actions on things,’ ‘relations of action toward each other,’ and ‘actions on ourselves’ empowers us to solve problems; he assumes that very fact as a heritage of the Enlightenment, then he goes on to point out that that same empowerment leading to autonomy—i.e. leading out of our self-imposed “immaturity”—can also lead to self-imposed repressions as well. As far as Foucault goes, he would simply say that Pinker does not do enough justice to the inherent ambivalence in ‘knowledge as empowerment’ in his focus solely on the beneficial uses of that knowledge, but in any case, the only point that Foucault would take issue with in Enlightenment Now is the assumption that something as anodyne as “humanism” offsets the potential dangers that the liberation of capacities via knowledge opens up. Foucault’s is a more nuanced view of the Enlightenment, to be sure, but nowhere does he say the things against it that Pinker says he says. In fact, had Pinker bothered to read him instead of citing him second-hand (and inaccurately) from sources he already happens to agree with, he would know Foucault thinks the true heritage of the Enlightenment is an “ethos”—a spirit of thinking where “the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.” That last phrase captures perfectly Foucault’s status as a liberation thinker from humanity’s self-imposed “immaturity,” the very Enlightenment message with which Pinker opens his book.
This rescue of Foucault from Pinker’s lack of intellectual integrity could be repeated for Nietzsche, Sartre, and virtually all the serious so-called “anti-Enlightenment” thinkers Pinker rounds up in his morality-play of villains. For a substantive critique, one is far better off with Habermas’ The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity than Pinker’s cereal box blurbs. In any case, to say that he strawmans these thinkers probably gives him too much credit. His quotes from Nietzsche, for instance—where he says ‘lest I be accused of offering a strawman’—aren’t even from the same books as those where the overman is discussed, and they have nothing to do with that theme. I could go on by pointing out that Nietzsche was above all a humanist; that he took a basically Humean view of reason (an Enlightenment figure who argued that the passions lead it, not the other way around); that the overman is a means of overcoming the toxic role of the dominance hierarchy in human affairs…and so on and so forth. But that would just be beating the dead house of inexcusably bad scholarship on Pinker’s part, something I don’t really want to do.
With respect to 3, I think that Pinker reveals his true spots. He is as shallow in his interpretation of his “opponents” as he is on the thesis he proves and the caricature he defends. To this reader, that superficiality and lack of intellectual integrity leaves a bad taste in my mouth, one that embitters any merits I otherwise found in the book (and as a ‘go to’ source for compiled empirical data, it’s not all bad, so long as one has the critical where-with-all to see through the ideological axe he has to grind). On balance I think the book does the Enlightenment a profound disservice far more than it offers a substantive defense. Simply put, it has all the rhetorical excesses of the former and lacks the nuance for the latter, making it a more or less useless book.
Of course, “by my lights.” This is not to say there are not others.
AP… to your first point, I’m kind of neither here nor there with “That’s too obvious of a point to make!” as a criticism of a book. I’m not exactly a world traveler but as I have encountered different groups throughout my adult life, I have largely retracted my “No one would think _____!” biases. I’ve had too many real world experiences of going “Oh, well damn, yup, turns out some people would think that. Wow.” So I am generally sympathetic to such claims - again, just my personal bias, maybe I’m totally off base and Pinker is tilting at windmills. Either way, I’m kinda ‘meh’ on that line of thinking in general, for whatever reason. If people want to write books about totally obvious things, even falsely claim they are doing it in the face of nonexistent adversaries, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by the notion. That’s just me, though, ymmv.
To the second:
2) Pinker’s assertion of causality is misplaced, based as it is on an explicit reliance on “knowledge in general” as the cause of human progress, coupled with an implicit argument that scientific knowledge is the principle cause. As much causality in the progress in human flourishing can be attributed both to “non-Enlightenment” sources and to non-scientific knowledge, specifically to the Industrial Revolution and the resulting kind of knowledge that accomplishment created.
I agree in part. Agree with your general premise that Pinker cannot be totally sure about causal relationships, but think it follows that you, then, do not have that basis to talk about the role of the Industrial Revolution with any certainty either. If your criticism is that such relationships are difficult to suss out via verbal analysis, then you can’t really say “Except for my verbal analysis”. So I disagree on that particular offshoot of your thinking - to my mind the logical thing would be to say “Historical analysis based on one person’s inferencing is not enough to understand these types of relationships, X, Y, and Z criteria should be used instead.” (It’s possible you have those criteria in the back of your mind that you’re mentally referencing when you discuss the role of the Industrial Revolution, but you haven’t mentioned it, so going on what I have in front of me.)
As for saying the role of Enlightenment thinking is an unknown variable in human progress in general - yes, I agree with that. It’s entirely possible that Enlightenment thinking embedded in another mix of factors could have resulted in entirely different outcomes. “Possible worlds” and all that. Pinker has a given hypothesis about how the Enlightenment likely impacted society but when it comes to the sociocultural, such things are very difficult to test.
Your third point is one that I don’t think you’ve mentioned thus far, but if you think Pinker has misrepresented other philosophers in his book, then I see why you would be bothered by this. In terms of whether I agree or disagree, researching multiple philosophers in depth requires more time than I’m going to commit for the sake of chatting on a message board, but again, if you feel he’s done this, I can certainly see why you’d feel critical of the book based on this.
I’ll end my part in this very pleasant and productive chat with one clarification. I am not against him making causal inferences based on verbal interpretations of historical data, but for making one accurate causal inference at the expense of equally important ones he’s missed, thus creating the illusion of a primary cause for the human progress he measures, when in fact others just as primary exist. Specifically, the Enlightenment focus on science is no doubt a cause of much liberation from human suffering and misery. Even broadening his trivial thesis from “knowledge” as causal to “scientific knowledge” as causal, I grant that the Enlightenment is a cause of flourishing, one Pinker is perfectly justified in pointing out. But throughout the book, as an empirical matter, much of the effects he attributes to scientific knowledge and the Enlightenment’s version of it comes from other causes as well—other causes virtually all scholars in the field would call “practical,” “technical” knowledge, a knowledge in any case differentiable from scientific knowledge per se. The possible documentation for this ‘non-scientific’ contribution to flourishing is as overwhelming as it is non-controversial. My complaint, then, is not that Pinker makes causal attributions in general, just that he makes mis-specified causal attributions on the particulars he discusses. I think he’s perfectly justified in determining some causal role for the Enlightenment, just not the exclusive one he implies.
I hope that clarifies my position on causes and making causal inferences.
I have enjoyed this exchange. No one can say that it has any of the acrimony and confrontation so common on message boards, so props to both of us for that.
See you around the board!
Thanks. I’m still not entirely sure what you see as the meaningful difference between practical, technical knowledge and scientific knowledge (or why they would be in any way mutually exclusive and one not a natural continuation of the other, for that matter,) but it sounds as if this is a bit of a semantic turf war that matters to people whose profession it is to study such things, so I’m probably missing a lot of context here. See you around the forum!
Summarizing my thoughts on the book here, rather than starting a new Enlightenment Now thread…
- I really like Steve Pinker a lot. He holds a special place in my mind as a kind of formative character as I transitioned to working adult life. When I had more time and didn’t spend most of my extra money on my niece and nephews, one of the biggest treats for me was to occasionally go up to Boston or New York to hear him speak. I feel the need for that preface as I do have a few critical things to say about this book, and he is not someone I like criticizing in general.
- I like the book overall as a reminder of all the good things Enlightenment era thinking has helped to bring about. And there are a lot of them. Aside from being uplifting and a reminder that the world has come a long way on many fronts, it’s also an interesting history of humankind’s progress in general.
- I do think Pinker over-presumes the Enlightenment’s role in All Things Progress.
- I found Pinker’s argument’s addressing the dangers of scientific progress creating existential threats fairly convincing. Yes, while we have created new ways to destroy the planet, we have also created new ways to save it, so it’s difficult to say what the balance on that is. Before I would have said “If nuclear war ends the world, then arguably we would have been better off with no scientific progress at all.” But this book reminded me that this is actually not true, as without modern medicine a pandemic could have wiped out our species; without disaster planning and agriculture maybe natural disasters and famines would have driven small bands of hunter gathers extinct, and so on. Now I would say “If nuclear war ends the world, it’s entirely possible it would have ended sooner for some other reason without human progress.”
- The first portion of the book, to my mind, is the strongest, and a great case for what humans can do when we work together to solve problems. Where it began to feel a bit contradictory was when Pinker tried to either shoot down or to some degree wave away (to my mind,) some of the ‘downsides’ to the very progress he was talking about. I think the old saying “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is”, applies. If you look at progress and more or less describe it as entirely upside with no downside - that is not really in line with how anything else in the universe works. Everything has pros and cons. Every upside has a downside.
I say contradictory because at this point it seemed like Pinker was not sticking to the very Enlightenment ideals he was endorsing in the book. It seemed more like a lawyer arguing his corner or a sales pitch, not a measured look at both sides with full admissions of the pros and cons of both. On big topics such as global warming, AI, or nuclear threats, he just seemed wildly optimistic about how the hypothetical future will unfold. On topics such as the apparent significant increase in loneliness and mental health problems in the West, I wasn’t sure what to make of his claims that studies show there is nothing to worry about, when I can Google the topic and see plenty of articles that appear to contradict this. Are those studies wrong? Is he cherry picking data? I honestly have no idea what to make of that, and it’s not like I can pause my life to do a meta analysis of studies on the topic, but either way, it seems like a shaky argument to me. Same thing for the trash crisis - this is addressed briefly with lines like “the country actually has plenty of landfills, and they are environmentally sound”, when a brief Google of the topic paints a very different picture of a ‘trash crisis’. Last but not least, he spends a good bit of time hypothesizing about why problems may not be as bad as they sound on paper, and pretty much no time doing the opposite - hypothesizing about how they might be worse than they look on paper. For example, in considering mental health, he proposes that the DSM has added many new labels, that drug companies have a vested interest in marketing psychiatric drugs, and so on; but doesn’t consider factors that might lead to either decreased reporting (such as insurance companies no longer covering lengthy stays in mental health facilities, which was quite common just a few decades ago) or under reporting (such as increasingly digitized documentation plus higher health care costs, that means such diagnoses not only stay with a person forever, but impact future premiums, qualification for insurance, and so on.)
So, again - overall I enjoyed the book, and think it’s worth remembering how today’s worst crises are, in scale, often much, much smaller than wars, genocides, and institutionalized cruelty of previous eons that most people never even heard about. Generations of humans lived through times when genocide, slavery, young men routinely in physical combat as a way of life, pandemics and famine were part of the backdrop. That said, I don’t think you can realistically downplay some of the ‘cons’ that come with the ‘pros’ of progress. Wars are much more limited in scope but the stakes are much higher with advanced weaponry. It seems to me that there is at least some evidence that human psyches do suffer somewhat from being so far removed from the environments they evolved for. Social time and nature used to be all-day everyday for us, now they tend to be luxuries that we pencil in when we can, and I think there is likely an increase in loneliness and mental health issues (although again, that’s murky to me as Pinker claims some studies show otherwise.) Pollution is not only a big problem now, it also inhibits equality, as equalizing the planet in terms of resource consumption and pollution would be untenable right now.
Overall enjoyable, but I wish Pinker had made more of an attempt (at least to my mind) to be evenhanded in covering both sides of various topics. In places he was a bit too Pollyanna even for me, ha ha!