Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker (Penguin Random House, 2018).
From the publisher’s blurb: “Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature–tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking–which demagogues are all too willing to exploit.”
Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
Have Quakers humanized themselves since the 17th century? Is this humanization good or bad? If there have been changes, are these changes conscious through a process of “continuing revelation”? Should we recognize an expectation of further Quaker change based on experience and discernment of faith and practice?
The new book by Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, indicates that this humanization process is indeed the case for Quakers and other religious groups.
The book contains two slight specific references to Quakers, but they are significant. Both references put Quakers on the side of the angels according to Pinker. Quakers get credit for early and consistent war opposition (162), and modern Quakers are acknowledged as the products of humanistic influences, with their emphasis on reason, experience, and the practice of advocacy for universal human flourishing. These are notable as part of a major global cultural trend (412).
This is a valuable book. For Pinker, world cultural trends, with a universalism theme in practice, are consistent in a positive direction since the 18th century. These positive trends are underway now and becoming dominant world-wide in global culture.
Human life in the modern world is better than the past. For Pinker, the whole human species is today safer, freer, healthier, wealthier, and happier than in any past historical period. There are small, temporary exceptions, but the global trend is clear and solid. Pinker explains this as an historical progress toward the universal goal of human flourishing with a focus on its demonstration with statistical data and trend analysis.
Pinker challenges the falsehood, ignorance, and illusions of public negativity and despair. He makes a presentation of trends based on data to counter these negatives. He argues against the portrayal of the false negatives, which encourage bad personal and community decisions. He urges engagement in improving democracy, education, research, and institutions of global cooperation. He blames authoritarianism, misunderstood data, cognitive biases against facts, and political prejudices for the exceptions.
The structure of the book has three parts:
First, Pinker explains the Enlightenment elements in 18th century Europe and its history, emphasizing that new tradition of using reason to challenge previously accepted traditions, which brought about many reforms to improve the well-being of humans. This is Pinker’s progress.
Second, he describes the value elements and demonstrated progress of the Enlightenment tradition in an impressive scope of human concern in many important categories (including life span, health, sustenance (food), wealth (including clothing and shelter), equality, environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, happiness, and quality of life) of human experience to show human progress in each category, supported by available data and trends.
Third, he describes the importance of the three components of the causal Enlightenment tradition of reason, science, and humanism.
Pinker also addresses “progressophobia” (those on the wrong side of history and the future), existential threats, and the likely future of progress. In the course of his narrative, Pinker provides facts to show improved global life expectancy, child survival, disease, food supplies, minority poverty, aged poverty, war numbers and carnage reductions, personal safety, freedom, minority discrimination, suffrage, literacy, education, environment, democracy, international institutions, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, scientific institutions, and international agreements.
Pinker’s claims tend to fall short when faced with shortages of water, clothing, and shelter. However, this weakness does not adversely affect the strength of the otherwise comprehensive thesis of global human progress under the inspiration of Enlightenment reason, science, and humanism.
Perhaps the primary weakness of Pinker’s argument is his assertion of human flourishing as the ultimate goal and test for progress in the cosmos. He offers no intrinsic human responsibility for the flourishing of animals, plants, or objects, except as they contribute to human flourishing. In this limitation, Pinker’s general hostility to religion blinds him to growing religious insights for the future.
The Pinker universalism is human universalism. He fails to take the step to cosmic universalism. It is likely that he could well make the fully universal case for progress. He does not make it here, except by implication. This limitation will distort his analysis and practice regarding the environment, the physical world and other life forms.
In addition, Pinker admits to the Eurocentrism of focusing on the 18th century European Enlightenment. The human experiences in Africa, Asia and elsewhere are passed by. This means that Pinker’s history of the Enlightenment as human process is limited and narrowed from a fully universal approach.
Enlightenment Now is a bold and affirmative presentation. Pinker argues for a clear understanding of progress as a continuing reality, an essential defense against ignorance, complacency, and the failure to preserve and enhance global agreements which support human flourishing. Progress continues as the result of human actors, guided by particular ideals of human well-being.
The book is well written. The pace is spritely, and Pinker offers excellent end notes, bibliography, and a thorough index.
It may well be that specialists in one or more areas will object to the Pinker interpretation of the data, but these voices are likely to be criticisms on the fringe of his core argument. These criticisms will likely not falsify the overwhelming argument for human progress in all areas since the 18th century.
Looking at this book’s massive compilation of data and reasonable analysis of that data, the tradition of human progress seems as true as true can be. This is a sobering reminder for those Quakers, who traffic in the negatives of private and public life by following too closely the journalism of the day.
In the past three centuries, the Quaker community has elevated experience, science and reason to higher levels of authority in its discernment processes in relation to tradition and scripture. All styles of Quakers have undergone this process, some more explicitly than others.
This is a sterling work and a likely reference work for leaders and students as well as a source for reflection for Quaker faith and practice.
This book may ask Quakers:
- Do we walk cheerfully or not?
- Do Quakers embrace the progress thesis or not?
- Is there a different view that better reflects reality?
This review is contributed by Larry D. Spears.
Friends may be interested in viewing this 1:20 length YouTube video, “Stephen Fry & Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment Today,” at https://youtu.be/8aT61w3Q6vI.
The eminent Harvard Professor Steven Pinker joins Stephen Fry to discuss the challenges we face in the 21st century and what we need to do to defend the values and ideas of the Enlightenment.
“The Enlightenment Vision — Flowchart,” by Stephen Hicks, Ph.D. (2009).
My Enlightenment Vision flowchart is pitched at a high level of abstraction, showing schematically how the philosophical revolution of the 17th century led to the 18th-century revolutions in science, technology, politics, and economics — which in turn led to the dramatic increase in health, wealth, freedom, and goods in the 19th century.