Pinker book: Enlightenment Now

In the age of multiple disparate and unreliable news sources (The Post and Courier being a glowing exception), at a time when most people younger than a certain age get their news from Facebook, and further considering the influence of internet trolls and disinformation, it’s no wonder that many of us have the feeling that the world is in terrible shape and that we are in the midst of dark times. Factor in the normal human tendency to worry more about bad things that haven’t happened as opposed to basking with expectation in the good things that might happen, it’s not surprising that one hears expressions such as “Life’s a (expletive) and then you die” more than ever.

But are things really that bad? Harvard’s Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and best-selling author Steven A. Pinker says “no” emphatically. Part of the problem, Pinker is quoted as saying in The Economist last month, is that people consistently underestimate the progress humanity is making because of all the negative news.

Then again, we apparently like it that way. It must help lend validity to all the drama most people face on a day-to-day basis. It’s a quirk of human nature that good news can sometimes be interpreted as boring whereas bad or salacious news is intriguing. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the usual mantra of local TV stations and — of which I’m as guilty as anyone — it’s probably more interesting (i.e. fun) reading about President Trump and his various scandals than the decline in worldwide poverty.

Here are some very impressive statistics Professor Pinker would like us to focus on as outlined in his new book, “Enlightenment Now.” The world is 100 times wealthier than 200 years ago and its wealth is more evenly distributed. Illiteracy has seen stunning declines over the past century and — despite its problems — much of that is attributable to computer technology and being able to carry the world’s information around in a small contraption that fits in one’s pocket.

Not coincidentally, according to The Economist article, in every part of the world IQ scores have been rising, and it’s estimated that the average person today scores better that 98 percent of people a century ago.

People are living longer — a lot longer. Much of that is due to modern medicine, but there also have been seismic cultural changes with regard to diet, exercise and an analytic approach to overall wellness. Furthermore, our vehicles and airplanes are much safer. Occupational hazards have gone way down, as has overall crime, the extent of international armed conflict and the numbers of soldiers dying on the battlefield.

In fact, the observation of improved educational achievements and health awareness may dovetail into the observable spread of Enlightenment thought, as those who reason abstractly can ask, “What would the world be like if everyone did this?” And now would be a good time to perpetuate that kind of awareness, since the world (according to Pinker’s data) is more democratic, less authoritarian, more tolerant and happier, along with less lonely inhabitants.

Not surprisingly, such cheery optimism brings out the Scrooge in certain people, nauseates others and, according to some, may run counter to the rationality espoused by some of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosophers.

A New York Times review of the book by Jennifer Szalai fumed: “But life isn’t lived in the aggregate, and it’s crude utilitarian sentiments like this — a jarring blend of chipper triumphalism and unfeeling sang-froid — that makes ‘Enlightenment Now’ such a profoundly maddening book.” The reviewer further takes issue with Pinker’s “mild alarm” about climate change, his “messianic anticipation” of future progress, and his description of the Trump presidency and authoritarian populism as little more than “a pushback of elements of human nature.”

Others object to Pinker’s singling out of Friedrich Nietzsche as an implied Romantic enemy of reason who preached a life of instinct and emotion. Samuel Moyn, in a review for the New Republic, argues that Nietzsche was in his own way a scion of the Enlightenment, who was “sensitive to the fact that progress and regress can coexist, and he worried that it is all too easy to misrepresent conformity as freedom.”

Moyn further quotes Scottish philosopher David Hume as bluntly stating that “No advantages in this world are pure and unmixed.” In the same article, he quotes Immanuel Kant’s observation that “the problem of progress cannot be solved directly from experience.” Kant is further quoted as saying, “Even if it were found that the human race as a whole had been moving forward and progressing for an indefinitely long time, no one would guarantee that its era of decline was not beginning at that very moment.”

John Gray ("Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus"), in a review for the New Statesman, says the biggest problem with this “comic-book history of the Enlightenment” is the premise that it (the Enlightenment) is innocent of all evil.

Hmmm ... Well, I guess the takeaway is this: Things are neither as good nor as bad as they could be — just like they’ve been saying since the dawn of mankind.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.