The critical optimist


The critical optimist

Steven Pinker on why the Enlightenment still matters.

Steven Pinker

Topics Books Long-reads

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‘My other books have generated interest – The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Blank Slate – but nothing like this.’ Steven Pinker is in the middle of an afternoon of back-to-back interviews. Again. It is fair to say his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress has touched a cultural nerve. Some, such as Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates who declared it ‘my new favourite book of all time’, have been inspired, while others have been piqued. One prominent Guardian columnist even went so far as to declare it ‘contrary to reason’.

It is not hard to see why it has proved so polarising. Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and linguist by training, and a public intellectual by inclination, has mounted a defence of what he identifies as the key Enlightenment principles of reason, science and humanism – and he has done so on practical and evidential as much as philosophical ground. They are important, he argues, because they have worked to our collective betterment. Thanks to our adherence to ideas first formulated during the Enlightenment, our lives over the past 250 years have improved by every conceivable measure – we are wealthier, healthier; we are more equal, more knowledgeable; we enjoy greater peace, greater security. We are therefore in the midst of and enjoying clear, quantifiable progress. To those loyal to reason, humanism and indeed liberalism Enlightenment Now reads like a vindication. To adherents of environmentalism and identity-obsessed particularism, it reads like a reprimand.

Look beyond the polemics, however, and you will find Enlightenment Now to be an edifying, quietly impassioned book. And, while it contains an element of uplift, its impetus is principally critical – critical of the resurgent counter-Enlightenment, of those who would sacrifice the pursuit of truth at the altar of politics, of the anti-science sentiments now gaining ground. To discuss some of these elements of Enlightenment Now, we spoke to the man himself.

spiked review: You write of the excessive pessimism of the present, of ‘progressphobia’ (which you counter in Enlightenment Now with our all too verifiable progress). But given the note of alarm you strike about the abandonment of Enlightenment principles, are you guilty of something similar? Are you overstating the animus towards Enlightenment principles?

Pinker: The reaction to the book would tend to suggest otherwise. Any suspicion that Enlightenment values are so accepted as to not need a case, I think has been refuted by some of the vituperative reviews I’ve had – which I anticipated. The value of reason and science and humanism is by no means trite, or banal. There are factions, including many in academia, who are dead set against them.

review: Some critics have drawn attention to your lack of in-depth treatment of the actual Enlightenment, but Enlightenment Now was never meant to be a scholarly treatment of the past, was it?

Pinker: That’s right. It’s not a book that tries to vindicate the work and thought of a bunch of guys – from Voltaire to Kant – who wrote in the second half of the 18th century. In fact that itself would contradict the value of reason and disinterested inquiry, because no group of guys could figure it all out. They were human, they were the products of their time. As I mention in Enlightenment Now, several of them were slave holders, some others were racist, some anti-semitic and some sexist. It’s not the historical personages I’m promoting; it’s a set of ideas. And all ideas have to come from somewhere – there has to be someone who first articulated ideas in a way that continues to stick. So I chose the Enlightenment as a rubric for this family of ideas. But it’s the ideas that count, not those particular guys.

review: And you hold those ideas responsible for what you identify as the progress of the past 250 years?

Pinker: That’s right. It’s the application of reason and science and humanism that deserve much of the credit for the progress I try to document.

review: I wonder, though, if you could be accused of attributing too much to Enlightenment ideas? For example, you write of democratic progress, of the increase in democracy across the world over the past two centuries. But was, say, the political progress in 19th-century England, of the struggle for male suffrage on the part of the Chartists, and then, in the early 20th century, of the struggle for female and therefore universal suffrage on the part of the Suffragettes – was that democratic progress really best understood in terms of the power of Enlightenment ideas? Are there not other factors in play here? The struggle for certain material and political objectives and so on.

Pinker: Well certainly it would be hard to gainsay the importance of the idea of equality in motivating the suffragists for example, and the arguments for women’s equality were motivated by the arguments against slavery. Mary Astell, a 17th-century writer who may perhaps be called the first feminist, was precocious in that she wrote before the era we traditionally label the Enlightenment. But she was echoing the arguments made against slavery, namely that there is no evidence one class of people is inherently inferior to another, nor does any human have the right to exert arbitrary power over another. And these are ideas that come about from the exercise of reason, and the questioning of dogma and authority and tradition that are very much part of the Enlightenment project I’m championing.

This is not a book of intellectual history. I’m not tracing a thread of influence that can unambiguously be rooted in this particular era. I do think there was a concentration of these ideas – not least because the Enlightenment thinkers influenced each other. Some of the ideas developed earlier, some later.

And also, speaking perhaps directly to your question, there are certain types of progress that perhaps should not be attributed directly to Enlightenment ideas. The decline, for example, of personal violence, starting in the late Middle Ages, which the German sociologist Norbert Elias attributed to a civilising process that was instigated when central states imposed the rule of law over the medieval patchwork of anarchic feasts. That itself was a kind of progress that did not depend on Enlightenment ideas.

Likewise there may be certain benefits to human flourishing that come about from the sheer rise of prosperity, itself a product of the industrial revolution, which was influenced by the growth of science. But there were many benefits that may come about simply from a society becoming richer, regardless of its ideas.

review: Regarding those Enlightenment ideas, why did you single out reason, science and humanism in particular? Why not, for example, autonomy, that principle of self-government that seems so central to Kant’s definition in What is Enlightenment, which you yourself quote from?

Pinker: Well, I would assimilate autonomy in part to reason, namely that the ability to know, and not to accept authority is itself a result of reason. That is, there’s no particular reason to believe that just because someone has power that they are correct or sound, nor that the fact that a society has adopted a belief as part of its conventional wisdom is itself a motivation to believe it. So the autonomy of thinking, of arguing, of free speech, is an implication of reason. And the autonomy of the individual, who is to be free of arbitrary power, I would assimilate to humanism. That for humans to flourish, they should not be subject to the arbitrary power of others.

This is not a knockdown argument as to why one shouldn’t privilege autonomy, which I actually think is an important value. One can partition the different values in different ways, draw the lines between different ideas in different ways.

review: Now, you write of the ‘stigmatisation of science’, that there is ‘an anti-science agenda’ today. Which might sound counterintuitive to many, given the myriad ways our lives rely on the application of scientific knowledge. So what is this ‘anti-science agenda’, and where has it come from?

Pinker: The simple analysis would be that it comes from turf battles within intellectual life and within the university, that science, which has so self-evidently grown and benefited humanity, has provoked resentment among intellectuals in other fields. They feel that the sciences are encroaching on their turf, particularly when it comes to subjects traditionally confined to the humanities such as the analysis of art, the analysis of politics, of history. But, as I point out, the Enlightenment thinkers drew no such boundaries between subjects, and they were eager to apply what we would today call cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, in their ethical, historical and political debates.

Since the Enlightenment, universities have become more specialised, intellectual life has become more organised, the efforts to pick up on the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge has often been met with resistance among defenders of their traditional turfs who are jealous at the incursion of unfamiliar ideas and possibly with the expansion rival factions at what they percieve to be at their own expense.

There was a reply to my 2013 article in the New Republic, ‘Science is not your enemy’, by Leon Wieseltier called ‘Now science is poised to invade the humanities, don’t let it happen’, which captures this bunker mentality perfectly. Indeed, it was one of the inspirations for me to write Enlightenment Now.

review: In Enlightenment Now you write that ‘The call for everyone to think more scientifically must not be confused with the call to hand decision making over to scientists’. Given this caveat to your defence of the importance of science, I wondered what you made of the use of science to authorise and legitimise political or moral decisions? You can see this in the climate-change debate where you get formulations along the lines of ‘The science says we must reduce our consumption levels’ and so on. Do you think that is an abuse of science?

Pinker: By science, I don’t meant the particular opinions of people who call themselves scientists, but rather conclusions that are justified by our best science, that can be defended by methods of scientific validation and often confirm any one of our policies that hinges on the understanding of the world. Now if there is enormous overwhelming evidence that continuing to burn fossil fuels will lead to rising sea levels, crop failures and displaced peoples, that doesn’t automatically mean we should decarbonise the economy. But if we value human wellbeing, combining that value with the evidence that fossil-fuel burning will increase those harms, leads to a particularly strong argument for decarbonising the economy.

As a matter of pure logic, no fact by itself can justify a policy. But when you have values that are very widely shared, and when you have facts that are pretty well established, I think, in combination, that militates pretty strongly to certain courses of action.

So just as an analogy, if you have a child suffering from a particular disease and there’s a drug available that will save his life, it’s not a logical error to withhold the drug from the child, but assuming that you do have the value that life is good, and premature death is bad, then the scientific facts are highly relevant as to whether the child ought to receive the drug.

review: It can sometimes seem, though, that you’re asking science to stand in for ethics, to tell people what they ought to do?

Pinker: No, I explicitly deny that, and categorically deny it as a statement. However, I would argue that given certain values, such as life is better than death, health is better than sickness, prosperity is better than poverty and so on, which themselves cannot be directly justified by science, if you combine those with certain scientifically supported propositions, then there is a moral course of action that is justified.

So, yes, science doesn’t tell us that we should cure disease instead of letting it fester, but given that we do think we should cure disease, science is very relevant as to how we cure it.

review: You mention values there, and one of the post-Nietzschean, counter-Enlightenment positions that you touch upon in Enlightenment Now is the argument that our use of our own reason, rather than other external, say, religious authorities, has led to the so-called disenchantment of the world, and a lingering sense of nihilism…

Pinker: Yes, instead of disenchantment, the phrase I’d use, which I’ve borrowed from Carl Sagan, is that we have escaped from the demon-haunted world, a world in which evil spirits awaited at every turn, a world in which your ancestors’ past lives impact on your current life, the fear of eternal damnation and so on. So I don’t see what is so hot about a tradition-oriented worldview. I say good riddance to it. And I would deny that it leads to a worldview that is meaningless. The idea of curing disease, of ending hunger, of curing extreme poverty, extending human lifespans, adding to human knowledge – they’re all plenty meaningful. For someone who says saving human lives, bringing peace to the world, ending violence to women, ‘that’s all meaningless’ – I respectfully disagree. They’re plenty meaningful.

review: In Enlightenment Now, you say that with our growing freedom, comes a degree of uncertainty, and therefore ‘a modicum of anxiety’ – but that it’s a price worth paying. It almost seems a proto-Existentialist position

Pinker: In a way it is. As we mature, which Kant identified as the key Enlightenment theme, leaving behind our self-imposed immaturity, one of the burdens of maturity is to be aware of threats and challenges of which our ancestors might have been oblivious. The fact that today we’re more aware of threats, from ill health due to a lack of exercise or an unhealthy diet, to too much exposure to ultraviolet rays, or societal threats, such as being aware of racism and sexism and poverty and so on, may add to our personal burden of anxiety. But that is to be preferred to living in unspoken complacency.

review: You also touch on the unpleasant, unfree reality of living in a small, tradition-bound, tightly-knit community, for which which some counter-Enlightenment thinkers seem almost nostalgic.

Pinker: Yes precisely. That’s another part of the answer. Before we get too nostalgic about close-knit village and family life, we should remember how hard our ancestors struggled to escape it. That is why the suffocating norms of bourgeois and aristocratic and, for that matter, rural culture, was a major theme of the 19th-century novel.

review: On the counter-Enlightenment, I wonder if Nietzsche does too much work in your account? He’s almost the demiurge of all that is wrong in Enlightenment Now.

Pinker: He is the embodiment of much of the opposite of Enlightenment values. One prominent humanist said to me that humanism is the belief that our moral systems should be based neither on religion nor on Nietzsche.

Not only does the content of Nietzsche’s ideas oppose the ideas of the Enlightenment, such as universal human flourishing, such as progress, such as reason and the search for objective truth, but also, historically, the most toxic anti-Enlightenment movements, such as fascism, such as Nazism, such as the alt-right today, and the revival of fascism, explicitly credit Nietzsche as an inspiration. So even though defenders of Nietzsche say that he was not himself a German nationalist or an anti-Semite, which is true, his valorisation of a superior breed of human, the Übermenschen, is but a small step away from valorising race and nation. As opposed to universal human flourishing, which he identified with Christianity, but could just as well be identified with secular humanism.

review: You mention the threat posed by the alt-right, which, in Enlightenment Now, you say has contributed to the politicisation of public debate at the expense of reason. Do you feel that the left has had a similar impact on the academic sphere? Are Enlightenment ideals – from freedom of inquiry to Kant’s ‘Sapere Aude’ – now under threat even in institutions, such as universities, which are meant to enshrine them?’

Pinker: Yes, there is a left-leaning orthodoxy in some parts of the academy, particularly in the humanities and social sciences (though it varies across departments — I sense that psychology and economics are somewhat more ideologically diverse than other fields). Certain classes of hypotheses are neglected, even unmentionable, which can send entire fields of inquiry down blind alleys for decades. And the reputation for political bias in the worst sectors (particularly as imposed by the student-life and other bureaucracies, which have little adult supervision and no commitment to intellectual freedom) taints the academy as a whole, making it easy for politicised critics to dismiss anything they don’t like which comes out of a university, even if it is intellectually impeccable.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University. His most recent book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books Long-reads


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