Has the Enlightenment Made Things Rosier, Or Just Pinker? image

Has the Enlightenment Made Things Rosier, Or Just Pinker?

Steven Pinker thinks the world is getting better, and he has the statistics to prove it. His latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, is a chart-filled epic that purports to demonstrate a) that by virtually every conceivable measure the world is getting better, and b) that, as his title and subtitle imply, this is the result of Enlightenment values like reason, science, humanism and progress. It has been doing the rounds in the mainstream media—Radio 4, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, etc—and Bill Gates has breathlessly proclaimed it "My new favourite book of all time." You can see why: most of us want to believe that things are improving, and most of us want to believe that the things we hold dear are responsible for that. But a number of critics have argued (very convincingly, in my view) that although a case can certainly be made for a), however we nuance it, the case for b) is logically confused, philosophically naive and historically ill-informed. Four such reviews in particular caught my attention.

The philosopher John Gray, writing in the New Statesman, is the most excoriating. In a pithy, punchy and pugilistic review, Gray calls the book “laborious,” “embarrassingly feeble,” “unhistorical,” “anodyne” and “mythical,” a “parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest,” including evaluations that “would not pass muster in a first year undergraduate’s essay.” And the reason for this is not that Gray disputes the myriad of information that Pinker assembles—although his acerbic remarks on progress, twentieth century wars, prison populations and animal rights suggests Gray thinks it is somewhat selective—but that his Enlightenment history is so shoddy. The Enlightenment in which Pinker believes is retrospectively edited to the point of being fictional; there is no Hume or Comte, no eugenics or enlightened despotism, no Jacobins or Bolsheviks. “A more intellectually inquiring author would have conveyed something of the Enlightenment’s richness and diversity.” Instead, Gray argues, the book has been written “to reassure his audience that they are on ‘the right side of history.’”

This is particularly true when it comes to who gets the credit for modern ideals like liberalism, democracy and equality. Pinker, obviously, believes the answer is the values of the Enlightenment (although which Enlightenment values, when, where, and expressed by whom, are not always clarified). For Gray, they have far more to do with a mixture of Enlightenment and Judeo-Christianity than with agnosticism, let alone atheism:

The link between the Enlightenment and liberal values, which Pinker and many others today assert as a universal truth, is actually rather tenuous. It is strongest in Enlightenment thinkers who were wedded to monotheism, such as Locke and indeed Kant. The more hostile the Enlightenment has been to monotheism, the more illiberal it has been ... As Nietzsche never tired of pointing out, the ideal of equality is an inheritance from Judaism and Christianity. His hatred of equality is one reason he was such a vehement atheist.

One result of this is that Pinker’s optimism may be unfounded:

If an Enlightenment project survives, what reason is there for thinking it will be embodied in liberal democracy? What if the Enlightenment’s future is not in the liberal West, now almost ungovernable as a result of the culture wars in which it is mired, but Xi Jinping’s China, where an altogether tougher breed of rationalist is in charge? It is a prospect that Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and other exponents of enlightened despotism would have heartily welcomed.

A far more irenic response is provided by Nick Spencer summary at Theos. Spencer, though he has a number of criticisms of Pinker’s overall thesis, begins by summarising the positive contribution of the book, which is the meticulous counting and chartmaking which form its heart:

On the basis that our answer to the question of progress should be determined by counting, Pinker presents graphs on life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality, infectious diseases, calorie intake, food availability, wealth, poverty, extreme poverty, deforestation, oil spills, protected areas, war, violence, homicides, battle deaths, famine deaths, pedestrian deaths, plane crash deaths, occupational accident deaths, natural disaster deaths, deaths by lightning, human rights, state executions, racism, sexism, homophobia, hate crimes, violence against women, liberal values, child labour, literacy, education, IQ, hours worked, years in retirement, utilities and homework, the price of light, disposable spending, leisure time, travel, tourism… and much else besides.

“Pinker’s case for progress is well–written, supremely well–evidenced, and convincing,” he concludes. “Frustratingly, the same cannot really be said of where he thinks this progress originates.” (This, incidentally, is also the criticism of David Wootton’s TLS review: “The only major claim not supported by a graph (or indeed much evidence of any kind) is the assertion that all this progress has something to do with the Enlightenment.”) On the one hand, Pinker ignores anything which might make “the Enlightenment” complicit in anything bad, from Bentham’s utilitarian medical ethics to slavery and scientific racism. On the other, he tries to suggest that the leading Enlightenment figures were atheists (“Spinoza wasn’t. Locke wasn’t. Newton wasn’t. Hobbes wasn’t (but really who knows with Hobbes). Boyle wasn’t. Voltaire wasn’t. Hume wasn’t. Gibbon wasn’t. Kant wasn’t. Paine wasn’t. Priestley wasn’t”), and fails to recognise from where (and when!) many of his favourite ideas, and the “inclusive institutions” which made them possible, actually emerged:

Many such inclusive institutions happened, by some quirk of fate, to come together in England in 1688 in a remarkable and stable balance, which united ideas of rights, equality, limited royal power, Parliamentary ‘sovereignty’, frequent Parliaments, overseen taxation, domestic peace and stability, rule of law, common law, property rights, (comparative) free speech and press, and (comparative) freedom of religion ... Like it or not—and Pinker clearly doesn’t—many of those cultural conditions were Christian in formulation, as the list above will have indicated.

Alison Gopnik in The Atlantic raises a somewhat different objection: “if things are so much better, why do they feel, for so many people, so much worse?” Why is it that the overwhelming material and statistical progress Pinker so assiduously documents is not leading to greater happiness for all? It is likely, she explains, that the autonomous individualism of the Enlightenment project leads to the erosion of the immediate, personal and local relationships—in communities, societies, religious organisations and above all families—that actually make people happy.

The very same economic and social forces (such as a global free market) that have fueled the progress that Pinker charts have also made it harder to maintain a network of local attachments. Pinker’s book doesn’t include one notably pessimistic set of graphs: those that chart the signs that local relationships are threatened—even the most-basic relationships, between partners and between parents and children. Since 1960, the marriage rate in the U.S. has declined substantially, particularly for lower-income and less-educated people, and the proportion of single-parent families among American households has risen. Meanwhile, the child poverty rate has remained high.

Drawing from Isaiah Berlin, Gopnik suggests that we should neither allow globalism to destroy localism, nor batten down the hatches to attempt the reverse, but rather to make room for multiple and conflicting goods. “Family and work, solidarity and autonomy, tradition and innovation are really valuable, and really in tension, in both the lives of individuals and the life of a nation. One challenge for enlightenment now is to build social institutions that can bridge and balance these values.”

All of this is given a fascinating twist by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Douthat is suspicious (as many are) of the similarities between the type of Enlightenment Pinker gives us and his own political and social preferences (“stridently secular, mildly libertarian, anti-P.C.”), and of the selective narrative he provides to get us there. But his main point is that on the ground, we do not see religious experimentation diminishing as scientific experimentation increases, but the exact opposite: we find religious curiosity going up as scientific advances are made (a point that has been made many times when it comes to seventeenth century science, magic and alchemy). “They proceed from the same intense curiosity, the same desire for understanding through experience—and personalized experimentation can be the only way to be empirical when your subject is the strange nexus of the self.” Which means that

in many instances the interests that Pinker dismisses as irrational hugger-mugger, everything from astrology to spiritualism, have tended to strengthen during periods of real scientific ferment. It’s why Isaac Newton loved alchemy and the Victorians loved séances; it’s why charismatic Christianity has spread very naturally with economic development in Africa and Latin America and why the Space Age coincided with the spread of all those health food stores. It’s not that there is some quantum of unreason that needs an outlet when reason’s power grows. Rather, it’s that when people and societies are genuinely curious they are very reasonably curious about everything, including things happening in their bodies and their consciousness and more speculative realms.

Steven Pinker has written a thought-provoking book, and for that we should thank him. It is probably half-right. But the half that is wrong is wrong enough, and sufficiently upside-down from a historical point of view, that it raises questions amongst those who are, in Douthat’s phrase, “curious about everything.” The world may well be getting rosier—and having watched The Revenant last night, I’m inclined to think that it is—but not because it is Pinker.

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