Book Summary: “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker


Title: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
Author: Steven Pinker
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Pinker shows that humanity has experienced enormous progress and claims that this progress comes from beliefs promoted by the Enlightenment.

My Comments

While I believe that Pinker overstates the importance of the Enlightenment, reason and science towards the creation of progress, he does an excellent job of documenting progress and explaining why we should care. He also does an excellent job of countering the arguments of those who are skeptical of progress or hostile to it.

I highly recommend this book.

Key Take-aways

  • Humanity has enjoyed enormous progress over the past few generations. This progress is widespread both geographically and in its breadth of domains (life, health, peace, security, prosperity, etc).
  • The Enlightenment was one of first times when a significant number of thinkers devoted their work towards promoting progress.
  • Reason, science and humanism can all be effective tools at overcoming the irrational and anti-social sides of human nature and promoting progress.

Important Quotes from Book

I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.

The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. I wrote this book because I have come to realize that it is not. More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense. We take its gifts for granted.

We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions, and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril.

This book is my attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century.

The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two-thirds of the 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century and spilled into the heyday of classical liberalism of the first half of the 19th… The era was a cornucopia of ideas, some of them contradictory, but four themes tie them together: reason, science, humanism, and progress.

Foremost is reason…If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.

That leads to the second ideal, science, the refining of reason to understand the world. The Scientific Revolution was revolutionary in a way that is hard to appreciate today, now that its discoveries have become second nature to most of us.

To the Enlightenment thinkers the escape from ignorance and superstition showed how mistaken our conventional wisdom could be, and how the methods of science—skepticism, fallibilism, open debate, and empirical testing—are a paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge.

That knowledge includes an understanding of ourselves.

The thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw an urgent need for a secular foundation for morality, because they were haunted by a historical memory of centuries of religious carnage.

With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism, humanity could make intellectual and moral progress.

Rather than trying to shape human nature, the Enlightenment hope for progress was concentrated on human institutions.

The Enlightenment also saw the first rational analysis of prosperity.

It takes nothing away from the Enlightenment thinkers to identify some critical ideas about the human condition and the nature of progress that we know and they didn’t. Those ideas, I suggest, are entropy, evolution, and information.

The first keystone in understanding the human condition is the concept of entropy or disorder, which emerged from 19th-century physics and was defined in its current form by the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not interacting with its environment), entropy never decreases.

The universe began in a state of low entropy, the Big Bang, with its unfathomably dense concentration of energy. From there everything went downhill, with the universe dispersing—as it will continue to do—into a thin gruel of particles evenly and sparsely distributed through space.

One reason the cosmos is filled with so much interesting stuff is a set of processes called self-organization, which allow circumscribed zones of order to emerge.

Organisms are open systems: they capture energy from the sun, food, or ocean vents to carve out temporary pockets of order in their bodies and nests while they dump heat and waste into the environment, increasing disorder in the world as a whole.

And now we come to the third keystone, information. Information may be thought of as a reduction in entropy—as the ingredient that distinguishes an orderly, structured system from the vast set of random, useless ones.

Information is what gets accumulated in a genome in the course of evolution.

The principles of information, computation, and control bridge the chasm between the physical world of cause and effect and the mental world of knowledge, intelligence, and purpose.

Entro, evo, info. These concepts define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means for eking out a better existence.

The first piece of wisdom they offer is that misfortune may be no one’s fault. A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that theuniverse is saturated with purpose.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind.

Evolution left us with another burden: our cognitive, emotional, and moral faculties are adapted to individual survival and reproduction in an archaic environment, not to universal thriving in a modern one.

So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. Not coincidentally, these were the major brainchildren of the Enlightenment.

The disdain for reason, science, humanism, and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic culture.

The Romantic movement pushed back particularly hard against Enlightenment ideals… Heroic struggle, not the solving of problems, is the greatest good, and violence is inherent to nature and cannot be stifled without draining life of its vitality.

A second counter-Enlightenment idea is that people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up.

The left tends to be sympathetic to yet another movement that subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem.

Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of likeminded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause… Political ideology undermines reason and science. It scrambles people’s judgment, inflames a primitive tribal mindset, and distracts them from a sounder understanding of how to improve the world.

But it’s the idea of progress that sticks most firmly in the craw [of many intellectuals].

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress.

What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer.

Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.

All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.

In the year 2000, all 189 members of the United Nations, together with two dozen international organizations, agreed on eight Millennium Development Goals for the year 2015 that blend right into this list.

And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a secondshocker: Almost no one knows about it.

Pinker then goes on to display graphics that show tremendous progress for all the following:

  • Life
  • Health
  • Sustenance
  • Environment
  • Peace
  • Safety
  • Terrorism
  • Democracy
  • Equal Rights
  • Knowledge
  • Quality of Life
  • Happiness

To begin with, no Enlightenment thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently rational… What they argued was that we ought to be rational.

Another paradox of rationality is that expertise, brainpower, and conscious reasoning do not, by themselves, guarantee that thinkers will approach the truth. On the contrary, they can be weapons for ever-more-ingenious rationalization.

Engagement with politics is like sports fandom in another way: people seek and consume news to enhance the fan experience, not to make their opinions more accurate.

Reason tells us that political deliberation would be most fruitful if it treated governance more like scientific experimentation and less like an extreme-sports competition.

The major enemy of reason in the public sphere today—which is not ignorance, innumeracy, or cognitive biases, but politicization—appears to be on an upswing.

Universities ought to be the arena in which political prejudice is set aside and open-minded investigation reveals the way the world works. But just when we need this disinterested forum the most, academia has become more politicized as well—not more polarized, but more left-wing.

Yet there is one realm of accomplishment of which we can unabashedly boast before any tribunal of minds, and that is science.

Though our ignorance is vast (and always will be), our knowledge is astonishing, and growing daily.

Many intellectuals are enraged by the intrusion of science into the traditional territories of the humanities, such as politics, history, and the arts.

What, then, distinguishes science from other exercises of reason? It certainly isn’t “the scientific method,”… Scientists use whichever methods help them understand the world: drudgelike tabulation of data, experimental derring-do, flights of theoretical fancy, elegant mathematical modeling, kludgy computer simulation, sweeping verbal narrative.All the methods are pressed into the service of two ideals, and it is these ideals that advocates of science want to export to the rest of intellectual life.

The first is that the world is intelligible.

The second ideal is that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct. The traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, hermeneutic parsing of texts, the glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. Instead our beliefs about empirical propositions should be calibrated by their fit to the world.

A scientist’s degree of belief in a theory depends on its consistency with empirical evidence. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the testing of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

Ultimately the greatest payoff of instilling an appreciation of science is for everyone to think more scientifically.

One of the greatest potential contributions of modern science may be a deeper integration with its academic partner, the humanities. By all accounts, the humanities are in trouble.

The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism… It is humanism that identifies what we should try to achieve with our knowledge. It provides the ought that supplements the is. It distinguishes true progress from mere mastery.

There is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.

The physical requirements that allow rational agents to exist in the material world are not abstract design specifications; they are implemented in the brain as wants, needs, emotions, pains, and pleasures.

That means that food, comfort, curiosity, beauty, stimulation, love, sex, and camaraderie are not shallow indulgences or hedonistic distractions. They are links in the causal chain that allowed minds to come into being. Unlike ascetic and puritanical regimes, humanistic ethics does not second-guess the intrinsic worth of people seeking comfort, pleasure, and fulfillment—if people didn’t seek them, there would be no people. At the same time, evolution guarantees that these desires will work at cross-purposes with each other and with those of other people. Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desires among people.

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.

A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon. The ideal of human flourishing—that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives—is just such a principle, since it is based on nothing more (and nothing less) than our common humanity.

History confirms that when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge toward humanism.

The appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made. When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs, and that every problem is an outrage that calls for blaming evildoers, wrecking institutions, and empowering a leader who will restore the country to its rightful greatness.

Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there’s no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too.

Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool. But what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. It goes something like this.

We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.

Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy—for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.

These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.

As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived.

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true.

And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity.

Related Books

If you would like to learn more about Progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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