A Full-Throated Defense of Western Enlightenment Values

Published May 16, 2018

The headlines in the newspaper and blared on television news often tell of ways in which the world may be getting worse, but the importance of seeing the world as it really is cannot be overstated.

In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, urges readers to set aside these lurid headlines and prophecies of impending doom and consider the facts underlying the reality of a happy and prosperous world.

Appreciating Modernity

Pinker provides an unapologetic defense of Enlightenment ideals—such as the belief in progress, the primacy of science, and self-determination—explaining just how the world has become better over the centuries.

“More than ever, the ideals of science, reason, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense,” Pinker writes. “We take its gifts for granted: newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.”

Taking the greatness of modernity for granted risks losing those gifts, Pinker notes.

“But these are human accomplishments, not cosmic birthrights,” Pinker writes. “In the memories of many readers of this book—and in the experience of those in less fortunate parts of the world—war, scarcity, disease, ignorance, and lethal menace are a natural part of existence. We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions, and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril.”

Specific Examples Cited

Using historical descriptions backed by more than 1,000 references and 1,200 footnotes, Pinker recounts how technology has lifted humanity out of the mud, contrary to the fatalist forecasts of a world made worse by technology.

Indeed, Pinker writes, lower-income individuals in developed countries such as the U.S. are quite well-off. The tide of technology, he notes, lifts all boats, including those occupied by the neediest people.

“Together, technology and globalization have transformed what it means to be a poor person, at least in developed countries,” Pinker writes. “The old stereotype of poverty was an emaciated pauper in rags. Today, the poor are likely to be as overweight as their employers, and dressed in the same fleece, sneakers, and jeans. The poor used to be called the have-nots.

“In 2011, more than 95 percent of American households below the poverty line had electricity, running water, flush toilets, a refrigerator, a stove, and a color TV,” Pinker writes. “A century and a half before, the Rothschilds, Astors, and Vanderbilts had none of these things. Almost half of the households below the poverty line had a dishwasher, 60 percent had a computer, around two- thirds had a washing machine and a clothes dryer, and more than 80 percent had an air conditioner, a video recorder, and a cell phone.”

Apocalypse When?

As Enlightenment Now moves from the concrete to the abstract, Pinker engagingly notes many people continue to predict the decline of modern life and decay of order into chaos despite the obvious facts contradicting such prognostications.

If the world is getting worse and civilization is slouching toward ruin, Pinker writes, it’s taking its sweet time about it.

“For almost two centuries, a diverse array of writers has proclaimed that modern civilization, far from enjoying progress, is in steady decline and on the verge of collapse,” Pinker writes. “In The Idea of Decline in Western Civilization, the historian Arthur Herman recounts two centuries of doomsayers who have sounded the alarm of racial, cultural, political, or ecological degeneration. Apparently the world has been coming to an end for a long time indeed.”

Pinker identifies the various strains of this genre of doom-and-gloom prophecy he calls declinism, expertly explaining why being bearish on humanity’s chances is a bad bet. Instead of being happy about Armageddon failing to occur, adherents to declinism simply find another end-of-the-world scenario to fear, Pinker explains.

“One form of declinism bemoans our Promethean dabbling with technology,” Pinker writes. “By wresting fire from the gods, we have only given our species the means to end its own existence, if not by poisoning our environment, then by loosing nuclear weapons, nanotechnology, cyber-terror, bio-terror, artificial intelligence, and other existential threats upon the world. And even if our technological civilization manages to escape outright annihilation, it is spiraling into a dystopia of violence and injustice: a brave new world of terrorism, drones, sweatshops, gangs, trafficking, refugees, inequality, cyberbullying, sexual assault, and hate crimes.”

Predicting a Bright Future

Readers will delight, as I did, in Pinker’s challenging defiance of common declinist wisdom as he takes us on a tour of a promising future, appreciating the greatness of the world as it is.

Make no mistake: the future will not be perfect, and Pinker’s Enlightenment Now makes no such claims.

However, readers will close the book with a renewed hope that humanity can rise to whatever challenges life may bring, unafraid to scale the great heights of which we are capable.