Review of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018)

Steven Pinker (writer).

Read in 2020.

Pinker refers repeatedly to Hans and Ola Rosling, even going so far as to adopt Hans’s stupid “possibilist” moniker for his optimism. However, Pinker is a lot more nuanced, more erudite, and concerned with a broader range of scholarship and human experience. Enlightenment Now is decidedly better than Factfulness (2018), and yet it has many of the same problems.

Pinker starts from a trivial moral philosophy, asserting for instance that life is better than death. This bare assertion is neither clever nor logical. Instead of motivating it, Pinker dismisses scholars of the humanities—the very people he would need to build a genuine philosophical argument—as conservative and glum. What Pinker is really arguing for is not a philosophy but basic animal drives: comfort and play by fancier names like “health”, “wealth”, “freedom” etc. I wish he’d done it openly instead of pretending that Kant’s moral imperative is some sort of provable bedrock. Whether it’s hypocrisy or naïvité, it makes him sound a bit like Jordan Peterson.

Elsewhere, Pinker is selective in his view of the evidence. He happily charts the wealth of prehistoric hunterer-gatherer societies in monetary terms, but when the time comes to examine inequalities of wealth within societies, suddenly hunter-gatherers are too primitive to compare to modern economies. He believes that human happiness as a function of wealth is some logarithm, explaining diminishing returns in the most developed human-run economies, yet he dismisses the idea that artificial intelligence could be truly disruptive of this curious envelope, as if the species that built the hydrogen bomb would never invent AGI.

To hear Pinker tell it, contemporary US economic inequality might be good, as a spur. Sure, he says, the Kuznets curve is broken, but whatever. The biggest problem in his world is the threat that economic growth might some day end, a scenario more logical than life being better than death. He complains about Donald Trump and other contemporary authoritarian and obscurantist triumphs, yet he downplays the disproportionate political influence of the rich, as if these things were unrelated. Instead, he seems to think the problem is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he presents in Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s version.

Pinker’s brand of humanism, he says, can apply to non-human nature, but that’s out of scope, so he just lampshades the contradiction in terms and says nothing further on the subject. This is the Roslings’ anthropocentrism again. Like the Roslings, Pinker is basically right, and he’s right in more interesting ways. Enlightenment ideals do need defending and this is a pretty good way to do it, but the book is a bit of a rant.

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