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Reason (and Science) for Hope

February 23, 2018

A review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018, ISBN 978-0525427575). This review appeared in Science in February 2018.

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization (book cover)

How much better can you imagine the world being than it is right now? How much worse can you imagine the world being than it is right now?

For most of us, it is easier to imagine the world going to hell in a handbasket than it is to picture some rosy future, which explains why there are far more dystopian and apocalyptic books and films than there are utopian. We can readily conjure up such incremental improvements as increased Internet bandwidth, improved automobile navigation systems, or another year added to our average lifespan. But what really gets imaginations roiling are the images of nuclear Armageddon, AI robots run amok, or terrorists mowing down pedestrians in trucks.

The reason for this asymmetry is an evolved feature of human cognition called the negativity bias, explored in depth by the Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker in his magisterial new book Enlightenment Now, an estimable sequel to his The Better Angels of Our Nature, which Bill Gates called “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” This is not hyperbole. Enlightenment Now is the most uplifting work of science I’ve ever read. Pinker begins with the Enlightenment because the scientists and scholars who drove that movement took the methods of reason and science developed in the Scientific Revolution and applied them to solving problems in all fields of knowledge: physical, biological, and social. “Dare to know” was Immanuel Kant’s oft-quoted one-line summary of the age he helped launch, and with knowledge comes power over nature, starting with the Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy, which Pinker fingers as the cause of our natural-born pessimism. In the world in which our ancestors evolved their cognition and emotions that we inherited, entropy dictates that there are more ways for things to go bad than good, so our modern psychology is tuned to a world that was more dangerous in our evolutionary past than it is today. Your life depends on all systems working, so the good news of experiencing another pain-free day goes unnoticed, whereas painful catastrophic failures can spell the end of your existence, so we focus on the latter more than the former. “The Law of Entropy is widely acknowledged in everyday life in sayings such as ‘Things fall apart,’ ‘Rust never sleeps,’ ‘Shit happens,’ ‘Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,’” Pinker writes (p. 16). But instead of interpreting misfortunes like accidents, plagues, famine, and disease as the result of angry gods, vengeful demons, or bewitching women like our medieval ancestors did, we know that they’re just entropy taking its course. We don’t need an explanation for poverty, for example, because that is what you get if you do nothing to manipulate your environment to produce wealth. The application of knowledge to solving problems of survival that result from entropy is what propelled us to unimaginable levels of progress, which Pinker documents in 75 charts and graphs and thousands of statistics in 14 chapters covering life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness.

On average, since the time of the Enlightenment more people in more places more of the time live longer, healthier, happier, and more meaningful lives filled with enriching works of art, music, literature, science, technology, and medicine, not to mention food, drink, clothes, cars, houses, international travel, and instant and free access to all the world’s knowledge. Exceptions are no counter to Pinker’s massive data set. Follow the trend lines, not the headlines. “War between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world’s surface,” (p. 322) Pinker notes in just one of dozens of areas in which life has improved. “Genocides, once common, have become rare. In most times and places, homicides kill far more people than wars, and homicide rates have been falling as well.” (p. 323). And we are safer than ever. “Over the course of the 20th century, Americans became 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car accident, 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 59 percent less likely to fall to their deaths, 92 percent less likely to die by fire, 90 percent less likely to drown, 92 percent less likely to be asphyxiated, and 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job.” (p. 323)

Each area of progress has specific causes that Pinker carefully identifies, but he attributes the overall progressive picture to Enlightenment humanism, the worldview that encompasses science and reason. It is a heroic journey, Pinker concludes with rhetorical flair. “It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual.” How? “We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart.” Nevertheless, our species has faced entropy like no other. “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.” (p. 452) This is our story, not vouchsafed to any one tribe but to all humanity, “to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.” (p. 453)

That’s a fact that offers us reason (and science) for hope.

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