Rebecca Lowe was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Emphasising the positive facts of life is sensible. It is frustrating and counter-productive when people refuse to accept that progress has been made. It’s long been the case, for instance, that too many politicians — not least in my home region of the North East — depend on propagating despondency to retain sinecure seats. Apply this thought to negative Brexit mentality, and boom!
But I don’t want to discuss Brexit today. Rather, my thoughts about the need to recognise progress come from having just finished reading Steven Pinker’s new book: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. From the title, you’d think this might be about the Enlightenment, but, actually, it’s more about that second word — “now” — and mostly about Pinker, himself.
More on both the Enlightenment and Pinker in a moment, but the main reason I read the book is that it’s been touted as an important addition to the “progress celebration” movement (as exemplified by Max Roser’s Our World in Data website). Indeed, Pinker’s key thesis is that the global progress we have seen over the past few centuries — in terms of massive improvements in healthcare, living conditions, increased wealth, and so on — stems from an Enlightenment commitment to “using knowledge to improve the human condition”.
It’s famously difficult to write about the Enlightenment, however. This is not least because there’s little consensus about when it actually took place, and, therefore, which people, events, and ideas it encapsulates. A general approach is to attempt to contain it neatly within the confines of the eighteenth century, but some think it began as early as Descartes’ cogito (1637), and lasted until sometime during the Napoleonic Wars (which ended in 1815), or even later.
Much has been written about the period in recent years — from Jonathan Israel’s 3,000-page ‘radical’ trilogy, to John Gray’s various more pessimistic takes. Even so, there is an endless amount to be said about a period which offers everything from revolutions in England, France, and America, to Diderot’s encyclopaedia, to Mozart’s piano sonatas, to the development of the key strands of modern political and moral theory, to the building of Sanssouci, to the growth of academic institutions and better general awareness of scientific discovery, to Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, to the birth of modern economics, and more.
Yet, over the course of 500 pages — aside from a cursory opening chapter called (after Kant, and somewhat ironically) “Dare to Understand!” — Pinker probably spends around 500 words on the actual period. Rather, he presents a paean to science. To use the often-repeated themes from the book’s subtitle, this consists of: an understanding of “reason” that is based on science as the only path to truth; interminable, often jarring, paragraphs attempting to explain various scientific discoveries and psychological theories; an understanding of “humanism” predicated on the idea of people deciding to use newly-discovered scientific knowledge for (utilitarian) human ends; and an understanding of “progress” in which data is not just king, but absolute monarch.
As this column is neither a book review nor an attempt to set straight what the Enlightenment might actually be, I’ll resist commenting further on Pinker’s supposedly knock-down arguments against religion (basically, awareness of science makes believers in it stupid), dualism (basically, science has pretty much solved the “hard problem”, so we don’t need to worry about the complexities of consciousness any more), and any ethical positions that aren’t predicated on scientific truths (when discussing the rules that communities should use to cope with people “airing incompatible views”, he claims “add in the rule that you should allow the world to show you whether your beliefs are true or false, and we can call the rules science”).
Rather, let’s focus on politics. Those three big Enlightenment revolutions — and the wealth of theoretical thought that surrounded, supported, and criticised them — would suggest that Pinker’s book might be useful for politicos. Instead, we see an approach to assessing the political problems of today that lounges in the shared prejudices that are all too often found in this kind of “popular” academic best-seller: Brexit equates to Trump, referenda are dangerous because most voters are stupid, and so on.
Indeed, Pinker emerges from the book as someone who’s so certain that his knowledge of science makes him right about everything, that he thinks there never has been a democracy yet, and that there probably never will be — when taking democracy to mean “an informed populace [that] deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preferences”. (The people dare not think for themselves!) He emerges as someone who does not want us to reconcile or compromise on our differences — political or otherwise — because he does not really believe that there are any other reasonable positions aside from his.
Sure, there are definite truths about science (which, as Pinker himself points out early on in the book, scientists sometimes get wrong for a while, and about which they later have to change their stance). But there are many other areas — most obviously in the ethical and political spheres — where what we need is not scientific proofs, but carefully-constructed arguments that we expose to others in the awareness that yes, there are right and wrong answers, but that we cannot know for certain whether we have landed upon them. This is not relativism; it’s sensible epistemic modesty.
The Enlightenment — from the flickering candlelight of Descartes’ Meditations, to the descent into terror of the French revolutionists’ ideals of fraternity — was a time of great scepticism. A time in which the “easy” authoritative answers of divine rule were overturned, in the recognition of something greater: that humans are capable of assessing their stock of knowledge and beliefs, and applying what they find to normative questions about how we should live our lives. As Tzvetan Todorov points out in In Defence of the Enlightenment, it’s difficult to define the Enlightenment project, not least because it was an “era of debate rather than consensus”.
There is much of interest in Pinker’s new book. But, little of its “progress celebration” cannot already be found in Max Roser’s excellent graphs. And little of that celebration is helped by Pinker’s unenlightened and negative approach — both about the period with which the book claims to engage, and about his fellow human beings today. Yes, there has been an almost unbelievable amount of progress since the Enlightenment. Yes, much of that progress builds on ideas from that time. Yes, we should shout about it. But we must not conflate the progress that scientific advancement offers us with the idea that debate becomes redundant in the face of an increased awareness of scientific fact.
Sure, I’ve caricatured Pinker’s book. But I’m allowed to: this is a short journalistic piece. Whereas his dependence — as a leading public intellectual — on caricature and dogmatic assertions in his new 500-page tome is deeply disturbing. And hardly enlightened, is it?