If You Read Only One Serious Book This Year …
I almost never refer to a book as a must-read.
I almost never advocate reading an entire book when that book is over 450 pages long, filled with multiple sophisticated arguments.
My own personal style is to find the most critical 200 pages of a book, and read that. 450 pages? Who’s got time?
I also never push a book that argues the opposite of what I have advocated in print or on the web. I almost certainly never push a book that goes against the main themes of this website.
But I am saying that nearly every well-informed adult needs to be reading Steven Pinker’s latest book: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.
And they need to be reading it cover to cover.
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What’s so great about this book?
The subtitle says it all. This book is the greatest defense of reason, science, humanism and progress in print. More and more people feel we live in a world where everything seems to be falling apart; where increasingly politicized opponents appear to be unreasonable; where science is challenged without evidence just because people don't like its conclusions; where we see more barbarity and less humanity; and where progress seems not only to be fragile, but about to go backward.
Steven Pinker, however, provides exhaustive evidence that the lack of progress is not as bad as we think it is. To be sure, he made this point in an overwhelmingly compelling way in his previous book, Angels of Our Better Nature. But now he presents even more evidence and more forms of social progress.
What is new here is his defense of reason, science and humanism. Stephen Pinker is the leading voice in American academia passionately advocating the classic Enlightenment ideals. He takes his Voltaire, Locke and John Stuart Mill seriously. He argues compellingly that this intellectual base formulated in the eighteenth century and perfected in the nineteenth century is a crucial foundation for the progress we enjoy in the twentieth century. He argues equally compellingly that in academia and in the general population, there is a growing disdain for these ideals.
You might say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Lots of liberals sit and whine and wring their hands about the loss of the Enlightenment ideals. What’s the big deal here?”
The big deal is that Stephen Pinker can play both social scientist and philosopher. He is willing to go into the trenches and provide an intellectual defense of the Enlightenment ideals. His discussion of reason, science and humanism is likely to be one of the most compelling philosophical arguments you are going to read.
He is aware of nearly every possible counterargument you could make. He covers all of the arguments against reason, science and humanism so exhaustively and so convincingly that you would be willing to take all three of those positions and happily throw them in the wastebasket.
Having laid out all the cases against Enlightenment thinking, he then goes to town and proceeds to defend the classical eighteenth-century positions. These arguments, however, are overwhelming. This is like hiring Bruce Lee to serve as a bodyguard for reason against an army of attacking ninjas. The attacking ninjas don’t stand a chance.
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Why do you need to read all of this book?
Most long books are full of filler. The typical mostro-giganto-megatome is usually an obese version of a compelling but shorter argument. Arnold Toynbee’s classic Study on History was twelve volumes long and took up over 7000 pages. It loses almost nothing in the abridged version of one volume and 576 pages. Extra material usually consists of verbose presentations of supplemental empirical support, re-statements of the original position and tangents.
This is not the case with Steven Pinker.
Pinker can usually nail his arguments with one or two extremely well-chosen graphs or a tight list of compelling historical examples. He can summarize both his own and his opponent’s arguments with clarity and terseness. There are very few tangents.
The book is over four hundred pages long because he has over four hundred pages of things to say. He makes a significant new argument every two to four pages. That adds up to a lot of arguments in a relatively big book. They are good ones.
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Why do I love this book when I am intellectually committed to an opposite position?
One of the main themes of this website is societal death. Every society ultimately dies. No society or empire has gone more than one thousand years without falling into some sort of medieval or warring-states period in which everything falls apart. Much of the point of this website and much of my current work is to provide warning about the types of circumstances that could raise the likelihood of such a death for the Euro-American World System.
Steven Pinker is “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”
In Enlightenment Now, he overwhelmingly demonstrates the robust progress that has been made in human welfare on virtually every dimension you can think of. He furthermore lists some of the most common sources of gloom and doom that come from people prognosticating the fall of Everything-As-We-Know-It and argues that those sources of gloom and doom are easily surmountable.
How does Mr. We-Are-All-Going-To-Die end up getting along with Mr. The-Only-Thing-We-Need-To-Fear-Is-Fear-Itself?
1. Steven Pinker’s Portrayal of the Massive Improvements in Human Life That Have Occurred Throughout History Is Absolutely Correct.
We often take for granted the incredible benefits that have come from civilization, from capitalism, from science and technology and from collective learning. Steven Pinker reminds us of how much we have accomplished.
2. If We Are to Avoid Disaster, Then We Need to Espouse the Very Cultural Values and Psychological States That Steven Pinker Lays Out in “Enlightenment Now.”
Societal survival DOES depend on attitudes. Societal survival DOES depend on having a positive philosophy. Societal survival does depend on people recognizing and valuing the fundamental determinants of progress, well-being and human happiness, and be willing to defend them. Steven Pinker is overwhelmingly convincing in arguing that reason, science and humanism are bedrock values on which everything good in modern society depends. We need to protect those with our lives.
3. Optimists Are More Likely to Survive Than Pessimists.
Pessimists think that nothing can be done. Optimists see at least one way out. If nothing can be done, following the optimist’s strategy is no worse than doing nothing. If something can be done, the optimist may save the day if his or her plan is good. I think Steven Pinker’s plan is pretty good.
Where do I disagree?
1. His List of Perils Is a Little Different Than My List of Perils.
a. I worry about a collapse of government capacity due to a lack of willingness to pay taxes. Government works when it is well-funded. Cut the fiscal foundation, and corruption rules.
b. I worry about Kondratieff or Mensch cycles gutting the economy. Historically, we have always recovered from these, but that is like a drunk driver saying I have never crashed yet.
c. I worry about hostility to globalization leading to a greater and greater preference for small networks of cooperation over large networks of cooperation. Tribalism and distrust of outgroups leads to greater hostility and violence.
d. I worry about rising landlessness leading to more conflict in the Global South, leading to more ethnic hostility and more capacity for bloodshed.
2. Pinker Argues We Have Always Overcome Threats in the Past Through Science and Focused Problem Solving. I Worry That Focused Problem Solving Depends on Strong Institutions, the Legitimation of Governments and Transnational Groups, and the Willingness to Cooperate with Distant Others. Neither Strong Institutions, Legitimation nor Willingness to Cooperate are Guaranteed.
The extraordinary progress that humans have made in the very long term is shaped heavily by the remarkable breakthroughs in human welfare that occurred since the Renaissance, and the super-explosion that occurred after the Industrial Revolution. These bursts of progress did not only represent scientific and economic breakthroughs. There were also political breakthroughs as states became more capable, cultural breakthroughs such as the Enlightenment that Pinker documents, and increasing cosmopolitanism and willingness to work with a greater and broader variety of people.
State capacity, Enlightenment ideology and acceptance of diverse cultures and peoples have improved steadily in the last 500 years. There is no cosmic law that says these desirable attributes will automatically improve in the next 500 years.
State capacity, Enlightenment ideals and tolerance only maintain themselves and improve if people make a commitment to maintaining and improving these, and if the social structures that exist foster the maintenance and improvement of these.
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It is my earnest hope that I am wrong and Steven Pinker is right. Anyway, I strongly encourage everyone to read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.
If we need a roadmap for survival, this is as good a roadmap as we are going to find.
For More Information
No duh here. Go to Steven Pinker in the original.
Pinker, Steven. 2018. Steven. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. New York, Viking.
Available from bookstores and internet book vendors everywhere.