Enlightenment Now: Why Steven Pinker believes in progress

It may be tempting to think human civilization is on the verge of collapse: environmental degradation, the rise in authoritarianism, ballooning income disparities. But Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker is having none of it. He argues that the Enlightenment has given us so much that we can hardly see it anymore. And he believes it's now time to champion Enlightenment values once again: rationality, verifiability, and above all: the ideal of progress itself.
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and a Harvard College professor. (Rose Lincoln/Harvard University)
Listen to the full episode53:59

It may be tempting to think human civilization is on the verge of collapse: environmental degradation, the rise in authoritarianism, ballooning income disparities. But Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker is having none of it. He argues that the Enlightenment has given us so much that we can hardly see its gifts anymore: longer lifespans, safer societies, the establishment of human rights. And he believes it's now time to champion Enlightenment values once again: rationality, verifiability, and above all: the ideal of progress itself.

Who isn't worried that the world is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket? But Steven Pinker believes that our collective despair has become a kind of cultural default position, and it's as dangerous as it is wrong.

Terrified that terrorists will blow up the world? Pinker isn't: "Far from being criminal masterminds, most terrorists are bumbling schlemiels," he tells Paul Kennedy.  What about the growing chasm between rich and poor, the 1% and the rest of humanity, and all the headlines like: Is capitalism about to crumble under its own weight? Again, Pinker has his riposte at the ready: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word no."

Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defence of capitalism, its economic benefits are so obvious that they don't need to be shown with numbers. They can literally be seen from space. A satellite photograph of Korea show[s] the capitalist South aglow in light and the Communist North a pit of darkness…- Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now

Not that it's all peaches and cream. Pinker is keenly aware that grinding poverty exists all over the world. But the fact that poverty exists is not his point. His point is that there's far less of it now than ever before: "The poor may not always be with us. The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across the world's countries and people. The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90% to less than 10%, and… could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in most of human history, has vanished from most of the world, and undernourishment and stunting are in steady decline."

Climate Change Is Real and Humans Caused It

Pinker is also aware that climate change poses a real threat to humanity's flourishing and survival, and that the politicization of the issue is ridiculous: "A movement within the American political right, heavily underwritten by fossil fuel interests, has prosecuted a fanatical and mendacious campaign to deny that greenhouse gases are warming the planet." The science is in, he asserts, and the scientific community is effectively speaking unanimous: climate change is real, and it's caused by humans: "A recent survey found that exactly four out of 69,406 authors of peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature rejected the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming." But despair isn't the appropriate response. Framing the situation as a problem to be solved is, even if despair is fashionable among the chattering classes.

The Enlightenment Worked

Pinker has no patience with obtuse theorizing dominating university humanities departments, with its dim view of human beings and human achievement: "The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness. Many of its luminaries — Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, the Critical Theorists — are morose cultural pessimists who declare that modernity is odious, all statements are paradoxical, works of art are tools of oppression, liberal democracy is the same as fascism, and Western civilization is circling the drain." To make his point about the Enlightenment fostering progress — a term Pinker vigorously champions — he points to the history of human-made light itself throughout the ages: "A Babylonian in 1750 BCE would have had to labor fifty hours to spend one hour reading his cuneiform tablets by a sesame-oil lamp. In 1800, and Englishman had to toil for six hours to burn a tallow candle for an hour… In 1880, you'd need to work fifteen minutes to burn a kerosene lamp for an hour; in 1950, eight seconds for the same hour from an incandescent bulb; and in 1994, a half-second for the same hour from a compact fluorescent bulb — a 43,000-fold leap in affordability in two centuries."

Steven Pinker is the author of "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress." 0:43

There's No Time Like the Present

Pinker doesn't describe himself as an optimist, but rather as a "possibilist" — that with the sober application of reason and observation, we can solve the problems we're facing as a species. We have before, he argues, and that's why we're living in a comparative golden age: "There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow." 

Steven Pinker is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of ten books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature,  The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.


Further reading: 


**This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

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