Enlightenment Now

Steven Pinker
Rating: 8.4

“A characteristically fluent, decisive, and data-rich demonstration of why, given the chance to live at any point in human history, only a stone-cold idiot would choose any time other than the present.”
-Sam Leith, Spectator

The foremost Enlightenment principle is the primacy of reason as an avenue for understanding the world and human life and for rejecting religious dogma and faith. Science sprang from the Enlightenment’s devotion to reason and gives people a way to understand the processes of the natural world and of human nature. Humanism depends on reason and science. It concerns ethical life and how people organize themselves into societies. Humanism grounds ethics in reason, rather than in religion, and it prioritizes individuals over their community, nation or race. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are products of the Enlightenment. In Pinker’s analysis, Enlightenment ideals have fueled progress in every area from human health and human rights to efforts to combat poverty, crime and war.

The principal weakness of Pinker’s opus, other than its density, is his palpable impatience with – and quick dismissal of – many balanced, reasoned critiques of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment spread crucial ideals, but it also produced some of the worst depredations of capitalism and mechanized warfare. Still, Pinker argues his thesis with vast data and startling graphs. His optimism and enthusiasm are infectious. getAbstract recommends this monumental tribute to human progress to anyone who wants to remain hopeful about the future.

Pinker offers the following lessons:


Entropy is important in grasping the human condition.

The phenomenon of entropy is central to the human condition. According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy describes how the elements in a “closed system” gradually disperse over time and become less useful. When a fire dims, for example, and its heat dissipates, it can no longer boil water or cook food. This law is important in understanding human life. Human biological structures, like that of any organism, allow people to absorb the energy they need to remain alive and to survive and counteract entropy. How could such an improbable being come into existence? Religious thinkers assert that only God could design such a complex creature. To the extent that Enlightenment thinkers were religious, some were deists, theists or pantheists. And some were atheists and not religious at all. Deists believed that only a deity could explain the origins of complex organisms like human beings, and that “God set the universe in motion and then stepped back, allowing it to unfold according to the laws of nature.”

Pinker holds that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution rendered God unnecessary. Evolution explains how improbable creatures like people come into existence and persist against entropy’s pressure. Entropy applies to closed systems that can’t add more energy. People and all other life forms live in open systems: They renew their dissipated energy with energy from food, water and the sun. Because human beings have larger, more complex brains than other species, people can work with more information and can reason, articulate their desires, formulate goals and develop plans for how to pursue them.

Human brain makes progress possible

The greatest discovery of 20th-century theoretical neuroscience is that neurons retain information and manipulate it in “intelligent” ways. The brain contains billions of neurons and can perform enormously complex tasks. Evolving highly complex brains changed human destiny. People learned to raise animals and cultivate plants. They invented writing, articulated ideas, and transmitted them across space and time. They moved away from archaic, magical belief systems and created religions, philosophies, art and works of literature.

With the energy provided by greater and more reliable access to food, human beings built larger cities and more elaborate civilizations. This process continued for millennia, through the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment brought about political systems that value freedom of speech, human rights and cooperation.

Thinkers are suspicious of the Enlightenment

Opposition to the Enlightenment, called the “counter-Enlightenment,” appeared in the generation following the Enlightenment. The first who objected to it were Romantics, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Herder and Friedrich Schelling, who believed rationality and feelings were inseparable. Since the Enlightenment devalues the primacy of religious faith, anyone who insists faith matters more than reason will resist Enlightenment thinking.

The Enlightenment focuses on the integrity of individuals. Those who value nations or races more highly than individuals object to the Enlightenment. It embraces science, especially with regard to the pursuit of knowledge. Thinkers who are uneasy about science and its methods of investigation have a problem with the Enlightenment. Pinker dismisses counter-Enlightenment views – whether from the 19th, 20th or even 21st century – as expressions of ignorance. He says rejecting reason is irrational, that science is the greatest achievement in human history, and that humanism brought democracy and defeated fascism. But in this instance, Pinker seems dismissive if not glib. He writes with authority about psychology and science, but is less authoritative about philosophy, religion and literature. Religion is too central to people to cast it aside as backward and irrational. Science is complex, far-reaching and fallible; being suspicious of its centrality in all aspects of life isn’t the same as wholly rejecting it.


The idea of progress frightens some people.

Many people who believe in Enlightenment principles and agree that knowledge can make human life better still doubt the reality of progress. Media commentators often view claims of progress, whether in health or crime prevention, with skepticism. Doomsayers have announced the “decline of Western Civilization” since the 19th century. In recent years, a majority of intellectuals have rejected the idea of progress and have come to regard the world as being in steep decline.

Yet, psychologists observe that most individuals look at their lives in a positive light. They think they’re unlikely to be the victims of relatively common misfortunes: loss of a job, disease, robbery or divorce. While functioning within this personal “optimism gap,” the same people regard society as being in disastrous shape. The nature of news coverage may provide a partial explanation for this attitude. Magazines, newspapers, and broadcast and online news focus on negative events like wars, terrorist attacks, epidemics and political scandals. People estimate the likelihood of an event based on how quickly they can bring an example to mind. If news bombards you with violence, you are likelier to regard violence as common, even when it isn’t.


To counteract pessimism, adopt a “quantitative mind-set.”

To refute pessimism, adopt a quantitative mind-set in which you look beyond your immediate horizon and toward the world as a whole. Don’t just read the front page of the newspaper; look at the numbers. The data are widely available. Examined carefully, real information might restore your faith in progress and could help solve the problems that plague humanity. Pinker may overestimate the capacity of most people to adopt a quantitative mind-set and to survey vast amounts of data. But in a global culture, this approach is surely worth suggesting and trying. To back up his point, Pinker provides chapters and chapters of positive trending data on health, wealth, inequality, terrorism, and much else.


The future of the Enlightenment and human progress depends on politics.

Hard data prove the accomplishments of the Enlightenment, which are impossible to deny. The world is more affluent than it was 200 years ago; fewer people live in poverty or encounter murder or even war. People are healthier and live in freer societies. However, anti-Enlightenment forces are powerful, as represented by the rise of authoritarian populism and the election of US president Donald J. Trump. These forces pose a threat to the Enlightenment’s achievements in medicine, economics, politics, ethics and the pursuit of knowledge. Whether these forces undermine the Enlightenment depends upon stable political institutions constraining them.

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