Enlightenment Now - Critical summary review - Steven Pinker

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Enlightenment Now - critical summary review

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Society & Politics

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0525427570

Publisher: Penguin Books

Critical summary review

Modernity is usually associated with progress, as the rapid and continuous development of technology and science over the past millennium demonstrates. However, many would disagree with this statement, claiming that modernization has led our society to decay: inequalities are rising, traditional values are hard to find, and more and more people have lost a sense of life’s purpose. The book ‘’Enlightenment Now’’ by Steven Pinker opposes these pessimistic views. The world is a much better place to live in now than it was a few centuries ago, he says, thanks to the timeless ideals of Enlightenment. So, get ready to learn what legacy great philosophers of the 18th century left us!

Enlightenment and its ideas

The term Enlightenment - used to denote the philosophical movement that emerged in the 18th century - first appeared in the title of an essay by Immanuel Kant. Kant defined Enlightenment as “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity,” its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority. ‘’Dare to understand!’’ exclaims Kant, indirectly asking humanity to use reason to judge and understand the world, and not sacred texts, church, dogma, mysticism, or intuition. ‘’Provoked by challenges to conventional wisdom from science and exploration, mindful of the bloodshed of recent wars of religion, and abetted by the easy movement of ideas and people, the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought a new understanding of the human condition,’’ writes Pinker. Apart from reason, the thinkers of the Enlightenment centered their theories around the ideas of science, humanism, and progress. 

Reason and science are deeply connected. The scientific revolution in the 17th century transformed the views of society about nature, influencing the Enlightenment. The ‘’emergence from self-incurred immaturity,’’ therefore, also meant using the scientific methods - skepticism, fallibilism, open debate, and empirical testing - to acquire knowledge about the world.

The idea of humanism is based on the belief that the well-being of individuals is more important than the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion. ‘’It is individuals, not groups, who are sentient - who feel pleasure and pain, fulfillment and anguish,’’ says Pinker. It was cruelties such as slavery, despotism, executions for minor offenses, and sadistic punishments that led to the humanitarian revolution in the Enlightenment era. 

    Lastly, by daring to use reason and scientific methods to observe the world, humanity could make intellectual and moral progress - which brings us to the fourth ideal of the Enlightenment. What the enlightenment thinkers claimed was that the progress of our society is inevitable, as long as we use reason and science to improve the human condition. 

Should we dare to understand?

    Who could be against reason, science, humanism, and progress when we know they are keystones of modern institutions: schools, hospitals, charities, news agencies, democratic governments? Yet, from the moment of its emergence, the Enlightenment movement has faced criticism. As Pinker explains, ‘’No sooner did people step into the light than they were advised that darkness wasn’t so bad after all, that they should stop daring to understand so much, that dogmas and formulas deserved another chance, and that human nature’s destiny was not progress but decline.’'

For example, the views of human nature in the romantic movement were in contrast to the ideas of the Enlightenment. According to the famous theorists of this movement, reason could not be separated from emotion, nor individuals from their culture. They saw people as emotional (rather than rational) beings, who could not always explain their behavior. Violence - fiercely despised in the Enlightenment - is seen in the romantic movement as inherent to nature. “There are but three groups worthy of respect,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, “the priest, the warrior, and the poet. To know, to kill, and to create.”

Numerous cultural and intellectual movements in the 21st century have tried to find alternatives to reason, science, humanism, and progress. Religious faith still opposes the ideas of the Enlightenment. One of the arguments is that religion, unlike science, has its views on morality and the question of the meaning of life. By favoring moral good and life after death over the well-being of humans, religion also clashes with humanism. Another alternative to Enlightenment ideas is nationalism. Nationalism opposes humanism when it forces people to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of the leader or the territory. 

Generally, those who criticize the ideas of the Enlightenment think that modern civilization does not progress, but is slowly heading to its end. According to them, science and progress have been destroying nature, creating nuclear weapons, cyberterror, bioterror, and other existential threats. On the other hand, some believe that modernity has made our life too safe and pleasant. They say ‘’health, peace, and prosperity are bourgeois diversions from what truly matters in life.’’

Has reason made our lives better? 

     In the period before the Enlightenment, infectious diseases had tremendous power over the lives of people. Millions died in epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid, tuberculosis, and malaria. Before the 18th century, humankind fought disease using prayer, sacrifice, bloodletting, cupping, toxic metals, homeopathy, and squeezing a hen against an infected body part. Doctors existed but often did more harm than good by performing procedures with unwashed hands and dirty equipment. 

    Everything changed with the discovery of vaccinations in the 18th century. Also, handwashing, midwifery, mosquito control, and especially the protection of drinking water by public sewerage and chlorinated tap water substantially decreased the prevalence of many diseases of the time. 

    According to rough estimates, science has saved more than five billion lives from infectious disease since the 19th century. Thanks to science, some diseases have been eradicated, while others are in the process of eradication. For example, the last case of smallpox was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977 after taking the lives of around 300 million people. Then, thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, only 37 cases were registered in three countries by 2016. Also, a three-decade campaign to eradicate the Guinea worm succeeded by lowering the number of cases from 3.5 million to just 25 cases in 2016. ‘’Elephantiasis, river blindness, and blinding trachoma, whose symptoms are as bad as they sound, may also be defined in the past tense by 2030, and measles, rubella, yaws, sleeping sickness, and hookworm are in epidemiologists’ sights as well,’’ says Pinker. The world has also seen massive reductions in the number of children dying from AIDS. And, the number of deaths from malaria worldwide fell by 60% between 2000 and 2015. 

    Numerous individuals such as Bill Gates, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush contributed to these successes thanks to the numerous health campaigns they were involved in. However, the greatest contributor is the legacy of the Enlightenment: science.

Should we worry about inequality?

    Many intellectuals see the problem of economic inequality as proof that modernity has failed to improve the human condition. The worry and obsession with inequality is enormous. For example, between 2009 and 2016, the number of headlines in the New York Times containing the word inequality increased tenfold. In 2016, Bernie Sanders said that, ‘’A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.” As a supporter of the Enlightenment, Pinker believes there is no reason to have a pessimistic view of this issue.

    The confusion of inequality with poverty is one of the reasons many people think that modernization has harmed society. This mindset sees wealth as a finite resource that has to be divided. After the division, some people end up having more, others less. However, wealth is not like that: when the rich get richer, the poor get richer, too. In fact, psychological studies have shown that people actually prefer unequal distributions as long as they are fair - harder workers should get more than others. As Pinker puts it, ‘’People are content with economic inequality as long as they feel that the country is meritocratic, and they get angry when they feel it isn’t.’’ In most cases, people feel a sense of inequality when they compare themselves with others in their surroundings, rather than considering how well-off they are in absolute terms. 

    When society starts generating substantial amounts of money, the gap between the rich and the poor expands. According to the author, that is a necessity. Some people take advantage of new opportunities more than others, whether through luck, skills, or effort. 

Finally, just as in the case of disease eradication, statistics show that the anxiety about the rising inequality is not justified. After the Industrial Revolution, global inequality rose steadily until the 1980s and then started to fall. So, despite the anxiety, ‘’Inequality in the world is declining, ’’ says Pinker.

Peace in the modern world

    The lives of people throughout history have long been dictated by wars. ‘’Wars between great powers, which include world wars, are the most intense forms of destruction our sorry species has managed to dream up.’’ The situation nowadays is, luckily, different - the war in a classic sense has become obsolete, says Pinker.  

There were only three wars from the end of the Second World War until 1989. In the period between 1989 and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were no armed conflicts in the whole world. The last active political armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere was the one between Colombia and Marxist FARC guerrillas, which ended in 2016 with a peace agreement. Europe and East Asia have been free of war for a long time. Unfortunately, Pinker says the same is not true for the zone stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan, which has been shaken by civil wars for a long time. 

    The death rates in the years after the Second World War show that humanity came to reason. For example, the number of battle deaths during the Second World War was 300 per 100,000 people per year. In the Korean War, the rate of battle deaths per 100,000 people per year was 22, while in the Vietnam War the number fell to 9. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the number is 1.2.  The writer concludes that, ‘’One can never use the word ‘fortunately’ in connection with the killing of innocents, but the numbers in the 21st century are a fraction of those in earlier decades.’’

    Sadly, mass killings of unarmed civilians in the period after 1945 in Indonesia, China, Sudan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Uganda show that we still live in a violent world. However, the number of genocide deaths is still less than in previous decades. Not only that, the minds of people are changing. The idea that killing and destruction are  for a higher good now ‘’strikes us as the raving of a madman,’’ says Pinker. 

Final Notes

    Occasional pessimism and doubt are common to all human beings. However, “Enlightenment Now” reminds us that as long as we use our reason to judge the world around us, we should not despair. As a reviewer for The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, this book is ‘’a passionate and persuasive defense of reason and science … an urgently needed reminder that progress is, to no small extent, a result of values that have served us - and can serve us - extraordinarily well.”

12min Tip

    Do not always believe the image of the world presented to you by the mass media. Try to judge the events in society by relying on your reason and reliable sources of information.

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Who wrote the book?

Steven Pinker is a Canadian American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. His research and practice are related to psycholinguistics, cognitive science, and language-oriented topics. Pinker is a prolific author with many books... (Read more)

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