Posts Tagged ‘Enlightenment’


April 15, 2018

The title of this post is the same as the title of a new and important book by Steven Pinker. The subtitle of the book is “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Two quotes capture the central message of the book:

Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.
——-Baruch Spinoza

Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.
——-David Deutsch

One can ask, is there a need for the Enlightenment Now? Who would argue against reason, science, humanism, or progress?
To which Dr. Pinker answers: “Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. They are tribalism rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.”

Dr. Pinker writes about the future of progress. “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81. When the enlightenment began, a third of the children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today, that fate befalls 6% of the children in the poorest parts. When the enlightenment began, one % of the mothers in the richest countries did not live to see their newborns, a rate triple that of the poorest countries today, and this continues to fall.”

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%. 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. A century ago, richer countries devoted one% of their wealth to supporting children, the poor, and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of the poor today are fed, clothed, and sheltered, and have luxuries like smartphones and air-conditioning that use to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor.

The proportion of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, a seventh of what it was in the early 1970s and an eighteenth of what it was in the early 1950s, and a half a % of what it was during WW II. People are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable and smarter. Early in the 19th century, 12% could read and write; today 83% can. The schooling, together with health and wealth, are literally making use smarter—by 30 IQ points, or two standard deviations above our ancestors.

Dr. Pinker details the progress that has been made in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. To be sure, much still remains to be done, but pessimists should not be so pessimistic. The problem is that what is in the news and what is being written about are typically the problems that need to be addressed. Naturally this leads to pessimism. But Dr. Pinker does a reality reset. Much has been done and optimism is justified.