Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
September 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Steven Pinker
Total Pages: 

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard and member of the National Academy of Sciences, has won many prizes for his teaching and research. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

I bought the hardback edition, but I give here Amazon's Kindle website since it is more complete:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this book's covers at the website above.]

The home page has a review you should read first (be sure to click on 'Read more'). Further down the home page are Top customer reviews. I recommend first the one by Alan Joseph Canes, an Amazon Top 500 reviewer, entitled ‘A Brilliant Polemic.’ For more detail of what this book covers, I recommend the review by Mark Able.

Next use the ‘Look inside’ option and scroll down to the 2-pp Contents, the 2-pp List of Figures, and read the 3-pp Preface (the last half is acknowledgements). Further scrolling takes you to PART I – ENLIGHTENMENT – with a well-chosen quote from Alfred North Whitehead. This is followed by 4-pp of text that prepares the reader for PART I’s two chapters about Enlightenment with Ch. 3 being about Counter-Enlightenments. PART II – PROGRESS – has an apt 2016 quote form Barack Obama. Kindle’s ‘Look inside’ option ends at the top of the fourth page of Ch. 4 – Progressophobia. (Pinker likes to make up simple compound words.) PART II includes Ch. 4 – Ch. 20 (from page 37 – 345), thus is the bulk of this thick book (which has 105 pp of Notes, References, and Index). PART III – REASON, SCIENCE, AND HUMANISM, begins with a quote from John Maynard Keynes:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

After this quote is a 2-pp ‘introduction’ to PART III. Amazon’s previews don’t have both pages, so I give them here: “It does matter. Homo sapiens is a species that lives by its wits, concocting and pooling notions of how the world works and how its members can best lead their lives. There can be no better proof of the power of ideas than the ironic influence of the political philosopher who most insisted on the power of vested interests, the man who wrote that ‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.’ Karl Marx possessed no wealth and commanded no army, but the ideas he scribbled in the reading room of the British Museum shaped the course of the 20th century and beyond, wrenching the lives of billions.

“This part of the book wraps up my defense of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Part I outlined those ideas; Part II showed they work. Now it’s time to defend them against some surprising enemies – not just angry populists and religious fundamentalists, but factions of mainstream intellectual culture. It may sound quixotic to offer a defense of the Enlightenment against professors, critics, pundits, and their readers, because if they were asked about these ideals point-blank, few would disavow them. But intellectuals’ commitment to those ideals is squirrely. The hearts of many of them lie elsewhere, and few are willing to proffer a positive defense. Enlightenment ideals, thus unchampioned, fade into the background as a bland default, and become a catch basin for every unsolved social problem (of which there will always be many). Illiberal ideas like authoritarianism, tribalism, and magical thinking easily get the blood pumping, and have no shortage of champions. It’s hardly a fair fight.

“Though I hope Enlightenment ideals will become more deeply entrenched in the public at large – fundamentalists, angry populists, and all – I claim no competence in the dark arts of mass persuasion, popular mobilization, or viral memes. What follow are arguments directed at people who care about arguments. These arguments can matter, because practical men and women and madmen in authority are affected, directly or indirectly, by the world of ideas. They go to university. They read intellectual magazines, if only in dentist’s waiting rooms. They watch talking heads on Sunday morning news shows. They are briefed by staff members who subscribe to highbrow papers and watch TED talks. They frequent Internet discussion forums that are enlightened or endarkened by the reading habits of the more literate contributors. I like to think that some good might come to the world if more of these ideas that trickle into these tributaries embodied the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, and humanities.”

Wow! The third paragraph above clearly reveals some anger Steven Pinker seldom showed before in this book, except when he mentions Trump by name at many places (nearly 40 subtopics; some of them in his index have quite a few pages for that subtopic). I’ve got no beef with what he said in these places about what Trump has done because I agree with what he says nearly all the time.

I strongly agree with Pinker that reason, science, and humanism matter. But he gave an inappropriate reason for his answer of False for the first climate statement on pages 356-7: “Climate scientists believe that if the North Pole icecap melted as a result of human-caused global warming, global sea levels would rise, True or False?” He chose False because “If it were true, your glass of Coke would overflow as the ice cubes melted. It’s icecaps on land, such as Greenland and Antarctica that raise sea levels when they melt.” This answer overlooks a very important feature when floating icebergs in the Artic melt. Because ice reflects most of the sunlight back to the atmosphere, when floating icebergs melt into water, then most of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the water, thus heating it. Heated Arctic water has made water currents in the Arctic change. One aspect of this was predicted by climate scientists: the melting of the Arctic ice and the resulting local warming has led to the melting of much of the frozen tundra in northern Russia and Canada. Tundra unfrozen releases much methane, a much more effective gas than carbon dioxide for greenhouse warming. Recently, after Pinker’s book was published in January 2018, some land fires above the Arctic Circle have surprised climate scientists. These facts demonstrate that things aren’t as simple as Pinker’s glass of Coke with ice in it. The things I’ve listed above show that overly simple answers do not provide good reasons to be concerned about the threat of global warming.

Now back to PART III, which has three chapters: Ch. 21 – Reason, Ch. 22 – Science, and Ch. 23 – Humanism; they total 105 pages. The three chapters of PART I total 35 pages. Some friends of mine suggested I read PART I first, and then read PART III (thus accepting it as a summary). I did accept this suggestion and I read as they suggested, but only after I deduced that Steven Pinker’s subtitle told me the word progress in the subtitle implied that reason, science, and humanism added up to world progress. They did serve this purpose; reading these six chapters first seemed to be nearly adequate. But, unlike Hans Rosling’s book 772 – Factfulness: Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Steven Pinker didn’t start with the present world’s knowing little about how much progress has occurred. Pinker only begins to write about that in Ch. 4. Furthermore, Rosling has a quiz – Test Yourself – on his pp 3-5. This lets the reader become aware of his/her very poor understanding (often due to memories based on an outdated worldview) of the world’s progress that these two authors discuss in books 772 and 773. I think it was wise of Rosling to have readers test themselves before reading the well-discussed reasons why his answers for the test were correct.

Perhaps Steven Pinker’s aim in this book was to tell about the history of progress from the past to the present (and refer to the future only in a vague (or non-numeric) manner, whereas Hans Rosling’s aim was to use the same data (mostly UN data) to project what the future, up to 2100, is likely to be, according to both UN experts and Rosling’s team. This is my opinion as well as those of my friends who suggested I first read Chapters. 1-3, then read Part III’s Chapters 21-23. Of course, after doing so I then read all of Part II’s Chapters 4-20, but at a slower reading rate than I had used before.

I am glad I have read Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. His history of past progress is worth knowing. I thus rate this book Enlightenment Now at four stars. If anyone were to ask me which one of these two books, 772 (Factfulness) and 773 (Enlightenment Now), to read if they only wanted to read one, I would advise them to choose book 772 but I would hope they would then want to read book 773.