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Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress Hardcover – February 13, 2018
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An Amazon Best Book of March 2018: Given the 24-hour news cycle to which we have grown accustomed, it’s difficult to navigate life and think that everything is peachy. But Steven Pinker has set out, first in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and now in Enlightenment Now, to illustrate that there has never been a better time to be a human being. In his new book, Pinker points out that the slow creep of progress is not as newsworthy as, say, an earthquake or an explosion. So it’s clear why we don’t always have the sense that things are getting better. But the Enlightenment—with its dedication to science, reason, humanism, and progress—has led people to live longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives. And Pinker uses charts, data, history, and a firm dedication to his cause to empirically prove that we are living in better times. It makes sense to be skeptical of a scientist arguing that that science is the answer. And his optimism won’t always jibe with your personal experience or judgement. But there’s lots to chew on here—and it’s so easy to obsess on the intrusions and negatives of technology and “advancement” that this book can serve as a kind of antidote. —Chris Schluep, the Amazon Book Review
One of The Guardian’s “Books to Buy in 2018”
"The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.”—Bill Gates
“A terrific book…[Pinker] recounts the progress across a broad array of metrics, from health to wars, the environment to happiness, equal rights to quality of life.”—Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
"Steven Pinker’s mind bristles with pure, crystalline intelligence, deep knowledge and human sympathy."—Richard Dawkins
“Pinker is a paragon of exactly the kind of intellectual honesty and courage we need to restore conversation and community.”—David Brooks, The New York Times
“[Enlightenment Now] is magnificent, uplifting and makes you want to rush to your laptop and close your Twitter account.”—The Economist
“[A] magisterial new book…Enlightenment Now is the most uplifting work of science I’ve ever read.”—Science Magazine
“A passionate and persuasive defense of reason and science…[and] 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.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A meticulous defense of science and objective analysis, [and] a rebuttal to the tribalism, knee-jerk partisanship and disinformation that taints our politics.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Brimming with surprising data and entertaining anecdotes.”—Financial Times
“[Pinker] makes a powerful case that the main line of history has been, since the Enlightenment, one of improvement.”—Scientific American
“Let’s stop once in a while to enjoy the view—I’m glad Pinker is pushing for this in a world that does it too rarely… It’s hard not to be convinced.”—Quartz
“Enlightenment Now is formidable.”—Financial Times
“As a demonstration of the value of reason, knowledge, and curiosity, Enlightenment Now can hardly be bettered.”—The Boston Globe
“With a wealth of knowledge, graphs and statistics, a strong grasp of history, and an engaging style of writing…Enlightenment Now provides a convincing case for gratitude.”—Pittsburgh Post Gazette
“A masterly defense of the values of modernity against ‘progressophobes’.”—Times Higher Education
“Enlightenment Now strikes a powerful blow against the contemporary mystifications being peddled by tribalists on both the left and the right.”—Reason
“Pinker presents graphs and data which deserve to be reckoned with by fair-minded people. His conclusion is provocative, as anything by Pinker is likely to be.” —Colorado Springs Gazette
“Elegantly [argues] that in various ways humanity has every reason to be optimistic over life in the twenty-first century…. A defense of progress that will provoke deep thinking and thoughtful discourse among his many fans.”—Booklist
“Pinker defends progressive ideals against contemporary critics, pundits, cantankerous philosophers, and populist politicians to demonstrate how far humanity has come since the Enlightenment…In an era of increasingly “dystopian rhetoric,” Pinker’s sober, lucid, and meticulously researched vision of human progress is heartening and important.”—Publishers Weekly
“[An] impeccably written text full of interesting tidbits from neuroscience and other disciplines…The author examines the many ways in which Enlightenment ideals have given us lives that our forebears would envy even if gloominess and pessimism are the order of the day.” —Kirkus Review
Praise for The Better Angels of Our Nature:
“If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this—the most inspiring book I've ever read."—Bill Gates (May, 2017)
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Despite some criticism to the contrary, Pinker does recognize that we still have a long way to go in providing food security, a living wage, and better health to some seven hundred million people who still live in extreme poverty (e.g., 87-89; 325). His argument is that we are not wasting money on trying to eliminate world poverty, that we have made substantial progress in reducing the number of people in extreme poverty by getting some things right. Communism has failed, totalitarian, planned economies are in retreat, and market economies coupled with improved agricultural practices and access to global markets have lifted billions out of extreme poverty in the last 75 years (89-96).
Pinker argues we should think scientifically, not that we should let science decide value questions (390-91). A scientific approach is based on two characteristics: the world is intelligible and we should allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct (329-93). We should let the facts on the ground, not our tribal, cultural allegiances, guide us toward policies and practices that help all people flourish (357-69).
Many will find Pinker's rejection of religion as a guide to human flourishing (30, 392-94, 421, and 428-33) disquieting, if not repulsing. I don't think that argument is essential to the book's main message. Human flourishing is a goal that all of the many religions that populate the globe can agree with. As Pinker points out, basic moral rules have always been agreed to by all societies. He asserts that two thousand five hundred years ago Plato argued in Euthyphro that the gods are not necessary to tell us what is moral (428). We all know that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, that we should not cause injury to others, or steal their property. Our religious disagreements are not about morality but prescribed practices, rituals, and theological beliefs. Those conflicts should not get in the way of all of us, whatever our religion beliefs, supporting secular society's goal of promoting human flourishing.
Pinker begins by explaining the Enlightenment and how it marked a turn away from dogmatism toward reason and humanism while at the same time giving birth to modern science and the notion of human progress. Importantly, Pinker does not argue for a return to all aspects of the European/North American Enlightenment of the 18th century, but to the ideas and tradition this engendered which has since been amplified by insights from scientists and scholars as diverse as Charles Darwin and Karl Popper.
The bulk of the book is actually a evidence based case that human progress, beginning with the early modern Enlightenment, is real and ongoing. Skillfully weaving data with anecdotes which capture the imagination, Pinker has assembled such a wealth of objective grounding for the success of the Enlightenment project that all intellectuals who disagree with Pinker’s account will at least have to deal with the immense amount of data he has collected in support of his cause.
The book concludes with a defense of reason, science and humanism against those who would critique it, whether from the perspective of behavioral economics, theistic religions or post-modernism. Here Pinker shows the ability to not only provide evidence in support of his ideas but also to understand his opponents ideas from the inside out. Again, future critics of the enlightenment will have to deal with Pinker’s ability to not only mix anecdote with real data but to undermine the rational basis of non-Enlightenment intellectual traditions.
The only complaint I have with this book is that, ironically, it turns Enlightenment followers into something of a tribe. The Enlightenment is causing universal progress—no one who claims any regress in human society is correct. Thus, the opioid crisis is given a single page because it does not fit into the overall narrative.
Similarly, critics of the Enlightenment are wrong on all points. There is nothing to be gained by reading post-modern or theistic critiques. The book might have been better titled Enlightenment Only instead of Enlightenment Now.
Even if the book is polemical, it is a landmark in describing and marshaling evidence for a way of life that, as the author notes, is not free from attack. All serious debates as to the underlying bases of modern society will either have to agree with Pinker or provide data driven arguments to show he is wrong. Ironically, by relying on evidence based arguments, they will have to adopt an inheritance of the Enlightenment itself. A must read both for critics and proponents of the Enlightenment worldview that will surely be an essential text in that debate for years to come.
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