The Romantic movement pushed back particularly hard against Enlightenment ideals,” thunders Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, a near 500-page clarion call to assemble for battle under the banner of reason and logic, which I agreed to read and review for an irrational reason. I did it because someone very close to me asked me to do it and I went against my own rational instincts—the voice of reason!—flawed and fallible a human that I am. The Romantic movement also gave us Shelley and Chopin, but let’s put that aside for a moment.
I don’t dislike Pinker. I just find him mind-numbingly tedious. He is a rock star among the pink haired crowd, for his forcible advocacy of liberal ideas, atheism, reason, and quantification. Numbers and data should define life because that’s rational, and not emotional. Anyone arguing against this is, by definition, irrational, because humans should be like Vulcans. Pinker has forceful fans on Twitter. One of them criticized a hapless humanities professor who dared offer a critique of Pinker, in the following manner:
Peter Harrison: Cited by 2742
Steven Pinker: Cited by 75065
I’m sorry, which scholar only has a cursory interest in their subjects? ???? https://t.co/StXcj2abuF
— Ryan Dee (@Ryan__Dee) February 22, 2018
I’m not sure that is a useful metric to quantify the impact of an intellectual argument. After all, plenty of pornstars these days get more retweets on average than the good professor. Nevertheless, I made a promise and my promise I shall keep.
What is this book about? By the time I finished, my temples grey-er and throbbing with a barrage of derivative research and pages after pages of graphs, I still wasn’t sure. What is the purpose of a book starting with the warning that “Foremost is reason. Reason is nonnegotiable?” Is this a history of enlightenment? I am not sure Pinker is a historian capable of tackling such a diverse period of time, which includes, as he mentions, an intense period of romanticism—a reactionary movement against the idea that rationality defines existence. Pinker calls himself a liberal and is worshipped as a liberal by liberals.
As I’m sure he is aware, one of the greatest liberals of all time, Lord Byron, who wanted to spread Western values to the Ottoman provinces (much to the discomfort of the far more rational practitioners of realpolitik in the British Empire) was a Romantic himself who opposed science, practiced occult, and found solace in opiates and failed romances. The Byronic hero was a broken but stoic man, carrying the burdens of the Original Sin, doomed to perish in a dark heroic death as he reflected on his failed quest. Pinker’s hero, Immanuel Kant, himself warned against this reason-emotion dualism, in a book, curiously titled The Critique of Pure Reason. Pinker somehow fails to discuss misgivings about pure reason on the part of Francis Bacon, David Hume, John Locke, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. All of them were thinking and writing during the period Pinker calls the Enlightenment and the majority of them were liberals.
Pinker barely touches upon the conservatives, like Burke and Hobbes, and doesn’t have a thing to say about Metternich or De Maistre. De Maistre, for example, blamed the Reign of Terror squarely on rationality. On the murder of Marie Antoinette, Burke lamented, “. . . little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”
Keats or Nate Silver?
Pinker laments that humanities need to be scientific. Humanities are of course based on faith, according to Pinker, and therefore an enemy of reason. “The most obvious is religious faith. To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” Imagine Bach’s “Matthäus-Passion,” or Bernini’s “Rape of Proserpina,” or Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” and then replace it with metrics or graphs. The Nate Silver-ization of the Renaissance.
Some of the accusations were straightforward. “Intellectual magazines regularly denounce ‘scientism,’ the intrusion of science into the territory of the humanities such as politics and the arts” or, “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bien-pensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it.” Outstanding allegations, and might I add presented without citations; extraordinary for someone incessantly harping on about data.
But there is more: “The ideal of progress also should not be confused with the 20th-century movement to re-engineer society for the convenience of technocrats and planners, which the political scientist James Scott calls Authoritarian High Modernism. The movement denied the existence of human nature, with its messy needs for beauty, nature, tradition, and social intimacy.” Right, so Enlightenment and progress are just a continuous outgrowth of the cherry-picked “good” parts of history, and all the bad that came with rationality is just due to pesky technocrats. “Science is commonly blamed for racism, imperialism, world wars, and the Holocaust.” Not strictly true. Pure rationality, sure, but not science. Science is merely a process to achieve rational goals. Nazi eugenics was the logical progression of rationality, determined to clean human stock of undesirable genetics, something logically now practiced in super-liberal Iceland by means of abortion to cleanse society of people with Down Syndrome.
The rationality Pinker defends would logically dictate that within the next 200 years there will be a mad rush for resources and territory, as the population growth in certain parts of the world is unsustainable, given that those same parts of the world are also hopelessly backward. The fate of humanity, therefore, hinges logically either on a global war or some other means of culling. In that case best not be like the Elois, or count on our species colonizing outer space To be serious about that, all gender studies research should be defunded at once and the money should be spent on space research. Pure rationality would dictate that humans should be more Hobbesian. Whatever one thinks of these solutions, Pinker should spell them out. He doesn’t, so it’s dishonest. Some might agree with that Darwinian outlook, but don’t think a majority of liberals would like that future one bit.
A Cult of His Own
It’s not that I disagree with Pinker on the facts. I very much agree with his opposition of postmodernism—the idea that there’s no natural truth, and everything is socially constructed. Ironically, postmodernists never test their assumptions of a socially constructed force of gravity from a five-storied rooftop, or go to a Shamanic healer while having a bad bout of appendicitis or psoriasis. Postmodernism is an anti-science and society ruining cult, and Pinker rightly argues against it. But Pinker then proceeds to form a cult of his own, a cult of scientism, where there’s only one single way to approach truth, the path of empiricism, observation, and deduction. For a man of evidence, his faith in the “one true path” is revealing. Pinker’s idea of the achievements of humanity is to parade the achievements of science, which he calls the rational way, without taking responsibility for the repeated failures and terrible injustices it has wrought. Phrenology was settled science once, as was the idea that space is filled with ether.
With his manifesto, which has the bulk of a dictionary, Pinker joins a new band of academics, who define every human decision by its lack of proper information and processing of rational thoughts. If only the hoi polloi knew that society is in the pink of health. “The 21st century, an age of unprecedented access to knowledge, has also seen maelstroms of irrationality, including…the promulgation of conspiracy theories, from 9/11 to the size of Donald Trump’s popular vote.” Au contraire, one might argue it was ultra-rational that Trump supporters saw through the liberal social engineering and mindless foreign interventions. In a toxic election, a bunch of people chose an uncouth, comically macho billionaire, who instinctively wanted to cut down immigration, and slap smug Europeans buck-passing their security on American taxpayers, and stop Quixotic foreign interventions to promote democracy in the most feudal, cancerous regions of the world, instead of a cold Rosa Klebb-esque careerist who wanted to double down on a quarter century of failed policies. Who are the rational ones here?
And climate change voodoo has run its course. No rational person on the Right denies the climate is changing. They dispute that the rate of climate change is as apocalyptic as portrayed by the green Al Gore lobby and that man-made causes are behind all or even most of it. Just because conventional wisdom supports climate-change activism doesn’t mean that the views of activists are settled science. Craniometry was once settled science as well as conventional wisdom across the civilized world. To his credit, Pinker agrees with the idea that there’s too much hysteria on climate change. He writes, “Not only have the disasters prophesied by 1970s greenism failed to take place, but improvements that it deemed impossible have taken place. As the world has gotten richer and crested the environmental curve, nature has begun to rebound.” Fair enough.
He continues: “Cities are less often shrouded in purple-brown haze, and London no longer has the fog—actually coal smoke—that was immortalized in Impressionist paintings, gothic novels, the Gershwin song, and the brand of raincoats. Urban waterways that had been left for dead—have been recolonized by fish, birds, marine mammals, and sometimes swimmers . . . Carbon intensity for the world as a whole has been declining for half a century.” I hope Pinker convinces his own side of that. Liberals, the supposedly pro-science faction, are the ones who believe in 72 different genders and rally against genetically modified crops. Conservatives do not line up to buy healing crystals or vagina beads from Goop.
The Limits of “Progress”
By the time I was into the second act of the book, I was feeling envious of the fate of Hypatia. What is the purpose of such a book, which provides derivative research and data? Encyclopedias do that. Great Power wars are arguably going down. Pinker, no international relations theorist, touches upon nuclear deterrence once and leaves it at that, undeterred as history to him is teleological and inexorably progressive. Civil wars meanwhile increase, the Arab Spring turns to a long winter, and post-Cold War states slide into authoritarianism. Terrorism isn’t something to worry about, as the numbers show terror attacks are down. No mention of the enormous daily surveillance and burden on the taxpayer to prevent such regular acts of terror. Pinker doesn’t cite the latest bleak research on the increasing failures of integration and ghettoization in Europe and the enormous correlation of second-generation migrants with Jihadism. Neither does he mention increasing crime in Western cities due to the weakening of law enforcement.
Why do Europeans worry? Guess they are not rational enough. For someone so reasonable, Pinker hovers dangerously close to the Leninist theory of false consciousness. What to do about Islamism? “Obviously a new Islamic Enlightenment will have to be spearheaded by Muslims, but non-Muslims have a role to play.” Ah. Simple.
I don’t disagree with the data given, I just failed to see the purpose of the book. Yes, the world has gotten better than when Vasco Da Gama landed in Western India. So bloody what? It is inevitable that progress happens with time. Science and technology progressed from Pagan Greek and Romans to Abrahamic Europeans. During the same time, classical civilizations like India and China sunk into oblivion even without having any qualitative difference in economy with their European counterparts. When Pinker says Enlightenment, he doesn’t mean a historical analysis of Enlightenment. He seems to mean a lazy caricature of it from which he can then simplistically cherry-pick and connect to “all good things” since 1700. He attributes those good things to systemic changes, while discarding all the bad, including eugenics and world wars, to individual evil. That’s not an argument, that’s a fallacy. Pinker does a classic post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Surely Pinker knows that correlation doesn’t mean causation and doesn’t justify patterns of history.
Imagine someone standing on a summer dawn in 1905, in some sunlit meadows in Edwardian southern England. Life couldn’t have seemed better. Science and technology progress was better than ever, the spirit of scientific enquiry was worshipped throughout Europe, trade was internationalized under Pax Britannica and enforced by a peerless Royal Navy, communication was for the first time truly global due to revolutionary changes, travel all around the world was free and safe, and there was overall a great power peace for almost a hundred years. The rest, as they say, is proverbial.
The fact remains, that life cannot be quantified or metricized. Polls failed to predict Brexit and Trump’s win, or Arab Spring, or the breakdown of Pax Americana after a quarter-century of unipolarity, and they overlooked the renewed great power rivalry. There were once marauding hordes destroying priceless artifacts in dark ages Europe in the name of religion, when Baghdad and Tehran were proper civilizations. They are doing the same in the Middle East now, just in the name of a different religion. History is cyclical, and data dudes are myopic, parochial, and naïve if they think it is destined only to get better.
What’s the purpose of this book, as it is clearly a terrible history of enlightenment? In Pinker’s own words, “. . . life has gotten longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting. Problems remain, but problems are inevitable.”
Well, thanks for that, captain.