Pinker Says, Wait a Minute; The World Is Wrong, We Are Better Today than Ever Before.

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One of the greatest enemies yet, and indeed, the most worrisome issue to modernity and progress now is not about affordability – accessibility debate. It is the defiance of scientific progress and the doubts that come with it, coupled with humanity’s irrational fear for progress. Fathom this little hypothetical experience for a second. You live in a rural part of South Sudan. a young girl wakes up every morning to school alongside boys. She comes home, rests for a few minutes and revises her homework. The next day she falls sick, but instead of resisting the sickness, she goes to a nearby local clinic assuming that she suffers from malaria. She takes the normal chloroquine and recovers. She attends classes the next day together with her brother. This is what Pinker calls progress.

In his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress 2018, Pinker, an evolutionary scientist and a psychologist at Harvard provides a tantalizingly scientific masterpiece that gives us an opposite outlook of the world out there. The world of CNN, Aljazeera, and the BBC where global news is full of how the world is regressing; the news of coronavirus has, for example, brought a lot of theories of how effective the so-called globalization can be – the sceptics and the pessimists have their ways. As an avid reader of Pinker, I saw some level of optimism from the book, drawing from the title. In his 2012 text, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker asserts the very same argument of progress though his focus is context-specific; he addresses the level of progress using the global violence and how it has moved from the top left corner to the bottom right hand of the graph overtimes.

In the Enlightenment Now, those expectations have been exceeded. The book is based on three tenets; reason, science, and humanism which Pinker believes as essential elements of progress. Pinker’s work traces back to three centuries of slow but sure progress in scientific development and its associated human ingenuities that follow right through its path. In just 550 pages, Pinker attempts to squeeze the human progress that the enlightenment ideals have brought in a period spanning centuries. And of course, Pinker uses his graphs, and charts.

The book starts with the description of reason; a curious question from one of Pinker’s students reads like this: “Why Should I live?” The student’s question, Pinker writes, is genuinely curious about how to find meaning and purpose if traditional religious beliefs about an immortal soul are undermined by our best science. Pinker answers the student with his usual philosophical-based solution:

“As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science and insights into the human conditions through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist.”

The central idea of Pinker’s argument is that the Enlightenment Ideals are increasingly being attacked by many schools and establishments – from powerful media houses to devouring political ideologies that consume humanity’s ability to reason and trust in facts. As he writes about the populist rise in the west, “The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of political movements that depict their countries as being pulled into a hellish dystopia by malign factions that can be resisted only by a strong leader who wrenches the country backwards to Make it Great Again.” This same line of thinking can be applied to the Brexit where the leave campaigners had one central message: take back control. Taking back control, implied in the Pinkerian world, a slap to the face of progress. But is that true? Pinker’s flaws intervene here; his over-simplification of the dangers of globalization, and the needs of states to have safety gloves in a globalizing but increasingly susceptible world is a call for concern. The outbreak of the ongoing pandemic – coronavirus is indeed, a practical failure or to sound friendlier, a clear weakness of globalization or progress in Pinker’s terms.

So what is this enlightenment that Pinker talks of? In Kantian Essay of 1784, enlightenment is “dare to understand, and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.” Okay. Let us get this right. The biggest challenge yet affecting the so-called enlightenment ideals is that most of them exist in a dystopia – my university subscribes to these ideals and the university ideals are freedom of thought and speech but in actual sense, they are the most violated values. Quoting David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, Pinker defines optimism (which is enlightenment in other forms) as a theory that failures  – all evils – are due to insufficient knowledge. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization, Pinker writes, is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on the tradition of criticisms. Its institutions keep improving and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.” This is very true especially in the global south particularly Africa where innovation and creative thoughts are not only gloomed over but also undervalued and terribly underfunded.

Pinker then turns to science which he defines as refining the reason to understand the world, and to him, the reason is non-negotiable. The moment one asks questions such as “why should I live” one is already introduced to reason. The Enlightenment can sometimes be described as a humanitarian revolution because of its historical link to freeing slaves, outlawing barbarian practices such as killing twins in Nigeria, flogging of criminals in medieval Europe, child marriages in Africa or amputations in the Middle East for blasphemy. I think this particular side of enlightenment ideals is what makes it problematic in most parts of the world today.

Although certain traditional practices like outlined above are inhumane across civilizations, the western introduction of these ideals always interferes with the rest of the world’s organized tradition and knowledge; talk of homosexuality in Africa. Using Pinker’s argument, progress and humanism cannot be separated; thus they involve respect for and dignity of human beings, freedom of thought and speech. Therefore, a gay man is free to speak their minds in the city of Juba or Cape town and no government should ask them any question. How practical this remains to be seen.

Pinker trashes the argument that the enlightenment ideals are an extension of 18th century Western Europe and 20th-century American cultures and traditions to pollute the rest of the world. He writes: “For one thing, all ideas have to come from somewhere, and their birthplace has no bearing on their merit. He believes that although these ideals might have originated from the west, their roots are found in reason and human nature. This is where I disagree with Pinker. The reason is a product of emotions and human feelings which again are influenced to a certain extent, by tradition and culture in any particular society. In social psychology, human societies are said to be a product of their environment. There is a great wave of research on this. So for Pinker to conclude that enlightenment ideals are universal because they were born out of human reason is another way of telling us that western values are more superior than the rest. This makes Pinker another victim of western scholarship that is highly biased against other races.

Intellectual history is a byproduct of human society – colonialism teaches that Africa and the rest of the global south had been suppressed; their reason and humanism suffered in the process. The period of enlightenment that Pinker passionately addresses was also the time when slavery was officiated in most of the developing south. Where would you expect the same level of understanding?

Pinker tries to address many facets; from life, equality, environment, health, wealth to democracy and so forth, he provides rich data of how better our world has been than usually reported in the news. But his attack on the organized areas of human thoughts and beliefs such as religion does not go well with the central argument of the book. It is hard to move away people from religion to hard facts that science provides. Life would never be complete without abstract ideals that humanities provide. For example, Pinker has a problem with people who have faith. For him, faith means believing something without good reason and that belief in the afterlife attacks the fundamental elements of humanism – health and happiness since it considers life on earth as a portion of one’s existence.

On health, Pinker provides an example of how media makes us believe that progress is regressing by their mass reporting. “We never see a journalist saying to the camera that I’m reporting live from a country where war has not broken out – or a city that has not been bombed…” Pinker believes this is an enemy to progress and that this kind of reporting distorts people’s view of reality as a result of a mental bug that psychologists call availability heuristic – where people make conclusions based on the frequency with which instances come to mind.

Pinker provides an example in the US where death figures from tornadoes make the Americans believe that it is the major cause of death more than asthma. He writes: “People rank tornadoes which kill about 50 Americans a year as a more common cause of death than asthma which kills more than 4,000 Americans a year, presumably because tornadoes make for better television.”

What I find fascinating in the book is Pinker’s agreement with the historical evolutionary writer, Noah Harari, who in his groundbreaking book, Sapiens speaks of how biotechnology and artificial intelligence might serve an answer to living an endless life. Pinker’s citing of reverse engineers such as Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity Is Near reminds me of Harari’s prediction that in few decades to come, the rich might build a Noah-like ark which would only take to heaven (if there is indeed one) while the rest of the billionaires would buy anti-ageing drugs to prolong life. In Kurzweil’s words: “those of us who make it to 2045 will live forever, thanks to advances in genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.”

In the chapter titled The Future of Progress, Pinker draws an optimistic image, writing that “the poor may not always be with us.” He argues that “the proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90 per cent to less than 10 per cent, and within the lifetimes of most of the readers of this book it could approach zero.” Woo how I wish Pinker’s optimism bears fruits. As Pinker widely states in the book, the biggest challenge now is how to dismantle populist ideals that make progress looks bleak. Pinker asserts that the “challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction.”

These are the things that support the ladder of populist thoughts and anti-progressive constitutions across civilizations today. Doing away with them, I believe would require a collective effort, political elites included, if possible. But Pinker, the optimist has a prediction which of course is already working. He argues that the most obvious reason why people turn away from God is reason itself: “When people become more intellectually curious and scientifically literate, they stop believing in miracles.”

So who does enlightenment belong to – who owns this body of beliefs? In conclusion, Pinker says that the story of enlightenment is ours – it is for humanity. As he concludes: “and the story belongs not to any tribe but all humanity – to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its beings.” That to Pinker is where enlightenment belongs. So if you have the power of reason and you possess the urge to persist in its being; that is, to advocate for these ideals, then you could own this religion too.

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