The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
556 pp. Viking. $35.
Optimism is not generally thought cool, and it is often thought foolish. The optimistic philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in 1828, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” In the previous century, Voltaire’s “Candide” had attacked what its author called “optimism”: the Leibnizian idea that all must be for the best in this best of all possible worlds. After suffering through one disaster after another, Candide decides that optimism is merely “a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.”
Yet one might argue (and Steven Pinker does) that the philosophy Voltaire satirizes here is not optimism at all. If you think this world is already as good as it gets, then you just have to accept it. A true optimist would say that, although human life will never be perfect, crucial aspects of it can improve if we work at it, for example by refining building standards and seismological predictions so that fewer people die in earthquakes. It’s not “best,” but it is surely better.
This optimist’s revenge on “Candide” is one of the passing pleasures in “Enlightenment Now,” Pinker’s follow-up to his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” The earlier work assembled banks of data in support of his argument that human life is becoming, not worse as many seem to feel, but globally safer, healthier, longer, less violent, more prosperous, better educated, more tolerant and more fulfilling. His new book makes the same case with updated statistics, and adds two extra elements. First, it takes into account the recent rise of authoritarian populism, especially in the form of Donald Trump — a development that has led some to feel more despairing than ever. Second, it raises the polemical level with a rousing defense of the four big ideas named in the subtitle: progress, reason, science and humanism — the last being defined not mainly in terms of non-theism (though Pinker argues for that, too), but as “the goal of maximizing human flourishing — life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience.” Who could be against any of that? Yet humanism has been seen in some quarters as unfashionable, or unachievable, or both. Pinker wants us to take another look.
Much of the book is taken up with evidence-based philosophizing, with charts showing a worldwide increase in life expectancy, a decline in life-shattering diseases, ever better education and access to information, greater recognition of female equality and L.G.B.T. rights, and so on — even down to data showing that Americans today are 37 times less likely to be killed by lightning than in 1900, thanks to better weather forecasting, electrical engineering and safety awareness. Improvements in health have bettered the human condition enormously, and Pinker tells us that his favorite sentence in the whole English language comes from Wikipedia: “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.” The word “was” is what he likes.
He later adds that he could have ended every chapter by saying, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Trumpism risks knocking the world backward in almost every department of life, especially by trying to undo the international structures that have made progress possible: peace and trade agreements, health care, climate change accords and the general understanding that nuclear weapons should never be used. All this is now in question. Pinker is particularly sharp on the dangers of ignoring or overriding the systems that make nuclear war unlikely.