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Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker's embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for ra... - 0 views

  • Steven Pinker is fond of definitions. Early on in this monumental apologia for a currently fashionable version of Enlightenment thinking, he writes: “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.” Well, it’s good to have that settled once and for all. There is no need to trouble yourself with the arguments of historians, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, who treat religion as a highly complex phenomenon, serving a variety of human needs. All you need do is consult a dictionary, and you will find that religion is – by definition – irrational.
  • in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Hume believed being reasonable meant accepting the limits of reason, and so too, in quite different ways, did later Enlightenment rationalists such as Keynes and Freud.
  • He is an evangelist for science – or, to be more exact, an ideology of scientism. Along with reason, humanism and progress, science features as one of the core Enlightenment values that Pinker lists at the start of the book. But for him science is more than a bunch of methods that are useful in conjecturing how the world works: it provides the basis of ethics and politics.
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  • There is nothing novel in scientism. The Victorian prophet of social evolution, Herbert Spencer, believed that the universe, life and society were moving from undifferentiated simplicity to a higher state of complex order. In politics, this meant a movement towards laissez-faire capitalism. In social contexts, “survival of the fittest” – an expression Spencer invented after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – meant that anyone unable to stay afloat in such a society would struggle, sink and then disappear. Spencer welcomed this process, since for him it was evolution in action – the movement from lower to higher forms of life.
  • Many early-20th-century Enlightenment thinkers supported eugenic policies because they believed “improving the quality of the population” – weeding out human beings they deemed unproductive or undesirable – would accelerate the course of human evolution. When Pinker touches on eugenics in a couple of paragraphs towards the end of the book, he blames it on socialism: “The most decisive repudiation of eugenics invokes classical liberal and libertarian principles: government is not an omnipotent ruler over human existence but an institution with circumscribed powers, and perfecting the genetic make-up of the human species is not among them.” But a theory of entropy provides no reason for limiting the powers of government any more than for helping the weak. Science cannot underwrite any political project, classical liberal or otherwise, because science cannot dictate human values.
  • Exponents of scientism in the past have used it to promote Fabian socialism, Marxism-Leninism, Nazism and more interventionist varieties of liberalism. In doing so, they were invoking the authority of science to legitimise the values of their time and place. Deploying his cod-scientific formula to bolster market liberalism, Pinker does the same. Scientism is one of the Enlightenment’s bad ideas. But bad ideas do not evolve into better ones. They keep on recurring, often in cruder and sillier forms than in the past. Pinker’s formula for human progress is a contemporary example.
  • Like the faithful who tell you Christianity is “a religion of love” that had nothing to do with the Inquisition, Pinker stipulates that the Enlightenment, by definition, is intrinsically liberal. Modern tyrannies must therefore be products of counter-Enlightenment ideologies – Romanticism, nationalism and the like. Enabling liberals to avoid asking difficult questions about why their values are in retreat, this is a popular view. Assessed in terms of historical evidence, it is also a myth.
  • the 19th-century French positivist Auguste Comte – not discussed by Pinker – promoted a brand of scientism that was overtly anti-liberal. Human progress meant following the path of reason and moving from magical thinking to scientific inquiry. In a society based on science there will be no need for liberal values, since moral and political questions will be answered by experts
  • Comte’s core ideas – reason, science, progress and humanism – are precisely those that Pinker lists at the start of this book as the central values of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, neither of them mentions freedom or toleration.
  • Instead of acknowledging that the Enlightenment itself has often been illiberal, Pinker presents a Manichean vision in which “Enlightenment liberal values” are besieged on every side by dark forces.
  • The message of Pinker’s book is that the Enlightenment produced all of the progress of the modern era and none of its crimes.
  • Enlightenment Now is a rationalist sermon delivered to a congregation of wavering souls. To think of the book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. Much of its more than 500 pages consists of figures aiming to show the progress that has been made under the aegis of Enlightenment ideals. Of course, these figures settle nothing. Like Pinker’s celebrated assertion that the world is becoming ever more peaceful – the statistical basis of which has been demolished by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – everything depends on what is included in them and how they are interpreted.
  • If an Enlightenment project survives, what reason is there for thinking it will be embodied in liberal democracy? What if the Enlightenment’s future is not in the liberal West, now almost ungovernable as a result of the culture wars in which it is mired, but Xi Jinping’s China, where an altogether tougher breed of rationalist is in charge? It is a prospect that Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and other exponents of enlightened despotism would have heartily welcomed.
  • even if Pinker was capable of providing it, intellectual inquiry is not what his anxious flock demands. Only an anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt
  • Judged as a therapeutic manual for rattled rationalists, Enlightenment Now is a highly topical and much-needed book. In the end, after all, reason is only the slave of the passions.
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