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Step forward, yes, but progress?

Enlightenment Now. The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
Forfatter: Steven Pinker
Forlag: Viking/Penguin (UK)
In his eagerness to defend reason and enlightenment, Steven Pinker forgets that this may include more than what he himself puts into the concepts.


Friday 27. July 2018 Kristian Beneke has an interesting article in the Class Fight, about eight different types of people. Homo humanitatis is described as "the sensible and free man, whom one especially associates with the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Homo humanitatis is an individual in his own right and sensible enough to manage his own life ”.

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of bestsellers as The Better Angels of Our Nature og How the Mind Works – and now out with a new book by the name Enlightenment Now. The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress – is a typical example of humanitatis: He is convinced that the Enlightenment project and the belief in reason and rationality need a defense. 

Enlightened, but cramped

The mistakes made in the world always lie in the lack of insight, proclaim Pinker, and build among other things on the book The Beginning Infinity by the extraordinarily optimistic quantum physicist and author David Deutsch – who believes all war will end, that the climate problem will be solved and that we have soon solved the riddle of consciousness – and this is just the beginning of all the wonderful things that will benefit humanity.

The pessimism that is spreading is in sharp contrast to the truly amazing times we live in.

"People may be more likely to acknowledge a problem when they have a reason to think it is solvable than when they are terrified into numbness and helplessness," Pinker writes, and it is hard to disagree. Still, there is something that grates. 

Pinker's universe is like a brightly lit room – too narrow. His information project provides no guarantee of spaciousness and free movement. All problems can be solved, yes – but what about the problems created from the same mindset?

Unjustified pessimism

Postmodernism, historical revisionism, ever-shrinking respect for modern science, and a host of other similar conditions mean that the Enlightenment project needs its advocates, Pinker believes, pointing out that the pessimism that is spreading is in sharp contrast to the truly amazing time we live in. And yes, Pinker is right that war, conflict and violence have become increasingly rare phenomena in the last 500 years – but for that very reason, it is more important to discuss the problems of the Enlightenment project than Pinker's ocean of obvious truths. The belief in enlightenment can easily end in a coercive, so-called sensible society, where everyone who does not use rationality is imprisoned, locked and beaten, killed or deprived of all authority – even supervised. (This relationship was also the starting point for the information criticism of Michel Foucault, a thinker Pinker doesn't have much to worry about.)

One problem with gay humanitatis is that she tends to downplay the past as compared to the present. To paint our own time, she paints the story, so a future enlightenment thinker will certainly downplay today's world when she compares it to her.

Truth out

To think before speaking, to spend time on complex matters. to look at each case individually, not to respond to politically colored prejudices – this is among the author's urging of readers. In practice, many are ideologically blinded and defend an entire system of thought every time they have to defend a separate case, he believes. They are not interested in the truth as long as it does not strengthen their own agenda. 

Pinker warns against believing in the perfect society, but still writes that "everything is amazing". 

Pinker, of course, does not believe that all people are sensible – he just points out that they should be it. But is it always so obvious what makes sense? Nietzsche's philosophy, the concepts of destiny and karma, all kinds of religion and superstition, alternative medicine and various forms of magical thinking are all examples of reason, according to the author. 

But the book's definition of "reason" becomes too narrow in my eyes: Pinker does not see that a new age of enlightenment must include more forms of experience. The overly tracked 1700th century discourse makes the book feel like a flashlight in a sleeping bag. For example, Pinker states with no certainty that there is no God, that the laws of the universe are completely indifferent to what man does and that all religion is damning. There is no karma and hardly any spirituality.

The subjective experience

Pinker warns against believing in the perfect society, but still writes that "everything is amazing". But that faith in God is back in the world – is it really a clear step forward? Or could it be a sign of growing disillusionment in the population? The number of suicides is declining in most Western countries, which is correct, and the reason why the quality of life is increasing in large parts of the world is due to the obvious increase in life expectancy, less poverty, fewer wars, better nutrition and strengthened economy. 

A new period of enlightenment must include more forms of experience.

But in modernity there should be room for many different types of experience. Our times also have quite different problems to contend with than those that dominated in the 1700th century, and despite the correctness of many of the author's arguments, it draws down that Pinker has decided in advance what makes sense. 

I'm waiting for a new revelation for Steven Pinker – that his overly limited enlightenment project is being expanded to include religiosity and spirituality – yes, even Nietzsche (whom he goes so far as to warn people against reading). I hope he jumps off the future train in the middle of the wildest East, and brings with it all philosophical thought from there in his slightly too selective rationality struggle.

Henning Næs
Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.

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