Steven Pinker during a lecture for Humanists UK
Post Format

Enlightenment Now

I went to see Stephen Pinker on Monday night, interviewed by Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, talking about his latest book, Enlightenment Now, an argument for science, rationalism and humanism. Bill Gates’ new favourite book apparently, knocking his previous favourite, Pinker’s  Better Angels of Our Nature, off the top spot.

It looks like a big book. They were selling signed copies. It must weigh at least a kilo. I’ve not read it yet, and maybe I won’t, but if I were to read it I’d buy it as an e-book. I’ve seen and read much of the promotion though, such as this talk

so I think I have a pretty good idea of the arguments being made.

You’ve never had it so good, could have been an alternative title for for this book, for its UK release at least. The world is getting better in any number of measurable ways, but it’s not cool to say so. People seem to prefer doomsayers telling them how the world is going to hell in a handcart.

Pessimists sound like wise profits whereas optimists sounds like they’re trying to sell you something.

The audience, as you might expect for a Guardian sponsored event in central London costing £20 a head, appeared to be composed mostly of those who some might refer to as the metropolitan elite.

Pinker did mention how, whilst the world is becoming more equal, inequality within countries is on the rise, with many working-class people in countries such as the US and UK having seen their standards of living decline in recent decades.

Actually go some way towards explaining why most on the left are reluctant to buy into the narrative that the world is getting better, who I suspect a strong reason is the location how politicians are doing something right. If that’s the case, there is no need for radical revolutionary changes.

But there is a case for evolutionary changes, and potentially radical changes – if by a radical we mean going to the roots of the challenges we face.

One questioner brought up the subject of climate change, stating it’s an entirely different order of problem and the fact that we’ve had success with crime, disease, poverty, pollution and ozone depletion doesn’t mean we’ll also successful with climate change.

Pinker’s answer was that the fact we have solved or are well on the way to solving problems that once seemed intractable should give us hope that we can do the same with climate change, and that the view that we’ve been abject failures and things are getting worse in every imaginable way needs to defeatism. But we shouldn’t be complacent. Things are more likely to go wrong then go right because there are so many more ways in which things can go wrong. That things have gone right comes down to human efforts and human agency, and in many cases that includes the efforts of campaigners.

Where does all of this leave us?

Do we need a new political movement that argues for the ideals of the Enlightenment: science, rationalism and humanism? A new political party? The Enlightenment party? That makes it sound religious, which could attract votes from some low-information voters, and may also inspire the wrath of the post-modernists who see science and reason as just another belief system, no better nor worse than any other.