The Enlightened Superstitions of Steven Pinker
A couple of weeks ago, I realized that I ought to read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I had read a review in National Review Online that reported on Pinker's antipathy to religion.
Okay, I said – so what is Pinker's religion? It is an article of faith for me that everyone has a religion.
Fortunately, Pinker resolves the question on the first page of the book, by answering a question put to him by a young woman: "Why should I live?" He replies:
In the very act of asking that question, you are seeking reasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the means to discover and justify what is important to you. And there are so many reasons to live!
Pinker follows up by writing that he believes in the ideals of the Enlightenment, that "we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing[.]"
So, using Cathy Newman dialectics, what he is saying is that if you believe in human flourishing, then the Enlightenment teaches you to use reason and sympathy to achieve it.
The whole of Enlightenment Now is devoted to the notion that "we," the followers of the Enlightenment, are the guys that use science and reason, as against the "other," right-wingers and Trumpist populists and theists and Marxists, who do not.
Only my experience is that everyone else also believes he is using reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing, just like Steven Pinker. But as for the other guys...
And so, for the next 340 pages, Pinker tells us all the wonderful things that have happened in the last 200 years, and that Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress did it. It's a wonderful story. But is it true?
In my Great Enrichment page under "What Does It Mean," I haul out no fewer than eight narrative explanations of today's amazing economic prosperity, including, at #3, Pinker's Enlightenment narrative:
Many people believe that it was the Enlightenment, a new birth of reason that flowered in the 17th century and replaced in human minds the superstitions of the Medieval Era, [that gave us the Great Enrichment].
Okay, but Deirdre McCloskey believes that it was "trade-tested betterment," many other people talk about "capital accumulation," and environmentalists believe that it was the reckless exploitation of fossil fuels.
So whom do you believe: Steven Pinker or your own lying eyes? One answer is to check what he says about men and ideas that you know something about.
Pinker bats aside Edmund Burke, who "suggested that humans were too flawed to think up schemes for improving their condition[.]" Not quite. In my academy, Burke made a big deal of our obligation to future generations – as in "don't screw it up" – and also prophesied, accurately in 1790, that the reason of the French Revolution would screw it up and lead straight to "the gallows," as indeed it did. Plus he thought it a bad idea for colonial administrators to loot the colonies, lost his seat in Parliament by advocating for Catholic emancipation, and backed the rebellious colonists in North America. Some reactionary!
Or Nietzsche. Pinker adopts the conventional liberal narrative that Nietzsche leads straight to fascism, do not pass Go. Not quite, Stevie, 'cause I am right in the middle of reading Nietzsche for myself. Here is what Zarathustra says: "Dead are all the Gods: now do we desire the Superman to live!" What Nietzsche is saying, Cathy, is that if God is dead, then we end up worshipping the Übermensch instead of the God of Creation. So Nietzsche agrees with me, when I say, "The God of the People of the Creative Self is the Creative Self. If the old God was the creator of the universe, or at least in on the design, the modern creative self aims to become as God."
Go check it out.
Now Pinker is pretty hard on "theism," for who can believe in the old God of Creation now, because Science? But what if it is the Death of God that leads directly to the man on the white horse and fascism, and not the prophet Nietzsche, who inconveniently pointed it out? Does Reason tell us the answer?
See, my worldview revolts against the triumphalism of an Enlightenment fan-boy like Pinker. All down through history, people like Pinker have believed that we have it all figured out, except for a couple of wrinkles. On the contrary, I believe that the more we know, the more we know we don't know.
At least there is this, on the matter of the Harvard Asian quota. Steven Pinker, a Jewish professor at Harvard, "argues in favor of admitting students on the basis of just one factor: Standardized test scores."
Way to go, Stevie.