Saturday, February 10, 2018

Have We Been Saved by the Enlightenment?

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker is not merely an important psychologist. He is an important public intellectual. He has gotten into the mind of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and has recruited the billionaire to lend credence to ideas that have little or nothing to do with science. Pinker pretends to use science to advance a liberal political and cultural agenda. 

One understands the billionaire software developers are barely conversant with great ideas. Thus, they are especially vulnerable to any intellectual who comes along with a Siren Song that convinces them that, being very, very rich, they deserve entrance into the pantheon the great philosophers. Many of the high tech oligarchs have had their minds seduced by left thinking intellectuals... to the eventual detriment of their companies. 

Now, Pinker has a new book about the glories of the Enlightenment, the age of Reason when dogmas and superstitions were replaced by democracy, diversity, environmentalism and human rights. He credits the Enlightenment with all of the progress that human beings have made since the late eighteenth and confidently predicts its continuation.

In a Wall Street Journal essay Pinker piles up the evidence about the progress the world has made over the past two plus centuries, and happily ignores the horrors that have befallen the human species. He is not doing science but trying to establish himself as a prophet of the new atheism.

I have not read the book, but the essay itself contains several obvious flaws. First, there was not one Enlightenment, but two. The Enlightenment in Great Britain and the Enlightenment in France and Germany were not at all the same thing. David Hume and Adam Smith were pragmatic, empirically minded thinkers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant were idealists, people who rejected empirical science because it did not correspond to their ideas about reason and justice and equality. One recalls that the French Revolution was fought in the names of liberty, equality and fraternity. Apparently, the weight of these Enlightenment ideals did not suffice to prevent a bloodbath of historical proportions.

Those who would like a more serious analysis of the two major traditions in Western intellectual life, the idealism promoted by Plato and the empiricism promoted by Aristotle should read Arthur Herman’s wonderful book: The Cave and the Light. I recommend it highly.

And, to be blindingly obvious, Pinker grants all credit to liberal ideas and neglects to mention the Industrial Revolution and the advent of free enterprise economics. True enough, far fewer citizens of the world are suffering from extreme poverty these days, but the principal reason is that the government of China turned away from Communism and toward capitalism in the late 1970s. They reduced their extreme poverty rate from over 80% to under 10%. They did not do it by adopting Enlightenment ideals, caring for the environment, respecting human rights, promoting free expression or having the people vote. Even today, it was recently reported, the people of China have more confidence in their authoritarian leaders than many other nations do in their democratically elected leaders. Today, China remains authoritarian and if anything is doing its best to avoid being contaminated by what it considers to be Western ideals. After all, it tried Western ideals under Mao Zedong. How did that work out? 

Strangely much of the progress that Pinker touts comes to us from China. We have often noted that nations around the world are comparing the Chinese model with the Western model and are turning away from the Western model.

Pinker speaks glowingly of new advances in medicine and sanitation, but these were produced by the Industrial Revolution. They work equally well in countries where people do not vote. Besides, scientific research is not conducted according to democratic principles. You do not take a vote to decide whether a hypothesis is true or false. 

One must keep in mind that Pinker is writing a polemic. He is not doing science and is not exercising empirical thinking. He is agitated that President Trump has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and denies climate change. And yet, his rose colored lenses have prevented him from seeing the blatant realities that would cast doubt on his modern dogma.

For example, if you want to argue that the Enlightenment has made the world a much better place, it would be good to pay some attention to the twentieth century. It is not that long gone and does not present a picture of human flourishing. The wars fought in that century were not little skirmishes. They were world wars, and killed tens of millions of people. Communism itself killed more than a hundred million people, most of them from starvation. And then there were the epidemics, the Spanish flu first among equals. We recall the nuclear weapons were used for the first time in the Enlightened twentieth century and that thousands of them are still lying around. Would you want to wager that they will never be used again? It takes a special form of naïveté  to imagine that no one will ever again use a nuclear weapon.

To say that the movement of history from the late eighteenth century up to now has been a glorious progression is naive and disingenuous. It is also deceptive-- I hope, not willfully.

As I said, Pinker is writing a polemic. And when you write a polemic you must ignore facts that would tend to disprove or discredit your ideas and must emphasize the facts that tend to prove them. Of course, if you can find enough people who are willing to be duped into thinking that the only facts that matter are the ones you have presented, good luck to you.

And Pinker is also a modern atheist. He is promoting the Enlightenment because he believes that it overthrew the reign of religion, of God, of Godliness, of dogma and of superstition. He even seems to suggest that the Enlightenment has been our salvation, that it rescued us from religion. As you recall, Carl Becker wrote an important book The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers where he explained that these anti-religious thinkers were wallowing in Biblical tropes.

Pinker does not seem to recognize that the nations that made the most radical attempts to rid their culture of God and to establish new atheist cultures, the Soviet Union and Communist China, were among the worst and most destructive in human history. 

One suspects that Pinker, as with other promoters of modern atheism, would never admit that Communism was the true face of atheism as a culture, but the Enlightenment cultures he touts were based on religion, not on atheism. In fact, the notion of free will, so important as an Enlightenment value, comes to us from the book of Genesis, through the intermediation of St. Augustine. The basis of harmonious social relations—do unto others as you would have others do unto you—comes to us from the Bible, not from the French Enlightenment. As for the reign of Reason, aka the god Apollo, we all know that no less than Aristotle first argued for the rationality of human creatures and that St. Thomas Aquinas brought Reason into Western thought by explaining the rational basis for faith. And let's not forget Max Weber's thesis, namely that we owe the advent of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic.

To imagine that we are faced with an either/or between faith and reason is to show a lack of philosophical and theological sophistication. And yet, this does not prevent Pinker from presenting himself as a prophet. He is effectively trying to induce us to give atheism another try. Since he refuses to think that Communism definitively showed that atheism was very bad news indeed, we may safely declare that his prophetic works are ways to recruit people into a cult. They are not about advancing the progress of peoplekind.


Redacted said...

The "Enlightenment" benefits more from good marketing (it's enlightened, dude; what could possibly go wrong??) than anything else.

So we've gone from The Enlightenment to The Lightworker, "be happeh" Utilitarianism to Peter Singer (we're still waiting on that "felicific cakalus" to bear fruit, Mr Bentham), from Paradise lost to the Worker's Paradise, and from data collection to data creation via simulation.

And speaking of science, now that you mention it...

"More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments. Those are some of the telling figures that emerged from Nature's survey of 1,576 researchers who took a brief online questionnaire on reproducibility in research[...] Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant 'crisis' of reproducibility, [...] most say that they still trust the published literature."
--- Nature

Such faith would is touching indeed, found in a church or temple.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Excellent post, Stuart!

Two things on this...

Firstly, you bring up the pragmatism of the British Enlightenment versus the idealism of the continental Enlightenment, which is a wonderful distinction:

“One recalls that the French Revolution was fought in the names of liberty, equality and fraternity. Apparently, the weight of these Enlightenment ideals did not suffice to prevent a bloodbath of historical proportions.’

Indeed, it was the prequel to “The Lord of the Flies.” And the American Revolution was far more pragmatic than the French. When you examine our National Charters (Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights), you notice a vibrant pragmatism, showing all that is possible when there are presumed limits on what man is capable of (we are not perfectable) and the liberty he is due (freedom to act with law). For all the references to Jefferson’s soaring prose in the first paragraph of the Declaration, the rest of it is a prosecution of the British Crown’s temporal misdeeds and their divorce from the divine liberty of man as his rightful state. Even Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address stems from this thinking, demonstrating a metaphysical resolve to prosecute the Civil War, a pragmatic humility of what we can and cannot deliver, and within all of it is the context of God. In this sense, one could even say that this pragmatic tradition traces back to the Magna Carta. Our Constitution is the pronouncement of “negative liberties” people like Obama find so distasteful, because it limits their reckless idealism. Too bad, so sad.

Secondly, you bring up an important point about the ‘cult”;

“To imagine that we are faced with an either/or between faith and reason is to show a lack of philosophical and theological sophistication.”

Almost all the Catholic councils called to resolve heresies or questions of dogma arrived at conclusions favoring a BOTH/AND solution. Most heresies that were smacked down wholesale reeked of one-sided, either-or thinking. One of the most virulent and enduring heresies is Gnosticism, where the self-proclaimed wise and enlightened claim ownership in a secret knowledge that will set man free. Pinker places himself squarely in this category with his polemic.

When you look at the truly great thinkers, you sense a confidence in progress toward Truth, but a simultaneous humility — recognizing that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that so much exploration remains. Pinker has little to none of this bearing, to my knowledge.

As for communism, Islamism and other death cults, one’s enemies are worthy of contempt and thus expendable. Submit or die. Hardly enlightened.

What troubles me most about the new atheism is that its most ardent evangelists seem to imagine human reason as their God. For all the reasons outlined in your post, this is objective hogwash. The Enlightenment and the supposed triumph of reason has given us the despair, meaninglessness and nihilism of postmodernism. Postmodernism has given us the modern university, which is neither a bastion of free speech, nor a store of timeless knowledge. As Allen Bloom pointed out, all you can say in today’s academic environment is that there is no Truth, and therefore judgments are futile, and tolerating everything is our only way forward. Yet they don’t practice what they preach, do they? That’s why Pinker fits in perfectly.

I just ordered “The Cave and the Light.” Thank you git the recommendation.

Sam L. said...

Possessers of "secret knowledge" don't want that knowledge to get out into "the great unwashed" That would blow their whole game.

Suncraig said...

So I guest it is safe to bet, that you, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb are not a fan of Mr. Pinker. He does want to me the next Carl Sagan, the new voice of modern atheism.

James said...

You can always tell that people like Pinker when they write these things see themselves in their minds eye as one of the "deciders, order givers" they'll never admit it, but they are. They NEVER believe that they'll be one of the obeyers, ever.

James said...

Sorry IAC,
I didn't see that you've already said this and quite a bit better I might add.

whitney said...

The enlightenment has great brand recognition. If you're pro enlightenment it means that you are Enlightened. It makes you better, smarter, wiser than everyone around you. Who doesn't want that

Ares Olympus said...

I wonder if "modern atheist" is an insufficient category to mean much, and certainly there's a wide range of believers and nonbelievers. Schumacher had a category "materialistic scientism" which may be the strongest antireligious position that denies anything that can't be objectively measured, or just presumes complexity does all the rest, like the wicked problem of climate change, as Judith Curry calls it.

So enlightenment is against darkness, against ignorance, against superstition, and it contains a positive belief that the world can be understood and be improved by that understanding. So as Whitney says, who doesn't want that. Maybe the problem with enlightenment perhaps is that anything that fails enlightenment we have to assume we're just not trying hard enough, and we have to double down to control anything that doesn't fit the way things are supposed to work through our enlightened understanding.

Perhaps a bigger question is if or how God interferes with the order of the world, and atheists would say "not at all, because god doesn't exist", while some religious folk would say miracles are real, and prayers make a difference. My best guess is whether God exists or not, there is an interior to experience that is hard to see, and there is hidden potential through that interior, and mythic or poetic or religious language is necessary to talk about it at all, but if you're someone who sees the interior as an illusion, then its all bunk.

And since we'll never agree on what the interior of experience is, or what it can do for us, we'd better use enlightenment to find what we can agree upon where shared external senses can describe things. And Carl Sagan expressed it as "Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign."

James said...

What you're talking about is something that has bedeviled anthropologists for a long time. Their problem; "When you study a different ethnic group, is it more important to be outside the group and supposedly objective or be part of the group to better understand it's dynamics which of course exposes you to their biases"?
As far as religion goes and the existence of God there has been a lot of talk and thinking on this subject (as there should be) be it is by it's nature guess work. A quick review of literature shows very few (out of a approx 20 billion) have recrossed that big threshhold to tell us if there is anything there (one guy they had to send back, apparently he didn't get it right the first time).
On a personal note as whitney says "Who doesn't want that". Well I've had about as much 'enlightenment' that I can stand especially of the variety that others call enlightenment.

whitney said...

My point was more than the nomenclature itself creates arrogance. If you're enlightened you have no need to ask questions. It seems that the Western world is filled with know-it-alls who are telling everyone else to live but not questioning their own knowledge. One thing I've noticed about know-it-alls, they're all liars. You have to be because you can't know it all

Christopher B said...

The branding of the 'Enlightenment' was deliberate to contrast with the (supposedly) 'Dark Ages', and for the same reason that Pinker wants to celebrate them, to discredit the advances made during the Church-dominated Middle Ages.

David Foster said...

"(Our ancestors) replaced superstition and magic with science. "

"Do people need to believe in magic, a father in the sky, a strong chief to protect the tribe, myths of heroic ancestors? I don’t think so."

But in real life, those who have rejected traditional religion are often *not* classical Village Atheists, nor do they have a scientific mindset. Many believe in magical crystals...homeopathic medicines....a conscious Gaia.

These beliefs seem to be especially common among Millenials...some astrology statistics here:

and also among women.

Of course, one could believe in astrology and also in the scientific methods...Newton did...but the range of popular mystical beliefs suggests a rejection of secularism among large parts of the population who are formally nonreligious.

David Foster said...

AO..."And Carl Sagan expressed it as "Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign."

Yet the present era is the Golden Age of subjectivism...feeelings are everything.

James said...

You're right, sorry about that, I was trying to address that in my "Well I've had about as much 'enlightenment' that I can stand especially of the variety that others call enlightenment." statement.

Sam L. said...

I'd like to enlighten myself, having added poundage...

Sam L. said...

Hey, Stuart! Why is your timekeeper on Western Standard Time? Aren't you in New York?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

True, I'm in New York. But Google isn't and Google hosts the blog. At least, that has always been my understanding.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Google is the center of the universe.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

David Foster @February 11, 2018 at 7:40 AM:

“Yet the present era is the Golden Age of subjectivism...feeelings are everything.”

Precisely, my friend... precisely.

C.S. Lewis, a wise and learned man who’d been to the abyss of atheism and found his way back, captures this beautifully in his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism”:

The modern academy-government complex promotes postmodern absurdity at usurious prices. Yet, for all that expense, we now have a credentialist society that is less trusting of academic degrees in evaluating/judging talent. It is more and more risky to hire someone because employment law/regulations have so many protections. The academy promotes subjective victimology and the goverment makes laws and regulations to create “objective” standards for human decency. It’s nuts.

whitney said...

I wasn't offended

Ares Olympus said...

whitney said... One thing I've noticed about know-it-alls, they're all liars. You have to be because you can't know it all.

That does sound like a certain president I recall, although partisanship will determine which president I might mean.

The problem I see is that people become experts in some small domain of knowledge where one human being can be an expert, and then because of that success, they can get arrogant and think their success in a small domain raises their chances of being more right than others in another field. Of course if you have "celebrity" people do this for you, like Einstein for instance, and ask you questions that you're a layman as much as anyone else. It must be hard to admit ignorance when people look up to you for guidance, whether you're a scientist or a religious leader, overstepping seems to be easy for anyone.


David Foster said... Yet the present era is the Golden Age of subjectivism...feeelings are everything.

That's certainly an interesting paradox, how having a small number of experts raise us out of the muck of superstition sufficiently to keep everything running reliably apparently enables a large group of people to presume everything will keep working on positive thinking, and their job is to bask in their own subjective juices as deeply as possible.

And our current president stands tall in that subjectivity when he admits his net worth is based in part on his feelings that day, and that makes sense if you're a confidence man and how much you can sell things for is based on how well you can hype its value. "My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings..."

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @February 11, 2018 @12:43PM:

Liar. You claim to know it all, by incessantly sharing your belief that we don’t know it all. Funny how that works. You’re the only one here who claims certainty, by claiming you and the rest of us are uncertain. From there, you continue to claim certainty about the uncertain. It is very strange. I’ve seen no claims from other commenters of omniscience or clairvoyance, and I haven’t made any. Yet I’m not silly enough to preface every comment with “IMHO,” or ant other virtue-signaling, unnecessary nonsense. Of course it’s YOUR opinion. Yet YOU are the only one who needs to say/qualify this. More silliness.

I thought you were above partisanship. Clearly not.

And there’s nothing paradoxical in what David Foster said.

And you can’t help tying everything back to Trump. He owns you, just like all the lightworkers. Try a different channel and celebrate diversity!

You are sharing a brain cell with someone else. I can only only speculate as to who that may be...

Ares Olympus said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said... Liar. You claim to know it all

Certainly not. I do the best I can with the knowledge I have, and seek to improve what I know, just like every else, or I'd hope.