Enlightenment Now (2019) by Steven Pinker

The full title of the book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It came out in 2019, and Bill Gates called this book his "new favorite book of all time." For me, it is an OK book, I give it a 3.5 stars out of 5. 

The book makes an important point about the importance of science and reason, and how much we accomplished thanks to them. As Yuval Harari nicely summarized, the book "extols the amazing achievements of modernity, and demonstrates that humankind has never been so peaceful, healthy, and prosperous."

Ok, so it is a feel-good book, nothing wrong with that, right? Well, it is a very long-winded book, and it is hard not to get bored after some time. I really liked the first 50 pages: "Ok, this is going good, we have a good rapport as writer and reader". After page 100, I was like "OK dude I really get it, let's move on to something new now", and after page 150, I was pleading "Stop, stop, this is not going anywhere". The book has 576 pages. I guess it is like watching an excruciatingly long feel-good movie, where there is no tension and no realism, and things perpetually get better for the protagonist without any obvious strain, effort, or downside. Wait, that is not a feel-good movie, that is a propaganda piece!

Another problem is that the book is preaching to the choir, and actually calling names and belittling the choir in many places. Anybody who is slightly critical about the state of modernity and concerned about possible misuse of science and reason gets a slap as they are committing "the sin of ingratitude". Anybody with slight spiritual tendencies and beliefs gets kicked.

I think what we actually need in these times is a book (or maybe another format is better) that is targeted to people who don't believe in science and reason to help them understand and embrace science and reason.

Again, it is an OK book, and 3.5 stars for me. Pinker's writing is good, and except for being long-winded, it is enjoyable. I was hoping this could be developed into a better book. 

To get a broader perspective on the book, I read through many reviews of the book on Amazon. Here are some I found useful. 
Pinker argues that humanism (a reasoned commitment to maximizing human flourishing), science, and democracy have resulted in substantial, measurable human progress over the last 500 years. There are 17 chapters setting out evidence (illustrated in some 75 charts) that globally humans are living longer healthier lives (pp. 53-67); developing agricultural methods that are making great strides toward eliminating famine (68-78); increasing per capita income and reducing income inequality (71-120); working on technology and global cooperation to address pressing environmental problems (121-55); decreasing war-related deaths (156-66); increasing safety (167-90); reducing deaths caused by terrorism (191-98); adopting democratic forms of government that promote higher economic growth (200); spreading equal rights (214-32); increasing literacy and the quality of education (247-61); dramatically improving the quality of life (247-61); leading happier lives (262-89); and addressing the existential threats of overpopulation, resource shortages, and the threat of nuclear war (290-321). The book is not triumphalist but consistently evidence-based. I do not have the expertise to assess the details of the evidence Pinker relies on, but he does cite recognized authorities. And some of his conclusions are irrefutable. People are living longer. They are better fed. The rule of law does make people living in democracies safer.

This book has two things going for it: 1) it's very readable in a sense, and 2) Pinker's correct that Progress Happens.
Other than that, the whole thing is a needless pat on the back to no one in particular for nothing in particular, anti-theist whining, uncharitable straw men, materialist pride, reactionary, verbose, "SJWs", sweat shops are great, GDP is literally god.
Life is tragedy close up, comedy in long-shot, but Pinker hasn't pulled out for a wide enough shot -- his dumping on progressive politics betrays a pessimism in humanity that trumps the optimism he claims to espouse.
Lucky for us, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward sweeping reforms that Pinker's apoligetics can only get in the way of.
He is taking back "optimism" from those of us with actual optimism, he is taking back "Progress" from the progressives. Pinker says, "Intellectuals who call themselves progressive hate progress" and they're hypocrites because they hold their views while simultaneously preferring to have surgery with anesthesia than without it.
Proponents of more aggressive reform should read this if nothing else to see how effortless it is to deconstruct what is regarded as orthodox canon for shock troopers of the status quo.
Stick around for his next book--"Relax: Everything's Great! Because Science"
In a word: Abominable

Another commenter, aptly named Fred Nietzsche, wrote  "Pinker succumbs to Sam Harris syndrome." 

I think this one is a very good review. Here are two paragraphs from the review. 
Careers are now being built on attacking religion and spreading atheistic doctrine, and some of this is reflected in the pages of this book. The author complains a lot about religion and "theoconservatism" and does not apparently impute any credibility to the ideas of Max Weber and the protestant work ethic since Weber's ideas on capitalism and bureaucratic efficiency are not discussed in this work. Weber's thesis and the author's are clearly very different justifications for technological progress, but what they share in common is a lack of scientific justification for their theses.
From a scientific point of view therefore the book is very disappointing, even though the intentions are good. The lack of a self-critical attitude, the lack of humility in the face of complexity, the frivolous name-calling, and the uncritical adulation of authority makes this book one that would take considerable revision to make it a viable case for technological and moral progress, and would swell its page count way beyond what it currently is.

My highlights from the book

The ideas that prepared the ground for [Trump's] election are in fact widely shared among intellectuals and laypeople, on both the left and the right. They include pessimism about the way the world is heading, cynicism about the institutions of modernity, and an inability to conceive of a higher purpose in anything other than religion. I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Enlightenment ideals, I hope to show, are timeless, but they have never been more relevant than they are right now.

The most arresting question I have ever fielded followed a talk in which I explained the commonplace among scientists that mental life consists of patterns of activity in the tissues of the brain. A student in the audience raised her hand and asked me: “Why should I live?”
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! As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist.

And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace.
More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense. We take its gifts for granted: newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket. But these are human accomplishments, not cosmic birthrights. In the memories of many readers of this book—and in the experience of those in less fortunate parts of the world—war, scarcity, disease, ignorance, and lethal menace are a natural part of existence. We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions, and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril.
The ideals of the Enlightenment are products of human reason, but they always struggle with other strands of human nature: loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, the blaming of misfortune on evildoers.

If you still are unsure whether the ideals of Enlightenment humanism need a vigorous defense, consider the diagnosis of Shiraz Maher, an analyst of radical Islamist movements. “The West is shy of its values—it doesn’t speak up for classical liberalism,” he says. “We are unsure of them. They make us feel uneasy.” Contrast that with the Islamic State, which “knows exactly what it stands for,” a certainty that is “incredibly seductive”
This book is my attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century. The bulk of the book is devoted to defending those ideals in a distinctively 21st-century way: with data.
Enlightenment’s motto, he proclaimed, is “Dare to understand!” and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.

Optimism (in the sense that I have advocated) is the theory that all failures—all evils—are due to insufficient knowledge. . . . Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.3
The era was a cornucopia of ideas, some of them contradictory, but four themes tie them together: reason, science, humanism, and progress.
If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.
That leads to the second ideal, science, the refining of reason to understand the world.
The idea of a universal human nature brings us to a third theme, humanism. The thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw an urgent need for a secular foundation for morality, because they were haunted by a historical memory of centuries of religious carnage: the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, the European wars of religion. They laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion. It is individuals, not groups, who are sentient—who feel pleasure and pain, fulfillment and anguish. Whether it is framed as the goal of providing the greatest happiness for the greatest number or as a categorical imperative to treat people as ends rather than means, it was the universal capacity of a person to suffer and flourish, they said, that called on our moral concern.
Smith calculated that a pin-maker working alone could make at most one pin a day, whereas in a workshop in which “one man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head,” each could make almost five thousand. Specialization works only in a market that allows the specialists to exchange their goods and services [...] Exchange can make an entire society not just richer but nicer, because in an effective market it is cheaper to buy things than to steal them, and other people are more valuable to you alive than dead.

It takes nothing away from the Enlightenment thinkers to identify some critical ideas about the human condition and the nature of progress that we know and they didn’t. Those ideas, I suggest, are entropy, evolution, and information.
Entro, evo, info. These concepts define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means for eking out a better existence. The first piece of wisdom they offer is that misfortune may be no one’s fault.

Awareness of the indifference of the universe was deepened still further by an understanding of evolution. Predators, parasites, and pathogens are constantly trying to eat us, and pests and spoilage organisms try to eat our stuff. It may make us miserable, but that’s not their problem.
They think that words and thoughts can impinge on the physical world in prayers and curses. They underestimate the prevalence of coincidence. They generalize from paltry samples, namely their own experience, and they reason by stereotype, projecting the typical traits of a group onto any individual that belongs to it. They infer causation from correlation. They think holistically, in black and white, and physically, treating abstract networks as concrete stuff. They are not so much intuitive scientists as intuitive lawyers and politicians, marshaling evidence that confirms their convictions while dismissing evidence that contradicts them. They overestimate their own knowledge, understanding, rectitude, competence, and luck.
The Enlightenment was swiftly followed by a counter-Enlightenment, and the West has been divided ever since. No sooner did people step into the light than they were advised that darkness wasn’t so bad after all, that they should stop daring to understand so much, that dogmas and formulas deserved another chance, and that human nature’s destiny was not progress but decline.
Belief in an afterlife implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence; that coercing people into accepting salvation is doing them a favor; and that martyrdom may be the best thing that can ever happen to you. As for incompatibilities with science, these are the stuff of legend and current events, from Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial to stem-cell research and climate change.
By the way, the nonmonotonicity of social data provides an easy formula for news outlets to accentuate the negative.

The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise.
Two other illusions mislead us into thinking that things ain’t what they used to be: we mistake the growing burdens of maturity and parenthood for a less innocent world, and we mistake a decline in our own faculties for a decline in the times. As the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”
Complaining about modern society can be a backhanded way of putting down one’s rivals—for academics to feel superior to businesspeople, businesspeople to feel superior to politicians, and so on.
And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it. [...] The data are not entombed in dry reports but are displayed in gorgeous Web sites, particularly Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder.

The case has been made in beautifully written books, some by Nobel laureates, which flaunt the news in their titles—Progress, The Progress Paradox, Infinite Progress, The Infinite Resource, The Rational Optimist, The Case for Rational Optimism, Utopia for Realists, Mass Flourishing, Abundance, The Improving State of the World, Getting Better, The End of Doom, The Moral Arc, The Big Ratchet, The Great Escape, The Great Surge, The Great Convergence.
At the time when the lines begin, in the mid-18th century, life expectancy in Europe and the Americas was around 35, where it had been parked for the 225 previous years for which we have data. Life expectancy for the world as a whole was 29.
“We approach death by one year for every year we age, but during the twentieth century, the average person approached death by just seven months for every year they aged.” Thrillingly, the gift of longevity is spreading to all of humankind, including the world’s poorest countries, and at a much faster pace than it did in the rich ones. “Life expectancy in Kenya increased by almost ten years between 2003 and 2013,” Norberg writes. “After having lived, loved and struggled for a whole decade, the average person in Kenya had not lost a single year of their remaining lifetime. Everyone got ten years older, yet death had not come a step closer.”
Remember two facts behind the numbers. One is demographic: when fewer children die, parents have fewer children, since they no longer have to hedge their bets against losing their entire families. So contrary to the worry that saving children’s lives would only set off a “population bomb” (a major eco-panic of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to calls for reducing health care in the developing world), the decline in child mortality has defused this concern.
You may be wondering whether the drops in child mortality explain all the gains in longevity shown in figure 5-1. Are we really living longer, or are we just surviving infancy in greater numbers? [...] No matter how old you are, you have more years ahead of you than people of your age did in earlier decades and centuries. [...] For example, a 10-year-old Ethiopian in 1950 could expect to live to 44; a 10-year-old Ethiopian today can expect to live to 61.
The sin of ingratitude may not have made the Top Seven, but according to Dante it consigns the sinners to the ninth circle of Hell, and that’s where post-1960s intellectual culture may find itself because of its amnesia for the conquerors of disease.

As a psycholinguist who once wrote an entire book on the past tense, I can single out my favorite example in the history of the English language. It comes from the first sentence of a Wikipedia entry: Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.

As impressive as the conquest of infectious disease in Europe and America was, the ongoing progress among the global poor is even more astonishing. Part of the explanation lies in economic development (chapter 8), because a richer world is a healthier world. Part lies in the expanding circle of sympathy, which inspired global leaders such as Bill Gates, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton to make their legacy the health of the poor in distant continents rather than glittering buildings close to home. George W. Bush, for his part, has been praised by even his harshest critics for his policy on African AIDS relief, which saved millions of lives.
Today we live in Cockaigne, and our problem is not too few calories but too many. As the comedian Chris Rock observed, “This is the first society in history where the poor people are fat.”
Borlaug turned Mexico and then India, Pakistan, and other famine-prone countries into grain exporters almost overnight. The Green Revolution continues—it has been called “Africa’s best-kept secret”—driven by improvements in sorghum, millet, cassava, and tubers.
Poverty has no causes,” wrote the economist Peter Bauer. “Wealth has causes.”
Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created.
Between 1820 and 1900, the world’s income tripled. It tripled again in a bit more than fifty years. It took only twenty-five years for it to triple again, and another thirty-three years to triple yet another time.

People are content with economic inequality as long as they feel that the country is meritocratic, and they get angry when they feel it isn’t. Narratives about the causes of inequality loom larger in people’s minds than the existence of inequality.

Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing. In comparisons of well-being across countries, it pales in importance next to overall wealth. An increase in inequality is not necessarily bad: as societies escape from universal poverty, they are bound to become more unequal, and the uneven surge may be repeated when a society discovers new sources of wealth. Nor is a decrease in inequality always good: the most effective levelers of economic disparities are epidemics, massive wars, violent revolutions, and state collapse.


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