Stephen Pinker’s 600-Page Footnote to Atlas Shrugged

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By Walter Donway

July 10, 2018



Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, and Humanism by Steven Pinker (Viking: New York, 2018), 576 pp.

Does Enlightenment Now, already in its 15th edition since February, and with 642 reviews on Amazon, plus thousands of “ratings,” need another review?

How important is the book’s subject—and thesis? I think, as does Prof. Pinker (a neuroscientist who is a professor of psychology at Harvard University), that Enlightenment ideas are the most important subject in the world today. Pinker identifies those defining, cardinal values as “reason, science, and humanism.”

I might have chosen reason, individualism, and human rights, but, after reading Pinker’s book (yes, every page, and skimmed the notes and bibliography, too), I think “science” is a good companion of “reason”—a term that long predated the Enlightenment and the bearer of protean conflicting meanings—and “humanism” is big enough to embrace the world-transforming developments Pinker wishes to chronicle.

How about the importance of the thesis? There are subjects critical to human life and happiness—for example, love—that may not require a Big Bertha (howitzer) defense. Because they are not under any systematic, widespread attack.

Pinker believes Enlightenment values are unappreciated, at best unacknowledged, widely dismissed and denigrated, and not infrequently under direct fire. An outstanding value of his book—indeed, the basis of its credibility—is that he sees a pincer movement closing in from the Left (postmodernism) as well as the Right (authoritarian populism with religious fundamentalism and nationalism). Between these, he finds authoritarian populism the most alarming, pointing to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and recent European elections in Poland and Hungary.

I think, as does Prof. Pinker (a neuroscientist who is a professor of psychology at Harvard University), that Enlightenment ideas are the most important subject in the world today. Pinker identifies those defining, cardinal values as “reason, science, and humanism.”

I find it strange that the 2016 election, which certainly came after Pinker was well-advanced in conceiving and writing this massive treatise, is given pride of place as a threat to the Enlightenment as compared with postmodernism, which began in earnest in Germany in the Eighteenth Century with Immanuel Kant, his contemporaries, and his successors. It’s postmodernism that has become the dominant intellectual trend through the Western world in the humanities and social sciences (and has profoundly infected science, as Pinker himself admits).  It’s the perspective taught to millions of college students some of whom later become the world’s intellectual professionals and politicians.

The Roadmap

Pause, now, to scan the book’s structure; at best, a review of this expansive volume can name the chapter headings and give one or two “Wow!” examples from each. Pinker’s thesis is that the Enlightenment tradition and values—reason, science, and humanism—have given us all progress in human flourishing in the modern world. Man’s reasoning mind, the disciplines of science, and the attitudes and values of humanism have created the modern world with its astonishing achievements in life (longevity), health, sustenance, wealth, equality, the environment, peace, safety, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness.

His method is resolutely empirical (although philosophical reasoning and historical analysis get some play, too). As a best-selling author and celebrity scientist, he had access to plenty of help. The many dozens of graphs in this book—timelines from left to right and always rising to indicate mounting success—are an exhaustive demonstration that on almost every conceivable axis of human flourishing, modernity has triumphed.

His method is resolutely empirical (although philosophical reasoning and historical analysis get some play, too). As a best-selling author and celebrity scientist, he had access to plenty of help. The many dozens of graphs in this book—timelines from left to right and always rising to indicate mounting success—are an exhaustive demonstration that on almost every conceivable axis of human flourishing, modernity has triumphed. We are the beneficiaries, so blessed we scarcely can comprehend it all (a problem the book tackles, of course). It desperately needed to be said.

Fortunately, the quantifications are engaging, with the allure of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” because Pinker tells the stories well and supplies plenty of metaphors to zap life into the numbers. The constant theme is that nations identified with the Enlightenment (Great Britain, Western Europe, and later America) benefited first; within those nations the wealthy benefited first; and today—to an extent readers rarely will have fully realized—the benefits often are approaching the universal. But—again, the numbers will surprise you—they have gone global to a truly remarkable extent, including in places you might not expect.

Here’s a sample:

“In two hundred years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10, with almost half that decline occurring in the last thirty-five years.”
“In the richest country just two centuries ago (the Netherlands) life expectancy was just forty, and in no country was it above forty-five. Today, life expectancy in the poorest country in the world (the Central African Republic) is fifty-four.”
“… between 1961and 2009 [because of the “Green Revolution,” pesticides, and fertilizers] the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12 percent, but the amount of food that was grown increased by 300 percent.
“Between 1950 and 2009, the rate of deaths in traffic accidents fell sixfold.”

Always with one eye on the professional deflators of progress, the town criers of incomplete progress in areas such as racism or violence or climate change or education, Pinker stamps the goods “incomplete,” “in progress,” and “never guaranteed to be perfect.” At the same time, he expresses astonishment at the lack of proportionality, context, and plain appreciation among academic colleagues (and others) who characterize as a “crisis,” “crime,” “evil,” or “national shame” problems that tormented and killed hundreds of millions, but, today, are well advanced and still moving toward resolution. Some, like smallpox, which accounted for 300 million deaths in just the 20th Century, are gone.

The industrial-sized section of the book devoted to quantification of progress in human flourishing is preceded by an introduction to the thesis that modernism is under attack and to the defense of Enlightenment values. Then, it is followed by hefty chapters making the conceptual/historical case for reason, science, and humanism, then by chapters taking to task postmodernism, philosophical romanticism, authoritarian populism, and religion.

A subsection on human tendencies toward certain types of error, and outright logical fallacies, draws from Pinker’s own neuroscience specialty, including evolutionary biology. Via evolution, the human mind came to work magnificently in general but with imperfections that are antithetical to the scientific perspective and method. Some are as simple as the tendency to over-generalize from the recently observed, the dramatic, and the emotion-laden in our experience.

Stopping to Think

The discussion of biases gets personal. For example, I find most of Pinker’s argumentation cogent, convincing, and, at times, a reason to cheer aloud for humankind’s well-earned legacy of progress not only in survival, health, and safety, but the pastimes that make life worth the struggle, the work, the effort.

But then, Pinker gets to a topic such as global warming, which he identifies as one of today’s great remaining threats to the human family—dismissing “deniers” as know-nothings—and there I find him unconvincing. He would include me among the reactionary cavemen of science.

But I am not a global warming denier. Pinker cites the old chestnut about 95 percent-plus of peer-reviewed papers by climate scientists affirming anthropocentric global warming. And I mutter, “Oh, my God!” Because I know that study, which set out to find such evidence and found it. Because the four checkpoints were the basic physics and commonsense of “global warming.” I agree entirely with all four, including that, of course, man’s activities do contribute to greenhouse gases, and, since the Industrial Revolution, we have enjoyed a slowly rising global temperature.

In those four checkpoints there is no basis for “big climate alarmism.” There may be a case for it, but that particular study is cited again and again to imply that climate scientists overwhelming embrace the thesis of potentially catastrophic climate change. Well, if Pinker gives prominence to that phony baloney, then does my embrace of other things he says proceed from my lack of first-hand familiarity with those areas?

Soon, though, Pinker moves on to insist that catastrophic climate change is not our fate; we do not have to renounce economic growth, technological progress, our cars and our heating systems, and join Greenpeace. In fact, he argues, the environmentalists, habitually minimizing progress to date and scornful of a “technological fix,” helped brew the climate crisis (if there is one) by trashing an earlier technology, nuclear power—the perfect fix for carbon emissions, increasingly safe today, with a record of deaths laughably small compared with any other candidates for meeting our energy needs.

And, with that, I am purring, once more. I almost forgive him because climate alarmism or not, nuclear power would represent huge progress—and, to boot, it is a rather heroic application of man’s mind to the problem of human thriving. Pinker believes in technological fixes; the evidence is one-sided and as compelling as anything in our history.

Pinker has room in this big book to probe Enlightenment values in many ramifications. For example, he reassures colleagues in the humanities departments that more attention to science would not freeze dry and package in plastic the human dimensions and richness of their disciplines. As always, he is prodigal of specific examples.

Philosophy’s Turn

As empirical as he is, quantifying the blessings of reason, he does not try to make his case for them (the case that must be restated in each generation, he says) without philosophy.

Again, I must identify the perspective I brought to the book. The novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is to my mind the most consistent, imaginative, and persuasive champion of modernism of our time. She predates Pinker by decades and compared with her he is uncomfortably novice when feeling his way toward a conceptual defense of reason. Ayn Rand’s epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, introduced my generation (including myself, at age 17) to the cardinal values of the Enlightenment, foremost among them reason, man’s rights, the ethical ideal of human fulfillment and flourishing on this earth, the life-giving record of free-market capitalism, and genuine Nineteenth Century liberalism. She rang the tocsin to warn of the concerted attack of counter-Enlightenment forces.

Long before Pinker, she exposed the concerted attack on reason, science, individualism (does Pinker ever use that word?), and capitalism. Like him, she contrasted to those values the catastrophe of socialism, both Marxist and national, and the modern assault on reason both by religious fundamentalism and the secular postmodernist tradition. Pinker was seven years old when Atlas Shrugged was published.

He manages to mention Ayn Rand once, toward the end the book, in the context of damning the influence of Frederick Nietzsche on a roster of intellectuals, artists, politicians, and others. What he says about Rand is brief enough to quote in full:

“Though she later tried to conceal it, Ayn Rand’s celebration of selfishness, her deification of the heroic capitalist, and her disdain for the general welfare had Nietzsche written all over them.”

A 600-page discourse devoted to a defense of reason, and the thesis that it has lacked contemporary defenders, dismisses Ayn Rand in 30 words.

That’s it. A 600-page discourse devoted to a defense of reason, and the thesis that it has lacked contemporary defenders, dismisses Ayn Rand in 30 words. In those 30 words, there are three errors. And, by the way, his statement about Rand is footnoted to Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. He never quotes Rand directly or refers to any of her works. I’ll bet those who know the history of Ayn Rand’s reception by the intellectual establishment are not surprised.

Ayn Rand was inspired by Nietzsche’s then rare rejection of the Christian ethics of altruism and sacrifice and his assertion of man’s heroic stature. Initially, she dedicated her novel, The Fountainhead, to Nietzsche, but, she said, although he had an inspiring spirit, she did not want readers to confuse his ideas with hers. She did not “conceal” her enthusiasm for Nietzsche; she publicly repudiated it. In fact, she made an identification that Pinker could have used. Nietzsche deplored the Christian ethic of sacrificing oneself to others. Instead, he advocated a “heroic,” “warrior’s” ethic of sacrificing others to oneself. Ayn Rand in an essay that Pinker should have read rejected this as a false alternative, arguing that there are no inherent conflicts of interest among rational individuals who do not seek the unearned.

Jeez, Pinker could have read Atlas Shrugged, with John Galt’s solemn oath for the men of the mind on strike against self-immolation: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Hey, Pinker, Ayn Rand’s legendary hero is a scientist and inventor, the technologist par excellence.

In some thousand footnotes and references in Enlightenment Now, you will not find Rand’s name or the title of a single one of her works.

“Deification of the heroic capitalist”? Ayn Rand defined the virtue of productivity as the application of reason to the problem of human survival. The great capitalists translated science into technology and applied that technology on a grand scale to produce a standard of living never dreamed possible before the Industrial Revolution. Ayn Rand considered them exemplars of a morality of human striving.

I guess it will be okay if we insist that Enlightenment Now everywhere indulges in the “deification” of scientists and technologists? I mean, that might be unfair. Pinker is an atheist. But, then, so was Ayn Rand.

And “disdain for the general welfare”? Ayn Rand, born and raised in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution—that heralded experiment in human brotherhood—devoted her career, indeed, her life, to defining “a morality for living on earth” that did not entail coercion of the individual by government and sacrifice to the collective. She stated her credo as a defense of “man’s right to live for his own sake.”

Would Pinker view her lifelong philosophical, moral, and historical advocacy of the benefits of capitalism as “disdain for the general welfare”? How about her unprecedented brilliance in defending reason and secular society against the devastating consequences of faith and Christian ethics?

In truth, Pinker’s defense of reason—though welcome in the context of today’s postmodernist skepticism, relativism, and collectivism—is a pale copy of Ayn Rand’s.

In truth, Pinker’s defense of reason—though welcome in the context of today’s postmodernist skepticism, relativism, and collectivism—is a pale copy of Ayn Rand’s. He properly defends reason as axiomatic—self-evident—as identified by the test that any attack on the fundamental efficacy of reason is self-stultifying. Either one makes confessedly arbitrary assertions, which can be ignored, or uses arguments, logic, and reference to facts—that is, an appeal to reason—to attack reason.

But Pinker is the new boy on this block. He cites Rene Descartes’s famous argument: “I think, therefore I am.” But this is question-begging. If we explicate the logic: Thinking is an action and/or state. An action or state requires an actor to act or to be in a state. Thus, I am an actor, which means I exist. Therefore, I exist.

But the conclusion is stated in the premises. “I think, therefore I am” is intended as a proof of existence. But one cannot prove existence. It is an axiom at the basis of all thought, all proof, all reason. One cannot start with consciousness as self-evident and argue for existence as a consequence.

Pinker could have benefited from Ayn Rand’s famous formulation. “Existence exists” is the statement of an axiomatic truth at the basis of all further knowledge, all reasoning. Its corollaries are identity—to be is to be something—and consciousness—by making this statement I imply that I am conscious, consciousness being awareness of existence.

There can be no proof. Only statements that, when understood, are self-evident.

Pinker goes little further in his philosophical defense of reason than his somewhat bungled, but essentially correct, reliance on axioms. This hardly is a new defense of Enlightenment values for a new generation. The problem with the Enlightenment, magnificent and essentially right as were its ideas, is that it failed to defend the efficacy of reason against critics like David Hume.

It did not succeed in answering the attacks on the validity of the senses (a validity also axiomatic) and did not succeed in fully validating the conceptual level of consciousness. These came under attack by a succession of great sceptics and invited the defense of reason by Immanuel Kant, who concluded that intellect could know only appearances (phenomenon), never reality, the thing in itself, the noumenal world. That could be known only by a leap of intuition or faith, by a faculty higher than reason. And so, Kant concluded that he had succeeded in circumscribing reason to leave room for faith.

Pinker seems to have missed that. He points to Kant as father of the Enlightenment, who defended the efficacy of reason. In fact, Kant launched the monumental project of the counter-Enlightenment, which used reason and science to attack reason and science. From there, German philosophy became a tightly-logical working out of Kant’s premises, dissolving reality, objectivity, truth as representation of reality, the efficacy of the conceptual faculty, and science itself. Through Hegel, Kant’s premises launched Karl Marx, whose views still were far too “rational,” “modern,” and “liberal” for German philosophy. The next step, then, was to substitute nationalism for Marxist internationalism to arrive at ‘national socialism’ (abbreviated in German to “Nazism”).

Pinker picks up the trail, in places, and, to his credit, is vocally appalled by one quantification: the percentage of his academic colleagues who identify themselves as Marxist. He even refers favorably to Ludwig von Mises, pioneer of the Austrian School of laissez faire economics. But he seems to valorize empirical experience over arguments from principle, as though the two were incompatible. Sure, he says, free markets everywhere transform human life, but this libertarian stuff about strictly limited government is just ideology. Lots of countries combine a market economy with an extensive welfare state and it works just fine. Look at New Zealand. No need to be rigid about government programs. Hayek’s warning against The Road to Serfdom? Hey, it hasn’t happened, yet, has it? Secular declines in American productivity and stagnant wages? Technology can fix that.

When it comes to “positive eugenics,” though, he finds the libertarian argument best. There are just things governments should not do. How to decide? Case by case, it seems, based on experience. The Nazis tried it and it didn’t work. Russia tried communism. Didn’t work. Dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East also tried communism. Evidence is piling up that it didn’t work. How come?

Pinker is not unaware, of course, of the Frankfurt School’s neo-Marxism and its role in bringing the counter-Enlightenment, in the form of postmodernism, to the American university, where now it predominates in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. In the sciences, too. Pinker tackles the attempts to use the more esoteric and paradoxical ideas of science, such as quantum theory, to discredit objectivity and science and to rebuff arguments against theism.

Too bad. Given that postmodernism, its fallacies, and its pernicious impact on modernity is a theme of Enlightenment Now—and that Pinker called on thousands of references in making his case—he could have read the best possible brief companion to his work. In Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Professor Stephen R.C. Hicks, 14 years ago, offered the single best philosophical-historical critique of postmodernism.

True, Hicks is a foremost student of Ayn Rand, who herself warranted no room in Enlightenment Now, but Hicks’s work is scholarly and positioned from academia. It seems impossible that Pinker did not come across its title. And it seems impossible that if he had read it, he would not have credited it, extensively, for insights that he uses, far less well, in his own book.

The Election that overturned the Enlightenment?

Pinker does not lack intellectual integrity and courage. He names a lot of names in his denunciation of what he calls the “second culture,” after C.P. Snow’s classic Two Cultures about the widening gulf between the humanities and arts and the sciences. Perhaps understandably, though, he makes some concessions to political correctness.

Completing his catalog of modern blessings, with comments on contemporary threats to them, he tells us that many readers of his drafts urged him to end every chapter with a warning of the danger of Donald Trump. He resisted this, and, instead, devotes most of a chapter to what he presents as the unalloyed negatives of Trump and all those who voted for him or have a good word to say for him.

Considering that he is presenting Trump as a populist leader representing ideas and trends that threaten the three-to-four-hundred-year trajectory of the Enlightenment (some histories put the beginning of the Enlightenment as early as 1620, the first stirring of the scientific revolution), not much damage seems to have cropped up in the two years since Pinker probably completed his manuscript.

Pinker’s comprehensive list of the Trump risks includes, of course, withdrawing from the Paris Accords on climate, temporary travel ban on visitors from certain Muslim-majority countries, moves against illegal entrants to the United States, exchange of barbs over North Korean nuclear arms, and questioning the agreement with Iran regarding nukes. In addition, there are all the supposed Trump sins against political correctness (many of them put-up jobs by journalists, but Pinker seems to lend credence to all). Indeed, his critical faculties seem to take a breather in the avalanche indictment of Trump and his supporters. Perhaps his attack on Trump was the much-needed inducement to secure positive blurbs from colleagues in this runaway best-selling book, and keep his place as an Establishment high priest secure.

We’ll Take it!

Nevertheless, Pinker’s methodology of defending the Enlightenment not chiefly philosophically but by the “proof is in the pudding” approach—almost certainly unprecedented in its sheer, massive scope—and his willingness to call to account many fashionable academic individuals and iconic ideas—prevail.

The reader simply cannot finish the graphs, which, in their revelation of the breadth and extent of progress in all we care about, are new and dramatic information to most of us, without a sharply revised concept of “progress.”

We all knew that ours is a world of marvels, many that we appreciate without understanding. We knew that the marvels keep coming, seemingly weekly. Occasionally, we shake our heads when we recall that as kids in the 1950’s everything was much cheaper but “everything” did not include even fantasies about much of what fills our lives, today.

And far fewer readers will have realized how problems still with us—from dreaded diseases to crime to accidents to environmental pollution to (yes) lightning strikes—are far advanced and moving fast on a trajectory toward vanishing or becoming marginal.

Few will realize to what extent these miracles are headed for global, perhaps universal, availability. Few will have realized that we are talking about hundreds of millions of lives saved and unimaginably enriched.

Most readers—but not devotees of Ayn Rand—will grasp for the first time—with a sense of historic, almost metaphysical, gratitude—that man’s mind, in exalting reason as its supreme guide and human flourishing as its sacred value, is the Prometheus bearing these gifts to mankind in defiance of the anger of the gods.

And that, as Ayn Rand also taught us long ago, those who would chain Prometheus and exact a terrible penalty for the pride of taking our destiny in our own hands, are increasingly and everywhere in ascendance.

That all that we have and cherish must be defended against enemies ancient and new. That the battleground is ideas. And that there the light of reason can prevail, but, ever and always, only by our continued choice.



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