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Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress Paperback – January 15, 2019
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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2018
ONE OF THE ECONOMIST'S BOOKS OF THE YEAR
"My new favorite book of all time." --Bill Gates
If you think the world is coming to an end, think again: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science. By the author of the new book, Rationality.
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.
Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature--tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking--which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation.
With intellectual depth and literary flair, Enlightenment Now makes the case for reason, science, and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress.
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“An excellent book, lucidly written, timely, rich in data and eloquent in its championing of a rational humanism that is — it turns out — really quite cool.”—New York Times Book Review
"The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.”—Bill Gates
“A terrific book…[Pinker] recounts the progress across a broad array of metrics, from health to wars, the environment to happiness, equal rights to quality of life.”—Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
"Steven Pinker’s mind bristles with pure, crystalline intelligence, deep knowledge and human sympathy."—Richard Dawkins
“Pinker is a paragon of exactly the kind of intellectual honesty and courage we need to restore conversation and community.”—David Brooks, The New York Times
“[Enlightenment Now] is magnificent, uplifting and makes you want to rush to your laptop and close your Twitter account.”—The Economist
“If 2017 was a rough year for you, look no further than Steven Pinker’s engaging new book, Enlightenment Now, to cheer you up. Conceived before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy, it could not have been better timed to clarify — and, for some, refute — the habits of mind that brought Trump and the GOP to power.”—The Washington Post
“Vindication has arrived in the form of Steven Pinker’s latest book. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is remarkable, heart-warming, and long overdue."—Christian Science Monitor
“Pinker is a paragon of exactly the kind of intellectual honesty and courage we need to restore conversation and community, and the students are right to revere him.” —The Seattle Times
“[A] magisterial new book…Enlightenment Now is the most uplifting work of science I’ve ever read.”—Science Magazine
“A passionate and persuasive defense of reason and science…[and] an urgently needed reminder that progress is, to no small extent, a result of values that have served us - and can serve us - extraordinarily well.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A meticulous defense of science and objective analysis, [and] a rebuttal to the tribalism, knee-jerk partisanship and disinformation that taints our politics.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Brimming with surprising data and entertaining anecdotes.”—Financial Times
“[Pinker] makes a powerful case that the main line of history has been, since the Enlightenment, one of improvement.”—Scientific American
“Let’s stop once in a while to enjoy the view—I’m glad Pinker is pushing for this in a world that does it too rarely… It’s hard not to be convinced.”—Quartz
“Enlightenment Now is formidable.”—Financial Times
“As a demonstration of the value of reason, knowledge, and curiosity, Enlightenment Now can hardly be bettered.”—The Boston Globe
“With a wealth of knowledge, graphs and statistics, a strong grasp of history, and an engaging style of writing…Enlightenment Now provides a convincing case for gratitude.”—Pittsburgh Post Gazette
“A forceful defense of the democratic, humanist institutions that [Pinker] says brought about these changes, and a declaration that reason, science and humanism can solve the problems to come.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A masterly defense of the values of modernity against ‘progressophobes’.”—Times Higher Education
“Enlightenment Now strikes a powerful blow against the contemporary mystifications being peddled by tribalists on both the left and the right.”—Reason
“Pinker presents graphs and data which deserve to be reckoned with by fair-minded people. His conclusion is provocative, as anything by Pinker is likely to be.” —Colorado Springs Gazette
“Elegantly [argues] that in various ways humanity has every reason to be optimistic over life in the twenty-first century…. A defense of progress that will provoke deep thinking and thoughtful discourse among his many fans.”—Booklist
“Pinker defends progressive ideals against contemporary critics, pundits, cantankerous philosophers, and populist politicians to demonstrate how far humanity has come since the Enlightenment…In an era of increasingly “dystopian rhetoric,” Pinker’s sober, lucid, and meticulously researched vision of human progress is heartening and important.”—Publishers Weekly
“[An] impeccably written text full of interesting tidbits from neuroscience and other disciplines…The author examines the many ways in which Enlightenment ideals have given us lives that our forebears would envy even if gloominess and pessimism are the order of the day.” —Kirkus Review
Praise for The Better Angels of Our Nature:
“If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this—the most inspiring book I've ever read."—Bill Gates (May, 2017)
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 15, 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 576 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143111388
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143111382
- Item Weight : 1.05 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.46 x 1.22 x 8.37 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #19,550 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Despite some criticism to the contrary, Pinker does recognize that we still have a long way to go in providing food security, a living wage, and better health to some seven hundred million people who still live in extreme poverty (e.g., 87-89; 325). His argument is that we are not wasting money on trying to eliminate world poverty, that we have made substantial progress in reducing the number of people in extreme poverty by getting some things right. Communism has failed, totalitarian, planned economies are in retreat, and market economies coupled with improved agricultural practices and access to global markets have lifted billions out of extreme poverty in the last 75 years (89-96).
Pinker argues we should think scientifically, not that we should let science decide value questions (390-91). A scientific approach is based on two characteristics: the world is intelligible and we should allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct (329-93). We should let the facts on the ground, not our tribal, cultural allegiances, guide us toward policies and practices that help all people flourish (357-69).
Many will find Pinker's rejection of religion as a guide to human flourishing (30, 392-94, 421, and 428-33) disquieting, if not repulsing. I don't think that argument is essential to the book's main message. Human flourishing is a goal that all of the many religions that populate the globe can agree with. As Pinker points out, basic moral rules have always been agreed to by all societies. He asserts that two thousand five hundred years ago Plato argued in Euthyphro that the gods are not necessary to tell us what is moral (428). We all know that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, that we should not cause injury to others, or steal their property. Our religious disagreements are not about morality but prescribed practices, rituals, and theological beliefs. Those conflicts should not get in the way of all of us, whatever our religion beliefs, supporting secular society's goal of promoting human flourishing.
In his perfect-pitch prose, Pinker makes the case that although many people decry the times in which we live, he disagrees, in essence saying, “let the good times roll.“ He doesn’t think we’re nearing the end of The Enlightenment, either — he thinks it’s a set of ideas and a way of reasoning that can and should be renewed with each successive generation.
He cites numerous statistics showing how people are richer, wealthier, and live longer than any other time in history. There are hundreds of examples that give ample reason for optimism as we navigate this era of confusion and frustration in U.S. and world politics.
Enlightenment Now is a long and dense book, but be sure to read it all the way to the end, because all through this masterful narrative of our society, there are some of the most profound paragraphs, pages and chapters I’ve ever read.
This is one of my favorite books of all time, perhaps my most favorite. I need a long time to think about and sort out all the ideas in this book. After spending the past month reading and studying it, it’s become clear to me that I need to adjust my point of view on many issues. One thing is certain: I will carry with me the ideas, concepts, and most importantly, the way of thinking that I’ve learned in Enlightenment Now for the rest of my life.
For the most part, I have found that the criticisms of Pinker seem less strong after having read the book. Not all criticisms, but many. Pinker's data of some progress for humans is, in totality, certainly hard to argue with. The picture painted is of great progress in the past couple centuries, and it is almost perverse to disagree with this. We certainly still have a long way to go, but Pinker's point that we should appreciate what we've already accomplished is well-taken.
Some have taken issue with Pinker's presentation of the Enlightenment. I would certainly agree that Pinker does not provide a strong history of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, Pinker uses the word "Enlightenment" to mean a set of ideas associated with reason, science, and humanism. While I agree this may not be a typical or even historically useful definition, he makes this association clear very early on, so that I don't see it as much of a criticism. He mostly uses Enlightenment for the set of ideas he proposes are important for human flourishing.
As I said, I find most of what Pinker says credible, but I think that he sometimes too easily vanquishes an argument. His environmentalism and anti-AI arguments seem to me to defeat the arguments of his opponents a bit too easily. I personally am skeptical of an intelligence boom in AI, but I don't think Pinker argues against the strongest arguments in favor of such an intelligence boom (or the reasons to invest in containing a superintelligence). For the most part, though, I think he fairly represents opponents's arguments in the book where I have some familiarity with the background. It appeared to me he may have painted some environmentalism a bit too negatively, but it seems mostly so that he can embrace neo-environmentalism (i.e., ecomodernism or ecopragmatism)
The final part of the book on humanism was also an interesting addition. It is certainly the section with the least number of graphs and data. What stood out most to me here was that Pinker has a very negative opinion of Nietzsche (I don't know enough about Nietzsche to determine how biased a perspective this is).
Overall, I enjoyed the book. Pinker is a very clear, concise writer for the most part, and his arguments don't require more than a bit of sense and data to understand. That's not to say that these are obvious or necessarily true arguments, but that the reasons for believing them are laid out for all to see. I don't really see how the idea that we've made a ton of progress in human flourishing in the past couple of centuries could be controversial, but perhaps I just agree too much with the measurements of flourishing that Pinker uses.
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Scores of graphs show this to be true. On the verge of repetition, Pinker rams home the message that life is getting much better in almost every way.
My only gripe? Some of the chapter entitled ‘The Future of Progress’. In it, he slams what he calls ‘populism’, and he particularly has it in for Trump. I’m not American and can’t fully comment on his opinions, but I am British so I did get riled when he lumped Brexit in with Trump’s election as proof of an undesirable populist surge. Firstly, it is lazy thinking to lump them together just because they happened in the same year. Secondly, the vote to leave the UK was a progressive, humanistic vote, because it saw people wanting to return to a system of directly elected representatives, to lessen the gap between the rulers and the ruled, to live under laws that were suited to their own circumstances, as opposed to other circumstances in 27 other countries. In other words, it was a vote FOR democracy!
In this chapter Pinker betrays himself as a liberal globalist who has no real understanding of the European Union; he sees it as an instigator of much of the processes that have led to the improvements he details elsewhere in the book. But there is absolutely no reason why a newly independent United Kingdom cannot continue to be at the forefront of pushing forward pro-market, pro-enlightenment, pro-human legislation. Pinker does actually say at one point in the book that the UK is among the three most influential countries in the world (the others being the US and Germany).
So, apart from this small grumble, I’d praise this as an accessible, rationally positive, incredibly valuable book that everyone should read.
This is not quite as overpoweringly persuasive, but then I think it would be impossible for it to be. Angels addresses the many aspects of one long-term trend in human history (the saw-tooth decline of violence over time, and its many causes, corollaries etc). Enlightenment addresses the greater sweep of a large number of such things, and cannot possibly devote the space that Angels did to one subject to each - hence the inevitability that it can't feel quite as persuasive
I note that several critics picked out areas that they felt were dealt with in a cursory manner, or where errors exist, and I would add to this is saying that whilst the ways in which a significant asteroid strike or supervolcano might be tackled are beginning to be understood, but I think Pinker believes that we are further along in these regards than I understand to be the case.
But none of these criticisms matter - not a jot. The case presented is like a building. It is comprised of many things, and finding some fault with one or two of the bricks does nothing to undermine the worldview that is being advanced.
So, less convincing that Angels perhaps, but if anything even more important.
It's an especially good read for those of us who like to see religion and simplistic tribal politics get a kicking ...