Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Long book with much data to support the thesis that the progress we see in the modern world stems from the legacy of the Enlightenment – that time in history when thinkers and leaders replaced aristocracy with democracy and dogmatic religion with modern science. Pinker overstates the case, in my view, by criticizing religious faith without qualification. It is authoritarian religion rather than religion per se that is the real opponent of reason, science, and humanism. The book would have been somewhat shorter and, frankly, more humanistic if he had omitted the parts that criticize faith in general without making that distinction (he nods to religious humanism in the last chapter, to be fair, but also wastes several paragraphs arguing against God’s existence). In the chapter on environmentalism, for example, he criticizes Pope Francis’ approach to awakening people to the environmental crisis. This is the wrong battle to pick. The Pope calls for repentance and warns against merely technical solutions without a change of heart, individually and collectively; but he is not denying science, or ignoring the rights of poor people – he is doing exactly the opposite.
The graphs in the chapters on peace and safety, moreover, measure incidences of violence per 100,000, and shows the lines going down over time; but as one reviewer has observed, the actual “body-counts” have gone up incredibly, though outstripped by the population explosion. The decrease in infant mortality rates and longer life-expectancy of modern times, moreover, means that there are more souls in existence, but fewer of them able to wield the sword or the gun. This makes the comparison with the middle ages difficult, if not meaningless. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be optimistic; however, my sense is that it is Pinker’s hatred of religion, authoritarian or humanistic, that is motivating the thesis: since God “died,” things have gotten better in virtually all spheres. This thesis is absolutely not borne out by the evidence or by reflection on what those concepts mean.
To Pinker’s credit, and speaking of Nietzsche, the last chapter on humanism exposes and condemns that sociopath’s ravings. One of the best parts of the book, for me, was Pinker’s imaginary statement to Nietzsche if he could travel back in time. Also to Pinker’s credit, there is a good deal of humor, of his own invention (I laughed out loud several times), and also in reference to comedians who illustrate the points he is making. And to Pinker’s great credit, he robustly defends the values of reason, science, and humanism against the tiresome trend of subjectivism manifested of late in so-called postmodern critique and left-wing identity politics. Pinker’s stance against that nonsense is admirable, and a necessary call to order for the Left. The last two pages of the book give some pragmatic advice to thinking citizens, and, delightfully, a “heroic narrative” of the human spirit, which I see as a creation story. Such a story is critical for any body of believers committed to love and reason – whether they believe in God, humanism, or both.
View all my reviews
- July 10, 2023 Review of Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
- February 10, 2023 Fantasy for Solo Piano
- February 4, 2023 Prelude in One Sharp
- January 8, 2023 Book Review: The Grand Biocentric Design by Robert Lanza et al.
- June 2, 2022 Reflections on Beauty: Part Two
- June 1, 2022 Reflections on Beauty: Part One
- January 2, 2022 Composers Need Rules
- April 1, 2021 On Moral Fallacies: Why True Liberalism and Conservatism are Both Valid
- September 8, 2020 Long Artist Statement
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Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
Here is the last in my series of posts on books I read in 2015. This one packed a punch:
Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe: The Revolutionary Theory of Reality  (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011).
Reading this book is like taking a journey into space: it disorients your equilibrium and challenges you to adapt to the new conditions. The Holographic Universe is difficult to process after only one reading, but here’s a brief attempt:
First, when I first read online somewhere that the universe may be a cosmic hologram in motion, the idea appealed to my feeling that material reality is not the ultimate reality, that it is in fact only a reflection of something more fundamental, namely consciousness. Talbot makes this very case in his well-researched investigation of the holographic principle. He begins by introducing neurophysiologist Karl Pribram, whose research suggests that the brain projects and decodes information in the same way that information is encoded in and projected through a holographic screen. The reader’s next acquaintance is physicist David Bohm, whose work in quantum physics (entailing topics including “action at a distance,” the EPR paradox, and plasmons) led him to conclude essentially that the universe as a whole is a holographic “movie” projection from a deeper, more highly organized level of reality. The significance of these ideas is that objective reality is a construct of the mind.
The rest of the book is a compendium of the supernatural, the paranormal, and the freaky. Heed well Talbot’s invitation in the introduction to keep an open mind—without one you will not get very far. The unsettling part is that the stuff he cites has been documented. I frequently found myself googling names, peoples, and personages, unwilling to yield assent—sometimes even consideration—too quickly. “Why haven’t I heard about this?” I wondered. Sure enough, there are Wikipedia articles on topics like Mirin Dajo, who had himself impaled through his vital organs without suffering harm; the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, who in fits of religious hysteria, witnesses confirm, pleaded to be tortured but reported relief rather than pain, and emerged without sign of injury; the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) in which effects of psychokinesis—the ability to move something basically using The Force; i.e., to imagine something intently and thereby influence the outcome of actual reality—was apparently experimentally measured; Emanuel Swedenborg, who reported detailed visions of the afterlife realm as well as having interacted with the spirit-beings that dwell there, including the deceased humans; and Therese Neumann—whose name I recalled from Schumacher—a Catholic mystic who according to many witnesses ate and drank nothing for thirty-five years except the daily Eucharist. Different readers will respond differently to such accounts—which, if true, are surely paradigm-shifting. Some may categorically reject them; some may seek to explain them in natural terms; others may not want to be bothered because it would take too much time and effort to rethink their worldview; and others may become obsessed with the supernatural and seek out such experiences like the Holy Grail. To me, the best response is frankly to accept the reality of the supernatural, and, even if skepticism remains toward this or that particular anecdote, allow the paradigm to be shifted away from materialism and philosophical realism toward an acknowledgment of the power of consciousness and of the higher Levels of Being. This can be done without becoming obsessed with the supernatural, naively accepting every fairy tale, or relinquishing your “I’m no fool” card.
Talbot himself nudges the reader toward a pursuit of the supernatural. A refrain throughout the book is that the same transcendent potential exemplified by the mystics and visionaries he cites is “latent within all of us.” To some readers, religious orthodoxy may call for the censure of things mentioned in a positive light in this book: psychic readings, chakras, auras, hypnotism, shamanism, and belief in reincarnation. Whatever your views on such things may be, Talbot’s journalism logically contributes to the ultimate thesis of his work, which I happen to agree with: reality is the product of mind, or “spirit.” In the author’s terminology, the universe is “omnijective”—neither objective nor subjective, but both; a product of consciousness, but also quite real.
The idea that all reality is the product of consciousness may seem esoteric and strange, but it is nourishment to the bones of one whose faith in higher things must (in principle) harmonize with a rational view of the universe. To illustrate: Christians believe in miracles and the existence of a spiritual realm supervening this physical one. If such beliefs are warranted, what is the mode of interaction between spirit and matter? How can mountains be moved, the dead raised? The answer is no longer shrouded in mystery if material reality by definition is subordinate to spiritual agency. Matter obeys whatever spirit—endowed with much greater power than we’re used to—tells it to do. For this curiosity to be explained strengthens the credibility of faith.
Therefore, reading this book confirmed my sentiment that it is the final destiny of man and woman to transcend the limitations imposed by matter at the present level of existence, to ascend to higher Levels of Being, and ultimately to see the face of God. The empirical work of Pribram, Bohm and others is enough to encourage those who “desire a better country” beyond this world, and are committed to living this life with the attainment of that end in mind.
Here are two reviews on books that address how God interacts with creation given the discoveries of modern science:
John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction With the World  (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005).
I picked up this book in search of perspectives on how God acts in the world. The picture painted by science seems to minimize the need to invoke supernatural causation, and yet as Christians we hold a biblical tradition of Providence, and interpret our daily lives through the lens of God’s intimate concern, involvement, and interaction in our lives and indeed all of creation. Polkinghorne suggests that God operates from behind the veils of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Sub-atomic physics is viewed (though not by all!) as indeterminate; larger “chaotic” systems such as the weather are also indeterminate; as a result, there is an “openness” to the unfolding process of creation. No one can say with 100% certainty what is going to happen. God can therefore cause whatever he wants whenever he wants by, without violating the laws of conservation, nudging tiny elements here or there within these realms, desiring the chain of events that follows. To me, this view is interesting but ultimately speculative. Worse, Polkinghorne’s argument is maimed by his unwillingness to give up philosophical realism: for him, matter and the laws that govern it are absolute, and God must work around them. There are better perspectives available. What’s important, though, is that Polkinghorne recognizes the problem of divine action and doesn’t offer trite answers for it.
I found Polkinghorne’s writing style often taxing–he cites many bland theological quotations while forbearing to state his own views, and cloaks his prose in the tediously refined style of the academy. Yet there is some silver in his treatise: he exposes what he calls a “facile” and “glib” view of Providence, such that the believer interprets every life event from open parking spaces to rheumatism as direct from the hand of God, sent either as grace or punishment; but on the other hand he defends faith in Providence: “I do not think one can deny that there are remarkable threads of coincidence to be found in human life which it is proper for those who experience them to interpret as the personal God calling them by name.” In the end he endorses a balanced view that justifies thankfulness and prayer–what is at stake–while avoiding the simplistic view of Providence.
Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
After Polkinghorne, I was curious to see whether a better perspective on the problem of divine action in the world had been articulated. Plantinga devotes attention to this issue in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, which evaluates real and alleged conflicts between religion and science. In it, he argues that there is no real conflict between theistic religion and science, but that the real conflict is between naturalism and science. Naturalism, the idea that there is no such thing as anything supernatural, is a metaphysical interpretation of or “add-on” to scientific theories like biological evolution. Plantinga takes up the foil against the belligerent atheists, Richard Dakwins and Daniel Dennet, and duels with skillful vigor and a flare of play. A lover of science, Plantinga embraces evolution, and turns it against the naturalist/atheist by arguing in the end that if Mind is the product of unguided natural selection, then our mental faculties are not reliable guides in our search for truth. This undercuts any dogma preached by the naturalist, such as the assertion that “the evidence of evolution reveals a world without design.” As for divine action, Plantinga echoes the notion that there is plenty of room for God to work from behind the shroud of quantum physics–whether to cause genetic mutations, guide evolution, or do the miracles recorded in scripture or prayed for in the present day. Unlike Polkinhorn, Plantinga is not struggling to avoid checkmate, but makes his moves confidently, showing that atheists and evolutionary psychologists have not gained their point against theistic religion in the name of science. I see the book as a whole as a serious challenge to and even firm chokehold on dogmatic naturalism.