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Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: But it’s too late for enlightenment now

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Readers will recall Steven Pinker, a Darwinian cognitive scientist, one of whose key concepts is “A…reason we are so-so scientists is that our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes truth is adaptive, but sometimes it is not.” He has a new book out, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism, and Progress.

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker

From professor of globalisation Ian Goldin at Nature:

Pinker looks in some depth at the rise in scepticism about science, in society and in parts of academia such as the humanities. He gives shorter shrift to the erosion of faith in expertise elsewhere, even though this is justified in some notable instances. The financial sector, for example, is home to the biggest and most powerful global expert system, from banks and treasuries to the International Monetary Fund. The 2008 financial crisis highlighted the inadequacy of that system, whose primary mission is financial stability. Similarly, accounting firms have given clean bills of health to corrupt or collapsing enterprises. The denial of evidence is irrational, but it is not necessarily irrational to challenge experts and authorities.More.

Not only is it not irrational to challenge experts and authorities; it is essential. Living in an echo chamber does not demonstrate the correctness of their interpretations. It’s a sign of health, for example, that independent science writer groups like American Council on Science and Health are beginning to tell us stuff that the usual cheerleaders for authority in pop science media won’t.

One problem with Pinker’s approach to progress is that, historically, progress is uneven and can go backward steeply. We are accustomed to denouncing the excesses and horrors of ancient Rome. But if a person wanted to be able to read, write, and converse with thinkers, Rome had a great deal more going for it than the centuries of chaos that followed its collapse. The intellectual life survived under threat in monasteries during that period but it was hard to share until the rise of the great universities of the mediaeval period. A person who wanted to be a scholar was, no surprise, assumed to be somewhat of a monk (or nun).

But a much bigger problem is that the Darwinian naturalism Pinker espouses entails that there is no meaningful distinction between the modern search for evidence and the post-modern war on evidence, against which naturalist science is rapidly showing itself to have no defenses.

And the naturalists at Nature cannot even see pussyhats gathering around, who know full well that truth is not adaptive but power is.

See also: John Gray doesn’t think much of evolutionary psychologist Steve Pinker’s “better angels”

8 Replies to “Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: But it’s too late for enlightenment now

  1. 1
    tribune7 says:

    If he is a self-admitted so-so scientist why should we take him seriously?

    Why does he have tenure. It’s not evolution Pinker but devolution.

    Are we not men?

  2. 2

    John Gray’s article challenging Pinker’s notion that we are becoming less violent is well worth reading. Here’s the direct link:

    https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/john-gray-steven-pinker-violence-review

  3. 3
    EricMH says:

    We haven’t become less violent. If anything, the opposite. Any civilization capable of killing multiple millions of people in the space of a few years has a hard time claiming the mantle of non-violence. We’ve just ‘sanitized’ our violence so we either do not see it, or categorize it as non-violent. Case in point: abortion. One little pill and an entire human life has been wiped off the face of the earth with the same ceremony as taking a dump.

    The gas chambers were also part of this sanitization process. Originally the Nazis just machine gunned the Jews in the street. But, Nazis kept getting depressed and committing suicide. It was also messy and not as efficient. So, the Nazis invented gas chambers, where perpetrators could both ignore the violence as well as carry it out on a much grander scale.

    The atomic bomb is another example. We’re horrified daily by stories of beheadings, mass killings, etc. which kill tens or sometimes hundreds of people. But, a bomb that can wipe out hundreds of thousands of people in an instant just does not get the same visceral effect.

    So, I’d say that in modern times, due to our great weapons of destruction and distraction, we are actually in a much worse place in terms of violence. A kid can fly a UAV, drop a JDAM and take out a village with much less PTSD than a platoon walking in with guns and mowing down civilians in cold blood. Back at home, the kid will feel ok because our intelligentsia like Pinker will tell him we are the most humane civilization in the history of mankind, and go back to exploding his friends’ heads in Call of Duty.

  4. 4
    polistra says:

    “If he is a self-admitted so-so scientist why should we take him seriously? ”

    That’s the best reason FOR taking him seriously. I’ll always listen to a man who knows his limits, because a man who knows his limits is more likely to learn from new information and LESS likely to impose his “perfection” on the rest of us.

  5. 5
    critical rationalist says:

    Not only is it not irrational to challenge experts and authorities; it is essential.

    You must challenge authorities and sources. Reason always comes first. Your acceptance of the Bible as authoritative source came from you deciding to accept it based on your ideas about what God would be like, etc. So, you’ve challenged all sources, even if your don’t realize it.

  6. 6
    tribune7 says:

    –Your acceptance of the Bible as authoritative source came from you deciding to accept it based on your ideas about what God would be like, etc. So, you’ve challenged all sources, even if your don’t realize it.–

    The first step in challenging authorities is to question assumptions. The first step in questioning assumptions is too look at your own. You have an assumption in your statement that is wildly inaccurate — i.e. the acceptance of the Bible as an authoritative source comes from a desire that God is like we want Him to be.

    It certainly was not true in my case.

    Do you ever challenge or question the authorities that you accept?

  7. 7
    News says:

    EricMH at 3 is surely right. There was a time that no one thought that current tyrants could just destroy the planet, mainly because we knew they couldn’t. Now they can. It might be quiet, of course. That’s always easier.

  8. 8
    critical rationalist says:

    @Tribune

    You have an assumption in your statement that is wildly inaccurate — i.e. the acceptance of the Bible as an authoritative source comes from a desire that God is like we want Him to be.

    It certainly was not true in my case.

    You have an assumption in your response. Namely, that what someone would “like God to be” and what someone thinks “God would be like” are the same thing. Why must they be the same?

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