A Review of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,
by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress defends both the idea that “knowledge can help solve problems” (p. 39) and the fact that since its proposal nearly 300 years ago by Enlightenment thinkers, progress solving them has been made.  In fact, according to Pinker, measurable progress on vital problems is our chief inheritance from the Enlightenment, yet for him, this inheritance is in doubt.  That is, according to Pinker, there is much doubt about—if not outright hostility to—the idea that “the ultimate good” is using knowledge to promote human welfare (p.  34). To redress both this doubt and the ignorance it confers, Pinker offers fifteen chapters of corroborating quantitative and empirical evidence, for the most part in terms of aggregate, worldwide statistics showing measurable improvement on problems as diverse as life expectancy, wealth, governance, and the environment.  Taken in the context of the final three stand-alone chapters, the empirical work forcefully makes his case.  Our inheritance from the Enlightenment—reason, science and humanism—has been, Pinker says, “unabashedly” (p. 385) successful.   Knowledge can be used to solve problems, as our progress in solving so many of them proves.

It seems odd to this reviewer that it takes more than 450 pages, 1200 footnotes, and 30 pages of references to defend, much less prove, a thesis so anodyne it might even be called trivial—namely, “knowledge can help solve problems” (p. 39).  Finding people who would deny this seems about as likely as finding people who are pro- leaving landmines in fields for children to trip over, but Pinker manages to see the pro-landmine crowd everywhere—and they are apparently shaping policy.  In any case, readers who are not pro-landmine have to look carefully to find a more substantial, controversial thesis defended in the book.  Two candidates might be that for Pinker, the knowledge moving the needle of human welfare is essentially scientific knowledge (Chapter 22), and that using knowledge—and therefore using scientific knowledge—to move the needle is the ultimate good (p. 34, emphasis added).  The first thesis is the only way in which Pinker can claim that the Enlightenment is primarily, if not solely, responsible for our progress on so many fronts, and the second is more or less the lesson to be drawn from making this claim.

Regarding the first idea—that the knowledge improving human welfare is essentially scientific knowledge, and we can thank the Enlightenment for it—Pinker argues effectively that the needle has moved as scientific knowledge has grown, but he never quite addresses, much less resolves, the difference between the explosion in scientific knowledge that is our inheritance from the Enlightenment and the explosion in technical or practical knowledge that is our inheritance from the Industrial Revolution.  In other words, Pinker never quite addresses the distinction between the “knowledge” we owe the Enlightenment and the “knowledge” we owe to industry.  For instance, while there is no doubt that a scientific accomplishment like synthesizing ammonium nitrate has vastly improved human flourishing, so has a banal, non-scientific improvement like containerized freight.  One is responsible for half the food that feeds the world today; the other is responsible for the quantity and ease with which all goods are shipped and traded—an impact nearly as large (as morally different as it remains).  Conflating both accomplishments into one notion of “knowledge” and crediting ‘using knowledge to improve human welfare’ to the Enlightenment is to conflate inappropriately the kind of knowing the Enlightenment gave us with a kind of knowing that it didn’t, even as it trivializes what the Enlightenment did accomplishment—to wit, an explosion of scientific knowledge through scientific progress, as opposed to the anodyne ideas that ‘knowledge can solve problems’ and ‘progress solving them can be made.’  While no doubt the distinction between theory and practice is not absolute, and while no doubt in today’s world scientific and technological know-how have converged to move the needle of human flourishing even further and faster than at any other time in human history, scientific and practical or technical knowing have been and remain separable.  Pinker never quite addresses this in his argument that we owe to the Enlightenment the progress he measures, even if we owe to it the optimism that such progress in human welfare can be made.  For as to that “if,” it may just be that ‘optimism in progress’ was an effect Enlightenment thinkers drew from changes in the more material and social conditions (like production and urbanization), as opposed to the scientific frontiers (in mathematics and physics), of their time—i.e. the Enlightenment itself may owe as much to the societal and material impact of the Industrial Revolution, or even earlier innovations, just as we owe so much to both movements today.  In any case, the impact of the two revolutions on moving the needle of human welfare is not conflatable under one idea of “knowledge” without either trivializing the Enlightenment or defending an entirely trivial thesis.  Yet the conflation dominates the entire argument of the book.

Regarding the second thesis—that using scientific knowledge to improve human welfare is the ultimate good—there can be no doubt (and there in fact is no doubt, despite what Pinker says) that in the generic sense of the term, using “knowledge” to improve human welfare is a good, even an unqualified good, meaning that doing so is good in-and-of-itself, almost by tautology.  Similarly, there is little (if any) doubt that using scientific knowledge to improve well-being is also a good, meaning that it is a good among other goods equally or even more desirable in their own right.  But there is considerable controversy—and rightly so—over the idea that using knowledge to improve human welfare is the ultimate good, especially if knowledge is restricted to mean scientific.  As Pinker himself notes, “the idea that the ultimate good is to use knowledge to enhance human welfare leaves people cold” (p. 34)—a chill he ascribes to the denial of scientific knowledge, not to the qualifier “ultimate” (he goes on to contrast scientific knowledge and accomplishments with ostensibly desirable but obviously stupid beliefs).   This ascription is an error.  The chill people feel over a statement like “the ultimate good is to use knowledge to enhance human welfare” hinges on what “ultimate” means in this or any context, as well as on what kind of “knowledge” is entailed.  Does it mean “knowledge” in the broadest sense of practical, moral, aesthetic and scientific, or does it mean—as Pinker implies in Chapter 22—scientific[1] knowledge alone, meaning that using scientific knowledge to move the needle of human welfare takes precedence over—i.e. is ultimate with respect to—other ways of doing the same?  That “knowledge” moves the needle is a good all can agree on.  That knowledge taken generically is a unique good most can also agree on, for unlike all other goods “knowledge” in the broadest sense is almost tautologically recognized as the necessary means for obtaining most of them (i.e. it takes a form of “knowledge” even to raise children well, or to do just about anything else).  But scientific knowledge as the ultimate good in obtaining other goods is so controversial precisely because it’s pure nonsense—a nonsense made plain by Pinker’s own empirical demonstrations in Part Two.  Science is certainly one good among others in moving the needle of human welfare.  It is also unique among them in so far as it expresses the idea that knowledge of some form is required for most, if not all other goods one might care to name.  But science as the ultimate good because scientific knowledge is first and foremost—if not exclusively—responsible for moving the needle of human welfare is just confused.  That idea is precisely the caricature of the Enlightenment that provoked such strong counter-Enlightenment movements, yet inexplicably it is the caricature Pinker defends, against both the obvious and the better sense of his own empirical work.

For example, Chapters 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 19 on “Inequality,” “Peace,” “Safety,” “Terrorism,” “Democracy,” “Equal Rights,” and “Existential Threats” respectively demonstrate that moral and political knowledge, not just scientific, moves the needle of human welfare in ways as profoundly important as the Enlightenment-induced movement through scientific understanding.  Given the importance of these goods—including their importance for the promotion of scientific knowledge—on what grounds is their accomplishment less worthy of being “ultimate” with respect to using “knowledge”?  Or consider the improvements Pinker establishes with respect to life, health, sustenance, and wealth.  No doubt much, if not most, of today’s improvement is a realization of the faith in science specific to the Enlightenment, but historically it also owes a lot—if not as much—to the revolution in practical and technical knowledge that exploded during the same time period, and later, knowledge developed independently of scientific discoveries.  Again, on what ground is the scientific contribution “ultimate,” as opposed to this practical and technical contribution?  Where is the empirical separation between the two required to make such a claim?  In his own defense Pinker might point out that progress on all these fronts is nevertheless still due to the other Enlightenment ideals of “reason” (as a proxy for “knowledge” in the generic sense) and “humanism,” and therefore his overall thesis of crediting the Enlightenment and calling for its renewal stands.  And that much is true: improvement on all measures of human flourishing is attributable to bringing knowledge in the generic sense to bear on human welfare.  But that anodyne thesis is neither specific to the Enlightenment nor the novel argument of the book.  Instead, the novelty of the Enlightenment for Pinker amounts to the primacy of science as such, as clearly stated in Chapter 22: the accomplishment humanity can “unabashedly boast before any tribunal of minds” is not our laws, our institutions, our arts, or our morality; it’s science (p. 385).   The primacy of scientific knowledge as the ultimate good in promoting human welfare is the inheritance from the Enlightenment Pinker seeks to preserve, and after asserting this primacy (p. 386), he spends the rest of the chapter defending it against all comers, from the accusations of eugenics to the intrusions of IRBs.  But as his own empirical work and just a little conceptual clarity attests, the ultimacy he asserts is just nonsense.  Far more than scientific expertise has moved the needle of human welfare, though one would hardly know it reading Pinker.

As empirically sound as it is, Enlightenment Now either defends an anodyne thesis so incorporated into the contemporary zeitgeist that it needs no defense, or it caricatures the Enlightenment in a way as problematic now as it was to the diversity of thinkers then—namely, that scientific knowledge is the ultimate good, and its role in human progress is paramount over all others.  As a rhetorical tract designed to buck up the New Rationalistas and piss off the post-modern left, the book probably has no equal; in fact it represents little more than the latest foray into that most uninteresting and insignificant of academic culture-wars.  But for anyone who wants to understand what the Enlightenment has bequeathed us and where we can take that from here, it bears noting that life, sustenance and health have emerged from science as much as equality, peace and democracy haven’t.   Going forward we would do well to keep that in mind as we make good the Enlightenment’s faith in progress toward the betterment of human welfare.  It’s just that Enlightenment Now is a poor case for that prospect.

[1] Pinker’s conception of science appears to be a system of true beliefs about the world that cohere together, fit with reality, and make testable predications (pp. 352 and 366).  There is, however, another conception of science that could apply, one that refers to any intelligent inquiry that deliberately transforms a problematic, doubtful situation into a resolved, settled one, where “knowledge” is taken to mean just such a resolution that settles the problem or provides a good explanation for it.  The difference between the two conceptions of science is important, but it but strays too far afield for a book review.  Suffice it to say that if Pinker adopted the later definition, nothing in this review would apply, except the claim that Enlightenment Now defends a thesis so banal that it needs no defense (however useful compiling all the data compiled in its defense might be).