Tag: pinker

Dr. Steven Pinker and Enlightenment Now

By Joshua D. Glawson | United States

On Wednesday, October 17th, 2018, in Irvine, California, Dr. Steven Pinker gave a presentation along with a Q&A for his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Here is a very similar presentation to that of which I saw, for your viewing pleasure:

Dr. Steven Pinker presenting at the Cato Institute.

Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He has also taught at both Stanford and MIT. He earned a bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology at McGill University and his doctorate at Harvard in 1979. Pinker also earned a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, and a one-year stint as an assistant professor at Harvard. “He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s ‘World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals’ and Time’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World Today.’ Lastly, Steven Pinker is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications.

I was excited to see Steven Pinker speak after reading an intriguing interview that Nick Gillespie conducted in the June 2018 issue of Reason Magazine. As Dr. Pinker was walking up to the event hall, I was able to get an autograph in that issue. He seemed delighted to know it was a Reason Magazine he was signing.


Image of autographed Reason Magazine

Dr. Pinker on Reason TV.

The Presentation of Steven Pinker

As Pinker’s presentation began, he broke the ice by first showing images of extremism such as both neo-Nazis and AntiFa, along with a couple more humorous images of President Trump. The crowd laughed at the images, and I believe all sides of the political spectrum received his humor well.

Although there is no explicit evidence of Pinker’s political ideology that I could find, he has however been noted as saying that he is “more libertarian than authoritarian,” in a New York Times interview. Perhaps, his success are in part due to not directly affiliating with a political ideology. Instead, he pursues reason with a free market of ideas in light of the Enlightenment period.

As his PowerPoint continued after his initial introduction, he provided the major points he would eventually cover, which were straight from his book, i.e. reason, science, humanism, and progress.

With reason, he pointed out that knowledge has enhanced human flourishing. Because of our ability to reason, we are in a much better world today than ever before.

Major World Improvements

Dr. Pinker provided graphs and charts that many different organizations have since used as evidence. The cited information suggested a strong, direct correlation between improvement in knowledge and quality of life. Pinker did not specify capitalism. However, his wording does advocate for freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas. This is especially so when he mentions how people around the world have escaped extreme poverty in East Asia and other areas. He referred to the world’s growing escape of abject poverty as “The Great Escape,” while noting that “this is the greatest accomplishment in human history, and sadly nobody knows about it.”

Dr. Pinker also touched on humanism, with philosophical and anthropological wording and studies similar to that of Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over the acceptance of dogma or superstition. Pinker also noted that “identity politics is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values.”


Image of books for sale at the Dr. Steven Pinker presentation.

Reason, Humanism, and Happiness

His presentation progressed, providing some evidence that indicated with the increase of reason, science, and humanism, happiness also increased. However, this chart and part of the presentation lost some of the scholarly crowd. Of course, it is possibly dubious to assert a subjective claim, such as happiness, and objectively declare an increase. I do believe that people are happier today, but that is only a belief: testing that and providing a solid answer would be next to impossible. Nevertheless, with the increase of medicine, technology, life expectancy, food, clean water, less disease, less physical labor, better living conditions, lessening of dictatorships, and more, one can see how Pinker’s argument has good standing.

As Dr. Pinker’s presentation closed, he stressed that progress is not magic and there is no utopia. Much like that of the philosopher and former fellow Harvard professor, Dr. Robert Nozick, Pinker was quick to point out that there is no perfect place in the world and it is not possible.

As more popular scholars begin speaking up in defense of these core values, I can only hope that liberty will also return to the center of these tenets. If so, society and the world may progress more than ever before.

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson interviews Dr. Steven Pinker.

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Measuring The True Quality Of Human Life

By Craig Axford | Canada

By now, most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Physical needs necessarily come first, followed by the need to feel safe, loved, esteem, and finally self-actualization. These needs are typically visually described as a pyramid, with the most fundamental physical requirements of existence forming the base.

Our physical requirements also happen to be the ones that can be both most easily defined and objectively measured. The availability of food and water, for example, can readily be assessed by scientists and governments. The same goes for the availability of adequate shelter. Things like adequate educational opportunities and access to healthcare are only slightly more subjective and difficult to quantify.

But as we move into the psychological realm of life, things quickly start to get fuzzy. While everyone may be said to have intellectual and emotional needs, or even spiritual ones, everyone defines and satisfies them differently. There is no guarantee that satisfying the physical requirements of existence will lead to emotional or spiritual well-being.

However, we can assert that failing to meet the physical requirements of life will make it extremely difficult, some would even argue impossible, to meet the needs Maslow placed at or near the top of his famous pyramid. As Gandhi once famously said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

Steven Pinker and others have recently spilled more than a little ink describing the objective conditions in which we currently find ourselves. Pinker, in particular, has made a name for himself laying out the facts about contemporary existence which, when compared to life not so long ago, is quite good by just about every measure.

But however real our progress as a species may be, as a felt force in our daily lives it’s a slippery fish that often gets away. Pinker puts it this way in Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress:

But it’s the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come. An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society — which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.

This statement can be seen as somewhat problematic in so far as it’s possible for systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., to remain even within a culture that has made incredible headway in these areas. Indeed, Pinker nowhere disputes the continued presence of these problems. However, talking about systemic problems generation after generation without also drawing attention to the progress society has made risks causing older individuals, in particular, to become somewhat numb. Without a grounding in a broader historical context, there’s a very real danger progressives might be seen as crying wolf because there’s too little regard for how the nature of our systemic problems has changed in response to various policy solutions or public attitudes over time.

In addition, progress is a cursed concept precisely because we live in the present, not the past, and the better things get the more our expectations build. Greater social and technological development too often lead to the emotional equivalent of tail chasing. However, this curse is also a blessing. A few pages later in Enlightenment Now Pinker writes:

The global momentum toward abolition of the death penalty, despite its perennial popular appeal, offers a lesson in the messy ways of progress. As indefensible or unworkable ideas fall by the wayside, they are removed from the pool of thinkable options, even among those who like to think that they think the unthinkable, and the political fringe is dragged forward despite itself. That’s why even in the most regressive political movement in recent American history there were no calls for reinstating Jim Crow laws, ending women’s suffrage, or recriminalizing homosexuality.

Having hopefully forever removed ideas like slavery and denying women the vote from our bin of “thinkable” options, acquired devices we can hold in the palm of our hands that provide access to the equivalent of many millions of Libraries of Alexandria worth of information, and enjoying many more years of health and vigor than ever previously experienced in human history, you would think we would be much happier than we are. But, alas, subjective things like happiness and fulfillment don’t have simple linear relationships with improvements in human life, rights, technology, education, and healthcare.

Even historians and anthropologists that make their living considering the experiences and difficulties faced by our ancestors find it practically impossible to take the long view. That’s because life in 2018 is fundamentally different from life in 1900, 1500, or during the reign of the Caesars. Changing life conditions means changing context.

We’ve all heard someone make the argument that kids today don’t understand the life challenges previous generations had to face. If you’re over 40 like me, you’ve no doubt found yourself increasingly making some version of this argument yourself. While it’s certainly the case that Americans are, on average, largely ignorant of history, this ignorance isn’t the primary driver behind such complaints. Parents and grandparents in other countries where the citizens are often better informed of the past can be heard offering the same grievance.

That the vast majority of our children and grandchildren can no longer imagine a world where virtually everyone became infected with the measles and mumps sooner or later, let alone a cholera outbreak or the depopulating effects of the plague, isn’t an indication of their ignorance, but of their lived experience. While we want everyone to have a basic awareness of our shared history. But the fact is, no amount of education will truly enable someone raised in the modern developed world to understand what it was like to live in a society where illiteracy and disease rather than instant access to news and an abundance of clean water is the norm.

Pinker and others are right that the pessimism they bemoan is overblown. But it’s also an example of people reacting to their circumstances more or less the way they always have. It’s unrealistic to expect someone raised with a car in the garage that’s capable of crossing the continental United States in less than two days to compare themselves to people that had to do it in covered wagons. Even if they are familiar with the exploration and settlement of North America, covered wagons and vast expanses of unmapped, roadless wilderness are simply not part of their day-to-day lives.

The authors and scholars that remind us that our politicians and the news media are blowing things way out of proportion, if not outright lying to us in order to gin up fear in advance of an election or to get us to click on a story, aren’t wrong. Violent crime is way down, war isn’t nearly as common or deadly as it once was, and we’re living longer healthier lives than at any previous point in our history.

However, these scholars do tend to minimize the role human psychology plays in our perception of reality. Even if the press and public officials were more inclined to take the long view of history and prioritize stories of human triumph rather than tragedy or failure, people would still typically take a darker view than the evidence supports. That’s because the friend or family member with cancer is not only an exception to the story that human health has improved tremendously but a close case that touches our lives in ways that defy objective analysis. A sick loved one has far greater salience than the percentage of the population that experiences illness on any given day, let alone at any given point in history. In fact, that many illnesses have become so rare makes it more tragic rather than less when a rare misfortune befalls us or someone we care about.

Politicians, in particular, have a difficult time walking the fine line between what is objectively true and salience. Anyone who stands before an audience that hasn’t seen their wages rise recently, or only just keep up with inflation, is more likely to get votes by feeling their pain and calling the stagnation they’ve been enduring unjust than by pointing out that they are much wealthier than people doing similar work a century ago.

Donald Trump has proven himself a master of dramatizing current suffering at the expense of historical reality. He understands that a family that lost a loved one to a crime committed by an undocumented immigrant isn’t going to care that immigrants, documented or otherwise, are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. Likewise, he knows that a crime victim’s story is something voters can relate to far better than crime data. When confronting Trump supporters with the facts, one often receives a reply that reads something like ‘one American that’s the victim of a crime that could have been prevented is one too many.’

Pinker and other contemporary intellectuals do us a service by calling upon us to place things into a broader perspective. Their function is not so much to set the record straight as it is to offer history as a counterweight to the here and now. Even if we can’t truly relate to the world humanity once inhabited, recalling that we did inhabit such a place tempers the emotions modern living inevitably brings to the surface.

Wisdom resides at the intersection of knowledge, reflection, and emotion. When we stray too far down any of those roads alone, the perspective needed to appreciate nuance and accept a little bit of uncertainty into our lives is diminished. If we are presently at risk of losing many of the benefits we inherited from the Enlightenment, it’s because emotion is currently ascendant. Fear is increasingly untempered by reflection and knowledge is derided as elitism. Reflecting a little on contemporary society’s place in history is one sure way to find our way back to a more balanced perspective.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

Other articles you may enjoy:

Driving Another Nail Into Dualism’s Coffin
Monism, Emergence, & Bridging The Is/Ought Divide

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