Hi friends, this comes late after a wedding and other family-related events. So, did I read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress? Refer to Pierre Bayard. Mr Rogers has been very helpful too (see the end).
A story. The once a man struggling through his midlife years. A symptom of this struggle was a growing inability to attend to the chores of daily life and routine. Even the smallest of jobs seemed to end with him lying down in front of the television, aimlessly surfing the channels. Eventually, his wife of many years determined that enough was enough and sent him to the doctor for testing and diagnosis. After much prodding and poking and questioning the doctor finally found the problem. The man said to the doctor, “OK, give it to me straight. What’s wrong with me?” The doctor said without hesitation, “You’re lazy.” The man responded, “That’s great news, doc; now, give me the medical term for it so I can tell my wife.”
While wading through the first chapter, index and conclusion of Pinker’s book, the above story about wilful denial came to mind. Too often, we can be so convinced of a worldview, that all other information to the contrary becomes invisible to us. And, when it does become evident, we try to reinterpret the information in such a way that it allows us to continue in the same delusion. Jonathan Haidt called it, Binding and Blinding; we become so wed to a person or ideology that we are both enmeshed relationally and blinded rationally. And to a large degree, this appears to be Stephen Pinker’s point. Is the world going to hell in a hand cart? If you read the media’s very myopic view of the world, then that could easily be your conclusion because that is all you see. However, the empirical evidence, numbers and measurable experience of people across most social indicators show the opposite is true. Over the last century, everything is better than it was.
I read a number of online critiques of Pinker and was hoping for some obvious missing component that would shatter Pinker’s thesis, but nearly all of them were lame attempts at fracturing his basic argument that we are manifestly better off. Most critiques point to vague sociological issues that still remain and need to be addressed – race, ongoing poverty, wealth disparity and environmental issues, all of which Pinker’s opponents seem to believe aren’t being addressed, when actually they have been, are being and continue to be. We get this same kind of argument from the younger generation in New Zealand, especially in terms of race relations. It’s as if people understand their limited, and very short worldview, as the prevailing view since, forever. The reality is, there has never been a static moment in time. Pinker calls this, Progessophobia.
It is intellectually easy to disagree with Pinker’s politics, economics, interpretation of poverty, democracy, sustainability, peace and the environment. And fair enough too. However, to suggest as many seem to, the that the world is in a terrible state, is not justifiable empirically. However, Pinker does tackle (briefly) the existential threats that are appearing more regularly in chapter 19. This chapter is brief and it doesn’t cover closely enough the finer details of the human propensity to despair and collapse anxiety, the idea that everything is moving toward an apocalyptic end, so we might as well give up. In the same way Pinker doesn’t quite provide enough detail as to why ‘collapse anxiety’ is not as powerful as our ‘need to survive’ and the ‘sacrifice’ humans often make to achieve it. His reliance on Aristotle’s maximising of human flourishing as an ethic is admirable but incomplete. It feels like he mixes a Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism with Aristotelian Virtue, resulting in me being a little lost in his rationale around humanism’s power to change. However, in broad brushstrokes, he offers the idea that people are just the same as they have always been – creative and inventive. Even though I’m no humanist (nor dispensationalist for that matter), I agree with him; we solve problems, and we do so because we have done so. Yes, there is much to do, and there always will be, but only if we address it in the spirit of betterment in all areas.
I went to see ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’ this morning with Jane. It was great. I only know of Mr Rogers from American friends, and over the years I have a few of his quotes tucked away. One appeared in the movie and it made me think of Pinker, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” Like anything, fear drives us apart, but love, in the most biblical sense of agape, brings us together. Faith, hope and love are all that truly remains, according to the Apostle Paul. If so, fear ought not to be our guide. If we truly are filled with Gods Spirit, then Christians and others whom God chooses ought to be the highest arbiters of creativity, hope, love and transformation. I certainly hope we see and experience more of it in the decade to come. Thanks, Mr Pinker, I might not entirely like your process, but as a follower of the faith you reject, I enjoy your hope and expectation of our divinely infused humanity.
Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. Kobo ed. London: Grants Books, 2008.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Kindle ed. London: Penguin, 2013.
Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Kindle ed. Penguin Books, 2019.
 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Kindle ed. (Penguin Books, 2019).
 Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Kobo ed. (London: Grants Books, 2008).
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Kindle ed. (London: Penguin, 2013). 221-222
 Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. 39
 Read the internet. I ran out of time to reference them ALL.
 Ibid. 292
 Ibid. 293
 Ibid. 410ff
 Ibid. 12