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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

ENLIGHTENMENT HOW?

Written by: on February 22, 2020

Kaos from Get Smart

 

Humans have been fascinated with time travel for some time now. One would only have to look at the plethora of Hollywood movies that deal with the subject of time travel such as “Back to the Future”, “The Terminator”, “Time After Time”, and one of my favorites, “Somewhere in Time”. It seems there is some internal desire to recreate the past, with improvements of course, that brings a certain satisfaction.

Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, seems to want to go back to a period called the “Enlightenment”, and derives great satisfaction from this mental time travel. “Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, popular science author, and Johnston Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.”[1] “Pinker divides his book into three parts, using the first to set out what enlightenment is; he identifies humanism – the striving for the flourishing of all humans – as setting its goal and reason and science as guiding its methodology.”[2] Pinker’s humanism has no real need of faith in God since, “The superstitious faith of earlier times would be supplanted by what he called “the Religion of Humanity” – a rationalist creed in which an imaginary version of the human species would occupy the place of the Supreme Being.”[3]

Pinker’s second section of the book is devoted to showing the progress that has been made in the world. Pinker shows chart after chart explaining how the world is better than it was in the past and how we have used humanism to stave off entropy or the chaos in the world. In attempting to use a law of science, entropy, the second law of thermodynamics to describe his ideas, Pinker engages in scientism. “Historian Richard G. Olson defines scientism as “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern.””[4] Scientism seeks to legitimize ideas of social science by borrowing from the empirical science fields. However, scientific laws are not theories but are proven by repeated observations under strict conditions. “Exponents of scientism in the past have used it to promote Fabian socialism, Marxism-Leninism, Nazism and more interventionist varieties of liberalism. In doing so, they were invoking the authority of science to legitimize the values of their time and place.”[5] It is clear to many in the scientific community that scientism is not the same as science. “Noting that most Americans enthusiastically welcome scientific advancements, particularly those in health care, transportation, and communications, Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science—scientism.”[6]

Pinker believes that he is showing the decrease in entropy and the progress made in the world attributed to humanism by displaying graphs such as one which shows the decrease in child mortality from 1751- 2013, in figure 5-2.[7] Although this graph displays the decrease in child mortality for several countries, it does not show how the child mortality differs between countries for today, which may speak to the inequities that exist in the world between the rich and the poor. So, although things are great in the US relatively speaking, this does not speak to the poor and suffering that continues throughout the world. It is interesting that Jesus, in Luke 16, compared the nameless rich man with the poor Lazarus to point out the inequities in wealth and the attitudes of selfishness that often accompanied these inequities.

Robert Whaples compares Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now with Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Although both are concerned with stopping chaos,

Peterson sees a darkness in the world that eludes Pinker. Rather than enumerating and trumpeting the successes that people around the world have achieved (and that should be celebrated), Peterson bluntly asserts, “Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth” (p. 161)—regardless of any material progress humanity has accomplished.[8]

It is clear that both Pinker and Peterson attempt to find meaning in life and overcome chaos from within humanity.

Going back in time and making useless comparisons will not assess the current needs of humanity. I do not believe that things are getting better overall, and I do not believe that life will be fixed by harking on better times, using outmoded ideologies, or going back in time. However, I do believe that there is hope for the future and a way to overcome chaos. That hope can only be found in what both Pinker and Peterson reject, a faith in Jesus Christ. He is the only hope for humanity today.

 

[1]. Naff, Clay Farris. “Enlightenment Wow: The Humanist Interview with Steven Pinker.” The Humanist, March-April, 2018: 12-16.

[2]. Haas, Felix. “Steven Pinker – Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” World Literature in Review, July-August, 2018: 90-91.

[3]. Gray, John. “The Limits of Reason.” New Statesman, February-March, 2018: 42-44.

[4]. Burnett, Thomas. “What is Scientism?” AAAS – American Association for the Advancement of Science. n.d. https://www.aaas.org/programs/dialogue-science-ethics-and-religion/what-scientism (accessed Feb. 21, 2020).

[5]. Gray, John. “The Limits of Reason.” New Statesman, February-March, 2018: 42-44.

[6]. Burnett, Thomas. “What is Scientism?” AAAS – American Association for the Advancement of Science. n.d. https://www.aaas.org/programs/dialogue-science-ethics-and-religion/what-scientism (accessed Feb. 21, 2020).

[7]. Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

[8]. Whaples, Robert. “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress; 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” The Independent Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 2019: 463-468.

 

About the Author

mm

Mary Mims

I am a licensed and ordained Baptist minister and have worked with the children and youth for the last seven years. I have resided in the Washington, DC area for the last 30 years, but I am originally from Michigan. I am also bi-vocational and work at the US Patent and Trademark Office in the Scientific Library.

6 responses to “ENLIGHTENMENT HOW?”

  1. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    Mary I really appreciate your differentiating between science and scientism. This is incredibly useful when as Christians we support or engage in scientific inquiry. I found his discussions about bias and how they play out in how we understand data very interesting. You mentioned that you don’t believe that things are getting better overall, (a position I believe has validity) but I’m then curious what would convince you that it is getting better? More and more in school my children are being taught how to be critical of graphs and statistics at the same time they are taught how to read them. What statistics would you find more useful than Pinker’s for you to buy his premise? Or is data perhaps not the way to approach this from your perspective? Thank you for your insight on this. I’m particularly grateful for an angle from someone with a science background!

  2. mm Mary Mims says:

    Jenn, thank you for your comment. I think the question I would ask is what is the significance of what your data is proving. Comparing your life to the life of your ancestors does not seem helpful in my opinion. But to compare the life expectancy in the US vs. say Japan, might be more useful for example. Then you have to ask yourself what factors are causing a change in life expectancy? Is it diet, or climate, or some other unknown factors. So just to show a graph to say my life is improving compared to the past doesn’t help if the death rate in my country is still higher than yours. Also, in our country, the “Rule of Law” is on life support, so this makes me much more pessimistic since our justice department is compromised at the highest level. I think all we can do here in the US is pray. It really is not a good time.

  3. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Mary,
    What a great job of presenting your argument! Your powerful summation, “… I do believe that there is hope for the future and a way to overcome chaos. That hope can only be found in what both Pinker and Peterson reject, a faith in Jesus Christ. He is the only hope for humanity today.” nails your argument and the flaws in their arguments of Pinker and Peterson. Now more than ever, we and the world need Jesus. Thanks again for sharing your insight.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Mary, thank you for this. I definitely learned about scientism – something I know very little about. I keep wondering how science could be a leading contributor to the horrors of the 20th century and I think this helps explain it. When I think of science I think of what you mentioned of the average American – health, transportation, etc. But there is a dark side of using it to justify warped agendas and evil regimes if elevated to too high of a place. These last couple of books have deepened my gratefulness for the Gospel for sure…

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi Mary. I’m a bit late to the party with my sons wedding and all, but thought I’d catch up. I don’t know if you’ll even see this. I think you are correct with the scientism observation. It’s not uncommon for people in the social sciences to do academic boundary-crossing when it suits their ends. I’m not sure Pinker is trying to suggest everything is ok, but rather that human endeavour, since the enlightenment historically, is towards the betterment of human beings worldwide, and I have no trouble with that. He does have a go at addressing the existential chaos of racism, politics and human pessimism in chapter 19, but it’s brief and I found it unsatisfactory from a faith perspective. However, I kind of thought he pointed towards a human character trait that you and I might call the image of God, where he sees it as merely a form of progressive survival.

    • mm Mary Mims says:

      Thank you Digby for responding to my post. I guess the real problem with scientism is Pinker uses data in a way that does not account for the variables, as science does. From what I remember about statistics is you have to explain the conditions of the data and the variables of taking the data. One of the criticisms in The Blank Slate is his research methodology. Eugene Eoyang states that Pinker looks at the behavior of US citizens, and points out one suspects that Asian children, which are brought up to be more conformist and if surveyed, would turn out to be less different from each other. This is why I reject how he uses data to support his ideas. I also think his ideas can be used to support racism, although he speaks against it. Obviously, here in America, I think things are getting worse, not better but that’s another story! Thanks again for your response!

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