Enlightenment Now - by Steven Pinker


Enlightenment Now - by Steven Pinker

Read: 2023-09-20

Recommend: 10/10

I am more hopeful about the future of humanity. I am deeply grateful to the scientists who have saved countless lives.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.

  2. They laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion. It is individuals, not groups, who are sentient—who feel pleasure and pain, fulfillment and anguish.

  3. The first piece of wisdom they offer is that misfortune may be no one’s fault. A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose.

  4. Indeed, a common criticism of the Enlightenment project—that it is a Western invention, unsuited to the world in all its diversity—is doubly wrongheaded. For one thing, all ideas have to come from somewhere, and their birthplace has no bearing on their merit. Though many Enlightenment ideas were articulated in their clearest and most influential form in 18th-century Europe and America, they are rooted in reason and human nature, so any reasoning human can engage with them. That’s why Enlightenment ideals have been articulated in non-Western civilizations at many times in history.

  5. To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason. Religions also commonly clash with humanism whenever they elevate some moral good above the well-being of humans, such as accepting a divine savior, ratifying a sacred narrative, enforcing rituals and taboos, proselytizing other people to do the same, and punishing or demonizing those who don’t. Religions can also clash with humanism by valuing souls above lives, which is not as uplifting as it sounds. Belief in an afterlife implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence; that coercing people into accepting salvation is doing them a favor; and that martyrdom may be the best thing that can ever happen to you.

  6. It scrambles people’s judgment, inflames a primitive tribal mindset, and distracts them from a sounder understanding of how to improve the world. Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance—a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.

  7. Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

  8. Which are more numerous in the English language, words that begin with k or words with k in the third position? Most people say the former. In fact, there are three times as many words with k in the third position (ankle, ask, awkward, bake, cake, make, take . . .), but we retrieve words by their initial sounds, so keep, kind, kill, kid, and king are likelier to pop into mind on demand.

  9. Availability errors are a common source of folly in human reasoning. First-year medical students interpret every rash as a symptom of an exotic disease, and vacationers stay out of the water after they have read about a shark attack or if they have just seen Jaws. Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. People rank tornadoes (which kill about fifty Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than four thousand Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.

  10. And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.

  11. For many people the greatest fear raised by the prospect of a longer life is dementia, but another pleasant surprise has come to light: between 2000 and 2012, the rate among Americans over 65 fell by a quarter, and the average age at diagnosis rose from 80.7 to 82.4 years.

  12. Ever-creative Homo sapiens had long fought back against disease with quackery such as prayer, sacrifice, bloodletting, cupping, toxic metals, homeopathy, and squeezing a hen to death against an infected body part. But starting in the late 18th century with the invention of vaccination, and accelerating in the 19th with acceptance of the germ theory of disease, the tide of battle began to turn. Handwashing, midwifery, mosquito control, and especially the protection of drinking water by public sewerage and chlorinated tap water would come to save billions of lives.

  13. Hundreds of studies, every major health and science organization, and more than a hundred Nobel laureates have testified to their safety (unsurprisingly, since there is no such thing as a genetically unmodified crop). Yet traditional environmentalist groups, with what the ecology writer Stewart Brand has called their “customary indifference to starvation,” have prosecuted a fanatical crusade to keep transgenic crops from people—not just from whole-food gourmets in rich countries but from poor farmers in developing ones.

  14. Of the seventy million people who died in major 20th-century famines, 80 percent were victims of Communist regimes’ forced collectivization, punitive confiscation, and totalitarian central planning.

  15. The first governments in postcolonial Africa and Asia often implemented ideologically fashionable but economically disastrous policies such as the mass collectivization of farming, import restrictions to promote “self-sufficiency,” and artificially low food prices which benefited politically influential city-dwellers at the expense of farmers. When the countries fell into civil war, as they so often did, not only was food distribution disrupted, but both sides could use hunger as a weapon, sometimes with the complicity of their Cold War patrons.

  16. “In 1976,” Radelet writes, “Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died.”

  17. Frankfurt argues that inequality itself is not morally objectionable; what is objectionable is poverty. If a person lives a long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant. Frankfurt writes, “From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.”

  18. As the economist Robert Frank has put it, there is an optimal amount of pollution in the environment, just as there is an optimal amount of dirt in your house. Cleaner is better, but not at the expense of everything else in life.

  19. as the most easily extracted supply of a resource becomes scarcer, its price rises, encouraging people to conserve it, get at the less accessible deposits, or find cheaper and more plentiful substitutes.

  20. The doctrine of sustainability assumes that the current rate of use of a resource may be extrapolated into the future until it rams into a ceiling. The implication is that we must switch to a renewable resource that can be replenished at the rate we use it, indefinitely. In reality, societies have always abandoned a resource for a better one long before the old one was exhausted. It’s often said that the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and that has been true of energy as well. “Plenty of wood and hay remained to be exploited when the world shifted to coal,” Ausubel notes. “Coal abounded when oil rose. Oil abounds now as methane [natural gas] rises.” As we will see, gas in turn may be replaced by energy sources still lower in carbon well before the last cubic foot goes up in a blue flame.

  21. The problem is that carbon emissions are a classic public goods game, also known as a Tragedy of the Commons. People benefit from everyone else’s sacrifices and suffer from their own, so everyone has an incentive to be a free rider and let everyone else make the sacrifice, and everyone suffers. A standard remedy for public goods dilemmas is a coercive authority that can punish free riders. But any government with the totalitarian power to abolish artistic pottery is unlikely to restrict that power to maximizing the common good. One can, alternatively, daydream that moral suasion is potent enough to induce everyone to make the necessary sacrifices. But while humans do have public sentiments, it’s unwise to let the fate of the planet hinge on the hope that billions of people will simultaneously volunteer to act against their interests. Most important, the sacrifice needed to bring carbon emissions down by half and then to zero is far greater than forgoing jewelry: it would require forgoing electricity, heating, cement, steel, paper, travel, and affordable food and clothing.

  22. Nuclear energy is available around the clock, and it can be plugged into power grids that provide concentrated energy where it is needed. It has a lower carbon footprint than solar, hydro, and biomass, and it’s safer than them, too. The sixty years with nuclear power have seen thirty-one deaths in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the result of extraordinary Soviet-era bungling, together with a few thousand early deaths from cancer above the 100,000 natural cancer deaths in the exposed population. The other two famous accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011, killed no one. Yet vast numbers of people are killed day in, day out by the pollution from burning combustibles and by accidents in mining and transporting them, none of which make headlines. Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many, and coal 387 times as many—perhaps a million deaths a year.

  23. infrastructure is one of the things we hire governments to handle, especially energy infrastructure, which requires no end of legislation, bonds, rights of way, regulations, subsidies, research, and public-private contracts with detailed oversight.

  24. Terrorism is a unique hazard because it combines major dread with minor harm. I will not count trends in terrorism as an example of progress, since they don’t show the long-term decline we’ve seen for disease, hunger, poverty, war, violent crime, and accidents. But I will show that terrorism is a distraction in our assessment of progress, and, in a way, a backhanded tribute to that progress.

  25. A series of international agreements beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 drew red lines around thuggish governmental tactics, particularly torture, extrajudicial killings, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the ugly transitive verb coined during the Argentinian military regime of 1974–84, to disappear someone.

  26. So much changes when you get an education! You unlearn dangerous superstitions, such as that leaders rule by divine right, or that people who don’t look like you are less than human. You learn that there are other cultures that are as tied to their ways of life as you are to yours, and for no better or worse reason. You learn that charismatic saviors have led their countries to disaster. You learn that your own convictions, no matter how heartfelt or popular, may be mistaken. You learn that there are better and worse ways to live, and that other people and other cultures may know things that you don’t. Not least, you learn that there are ways of resolving conflicts without violence. All these epiphanies militate against knuckling under the rule of an autocrat or joining a crusade to subdue and kill your neighbors. Of course, none of this wisdom is guaranteed, particularly when authorities promulgate their own dogmas, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories—and, in a backhanded compliment to the power of knowledge, stifle the people and ideas that might discredit them.

  27. the latest version of the DSM could diagnose half the American population with a mental disorder over the course of their lives.

  28. One of psychology’s best-kept secrets is that cognitive behavior therapy is demonstrably effective (often more effective than drugs) in treating many forms of distress, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, insomnia, and the symptoms of schizophrenia.

  29. Most historians today believe that Japan surrendered not because of the atomic bombings, whose devastation was no greater than that from the firebombings of sixty other Japanese cities, but because of the entry into the Pacific war of the Soviet Union, which threatened harsher terms of surrender.

  30. fewer people realize that about 10 percent of electricity in the United States comes from dismantled nuclear warheads, mostly Soviet.

  31. To begin with, no Enlightenment thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently rational. Certainly not the über-rational Kant, who wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,” nor Spinoza, Hume, Smith, or the Encyclopédistes, who were cognitive and social psychologists ahead of their time. What they argued was that we ought to be rational, by learning to repress the fallacies and dogmas that so readily seduce us, and that we can be rational, collectively if not individually, by implementing institutions and adhering to norms that constrain our faculties, including free speech, logical analysis, and empirical testing. And if you disagree, then why should we accept your claim that humans are incapable of rationality?

  32. A white lie is told for the benefit of the hearer; a blue lie is told for the benefit of an in-group (originally, fellow police officers).19 While some of the conspiracy theorists may be genuinely misinformed, most express these beliefs for the purpose of performance rather than truth: they are trying to antagonize liberals and display solidarity with their blood brothers. The anthropologist John Tooby adds that preposterous beliefs are more effective signals of coalitional loyalty than reasonable ones. Anyone can say that rocks fall down rather than up, but only a person who is truly committed to the brethren has a reason to say that God is three persons but also one person, or that the Democratic Party ran a child sex ring out of a Washington pizzeria.

  33. When people are first confronted with information that contradicts a staked-out position, they become even more committed to it, as we’d expect from the theories of identity-protective cognition, motivated reasoning, and cognitive dissonance reduction. Feeling their identity threatened, belief holders double down and muster more ammunition to fend off the challenge. But since another part of the human mind keeps a person in touch with reality, as the counterevidence piles up the dissonance can mount until it becomes too much to bear and the opinion topples over, a phenomenon called the affective tipping point.

  34. In 1778 Thomas Paine extolled the cosmopolitan virtues of science: Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosophy of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.

  35. Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there’s no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too.

  36. Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool. But what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?