A defence of enlightenment thinking

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a wonderful book. Pinker’s work is precisely the sort of thing that we need more of. I.e. writing from knowledgeable people able to see the big picture. The big picture in Enlightenment Now is about the biggest picture one can have.

In this Pinker defends the thinking of the enlightenment, reason, and science. It is an impassioned defence of progress but isn’t a lazy view of someone who doesn’t see problems. The world has, and will continue to have, many, many problems. That, however, does mean that incredible strides have not been made. Progress isn’t constant, things can and do slip back, but that shouldn’t discourage one from noting that progress is both possible and has happened in a dramatic way. Science and reason have been central to this progress. In social policy we are right to worry about oppression still existing in the world but we are wrong to forget just how awful it has been in the past. Progress can happen, and acknowledging this is vital to motivating action to make things better.

Some of the most undeniable fruits of progress have come in medicine. To Pinker medical progress is moral progress. When defending scientific progress he makes a number of very clear statements that, I think, make total sense. The clearest is probably: “…scientific knowledge eradicated smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease which killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. In case anyone has skimmed over this feat of moral greatness, let me say it again: scientific knowledge eradicated smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease which killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone.” (Pinker, 2018, 386).

The average person will not be able to contribute as much to progress as those who helped eradicate smallpox but we can at least recognize the progress that has happened due to science and reason and be very grateful for it.

Read: Steven Pinker (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Viking