Months ago now I heard of Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now. His thesis is that the world is a great place to live and getting better to which he credits the values of the Enlightenment. Here’s an article in the WSJ by Pinker if you don’t want to read the book.
I subsequently bookmarked this review by John Gray, this review by Nick Spencer, and this opinion piece by Ross Douthat. I saved them to write an article where I combined quotes from these clever pieces and form it all into one helpful, interesting article. I almost wrote it weeks ago, honestly. Fate conspired against me, or possibly laziness.
Then yesterday Andrew Wilson wrote that article for me and wrote it better.
*Two related articles Wilson doesn’t use that push back against Pinker are this one by Andrew Sullivan: The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?
But Pinker seems immune to the idea of paradox, irony, or unintended consequences. He doesn’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies. His response to the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s species at the hands of humans is to propose that better environmental technology will somehow solve it — just as pharmaceuticals will solve unhappiness. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.
And this one by Jag Bhalla: Does Steven Pinker’s gospel of data hide dark gaps?
Pinker’s vast smartness can enlighten any reader. But numbers can numb us into macro-moral misjudgements. And in crafting a secular creation story for his econo-rationalist tribe (more “comfort history” than “balanced account”) his snark isn’t rhetorically smart.
Having read all the reviews I’ve decided to forego reading Pinker’s book and have instead opted for the late Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think