Saturday, April 14, 2018

Against Steven Pinker’s Case for Humanistic Progress

In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that the Enlightenment worked! Reason and science have brought progress to humanity. Don’t believe it? Pinker proves it with dozens of graphs. The hard numbers tell the tale: scientific advances have led to technological and social ones that have increased human flourishing not just in the West but around the world.

Alas, one sticking point remains: Pinker writes like a jackass. If Pinker’s case against religious, postmodern, authoritarian, and romantic critics of the thesis that rational enlightenment is progressive were as airtight as he suggests with his quantitative analysis, that counting of the numbers should speak for itself. Why, then, does Pinker supplement that supposed proof with his haughtiness and his slippery, specious philosophical arguments? The answer is that the graphs don’t speak for themselves after all. Who would have thought that statistics is a shady business, that you can “prove” whatever you like by twisting the facts as you please, as is common practice in advertisements! Enlightenment Now follows upon Pinker’s similar but more-focused book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which argues that the facts prove that global violence has declined due again to rational progress. But critics pounced on that book’s use of definitions and statistics. Conflicts between states have declined, but civil conflicts have increased, as the discussion in this video points out. Plus, as pessimistic economist Nassim Taleb argued, the 70 years of global peace Pinker points to may be only the trough between catastrophic conflicts that happen on average only once a century and that falsify any such notion of a steady decrease of armed conflicts.

Pinker, however, doubled down on his method and in this newer book presented graphs showing that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are all on the rise. Critics this time have focused on the question of how evenly or fairly these goods are distributed. For example, average global health may have risen only because a minority has received the best medical care, leaving the majority with health problems. Averages can cloak this divide, which is why Pinker dismisses the concern about economic inequality, since as long as everyone’s welfare increases, he says, it doesn’t matter that some people are doing much better than others. Inequality isn’t the same as unfairness, says Pinker, which is true as a matter of semantics but is irrelevant, since empirically the top one percent are more or less sociopathic and thus don’t earn their wealth fairly. 

In any case, these questions of tangible progress don’t much interest me. It’s perfectly plausible that the rise of objectivity and skepticism from the Scientific Revolution onwards has led to technological and thus to some social progress. The main defect in Pinker’s argument, however, is apparent from his chapter on humanism. There he means to show that science is inherently humanistic, and this is the primary point of disagreement between Pinker and his critics; moreover, this question of humanism is the source of Pinker’s dismissive attitude towards those critics. Pinker pretends the numbers speak for themselves, whereas everyone is familiar with how statistics can be abused. The reason for that pretense is to justify Pinker’s lapses in the philosophical and historical departments. From a scientistic perch, Pinker can “argue” the philosophical points about the humanistic implications of reason and science, which means he can presuppose those happy connections, to excuse himself from having to provide anything like a strong philosophical or historical case in addition to his statistical one. The numbers allegedly do the heavy lifting, so all that’s left for Pinker to do is to boast. You wouldn’t expect the scientistic shiftiness from his persona in his public discussions and interviews in which he appears as a longer-, greyer-haired Spock, all mild-mannered and even-handed. But his writing on the philosophical and historical issues is both triumphalist and pitifully weak, as John Gray points out in his review of the book.

I’ll focus here on his arguments about humanism, to show that Pinker’s judgment overall can’t be trusted, that he’s not arguing in good faith, that indeed he’s protesting too much, which indicates that the critics of the neoliberal, technocratic consensus might be on to something.

Reason and Humanism

Pinker divides these critics into two main camps, the religious and the secular ones, the latter being postmodern, tribal, or authoritarian (alt right), which is to say roughly Nietzschean. I’ll leave aside his response to the religious critics of the Enlightenment, since it’s hard to overstate the case against the major theistic religions. The more formidable challenge to classic modernism is philosophical and historical. You might have thought it obvious, as Pinker puts it, ‘that science deals only with facts about physical stuff, so scientists are committing a logical error when they say anything about values or society or culture. As Wieseltier puts it, “It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy.” But,’ Pinker assures his reader, ‘it is this argument that commits a logical error, by confusing propositions with academic disciplines. It’s certainly true that an empirical proposition is not the same as a logical one, and both must be distinguished from normative or moral claims. But that does not mean that scientists are under a gag order forbidding them to discuss conceptual and moral issues, any more than philosophers must keep their mouths shut about the physical world’ (my emphases). Thus, Pinker says this argument about the logical gap between facts and values is only an “attempt to build a wall around science and make science pay for it” (my emphases).

But did you catch the twisting and turning of this slippery Pinker fish? I left hints with the emphases. Pinker is trying to make the distinction between intension and extension. While scientific methods themselves may be dedicated to getting at the facts, not to prescribing values, that doesn’t mean scientists who are people in addition to having their fact-oriented jobs can’t speak about values. Of course scientists can do so, but that doesn’t mean their opinions will have the weight of science. Anyone can opine about what should be done. The point about the dichotomy between facts and values is that science is a fact-based discipline, and values go beyond the facts. That’s why Wieseltier in Pinker’s quotation talks specifically and repeatedly about science, not scientists. Thus, certain connotations of “science” imply that scientists, as such, that is, as official representatives of the proper business of science, should confine their pronouncements to empirical, not to normative matters. But that doesn’t stop part of the denotation of “science,” namely the scientists in their broader capacity as citizens, from speaking about whatever they like.

However, this distinction between professional occupation and our broader capacities likewise preempts Pinker’s scientistic insinuation that the scientist’s opinions on normative issues should indeed be deferred to as though they were scientific. After all, if Pinker weren't presuming that the scientist’s normative opinions have such an advantage, there would be no point of reminding the reader that of course scientists-as-people have the right to ethical opinions. Since no one is saying otherwise, and certainly no critic of modernism is attempting to “build a wall around science” or to “gag” scientists in the sense of depriving them of their human right to freedom of speech, the issue must instead be the very scientistic confusion Pinker here evinces. The issue is scientism, which is the illegitimate extension of scientific authority, based on prejudice and confusion (typically due to insufficient familiarity with philosophy). That’s exactly what Pinker does here, by sliding from science to scientist, and then accusing his opponent, Wieseltier, of the very error Pinker is making. So to sum up, Wieseltier commits no such logical error and it’s Pinker who does so by insinuating that a scientist-as-citizen counts as a scientist-as-such. No critic of modernism says the latter can’t speak about normative issues. What’s illegitimate is when the scientist’s unprofessional normative opinions are deferred to as though such personal values were somehow proven by scientific methods, that is, by science or by scientists as such (scientists in their professional capacity).

All by itself, this speciousness is reason to doubt at least the philosophical content of Pinker’s book. Pinker’s fidelity to the philosophical spirit is suspect, which is to say Pinker writes like a slippery propagandist for neoliberalism. But there’s more to come. Let’s pause to ask, though, why Pinker stooped to those shenanigans. He’s contending that reason and science are inherently or somehow properly liberal and humanistic, so that when tyrants claim to oppress in the name of Reason, for example, their rationalism is wholly illegitimate. Thus, Pinker himself points out that the impartiality—Spinoza’s perspective from eternity, Hobbes’ social contract, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’ veil of ignorance, or Thomas Nagel’s view from nowhere—which supports the Golden Rule doesn’t entail humanism or liberal morality. As Pinker writes, “If there were a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath who could exploit everyone else with impunity, no argument could convince him he had committed a logical fallacy. Also, arguments from impartiality have little content. Aside from a generic advisory to respect people’s wishes, the arguments say little about what those wishes are: the wants, needs, and experiences that define human flourishing.”

Thus, Pinker asks, “Can we put humanistic morality on a deeper foundation—one that would rule out rational sociopaths and justify the human needs we are obligated to respect? I think we can” (my emphasis). He proceeds to show with a series of just-so stories that moral sentiments such as “sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger” evolved. “The impossibility of eternal invulnerability creates an incentive even for callous sociopaths to re-enter the roundtable of morality.” Moreover, “Evolution helps explain another foundation of secular morality,” namely sympathy (my emphasis). “Sympathy among kin emerges from the overlap in genetic makeup that interconnects us in the great web of life. Sympathy among everyone else emerges from the impartiality of nature: each of us may find ourselves in straits where a small mercy from another grants a big boost in our own welfare,” so we’re better off cooperating than being selfish.

Pinker wants to conclude with what he says a few pages later, which is that “humanism is the moral code that people will converge upon when they are rational.” Notice so far, though, the additional slippery fishiness of what I just quoted. Pinker says at the outset he recognizes that the appeal to impartiality doesn’t yet strengthen humanism by proving it on philosophical or normative grounds. And so he says he wants to justify humanism, whereas he proceeds to explain the existence of the moral sentiments that support humanism. Not everything that evolves is as it ought to be, according to our moral judgments; thus the fact that some sentiments evolved doesn’t justify them in the relevant sense. So Pinker’s tales of evolutionary psychology are irrelevant. What Pinker adds between his evolutionary account and his conclusion is a half-assed defense of utilitarianism. He says, for example, that utilitarianism succeeds because its language is simple. “A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon.” This is another turn of the slippery fish. The fact that a moral system succeeds in the sense of quickly becoming popular doesn’t necessarily justify this system. More precisely, the system might thereby be justified politically but not philosophically. That is, the system might prove useful in keeping the peace, but that’s not the same as saying the moral principles in question are philosophically ideal.

Next, Pinker writes, “History confirms that when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge toward humanism.” For example, “The only way to unite the [British] colonies under a single constitution was to guarantee religious expression and practice as a natural right,” since otherwise the colonies would have behaved tribally and persecuted each other. Once again, Pinker is talking about effectiveness, not philosophical truth. If the goal is to erase cultural differences, to unite ourselves by discovering common ground, humanism might indeed work. That doesn’t mean we should necessarily adopt humanism, because the goal in question might be dubious. The fact that societies will “converge toward humanism” to avoid conflict would, of course, be just a fact, not yet a value. What Pinker would need is an argument in support of that goal of finding common ground between diverse cultures. Indeed, his earlier point about the benefit of utilitarianism’s simplicity contradicts this goal, since he says that earlier point is that simple moral principles are consistent with cosmopolitanism, that is, with freedom from local attachments which entails that there are such attachments to rise above. The more distinct cultures are, the less they’ll have in common and so the less they’ll want to overcome their differences by subscribing to the thin gruel, say, of the neoliberal, consumerist monoculture.

Moreover, Pinker begs the question when he concludes that this convergence requires rationality. The very question at issue is whether reason is good and progressive because reason is humanistic. Were reason amoral and were irrationality good in other ways, then not-so rational folks would converge upon antihumanism. For example, the sociopath in Pinker’s evolutionary account might prefer to be selfish and irrational because of the personal benefits of those “vices.” Sociopathy is irrational in the sense of being partial, not universalizable, since a society in which everyone is sociopathic would presumably destroy itself (which is why the Klingon world in Star Trek makes no sense). Still, modernists such as Hobbes and Adam Smith show how social order forms from the chaos of mass selfishness, which is supposed to be the merit of capitalism. Indeed, according to the neoliberal rationale, innovations in the marketplace would cease were everyone to adopt the moral sentiments of the humanistic beta maleAs we’ll see in a moment, the deeper truth that’s frustrating Pinker is that modernism is only superficially egalitarian. The highest modern ideal is precisely Nietzsche’s: the masses ought to be humanists, while the elites ought to replace God with a loftier mindset. Otherwise, humanism would be unsustainable since, contrary to Pinker’s claim that humanism is “by no means a vapid or saccharine lowest common denominator,” betas look up to alphas throughout the animal kingdom. And when modernists dispose of theistic religion, they kill God and must somehow substitute some idol or risk social collapse due to mass apathy and ennui.

Pinker conflates a justification of humanism with a pragmatic case for its success and workability, even while cognitive science shows that in our personal lives we’re more irrational than rational, which was also David Hume’s point. So why should it necessarily matter that rational people converge toward humanism? Suppose reason demonstrates that life is absurd so that authentically-rational people are plagued with anxiety or depression. Arguably, then, the rational spirit of humanism would be for suckers, while the happier folks would be those who leave systematic rationality to the autistic technocrats and wannabe-Vulcans like Pinker. Look where monumental irrationality took Donald Trump: not to the truth or the facts, by any stretch of the imagination, but obviously to power and to a life of sadistic glee. Ask the liberal, humanistic beta males whether they’d trade being saddled with malignant narcissism for billions of dollars, fame, affairs with models, and the presidency of the United States. I’d expect the majority would prefer the package Trump deal.

Conceding that “people are vulnerable to cognitive illusions that lead to supernatural beliefs” and that “they certainly need to belong to a community,” Pinker maintains that there are benign, liberal alternatives to religion to satisfy our needs for illusion and community. “As societies become more educated and secure, the components of the legacy [of] religious institutions can be unbundled. The art, rituals, iconography, and communal warmth that many people enjoy can continue to be provided by liberalized religions, without the supernatural dogma or Iron Age morality.” Moreover, “If the positive contributions of religious institutions come from their role as humanistic associations in civil society, then we would expect those benefits not to be tied to theistic belief, and that is indeed the case.” But by the same token, should late-modernists grow disenchanted with the insipid, cosmopolitan, beta-male superficiality of striving for materialistic happiness in a cosmically absurd and self-destructive consumer society, as is apparent from the global alt right blowback, this would indicate the failure of the secular alternatives and the wrongheadedness of attempting to maximize rationality. Pinker points to social democracies like Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands, which are largely irreligious and humanistic, the suggestion being that the world should follow suit. But these liberal societies are also highly technocratic and pragmatic, and we’ll see in a moment why that kind of culture isn’t likely sustainable.

Subversive Knowledge and Heroes of Reason

Pinker writes as if philosophy should have ended with Kant and Mill, but not only did that not happen, numerous Age of Reason philosophers combined rationalism with antihumanism. What Pinker fails to grasp is that as with any mass movement, the rise of Western reason had exoteric and esoteric exponents. There are the pragmatic salesmen or neoscholastics, like Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Mill, and Voltaire who wrote pamphlets putting Reason’s best foot forward to convince the public not to fear the death of God, since reason and science will inevitably bring liberal progress in their wake. Then there are the deeper, more philosophical, less sophistical thinkers, like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, de Sade, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche who cared more about the truth than flattering the public with uplifting half-truths. These esoteric modernists opened the way to what we call postmodernism, by pointing to the flaws of official modernist, classic-liberal philosophy. The fact that liberal democracies are declining in Europe and North America, because of the hypocrisy of their power elites which testifies to the hollowness of the liberal creed, is predictable from this underground, esoteric viewpoint.

But Pinker contents himself with a flimsy criticism of Nietzsche. According to Pinker, ‘Nietzsche argued that it’s good to be a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath. Not good for everyone, of course, but that doesn’t matter: the lives of the mass of humanity (the “botched and the bungled,” the “chattering dwarves,” the “flea-beetles”) count for nothing.’ I’m not going to quibble with this characterization of Nietzsche’s philosophy. There’s no need to show that the social-Darwinian, Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche’s poetic aphorisms is one-sided, because there’s a prior problem for Pinker, which is Pinker’s contention that Nietzsche argued anything in the first place. The reason Pinker says so is that he apparently inherits the dismissive attitude towards Nietzsche from Bertrand Russell’s infamous treatment of him in A History of Western Philosophy, which Pinker quotes approvingly. Russell the logician carried the proverbial hammer and thus interpreted everything as a nail. Like Kierkegaard and de Sade, Nietzsche was a literary philosopher. These weren’t systematic thinkers, but were closer to prophets, ranters, or artists. Nietzsche in particular ranted in prose-poetry. He rejected argumentation for the same reason he rejected the rationalist conceits of modernity as being unmanly. So yes, you can find ugly propositions in Nietzsche’s works and you can infer many more from them, but because those are artworks, their purpose is to challenge the reader to question received wisdom and to wonder whether some such dire prophecies might be on the right track, after all, or whether we should err on that side of caution.

Pinker, the effeminate technocrat, points out that “Nietzsche was an inspiration to relativists everywhere,” that “Nietzschean ideas were taken up by Nazism, fascism, and other forms of Romantic nationalism, and that his “ideas are repellent and incoherent.” Thus Pinker asks why these ideas “have so many fans.” The answer is that not everything is a nail or an engineering problem. Once again Pinker confuses utility with truth. If the aphorisms are incoherent, that's because they're not meant as arguments, but as challenges to the reader that present different, unconventional perspectives. And the fact that Nietzsche’s ideas are repugnant would have no bearing on their truth status just as religion’s social utility wouldn’t prove that God exists. Indeed, the fact that Nietzsche’s philosophy is so easily adopted by authoritarians likewise doesn’t imply, as Pinker says, that we should “drop the Nietzsche.” What Pinker needs to contend with is that the natural truth may be dangerous. Philosophy in general may be subversive, which is why it wasn’t just Nietzsche who belittled the masses; Plato too compared the unreflective hoi polloi to cattle: “Like cattle, always looking downward with their heads bent toward the ground and the banquet tables, they feed, fatten, and fornicate. In order to increase their possessions they kick and butt with horns and hoofs of steel and kill each other, insatiable as they are” (Rep. 586a–b).

The point of such elitism should be to keep the hedonistic masses away from philosophy for their own good, because it’s easier to be happy if you can believe in God, in afterlife justice, and in the rest of the religious rigmarole. (In the same way, elitist novelists such as Pynchon and David Foster Wallace write pretentiously and long-windedly to scare off impatient readers whom the authors presume aren’t fit to be their acolytes, and heavy metal bands likely hide the benefits of their music in a noisy semblance for the same reason.) The challenge for Pinker, then, is to confront Nietzsche’s writings not as a logician looking for fallacies and not as a scientist looking for cold, hard facts, but as a seeker after philosophical questions, to consider whether liberal or humanistic values are indeed compatible with scientific knowledge, requiring no nonrational leap of faith or sleight of hand such as the slipperiness of Pinker’s own stratagems.

Pinker writes, “Most obviously, Nietzsche helped inspire the romantic militarism that led to the First World War and the fascism that led to the Second…The connections between Nietzsche’s ideas and the megadeath movements of the 20th century are obvious enough: a glorification of violence and power, an eagerness to raze the institutions of liberal democracy, a contempt for most of humanity, and a stone-hearted indifference to human life.” Putting aside the above point about the difference between truth and unpleasant consequences, Pinker’s guilt-by-association argument can be demolished with a single word: Napoleon. In Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul showed that the rationalist turn in eighteenth century Europe led roughly in two directions, towards technocracy and Heroism. “The technocrat began his existence as the ideal servant of the people—a man freed from both irrational ambition and self-interest. Then, with surprising rapidity, he evolved into one who used the system with a distant contempt for the people.”

By contrast,
The Hero was a more complex phenomenon. He appeared unexpectedly out of the shadows of reason, drawn forward when the people showed uncontrollable impatience with the way they were being governed. This impatience may have been provoked by poor or selfish government, by the inability of the new technocracy actually to govern or even by leadership which somehow bored the populace. With the old royal-baronial rivalry gone, there was no fixed structure to take up the slack of unpopular government. The idea of elections was new and, even now, two centuries later, does not easily convert the people’s desires into appropriate government. And so it was that in those moments when there was maximum confusion, the Hero took to stepping forward out of the shadows and presenting himself as the exciting face of reason; the man who could take over the difficult labour of reasoning on behalf of the tired and confused citizen.
Saul goes on to write, “Nietzsche’s discovery that reason was subject to passion and to supermen came a full half century after the real superman had actually galloped onto the public stage and given a demonstration. Napoleon had ridden in on the back of reason, reorganized Europe in the name of reason and governed beneath the same principle. The subsequent effect was to bolster the rational approach, not to discourage it” (40, my emphasis).

John Ralston Saul
This historical dynamic between humdrum technocracy and rousing authoritarianism, which is elided by Pinker’s technocratic version of humanism, is why progressive social democracies shouldn’t be expected to last long. The seduction by demagogues in the West may require a generational shift here or there, but eventually all liberal humanists can be expected to gladly exchange their technocratic peace and security for the existential thrill and added meaningfulness of serving a charismatic hero. Toronto had its Rob Ford before America had its Trump. 

In any case, Pinker’s sole reference to Napoleon in his book is this bit of chicanery: ‘Napoleon, that exponent of martial glory, sniffed at England as “a nation of shopkeepers.” But at the time Britons earned 83 percent more than Frenchmen and enjoyed a third more calories, and we all know what happened at Waterloo.’ Compare that worthless assessment to this one from the admittedly conservative, British historian Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life: “The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire” (xxxiii). Napoleon defended the Jacobin, bourgeois ideals of the French Revolution against the old European monarchies which naturally wanted to destroy the French republic as a rival to the feudal, aristocratic system. Contrary to Pinker’s snide aspersion, then, Napoleon was a hero in Saul’s sense, that is, a militaristic champion of reason and indeed of liberalism, and Napoleon consolidated and spread the Enlightenment by force decades before Nietzsche wrote anything.

Still, Napoleon’s record is controversial, so why not pick another enlightened despot such as Frederick the Great of Prussia or Catherine the Great of Russia? Or how about the governments of contemporary nations that are illiberal but highly rational (strategically cunning, at a minimum), such as China, Russia, or Singapore? China, in particular, has a renowned rational pedigree due to Confucius, but his humanism was conservative, rather like Aristotle’s, not progressive in Pinker’s sense. Here we see, then, how easily reason comes apart from liberal humanistic values, contrary to Pinker. Reason is just impartiality, objectivity, the view from nowhere in which data are impersonally collected or logic or experiments are pursued without emotional input; more socially, reason is the instrumentalist calculation of effective means to achieving some presupposed end. Reason itself is just unemotional, that is, methodical reasoning or what the Frankfurt School critics called instrumental rationality. As such, Hitler may have been as rational as Isaac Newton, the monster as much as the saint, the hero as much as the technocrat. (Notice that both Hitler and Newton had numerous wacky beliefs.) Rationality is a small thing in the context of a whole culture, worldview, or lifestyle. You can be emotionally detached and empirical in one area and biased in another. You can be cunning, strategically sound, and thus rational in the pursuit of monstrous aims. You can have an administration of technocrats without the least bit of democracy, as in an enlightened monarchy. Indeed, America’s democratic republic is effectively a plutocracy, the voters’ choice between political representatives being largely preselected by the fixed two-party system—until the unenlightened populist Trump upset that applecart.

This was one of the lessons of the esoteric early-modern philosophers. Reason alone won’t save anyone. David Hume pointed out that if you push empiricism all the way, you end up with the pragmatic need for faith in nonrational intuition. Today’s scientists and naturalists call this faith “methodological naturalism.” The Marquis de Sade showed how the logical gap between facts and values entails that reason is only instrumental, which means that the choice of ends is nonrational, and so monsters can be as rational as anyone else. And Nietzsche predicted the nihilistic endgame of modernism in which the Last Man, namely Pinker’s fat and happy, neoliberal, beta-consumer will long for a return of Heroism or of anything worth believing in, even after the cultural resources for such great art will have been destroyed in the name of egalitarian correctness. But until the supremely rational machines conquer our species to complete the Age of Reason, the more cunning tend to dominate the naïve and the deluded, as in Hobbes’ cynical theory of the social contract. Thus, the civic religion of liberalism can serve as a distraction for the duped masses, as in the plutocratic United States, the “land of the free” in which Americans consist of five percent of the world’s population and lock up twenty percent of the world’s prisoners.

Scientific Humanism and Anthropocentrism

What about science more specifically? Is science socially progressive? Pinker points out that the institution of science has at least two ideals, that the world is intelligible and that the facts should be allowed to speak for themselves. But it would be arbitrary to consider this a complete characterization of the essence of science. Science also tends to be used by industries to profit from empowering people with technology that applies scientific findings to control natural processes. And so Pinker has no non-arbitrary grounds for explaining away the many, many harmful effects of scientific knowledge as irrational abuses for which the Enlightenment isn’t responsible. Two outstanding such effects are the Holocene extinction, otherwise known as the Anthropocene extinction, and the destruction of the ecosystem. Humans have been killing off animal species long before modern science, but advances in reasoning have made the process more efficient by supplying us with more powerful tools. Pinker writes lamely, “Despite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals, but this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.” Indeed, the word “humanism” itself is pretty harmless; it’s the eminently “rational,” technoscientific masters of the earth that most species have to worry about, since we’re the ones who “exclude” them. And of course Pinker touts conservation efforts to save some species from extinction, as well as environmental protection plans by enlightened, humanistic countries, strawmanning his critics by arguing, “we must not accept the narrative that humanity inexorably despoils every part of the environment” (my emphases).

The real issue here is whether science is morally neutral. As I said, reason generally is amoral, since objectivity involves detachment from personal preferences. To understand the amoral world as it really is is to entertain an adequate mental representation of that world, which requires that we think with the same impartial order as that which is exhibited by natural regularities. But science is itself a type of use of reason. Scientists apply reason to the task of improving circumstances for at least some people, by empowering them with information and reliable explanations. Thus, scientists generally would sign off on the motto that knowledge is progressive while ignorance is fit for a dark age. Most scientists, after all, are liberal humanists, and even the evil-genius scientists or the mercenary technocrats, such as those that served the Nazis, assume that knowledge ought to materially benefit at least the power elites.

So modern science specifically—if not reason generally—may indeed be humanistic, but this doesn’t entail that science is progressive. On the contrary, the narrow-mindedness of prioritizing human welfare could have disastrous consequences not just for nonhuman species but for us in the long run. The anthropocentrism in question, which many Enlightenment rationalists only adapted from the old religious sources, could easily be self-destructive because it’s based on primitive egoism, the kind that compels us to attempt to survive at all costs. Thus, while reason is amoral, science may not be, and yet the question is open whether science is progressive or insidious. The possibility remains that although humanists like Pinker dismiss pessimistic interpretations of modernity, humanism isn’t so enlightened, after all. At least, the public, exoteric version of liberal progress includes the short-sighted, vulgar consumerism that externalizes the costs of rapacious capitalism, whereas the esoteric form of this philosophy include dark, Eastern-flavoured warnings that sustainable progress would have to be unbiased towards any one species. And yet contrary to Pinker’s telling remark, one of the central features of the Age of Reason was the surge of pride in human nature. In celebrating our ability to progress without divine assistance, humanists naturally reasoned that our species is superior to all others, since we alone appear able to liberate ourselves from the oppressive state of nature. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes wrote that the purpose of the new, scientific kind of knowledge was to be “highly useful in life” and specifically to “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.” Classically, Descartes also maintained that because animals can’t reason and aren’t self-aware, they’re unconscious machines and don’t feel pain. Even the more enlightened Kant argued that abuse of animals is wrong, not because the animals deserve better treatment, but because the abuse corrupts the abuser; “he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men,” he wrote.

Thus, it’s hardly an accident that humans, the only species capable of scientific understanding, became the only global superpredators. Certainly, if we can teach ourselves to get to the moon, we can learn to be vegetarians and to stop killing other species, and if toxic technologies can be invented, so too can environment-friendly ones. But the question is whether a progressive mindset is properly considered humanistic or even to have derived mainly from the Enlightenment. Instead, paradoxically, this mindset would call for a reversal of what humanists have been considering progress, such as a reversal of the parasitic form of economic growth that’s supposed to be infinite. Schopenhauer’s pessimistic, Eastern and ascetic naturalism, for example, is “progressive” in calling for a sustainable, less-harmful way of life, even while it’s radically anti-progressive in dismissing the Judeo-Christian notion of linear social advancement as being unrealistic, given a truly objective, non-anthropocentric view of nature and its cycles. From that thoroughly-rational perspective, our species is clearly deluded despite all our unique accomplishments. Our delusions didn’t disappear with the rise of modern reason; the metanarrative changed from worshipping God to worshipping ourselves, and so we renewed our presumed license to be the world’s overlords. To challenge this modern myth of humanism, as the reductionism of esoteric modern philosophers such as de Sade, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche did is to dismiss the conventional, anthropocentric ideal of progress as a likely instrument of our self-destruction. The challenge is to be “pessimistic,” to acknowledge our real existential predicament without blinders and without the ulterior motive of devising propaganda to boost the spirits of beleaguered late-modern liberals.   

The Myth of Humanism

Ironically, while Pinker derides the Romantic backlash against Enlightenment myths, he ends his book with a gesture towards uncovering the emotional power of the Enlightenment. The case for Enlightenment values “may be cast as a stirring narrative,” he writes, “and I hope that people with more artistic flair and rhetorical power than I can tell it better and spread it farther. The story of human progress is truly heroic.” And so Pinker tells of how “We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart…Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption.” Endowed with the capacities for language and high-level thinking, we enjoy “the spiral of recursive improvement,” eking out “victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature…We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.” Despite the suffering and perils that remain, he assures us, “there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” Perhaps sensing the irony, Pinker is quick to add, “This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true…And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

Here Pinker shows that he doesn’t understand how myths work. Religious myths are highly symbolic and aren’t supposed to be taken literally, as though they were scientific arguments. So myths mix truth and falsehood. On one level they’re false, but as metaphors about human attitudes and experience, for example, they’re accurate; at the very least, they express and thus indicate authentic longings. Pinker’s humanist story is naturalistic and thus more literally true than a theistic myth, but his story still serves as myth and propaganda, because in Pinkerian fashion it conceals as much as it discloses. The story buries unsettling truths so he can focus on uplifting ones, and because Pinker is sworn to truth-telling as a scientist, he can’t help but leave clues to the underlying problem. Thus, he speaks of human heroism so soon after he mocked Nietzsche’s life’s work of meditating on the nature of modern, godless heroism. Pinker resorts to story-telling after supplying graphs and statistics that are supposed to speak for themselves. And he appeals to our nonrational interest in stories even after arguing at great length that it’s reason that’s progressive.

But perhaps most tellingly, Pinker implies that the humanist story has the power to unite since it’s for “all humanity” and indeed for “any sentient creature with the power of reason” and with some semblance of self-interest. He can’t let go of the appeal to reason, since reason is obviously essential to the Enlightenment, but this is the key to modern anthropocentrism. Suppose scientists conclude that “reason” should be more broadly defined to include the thought patterns of most animal species. What, then, would become of modern social progress? Presumably, progressives would have to drop not Nietzsche but their label as “humanists,” since by Enlightenment reasoning they’d have to accept the rights of most life forms, in which case we would no longer be morally entitled to advancing at the expense of birds, fish, reptiles, and other mammals. In that case, science-centered progress, that is, the kind that’s most useful in a capitalistic economy would be halted in its tracks. In a sense, then, the Enlightenment would be regressive since we’d have to side with the radical environmentalists, hippies, vegetarians, and other such radicals, for the “humanist” story to proclaim the heroism of all such rational species. The worship of reason would compel us to forsake civilization in general, as the environmentalist Derrick Jensen points out in The Myth of Human Supremacy, since no civilization supports itself, and so we’d enjoin ourselves to revert to a nomadic, tribal lifestyle.

What are the chances, then, that scientists would decide to redefine their terms to that effect? Slim to none. Instead, the Enlightenment is taken to imply a secular version of anthropocentrism which we naturally call “humanism.” Thus we declare that rational species such as ours and perhaps only a few others are superior to all those not clever enough to triumph over the natural forces that grind them down, as Pinker’s story puts it. We’re liberated while most animals are mindless slaves by comparison. And so we “progress” at the expense of the rest of the planet, shooting ourselves in the foot as we’ve in fact done, since biologists have shown that all species are interdependent in the ecosystem. Thus, it’s misleading to call Pinker’s story simply “true.” It’s a piece of propaganda since it’s meant to inspire us to stop bemoaning the apparent ills of modernity, even while the story can’t conceal those ills. Religious myths had us worship gods in the sky even while we were ruled by godlike human tyrants who supposedly reigned in the name of those fictional gods. These myths were thus propagandistic in that they lied to sell a wildly unjust political order. In the same way, Pinker’s story of humanism lies to sell a dubious form of progress for humanity that’s more like a holocaust for the planet at large. Meanwhile, the real rationalists confine themselves to moaning and groaning in private, since the most prominent public spaces are reserved for the stories that make us feel happy, not for those that put us rationally in touch with reality.


  1. Great piece, Ben. It baffles me that so many people are still duped by the myth of liberal progress. How anyone can see liberal humanism as anything other than a failure is beyond me.

    1. Thanks! Just to clarify, I don't think I'd say liberalism is a complete failure. There's likely something to Pinker's numbers and graphs, which I don't talk much about in this article. His statistics are likely half-truths, which means they're not complete fictions.

      The kind of liberal progress which is the most plausible is the technological kind, which flows from science. For example, there have clearly been medical advances as a result of the Scientific Revolution. But if we look at something more complex such as liberal education, the results are more mixed. There are all kinds of problems with Western-style education, especially in the United States. The college-educated liberal American elites, for example, are more sophisticated in some ways than the high-school educated (and racist and sexist and ignorant) whites who voted for Trump, but those liberals have their form of arrogance. They overlooked the problems with globalization and thus were surprised by the Trump backlash, and all along they've been participating in the "humanistic," accelerated slaughter of animal life and in the destruction of the ecosystem (as have I). Overall, then, we seem to advance in some ways, which causes a regress in others.

    2. I suppose what I mean by it being a failure is that it has largely failed to achieve most of its lofty goals (freedom, equality, etc.). Liberalism has outlived its usefulness and is actively harmful in many ways.