Nǐ hǎo, I'm Julia.

Enlightenment Now book summary

Enlightenment Now book cover

The key message behind the book is that reason, science and humanism has led to progress in the world. There are however, forces constantly arguing against this, so we need to ensure these are defended and upheld in order to ensure continued progress.

Some counters to Enlightenment that Pinker highlights:

  • It's a "Western" invention.
  • Religious faith and anti-science.
  • People are expendable cells of a super-organism (e.g. nationalism).
  • Declinism - that our civilisation is in decline and on the verge of collapse.
  • Cynicism about the lack of progress made in the 250 years since Enlightenment.

Declinism thought is all too easy to fall into especially with effects like the Optimism Gap and the Availability Bias in play, in addition to news continually focusing on discrete events that are more conducive to reporting on bad things rather than good trends that may take years to unfold.

  • The Optimism Gap shows that an individual tends to judge their own situation as improving, but the collective group's as declining.
  • Availability Bias may cause us to think that bad events are more common just because we tend to hear about them more.

Pinker thus tries to fight against this by carefully analysing the data in a whole range of areas, to prove that if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, vast amounts of progress has been made over the centuries.

  • Life: Life expectancy is up from 30 to around 70 since the mid-18th century. A big part of this has been due to a drop in infant mortality rates and mothers dying during childbirth. During the 20th century, the average person has approached death at a rate of 7 months for every 1 year.

  • Health: The most powerful contributor to improvements here has been science, through the elimination / drastic decline in infectious diseases. There's also been the advent of high-tech pharma, but it's also simple ideas like boiling instruments, washing hands and mosquito nets that have had huge impact.

  • Sustenance: Our problem today is too many calories. Humans have figured out how to massively increase the yield of food through machines, genetic engineering and fertiliser.

  • Wealth:

    • 3 factors launched the Great Escape (Western countries pulling away from the rest):
      • Application of science.
      • Development of institutions that lubricated the exchange of goods, services and ideas.
      • Change in values with the endorsement of commerce as moral and uplifting.
    • Explanations for the Great Convergence (countries getting richer):
      • Fall of communism and rise of capitalism.
      • Leadership from statespeople wanting to improve lives.
      • End of the Cold War.
      • Globalisation leading to more investment and trade.
      • Science and technology improvements - life is getting cheaper.
  • Inequality: Inequality itself is not morally objectionable, but poverty is. Globalisation and technology have lifted billions out of poverty. Whilst the fortunes of lower classes in developed countries have not improved as much, they have improved. Improvements are enhanced by social spending and falling costs for all.

  • The Environment: As society gets richer and less concerned about fulfilling basic needs, they can have greater concerns and values like the environment.

    • World population growth rate peaked in 1962 at 2.1% per year. This is expected to level off and decline by 2070.
    • Nuclear energy is capable of providing the energy density we need in a low carbon way that's safe.
    • Complacent optimism vs. conditional optimism. We should be the latter because we have practical ways to prevent the harms and the means to learn more. We however, should not be complacent.
  • Peace: War time as a percentage of time has been decreasing. This is due to:

    • Denunciations of war from thinkers like Pascal, Voltaire and other famous Enlightenment voices.
    • Enlightenment thinkers championing gentle commerce and international trade.
    • Demographic governments stopping glory-drunk leaders.
    • War being made illegal, especially since the founding of the United Nations in 1945.
    • Change in values from romantic militarism to human life being seen as precious.
  • Safety: Who lives and dies is not set by fate. It is affected by human knowledge, and the intelligence level of the world. As this increases, life becomes more precious. Workplace deaths have decreased due to labour unions and movement away from factories to offices.

  • Terrorism: Terrorism poses a minuscule threat compared to other risks but get outsized reactions. This plays exactly into the hands of terrorists. Availability Bias further kicks in, which magnifies its effects. The fact that terrorists get headlines for relatively low numbers of casualties caused is a sign of how safe society has become.

  • Democracy: Neither the voters, nor the elected leaders can be counted on to uphold the ideals of democracy. However, democracy is essentially the freedom for people to complain. The freedom to complain relies on assurance that the government will not punish the complainer.

  • Equal Rights: People have become more liberal in all parts of the world.

    • Causes for this:
      • Prosperity
      • Education
      • Knowledge Index - information access, scientific and technological productivity, institutional integrity.
    • Children around the world are also better off - declining levels of violence, corporal punishment and a cultural shift in psychology that looks down on child labour and values childhood.
  • Knowledge: Ongoing revolution in the dissemination of knowledge e.g. free online MOOCs, distance learning through a smartphone. Keeping girls out of school is also in decline. This is consequential because they then have fewer, but healthier children, they double a country's workforce and increase productivity.

    • IQ scores have increased at a rate of c.3% per decade. Intelligence is heritable but things like better nutrition, a less toxic environment and less diseases have also helped.
    • It is improvements in analytical thinking that have increased the most.
  • Quality of life: Time is what life is made of and one metric of progress is reduction in time spent trying to stay alive at the expense of other more enjoyable things.

    • Technology in the home has given us back time.
    • Another is light which has allowed us to take back the night.
    • In 1929, Americans spent >60% of disposable income on necessities. By 2016, this had fallen to 33%.
    • We now have a greater ability to travel.
    • The world's knowledge and culture is at our fingertips.
  • Happiness:

    • 2 psychological theories:
      • Hedonic treadmill - people adapt and return to genetically determined baseline level of happiness.
      • Theory of social comparison - happiness is determined by how well someone thinks they are doing relative to their compatriots.
    • Happiness and finding meaning in life do not necessarily come from the same things e.g.
      • Happy people live in the present. Meaningful lives often have narrative in the past / future.
      • Parents get meaning from their children but not necessarily happiness.
      • Meaning is about expressing rather than satisfying one's self.
  • Existential Threats: Technology is our best bet at thwarting existential threats. Thinking about AI as a threat is due to a fallacy where we're confusing intelligence with motivation. Intelligence is a contraption of gadgets. It is very contextual and programmed for specific goals. [Question: what's the motivation for AI to want to cause harm to humans?]

What about the future of progress?

  • Life expectancy has risen from 30 to 71 since the Enlightenment.
  • The world is c. 100x wealthier today compared to 200 years ago.
  • The world is giving peace a chance.
  • Life has been getting safer, people have been getting healthier, richer and freer, in addition to being more literate and smart.
  • People have more leisure time and thus happiness levels have gone up.
  • Nuclear threat is decreasing.
  • In summary, the Enlightenment is working. It is only in retrospect that we see civilisation's progress. The problem is that our noses are too close in the daily news.

Once Pinker makes the case for progress, he draws out the key themes of Enlightenment, and calls for us to defend these. These themes are Reason, Science and Humanism.

  • Reason: Humans are predictably irrational. If we can identify ways in which humans are irrational, we must know what rationality is. What we need to do here is educate ourselves on our biases and take a more empirical approach to prediction and have more unpoliticised discussions.
  • Science: The greatest payoff of instilling an appreciation of science is for everyone to think more scientifically and to fight our vulnerability to cognitive bias.
  • Humanism: The goal of maximising human flourishing - life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience - may be called humanism. It is humanism that identifies what we should try to advance with our knowledge. This growing movement provides a basis for meaning and ethics without the need for a God.

In summary, remember your:

  • Math - an anecdote is not a trend.
  • History - something bad today, doesn't mean it was better in the past.
  • Philosophy - one cannot reason there's no such thing as reason or that morality is determined by God.
  • Psychology - much of what we know isn't so, especially if your comrades know it too.

We need conviction 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.
  • Knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

We will never have a perfect world and shouldn't seek one. But there is no limit to the betterment we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

© 2016-2023 Julia Tan · Powered by Next JS.