ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR REASON, SCIENCE, HUMANISM AND PROGRESS
Updated: Aug 22
A book recommended by Ian Mitchell
It is easy to understand why young people might feel that the UK is an increasingly unpleasant place to live or that civilisation is somehow in decline. Asking “Why Should I live?” would be an entirely natural question. This very question was asked to Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now, at a lecture and his answer includes the following brilliant words:
As a sentient being, you have the power to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist.
Pinker’s answer in his introduction is a testament to enlightenment values which he decided to defend in his latest book. For Pinker, western democracies have perhaps lost touch with the very values that allowed them to flourish and, in his book, he offers a comprehensive reminder of that history. Led by eighteenth century scientists and philosophers, The Enlightenment is the term given to a systematic re-thinking of the human condition, away from superstition and dogma, towards human-centred progress. Most privileges in a contemporary society, including education, improved health, greater security and human rights, originates from this period in history.
The principle of offering education to every member of the population emerged after, and largely as a result of, the enlightenment period. Specifically, in the chapter called ‘Knowledge’, Pinker points out that as formal education has developed across secular countries, including the end of sex discrimination, intelligence quotient (IQ) scores have risen. Incredibly, whilst IQ is still highly heritable, it also increases across a population in which formal education is established, meaning that those considered reasonably bright one hundred years ago would be considered less so now. Pinker sees this as a factual endorsement of the enlightenment: from the eighteenth century, literacy, numeracy and knowledge became esteemed, and not just for a few members of the elite.
When societies become secular and governed by reason, people become happier. Despite reading that rates of mental illness are rising in western countries, Pinker demonstrates that in fact people are happier now than they ever have been, using the U.S. as a case in point. It is true that people acquire greater happiness with age and learn to negotiate life’s challenges more effectively. It is not a new trend that younger people experience more anxiety as maturation itself is a challenge. Nevertheless, relative to other historical periods, even the happiness of young people is higher.
Pinker’s assertion is that when societies prioritise reason one of the questions that follows is, am I living a good life? Am I happy? Scientists are able to quantify what leading a good life means and, when objective measures of happiness emerge, it means that societies can consider ways in which personal fulfilment can be promoted. A consequence of capitalism, meanwhile, is that it champions individual sovereignty. Although individualism can bring about its own problems for wellbeing, it does mean that individual experience can be enhanced. Capitalism, Pinker explains elsewhere, would not have been possible without the enlightenment.
Pinker considers safety at some length. Consider attitudes to children. The understandable dismay when a child is harmed marks a considerable shift in the way that all children are seen as inherently cherished. The world of the child before formal education was a dangerous place, characterised by accidents involving agricultural machinery and animal attacks. Whilst the contemporary teacher faces ‘burnout’ through chronic stress, I would still take that over the experience of my great aunt who, upon learning that her finance had fallen to his death into a threshing machine, was indefinitely struck dumb. Workplaces are safer, more secure and workers suffer fewer deaths in western countries than at previous points in history. The enlightenment put human experience at its core; consequently, workplace safety is now considered important.
In celebrating and reminding readers about the values and achievements of the enlightenment, Pinker’s book is most relevant and prescient for those who study and work in formal education. For all of the issues and concerns raised in education on a daily basis, it is worth taking the trouble to stand back and consider the advantages of living in a twenty first century, western democracy. Opportunities for learning and development are widely available. Despite austerity, public libraries still exist and are free to use. New technologies, such as kindles, mean that books are readily available (often free) and there is now a plethora of online access to lectures, courses and educational materials (many again free to use). People are happier and enjoy better quality of life now than at any point in history: many of the stressors we face - addiction to those pesky smartphones - come as a result of having extra choice and freedom. Today’s sixth formers, despite the intense competition for opportunities, enjoy greater equality, safety, health, mental wellbeing and learning than any other generation. They have every reason for optimism.
Why read this?
The opportunities are there in a way that no previous generation could imagine and, it is Pinker’s contention, that the enlightenment values of reason and knowledge are responsible. Enlightenment Now offers a timely reminder of the benefits of critical thinking, informed opinions and the need for open discussion: all were traits that characterised post enlightenment societies. Arguably, these values are under threat, particularly on university campuses where many sixth form students will venture after secondary school. This is book is important because it reminds its readers that the best-known society in history is the secular democracy. It is also, in my view, an inspiring and lucid read.
Enlightenment Now! The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism And Progress, by Steven Pinker is published by Penguin Random House