Steven Pinker and the Fragility of Enlightenment
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Imagine someone you know with a solid 9-5 job: they make great money working at a company that’s been around for a long time. In this situation have they solved the problem of money or not? They probably feel like they have, and at first glance we might agree, but to be sure you’d need to know a lot more. For example here are four different people who all fit that description, but who are, behind the scenes, very different.
Example 1: This person saves a portion of their income, lives modestly, has the recommended amount of retirement savings if not more, and is constantly seeking out new skills and making sure that their resume looks good. They don’t expect to be laid off, but if it should happen they’re prepared. All that said their current job looks good, and they’ve gotten a raise every year and a promotion every five years or so.
Example 2: This person basically spends what they earn. Has some debt, but not a crazy amount, contributes the minimum to their 401k, and could probably find another job if they suddenly had to, but hasn’t given much thought to it, because their current job looks good, and they’ve gotten a raise every year and a promotion every five years or so.
Example 3: This person spends more than they make. Their debt is on a steady upward trend, but they’re still several years away from being in trouble. They have no retirement savings, and they’ve pulled every ounce of equity they can out of their house. They’re not worried because, their current job looks good, and they’ve gotten a raise every year and a promotion every five years or so.
Example 4: This person has a job that’s going through a temporary boom. Say, someone working in the mortgage industry just before the crash, or one of Jordan Belfort’s traders at the height of his time as the Wolf of Wall Street. This is someone who spends every penny and then some, figuring that not only will this boom last forever, but that the curve will just keep going up, and why not? Their income has gone up by 50% if not more the last couple of years. People have told them that this is unsustainable, but they’ve just ignored them. “Who needs that kind of negative energy in your life?”
By certain metrics every one of these individuals is doing great, the lines all go up, and in some cases (like example 4) nearly straight up. On top of this, there’s every reason to think the lines are just going to keep going up. But under the hood these four examples, are of course, very different. I’ve just finished Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, and the way Pinker describes the world is very similar to the way you might describe someone with a very solid 9-5 job. The person with the job has solved the problem of money, and that problem is likely to continue to be solved (after all they’ve gotten a raise every year and a promotion every five years or so.) In a similar fashion, using reason and science humanity has solved the problems of deprivation and violence. Everything has been trending up for centuries and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t continue that way.
The first half or so of Pinker’s book is all about describing how great this 9-5 job is. How consistent the raises have been, how much less time people have to work than in the bad old days when the company was a startup. All the perks the employees get, like catered meals and massages and great healthcare. And you know what? I agree with all of this. His case is very persuasive, and loaded with graphs and figures. Humanity has a great time of it the last several centuries by nearly every important measure. The question is what’s been going on behind the scenes. Is humanity the first example, living modestly with a nice amount of savings, well prepared for sudden black swans and other reversals? Or are we example two, in a situation where we could probably buckle down a little bit more, but not doing anything grossly irresponsible?
The argument I’ll be making in this post is that humanity is not the cautious person in the first example, or even the second person spending what we make and no more, with a manageable amount of debt. My argument will be that humanity is best compared to the person in the third example and there’s even reason to suspect that the fourth example might be the best description of all.
Before I get any farther I should say that I liked the book and I would definitely recommend reading it, particularly if your pessimism about the world is having a negative impact on your life. Pinker is a great writer and the case he makes for progress should cheer you up. If nothing else the chart on page 64 of lives saved by various modern scientists and their inventions is humbling. Karl Landsteiner is apparently at the top with a billion lives saved through his discovery of blood groups. Second is Abel Wolman and Linn Enslow with water chlorination which saved 177 million lives. And as I have said, as far as his initial point I have no argument with Pinker, humanity really does have a great 9-5 job. The time of being a poor college student is long gone. Things have gotten a lot better and are currently pretty fantastic. However...
In contrast to Pinker I do not think we have been very prudent with this 9-5 job. Also I think Pinker underestimates the chances of getting “laid off”. As I said when I talked about his book Better Angels of Our Nature Pinker seems to definitely be of the opinion that we are saved, and in “Enlightenment Now” he doubles down on that theme, a theme which directly contradicts the theme of this blog, namely that technology and progress have not saved us. If Pinker’s book so well researched and so full of graphs showing that progress has done all these wonderful things for humanity and will likely continue, then who am I to argue that he’s wrong?
Probably no one of any consequence. And in fact as I have said before I hope he’s right, and that I’m wrong. But I’m worried that he’s overlooked some things, things which are more consequential than he gives them credit for.
To begin with everything he says hinges on the idea that the historical trends he has pointed out will continue into the future, but why? Certainly we’ve seen reversals of progress in the past, why is this time different? I can think of two reasons.
1- There is something mystical going on. History has an arc. Progress is a cosmic imperative.
I spoke about this idea in my Religion of Progress post, and to his credit, Pinker distances himself from it, at one point writing the following:
Social spending demonstrates an uncanny aspect of progress that we’ll encounter again in subsequent chapters. Though I am skittish about any notion of historical inevitability, cosmic forces, or mystical arcs of justice, some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force. As they proceed, certain factions oppose them hammer and tongs, but resistance turns out to be futile. Social spending is an example. The United States is famously resistant to anything smacking of redistribution. Yet it allocates 19 percent of its GDP to social services, and despite the best efforts of conservatives and libertarians the spending has continued to grow.
In the process of distancing himself from the first possibility he introduces the second possibility:
2- It’s not cosmic, but humanity has reached some sort of minimal threshold for collective wisdom which is sufficient to lock in progress even over strenuous opposition.
If this is the case, my question is, have we locked in progress or have we just locked in a leftward drift? In my post The Cultural War and The Overton Window I argued it was the latter, and pointed out that progress, particularly as Pinker defines it, is not the same thing as becoming increasingly radical leftists. In fact if you were to look at Pinker’s body of work you’d find that he frequently sets himself up in opposition to the radical Left. (Which is one of the reasons why I like him.) Despite this it’s not entirely clear where Pinker falls on this issue. Certainly he seems to be saying in many places that progress is “locked in”. But if that’s so, why did he feel the need to write a book subtitled “The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”. Why does he need to make a case for things that are going to happen regardless of whether we oppose them or not, like the aforementioned social spending in the US?
If we take Pinker at his word, then it can’t be the first possibility. It would therefore have to be something along the lines of this second possibility, but it appears that Pinker wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to make the case that things have never better and are only going to continue to improve. That progress is something of an unstoppable force. That humanities’ 9-5 job is entirely secure. While at the same time warning that if we’re too unreasonable, or too negative or even too religious that this unstoppable force will be derailed. The general sense one gets is that Pinker can be worried about threats to the modern world, but if anyone else worries about it, they’re engaged in progressophobia. In other words progress can be derailed but only by ignoring the things Pinker thinks are important.
The next obvious question is, what does Pinker think is important? What is he worried about? Well as you can imagine, like many people he’s worried about Trump and he has a list of 11 areas where he thinks that Trump and people like him threaten the onward march of progress. To be fair he does offer the following caveat to this worry:
Not even a congenital optimist can see a pony in this Christmas stocking. But will Donald Trump (and authoritarian populism more generally) really undo a quarter of a millennium of progress? There are reasons not to take the poison just yet. If a movement has proceeded for decades or centuries, there are probably systematic forces behind it, and many stakeholders with an interest in its not being precipitously reversed.
By design of the Founders, the American presidency is not a rotating monarchy. The president presides over a distributed network of power (denigrated by populists as the “deep state”) that outlasts individual leaders and carries out the business of government under real-world constraints which can’t easily be erased by popuist applause lines or the whims of the man at the top.
After laying out in exacting detail the 11 reasons for concern, his reversal comes across as hollow. I think he is correct about how it worked in the past but that was the past. Currently there is significant reason to be concerned that the power of the “deep state” to constrain the president is significantly weakened. And I believe it’s fair to say that a lot of that erosion came in the name of “progress” under people like FDR and Obama. Trump is dangerous not because he’s Trump (though that doesn’t help) he’s dangerous because technology and progress have created fragility, and in this case fragility consists of the progressive accumulation of power in the hands of a single individual, as an example of that power, immediately before the section I just quoted Pinker points out that:
Worst of all, the chain of command gives an American President enormous discretion over the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis…
I would argue that this is an example of a useful criticism of progress, of the kind Pinker either wants to minimize or not acknowledge at all. In our 9-5 example, you can certainly see where increasing centralization has lead to fragility which didn’t exist before. In other words, there’s a good chance that when you lose your job many people will have also lost their job at the same time. In similar fashion, as I pointed out in a previous post, a slowdown in China can cause pizza parlors to close in Chile. I saw very little if anything in the book which spoke to this sort of fragility. All of which is to say that if a single person can bring it all down, the eventually they will, Trump is not unique. I know Pinker tries to argue that Trump probably can’t bring it all crashing down, but “probably” isn’t good enough.
Another thing Pinker doesn’t want to talk about is government debt. (And of course there’s an increasing problem with debt at the state and local level as well.) The words “debt” and “deficit” do not appear in the index. I know there are people who disagree with me on this point, (and I’m sure at least one of them will leave a comment to that effect.) But you cannot deny that the world is much more interconnected than it once was. And that one mistake (most recently the mortgage crisis) can reverberate across the globe. This is different. Historically, China could be going through a golden age while at the same time Europe languished. And no matter how bad or good of a leader Genghis Khan was, nothing he did could have any impact on what happened in America.
As you might imagine from the book’s subtitle, Pinker’s chief worries are that we will abandon the reason and science that got us here. That we will turn away from the wonder of The Enlightenment. First I would argue that things beyond reason and science got us here, second I think Pinker places too much weight on The Enlightenment. As one of the reviews of the book points out:
“The only major claim not supported by a graph (or indeed much evidence of any kind) is the assertion that all this progress has something to do with the Enlightenment.” Pinker seems wedded to the Enlightenment like some of kind secular creation myth, and this results in to two particular problems with the book.
The first problem, which I’ll mention just briefly, is that Pinker seems to have engaged in an extended No True Scotsman fallacy: Or as the same review puts it:
…[H]e seems incapable of acknowledging the Enlightenment’s complicity in any social ills. Science, he acknowledges, “has often been pressed into the support of deplorable political movements” and “is commonly blamed for intellectual movements that has a pseudoscientific patina”. But beyond that: it’s not me guv. As William Davies wrote in the Guardian, “With some deft intellectual moves, he manages to position “enlightenment” and “science” on the right side of every argument or conflict, while every horror of the past 200 years is put down to ignorance, irrationality or “counter–enlightenment” trends.”
As I pointed out in a previous post there was a time when nothing was more progressive than communism. Pinker largely breezes by this particular ugly historical example, essentially arguing that no TRUE example of “progress” involves killing 100 million people. But in doing so he relies too much on a definition of progress which only looks backwards. Of course it’s not progress to kill a bunch of people. But everything that lead up to those deaths seemed very progressive at the time.
Before leaving Pinker’s defense of reason and science, I have one final point to make. If reason and science are in danger who has the power to cause them harm? When was the last time you heard of a liberal professor being fired? Or a liberal columnist? Give me a recent example of harm caused by conservative opposition to science. I imagine you’ll find it difficult because as far as I can tell there aren’t any. All of which is to say reality is considerably more nuanced than Pinker’s story of rationality triumphing over faith and superstition at the dawn of The Enlightenment, it’s triumph ensured as long as we can keep the religious yokels at bay.
This brings us to the second problem the review mentions, his opposition to religion. Which also opens things up to the other side of our discussion. What kind of things does Pinker not worry about?
Pinker definitely does not worry about a decline in religion, in fact he celebrates it. As I already mentioned, he takes several potshots at it in the course of the book. I intend to do a post soon on the value of religion (even if you remove the spiritual side of things) but for now it’s sufficient to point out that this is another example of Pinker’s lack of nuance. I think one review described it best:
“Opposing reason is, by definition, unreasonable.” Steven Pinker is fond of definitions. Early on in this monumental apologia for a currently fashionable version of Enlightenment thinking, he writes: “To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” Well, it’s good to have that settled once and for all. There is no need to trouble yourself with the arguments of historians, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, who treat religion as a highly complex phenomenon, serving a variety of human needs. All you need do is consult a dictionary, and you will find that religion is – by definition – irrational.
This is extremely reductionist, and if that’s where we’re at, for my own part, I might as well say that this argument is as silly as claiming that nothing which came before a given 9-5 job had anything to do with getting that job nor anything to do with keeping it. As far as I’ve stretched this analogy, this comparison contains at least as much useful knowledge as the idea that religion is by definition irrational, and probably more.
I find that I’m about out of space and I’ve only scratched the surface of things, so I want to return to the metaphor I began things with, the 9-5 job. I admit that humanity has a great 9-5 job. But if I’ve learned anything I know that employment can turn on a dime. And while I don’t expect western civilization to be quite as fragile as a 9-5 job. I do know that when you have a good job it doesn’t mean you should spend like crazy (see national debt, add to that energy usage), and it doesn’t mean that you should expand your lifestyle till you reach the limit of what your credit will support (virtually everything else humanity is doing), nor does it mean that there’s no chance of suddenly losing that job.
Pinker seems to have a hard time distinguishing between preparation and pessimism. And maybe you can’t prepare without a certain amount of pessimism, especially about rare and potentially devastating events, or what are often called existential threats.
This is the final thing I want to discuss, and it’s another subject, along with religion, that Pinker’s not worried about, devoting an entire chapter to discussing how such fears are overblown. And I understand that these are complex topics, but it sounds a lot like someone saying, “I could never get laid off, I’m too valuable!” or “Enron will never go out of business, it’s a $70 billion dollar company!”. And despite these being complicated topics his treatment of them is pretty blase. In his discussion of AI Risk he appears to be more interested in attacking straw men than in legitimately engaging with the arguments. Going so far as to present the paperclip maximizer argument as a genuine worry rather than as a useful shorthand. He covers a few more potential threats with similar terseness, and concludes the only thing we have to worry about is nuclear war and climate change, and not very much even about those two risks.
Maybe he’s right, maybe all of the worries about existential risk is just needless pessimism that detracts from a glorious future where we use science and reason and technology to leave this planet behind and spread to the stars in a perfect progressive future. But if that’s the case, then as with so many things I discuss in this space, we return to Enrico Fermi’s question, “Where is everybody?” (Pinker mentions Fermi’s Paradox, only once, parenthetically and dismissively.) If unlimited progress is as unstoppable as Pinker claims, if all it takes is sufficient veneration for reason and science to conquer the world and from there the universe, why hasn’t anyone done it already?
We’ve had a good run, and hopefully it will continue. There’s a lot of evidence that it won’t, and ignoring that evidence may be the least reasonable and scientific thing of all.
Somewhere way, way down the list of things that are both reasonable and scientific is donating to this blog. But you have to ask yourself, do you want civilization to end? If not, consider donating.