Thursday, March 01, 2018

Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" - a must read book

I recommend Pinker's new book to all MindBlog readers as an refreshing antidote to the drumbeat of popular press articles bemoaning our world's potential return to pre-enlightenment cultures where religious orthodoxy and tribal mentalities prevail. Pinker is a brilliant polymath, the depth of his analysis and the documentation he has has assembled is amazing.

Today I'm going to pass on a few chunks from my abstracting of Part I of the book, titled 'The Enlightenment.' Subsequent MindBlog posts will pass on bits of Part II (Progress) and Part III (Reason, Science, and Humanism).
Chapter 1 Dare to Understand
If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.
To the Enlightenment thinkers the escape from ignorance and superstition showed how mistaken our conventional wisdom could be, and how the methods of science—skepticism, fallibilism, open debate, and empirical testing—are a paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge. That knowledge includes an understanding of ourselves. The need for a “science of man” was a theme that tied together Enlightenment thinkers who disagreed about much else,..Their belief that there was such a thing as universal human nature, and that it could be studied scientifically, made them precocious practitioners of sciences that would be named only centuries later.
Their belief that there was such a thing as universal human nature, and that it could be studied scientifically, made them precocious practitioners of sciences that would be named only centuries later.
The idea of a universal human nature brings us to a third theme, humanism. The thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw an urgent need for a secular foundation for morality, because they were haunted by a historical memory of centuries of religious carnage…They laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion.
Chapter 2 Entro, Evo, Info
Entropy, evolution, information. These concepts define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means for eking out a better existence. The first piece of wisdom they offer is that misfortune may be no one’s fault. A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose.
Evolution left us with another burden: our cognitive, emotional, and moral faculties are adapted to individual survival and reproduction in an archaic environment, not to universal thriving in a modern one. To appreciate this burden, one doesn’t have to believe that we are cavemen out of time, only that evolution, with its speed limit measured in generations, could not possibly have adapted our brains to modern technology and institutions. Humans today rely on cognitive faculties that worked well enough in traditional societies, but which we now see are infested with bugs.
But we’re not all bad. Human cognition comes with two features that give it the means to transcend its limitations. The first is abstraction. People can co-opt their concept of an object at a place and use it to conceptualize an entity in a circumstance,..They can do this not just with the elements of thought but with more complex assemblies, allowing them to think in metaphors and analogies: heat is a fluid, a message is a container, a society is a family, obligations are bonds.
The second stepladder of cognition is its combinatorial, recursive power. The mind can entertain an explosive variety of ideas by assembling basic concepts like thing, place, path, actor, cause, and goal into propositions.
So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. major brainchildren of the Enlightenment.
Chapter 3 Counter-Enlightenments
Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.
….the disdain for reason, science, humanism, and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic circles…No sooner did people step into the light than they were advised that darkness wasn’t so bad after all, that they should stop daring to understand so much, that dogmas and formulas deserved another chance, and that human nature’s destiny was not progress but decline...It sounds mad, but in the 21st century those counter-Enlightenment ideals continue to be found across a surprising range of elite cultural and intellectual movements. The notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering is considered crass, na├»ve, wimpy, square.
Pinker describes some of the popular alternatives to reason, science, humanism, and progress, the most obvious being religious faith, and also the counter-enlightenment idea that
...people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up.
Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause.
One form of declinism bemoans our Promethean dabbling with technology…Another form of declines worries about the opposite problem - not that modernity has made life too harsh and dangerous, but that it has made it too pleasant and safe.
But it’s the idea of progress that sticks most firmly in the craw…Since any defense of reason, science, and humanism would count for nothing if, two hundred and fifty years after the Enlightenment, we’re no better off than our ancestors in the Dark Ages, an appraisal of human progress is where the case must begin.
I will resume my abstracting in a subsequent post, continuing with Part II, Chapter 4 "Progressophobia'

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