Enlightenment Now

Roger Titcombe's picture

The case for reason, science, humanism and progress, by Steven Pinker

Book Review by Roger Titcombe.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

I am a fan of Pinker and as well this, his latest book, I possess copies of, The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. I agree with his arguments in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that human society is massively less violent now than in the past. Although he is not an educationist, Pinker has greatly influenced my thinking that led to my book, Learning Matters, and the articles on my website.

This does not mean that I agree with him about everything.

However, the cover blurb, which states that, Steven Pinker is one of the world’s most influential writers on the human condition, is undoubtedly true. He writes on the most profound, complex and frequently counter intuitive issues of science and society and does so with outstanding clarity, precision, enthusiasm and conviction, the latter always backed up by data and evidence. The range and depth of his scholarship is astounding. This is indicated by the chapter titles of Enlightenment Now.

Part I: Enlightenment

Dare to understand

Entro, Evo, Info (Entropy, Evolution, Information)


 Part II: Progress







The environment





Equal rights


Quality of life


Existential threats

The future of progress

 Part III: Reason, Science and Humanism




 Pinker believes that ‘enlightenment values’, when allied with reason, science and humanism have brought us both ‘capitalism’ and ‘democracy’, which, so long as ‘the enlightenment spirit’ continues to prevail, will result in continuing and limitless human progress, as he states in the concluding chapter of his book.

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to human flourishing. 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.

Wow! Pinker has lot to persuade us of, so how does he do it? The answer is with factual data, reason and argument. The book contains 75 charts all of which have ‘y’ axes that measure and set out a vast range of positive or negative attributes or conditions of humanity, plotted against timelines from the (sometimes distant) past almost up to the present.

His conclusion is universally optimistic: everything is better now than it was in the past and there is no limit to how good it can become in the future.

I don’t fully share his optimism about this, but more of this later. For now, I will just point to a few of what for me are some highlights of the book, the quotes from which are in italics.

On the Law of Entropy

Here Pinker recognises the principle of entropy as the ultimate Law of Nature in that, unlike all others, it has universal application. Newton’s Laws of Motion, from which the concept of energy is derived, undergo a profound rethink at their boundaries with Einstein’s relativity. Entropy is not only needed to fully understand the nature and behaviour of energy, it applies to everything; from the ‘Big Bang’ to the end of time; from steam engines to black holes, on all scales from the smallest, precisely described by the quantum theory, to Einstein’s General Relativity, which gives new interpretations  to the concepts of gravitation, space and time. The quantum theory and relativity  are equally precise and proven within their own scales of application, but so far remain unreconciled with each other.

Perhaps surprisingly for a non-physicist, social scientist, cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author, Pinker’s exposition of the entropy principle is the best I have so far read.  Pinker especially addresses the  entropy of living as well as non-living systems, including its relevance to evolution and the new science of information. This includes territory where many physicists, chemists and biologists have frequently feared to tread with confidence. ‘Enlightenment Now’ is worth reading for this short chapter alone. Here is a taste.

[The] insight of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was deepened by the discovery of entropy. Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for want of a horseshoe nail.

On education

This is what I obsess about, so I am interested in Pinker’s take on it, especially given that, as far as I am aware, he fails to mention the giants of experimental cognitive psychology, including Piaget or Vygotsky in any of his books. However despite this, as a professional educator himself, he clearly understands their conclusions on what effective education is, and is not about.

Any curriculum will be ineffective if it consists of a lecturer yammering in front of a blackboard, or a textbook that students highlight with a yellow marker. People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems.

 This is mainstream Piaget and Vygotsky.

Pinker is also well versed in ‘The Flynn Effect’, but he needs to read James Flynn’s latest book if he is to straighten out his thinking on inherited and acquired intelligence.

As recognised and discussed in ‘Learning Matters’, Pinker notes that, The Flynn effect is now petering out in some of the countries in which it has been going on the longest, but this has nothing to with ‘Stein’s Law’, as he asserts. The real reason is the degrading of effective learning in US and UK schools through the take-over of our national education systems by extreme ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism.

The subjugation of evidence driven education through the ideological pursuit of ‘pure’ capitalism, has a direct parallel with the subjugation of evidence-driven agrarian science in Stalin’s USSR through the ideological pursuit of a crude interpretation of communism by an ignorant despot. It is putting evidence-light ideology, that Pinker correctly condemns, before the enlightenment principles of reason and experiment. Pinker readily recognises flawed ideology when it is associated with communism, but seems blind to its emergence as a powerful sectarian capitalist development. The degradation of schooling has been recognised and described in the US by educational blogger Nancy Bailey.

With regard to the ‘Flynn effect’, the importance of which Pinker recognises, he is wrong in his assertion that ‘inherited intelligence’ is different in kind from ‘acquired intelligence’. This error is refuted in both theory and practice by the ‘growth mindset‘ movement in the US and the UK.

On Donald Trump

Pinker does not hold back his concern for the damage that has been, and can in future be done by this powerful enemy of the enlightenment values of reason, science and humanism.

Nothing captures the tribalistic and backward-looking spirit of populism more than Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

Trump has demonized immigrants and trade partners while ignoring the major disrupter of lower-middle-class jobs, technological change. He has also opposed the measures that most successfully mitigate its harms, namely progressive taxation and social spending.

Trump believes that environmental regulation is economically destructive; worst of all he has called climate change a hoax and announced a withdrawal from the historic Paris agreement.

While Trump has cultivated a reputation for law and order, he is viscerally uninterested in evidence-based policy that would distinguish effective crime-prevention measures from useless tough talk.

The ideal of knowledge – that one’s opinions should be based on justified true beliefs – has been mocked by Trump’s repetition of ludicrous conspiracy theories.

Most frighteningly, Trump has pushed back against the norms that have protected the world against the possible existential threat of nuclear war. He questioned the taboo on using nuclear weapons, tweeted about resuming a nuclear arms race, mused about encouraging the proliferation of weapons to additional countries, sought to overturn the agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and taunted Kim Jong-un about a possible nuclear exchange with North Korea.

These are just a few examples from Pinker’s selection of alarming ‘Trumpisms’, but despite their threat, he remains optimistic that in the longer term even Trump will be unable to undo a quarter of a millennium of post-enlightenment progress.

Let us hope that he is right.

There are some areas where I would suggest a challenge to Pinker.

The neural network model of conceptualisation and consciousness

A momentous discovery of twentieth century neuroscience is that networks of neurons not only can preserve information but can transform it in ways that allow us to explain how brains can be intelligent.

Neural network connectivity has applications in ‘artificial intelligence’, but it is a very long way from explaining human intelligence. I am with the experimental cognitive psychologists in taking the view that human intelligence is not rooted in a ‘hardware’ of neural networks that can physically and rapidly change their configurations and connections to simultaneously map and facilitate long and short term memory while supporting the understanding of high level concepts like entropy, let alone explaining the ongoing mystery of consciousness itself. Why aren’t ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo’ conscious entities? They certainly have many more orders of magnitude of ‘bit’-processing power than neuron-connected human brains.

Neither is the development of cognition to higher levels, as described by Piaget, compatible with  smooth and systematic growth of neural connections. Cognitive development is bumpy and punctuated by flashes of insight. It is hard to believe that the neural configuration of the brain of Archimedes just after his Eureka moment in relation to the Law of Flotation, was any different after his bath-time flash of inspiration from how it was before.

If the number and complexity of neural networks and their connective configurations really did directly map higher order cognitive function in humans, then there would be no doubt about the intellectual superiority of men compared to women, given their much larger brains and therefore greater number of neurons (16 percent more). This is neither evidenced in male and female IQ test scores nor regarded as a serious proposition.

It seems clear to me that the mysteries that underpin the power and developmental potential of the human mind are more likely to be revealed through the experimental study of its mental software than its neural hardware.

Sustainability and limitless economic growth

Pinker is dismissive of ‘greenism’ and ‘sustainability’ and makes some strong arguments. He is right that, ‘The stone age did not end because of a shortage of stones’. However, the UK fishing industry was certainly decimated by a shortage of fish leading to EU ‘sustainable’ fishing quotas, which appear to have been effective in maintaining stable fishing industries in EU states. Pinker would argue that fish farming will fill any sustainability gap. However, fish waste and left over food spill out from farming nets into the ocean, causing nutrient pollution. This may lead to oxygen depletion in the water, which can stress or kill aquatic creatures. In addition, antibiotics or pesticides used on farmed fish can affect other marine life or human health. These nutrients and chemicals sink to the ocean floor, where they may impact its biodiversity. Fish crowded together in nets or pens are more susceptible to stress, which can foster disease and parasites that may then spread to wild species. Farmed fish sometimes escape into the ocean, breeding with wild species and affecting the population’s overall genetic diversity.

Pinker is right that there is still scope for huge increases in food production through the application of science to farming, especially in the developing world, and he speculates about ‘pivoting’ to limitless new scientific innovations that include, genetically modified organisms, hydroponics, aeroponics, urban vertical farms, robotic harvesting, meat cultured in vitro, artificial intelligence algorithms  fed by GPS and biosensors, the recovery of energy and fertilizer from sewage, aquaculture with fish that eat tofu instead of other fish, and who knows what else – as long as people are allowed to indulge their ingenuity.

But there are environmental downsides to intensive agriculture and meat production, which Pinker tends to play down. He is a strong advocate of democracy, which he rightly sees as a prime ‘enlightenment virtue’, but can he be confident that ‘enlightened’ voters will share his future preferences in relation to limitless growth of production versus the conservation of our natural environment?

Pinker is no ‘climate change denier’ and clearly recognises the dire risks to our planet through anthropogenic global warming, but his solutions are the massive expansion of nuclear power and if necessary, geo-engineering (eg modifying the upper atmosphere of the entire planet to reflect sunlight) rather than limiting consumption and switching to renewable energy sources.

Is there a crisis of neo-liberal capitalism?

If there is Pinker does not mention or allude to it. There is little evidence in his book that he has fully considered the negative consequences of the ‘neo-liberal’ economic models that are increasingly challinging the ‘mixed economies’ that he applauds in his chapter on ‘happiness’, other than recognising that the US and the UK are seriously negative outliers in the general global pattern that GDP growth per capita = increased population happiness. (See fig 18 – 1)

I conclude with some recent pessimistic news stories from the UK that challenge the view that economic growth really can be limitless and that capitalism can be relied on to solve all our present and future problems.

Growth of life expectancy is in decline

The incidence of violent crime is escalating

Suicide and self-harm rates in prisons are at all-time high

Access to housing is in a state of crisis especially for young adults

Rough sleeping is escalating alarmingly in our towns and cities

The drug related death rate is escalating, especially in Scotland

Children in UK mental health hospitals ‘not improving’

Food bank use is at a record high

Steven Pinker may be criticised, vilified even, by ideologues on the political left and the right, but whatever labels some may seek to pin onto him, this cannot detract from the scholarship and integrity of his thoughts. ‘De-platforming’ as a strategy of the closed minded is all too common and profoundly anti-enlightenment. This book will enrich our understanding and arm all of us that believe in honest debate and arguments based on evidence, for whom ‘Enlightenment Now’ is essential reading.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 03/04/2018 - 17:22

On 3 April 2018 the Guardian published this article.


The following is an extract.

"A professor of early-childhood development at Temple University in Pennsylvania, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, seemed to agree. She had written that “just as the fast food industry fills us with empty calories, what we call the ‘learning industry’ has convinced many among us that the memorisation of content is all that is needed for learning success and joyful lives”. She had also written an influential book that laid out her reservations about the word-rush: Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. I thought she might have some answers.

Hirsh-Pasek is legendary in the field of early child development. The author of 12 books and hundreds of academic articles, she is a distinguished faculty fellow who runs Temple’s Infant and Child Laboratory, whose slogan is “Where Children Teach Adults”.

At the lab, scientists were putting tiny humans through their paces. Researchers had developed ingenious experiments that measured changes in heart rate to show some of the things that eight-month-olds already knew. “They know the mobile won’t fall on them,” said Hirsh-Pasek. “They know that if I drop this plate on the table, the plate won’t go through the table. That’s amazing. They know that if I’m sitting across from you, and you can’t see the bottom part of my body, I still have one.”

Until recently, scientists had tended to think of infants as irrational, illogical and egocentric. In his Principles of Psychology in 1890, William James had described babies’ experience of sensory overload: “The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” This understanding had contributed to a mechanistic view of learning, and the idea that the sheer repetition of words was what mattered most. But it wasn’t true.

Even in utero, babies are learning. At that stage, they pick up sounds. One-hour-olds can distinguish their mother’s voice from another person’s. They arrive in the world with a brain primed to learn through sensory stimulation. We are natural-born explorers, ready made for scientific inquiry. We have to understand this if we were to realise our learning potential.

“We enter the world ready to ‘read the perfect cues out of the environment’,” said Hirsh-Pasek. I thought back to Toco. He read the environment, too – or at least what his eye cameras saw and ear microphones heard. But robots can only reach out in ways they have been programmed to, can only learn from stimuli they were instructed to pay attention to. It limits them to a small range of experiences that would shape their behaviours. There is no meaning in their methods. Babies, on the other hand, are social learners.

“We arrive ready to interact with other humans and our culture,” said Hirsh-Pasek. The real genius of human babies is not simply that they learn from the environment – other animals can do that. Human babies can understand the people around them and, specifically, interpret their intentions."

All this supports my arguments in this article and elsewhere that human learning, even in babies, cannot be modelled or remotely approached in power or complexity by AI type neural networks.

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