You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Nowsay they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide. They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence.
This month’s publication of the paperback edition of EN in the US and UK is an occasion for me to weigh in on the controversies that have flared up in the year since the book appeared. (A list of reviews and commentaries may be found at the foot of this essay.) I’ll resist the temptation to correct errors, settle scores, or relitigate cases I made in the book. Instead I’ll use the controversies to reflect on the Enlightenment project and its enemies in the current moment.
You got the Enlightenment wrong. There were many Enlightenments, not just one. The Enlightenment thinkers were not all scientific humanists: some were men of faith, and some were racists. Wasn’t Rousseau a part of the Enlightenment? Shouldn’t Marx be counted as an Enlightenment thinker?
The many attacks on EN based on what the Enlightenment “really” is miss the book’s point. Enlightenment Now makes “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” It does not make “The Case for A Bunch of Guys Who Wrote in the 18th Century.” Of course, the Enlightenment had fuzzy boundaries, was influenced by ideas that preceded it, and embraced thinkers who disagreed with each other (most notably Rousseau, described by Anthony Kenny in The Enlightenment: A Very Brief History) as “a gigantic cuckoo” in the Enlightenment’s nest). So there can be no correct answer to the question of whether some writer deserves to be counted as part of the Enlightenment. As I wrote, the era “was never demarcated by opening and closing ceremonies like the Olympics, nor are its tenets stipulated in an oath or creed….For all the prescience of the founders, framers, and philosophes, this is not a book of Enlightenolatry. The Enlightenment thinkers were men and women of their age, the 18th century. Some were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders, or duelists. Some of the questions they worried about are almost incomprehensible to us, and they came up with plenty of daffy ideas together with the brilliant ones.”
I chose the word “Enlightenment” for the title because it was the best rubric for the ideals I sought to defend—catchier than, say, “secular humanism,” “liberal cosmopolitanism,” or “the open society.” The thinkers of the 18th century deserve the shout-out because so many of them articulated this cluster of ideals in conversation with one another. (See, for example, the histories by four scholars named Anthony—Kenny’s The Enlightenment: A Very Brief History, Pagden’s The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment, and Grayling’s Towards the Light—and studies by two who aren’t, Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinozaand Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights.) But EN is not a work of intellectual history, and it’s pointless to quibble with the word because the ideals were not endorsed in the same way by every last writer of the era. Words mean what people take them to mean, and “Enlightenment” is conventionally understood to refer to the ideal of using reason and science to advance human welfare—as when it was invoked, for example, in speeches by Barack Obama and Emanuel Macron in 2017. (For an essay that makes these points better than I can, see Steven Pinker’s Counter-Counter-Enlightenment by Saloni Dattani, a graduate student in behavioral genetics at King’s College.)
The Enlightenment is not worthy of celebration. It gave the world racism, slavery, imperialism, and genocide.
The only part of this claim that is right is that some of these practices continued to take place after the 18th century. Otherwise it is exactly backwards. Each of these crimes is as old as civilization (see my 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), and it was only during the Enlightenment that people singled them out as moral blights and sought to eliminate them from the human condition.
Racism arises naturally from the cognitive habits of xenophobia and essentialism whenever a rival group stands apart in appearance or lifestyle, and it has repeatedly been intellectualized by writers of the day. Examples include Aristotle on the barbarians, Cicero on the Britons, the ancient Greeks and medieval Arabs on the Africans, the medieval Spanish on the Jews, and 16th-century Europeans on Native Americans. The deep roots of racial thinking are flaunted in the titles of books like Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquityand Geradline Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.
Imperialism also has ancient roots: For most of history the simple policy of political leaders was “I came. I saw. I conquered.” (Wikipedia’s List of empires enumerates 154 of them between 2300 BCE and 1700 CE, adding, “The list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.”) The historical pivot away from imperialism is identified in another book title, Sankar Muthu’s Enlightenment Against Empire. Muthu notes that while scattered critics had long decried particular abuses of imperial power, it was only with the Enlightenment that anyone thought to challenge the very idea that Europeans had a right to colonize the rest of the world.
The new anti-imperialists, including Bentham, Condorcet, Smith, Burke, Diderot, and Kant, were driven by two ideas. One was the principle that all people deserve moral and political respect simply because they are human. The other was a precocious evolutionary anthropology that saw humans as beings that create and live by cultures, which allow them to cooperate with one another and adapt to their environments. Put them together and a sharp moral line emerges: Practices that blatantly violate human freedom and dignity, like slavery, serfdom, imperialism, and caste systems, are to be condemned; all other norms and customs are incommensurable across cultures and may not be judged as superior or inferior. (One might add that only an American academic could write a book entitled Enlightenment against Empire which omits the greatest Enlightenment-inspired challenge to imperialism of all: the American Revolution.)
Slaves were always the most desirable spoils of conquest, and anyone who has been to a Passover seder or seen the movie Spartacus knows that slavery was not invented in 18th century Europe or America. Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition, depicted in this timeline from Better Angels, with the 18th century marked by the vertical lines:
As the historian Katie Kelaidis put it in The Enlightenment’s Cynical Critics, “Millennia of great moral teachers sought to come to terms with slavery and to mitigate its inhumanity, but no one—not Jesus, not Buddha, not Muhammad, not Socrates—considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment. … The Enlightenment was not the inventor of slavery, but it was the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave.”
It’s true that the second half of the 19th century saw the rise of now-discredited scientific theories of racial hierarchies, and to ethnic nationalisms that culminated in 20th-century wars and genocides. But blaming them on the Enlightenment depends on the fallacy that les Lumières were responsible for every event that took place after the 18th century. Worse still, it neglects the major intellectual development of the 19th century: the Counter-Enlightenment. As the economic historian Mark Koyama notes in Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?:
The attempt to lay the sins of the modern West on the Enlightenment lets the Counter-Enlightenment off the hook. It was in reaction to the universalizing moral philosophy articulated by Enlightenment thinkers that romantic, nationalist, and indeed ethnocentric ideas sprung: Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, and others produced a well-spring of ethnocentric, nationalist, and in some case racialist arguments to bear in opposition to what they conceived to be Enlightenment liberalism.
Hardened racial boundaries, romanticized ethno-nationalist histories, and the notion of national cultural and national spirit evolved in reaction to the Enlightenment … It was precisely the universalizing ideals of the Enlightenment that its critics reacted against most vehemently. De Maistre denied there was such a thing as man; only “Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on.”
And as I documented in EN, the potted history that blames “science” in general, and Darwin in particular, for the racialist theories of the 19th and early 20th century warps the chain of influence, omitting the formative role played by Romantic history, philology, classics, and mythology. It also betrays a poor understanding of Darwinian biology, which is incompatible with the theory of a hierarchy of pure races that was popular in the day.
Lest this last title suggest that the Enlightenment is vilified by the left and admired by the right, note that Tracinski wrote an equally trenchant essay called Dear Conservatives: The Enlightenment Is Not The Enemy. It is a response to the theoconservative and reactionary currents of the Right who pine for the moral certainties of throne and altar and blame the Enlightenment for the “hyper-rational scientism embedded in the liberal order” and for “scientistic communist thinking.” Tracinski addresses his comrades: “Well, thanks, guys. You just took the entire moral and intellectual authority of the Enlightenment and handed it over to the commies, a feat they could never have managed on their own.”
Totalitarian communism, Tracinski notes, had its roots in Rousseau—the Enlightenment’s cuckoo who inspired Robespierre, the Jacobins, and the Romantics. While Rousseau may have been “a man of the Enlightenment in the chronological sense,” he insisted that science and reason lead not to progress but to decrepitude, and elevated the “general will” over individual freedom and rights. Tracinski adds, “Anyone who thinks Communism is ‘scientific’ should reflect that no scientific movement would conduct two centuries of ‘experiments,’ see all of them fail, and still stubbornly refuse to accept the results.”
How can you say that we should stop worrying and that everything will turn out okay? What about plastics in the ocean? What about opioids? What about school shootings? What about incarceration? What about social media? What about Donald Trump?
Writing Enlightenment Now reinforced a discovery I made while writing Better Angels: “Progress” is an alien, exotic, counterintuitive concept. Many people think the question of whether progress has taken place is a matter of being a pessimist or an optimist, of seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full. And they think that the cause of any progress is a mysterious force that carries the world upward toward Utopia.
In fact, the question of whether progress has occurred is matter not of “optimism” but of what Hans Rosling calls “factfulness”: calibrating our understanding of the world to empirical reality. If measures of well-being, such as health, prosperity, knowledge, and safety, have increased over time, that would be progress. In fact, they have. As Rosling and others have shown, most people deny progress not out of pessimism but out of ignorance.
At the same time, progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would not be progress. That would be a miracle. Progress is not a miracle; it’s the result of solving problems. Problems are inevitable, and solutions create new problems that must be solved in their turn. For this reason, some aspects of life can improve while others stand still or go backwards. Progress would still be a reality if most of humanity is better off than they were before—if, as Obama put it, the answer to the question “When would you choose to live if you didn’t know who you would be?” is “Now.” The wrong way to determine whether progress has occurred is to compile a list of everything that is currently going wrong anywhere in the world—the gimmick that columnists periodically rediscover as a way to scare the bejesus out of their readers and assume the mantle of a prophet.
Since progress does not mean that the world is perfect, only that it is better, acknowledging progress does not mean being indifferent to the very real suffering of people today, nor to the very real threats that humanity continues to face. And it certainly does not mean that we should stop worrying because everything will turn out okay. How things turn out in the future depends entirely on what we do now.
But what we should do now very much depends on how we understand progress. If you believe that all of humanity’s efforts to make the world a better place have failed—that all is vanity, the poor will always be with you, and the best-laid plans of mice and men always go awry—the appropriate response is stop throwing bad money after good and to enjoy life while you can. If you believe that things could not be worse, and all of our institutions are failing and beyond hope of reform, then the appropriate response is to burn the empire to the ground in the hope that anything that rises out of the ashes will be better than what we have now. Or to empower a strongman who promises “Only I can fix it” and seeks to make the declining country great again. But if applying reason and science to make people better off has succeeded in the past, however piecemeal and incompletely, the appropriate response is to deepen our understanding of the world and to improve and mobilize our institutions to make more people better off still.
All those numbers showing that the world has been getting better must have been cherry-picked.
This is topsy-turvy, and comes from an incredulity at the very possibility that the world could have gotten better.
Sometimes the incredulity is nakedly political. For those reviewers who were offended by my wisecrack that progressives hate progress, consider these 2017 tweets from the left-wing activist David Graeber (spotted by Charles Kenny in his review It’s Not As Bad as All That): “Does anyone know any handy rebuttals to the neoliberal/conservative numbers on social progress over the last 30 years? again & again i see these guys trundling out #s that absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, child labor, have sharply declined. . . . It strikes me as highly unlikely these numbers are right … It’s clear this is all put together by right-wing think tanks. Yet where’s the other sides numbers? I’ve found no clear rebuttals.”
Indeed. The picture of the world presented in EN comes from data which aggregate all the cherries. I began with the three variables that every thinker on social progress agrees are the baseline for measuring well-being: longevity, prosperity, and education (being healthy, wealthy, and wise). As I did in Better Angels, I also graphed measures of violence (deaths in war, genocide, and violent crime), state oppression (autocracy, the death penalty, the criminalization of homosexuality), and bigotry (racist and sexist attitudes and violence against women and minorities). I added data on one of the psychological causes of progress, liberal values, and one of its psychological effects, happiness.
In each case I chose the most objective and agreed-upon measures, such as battle deaths for war and homicides for violent crime (dead bodies are hard to fudge). I stuck with public datasets compiled by university researchers, government agencies, and intergovernmental institutions such as the UN, avoiding numbers from advocacy groups whose business model is “the worse, the better.” I reported figures from the entire world whenever they existed. And I reported the entire dataset, from its inception to the most recent year available.
With finer-grained measures (such as life expectancy at different ages, or deaths from lightning strikes), I showed data from the US or UK, both because they are where the data are available and because those countries are of parochial interest to the largest number of my readers. But these choices underestimate the amount of progress enjoyed by the developed world. The US is a backward country, lagging its democratic peers in health, safety, education, and happiness, and the UK is not at the front of the pack either.
In every case progress can be seen with the naked eye. It’s not because I tried to hide the backtrackings and reversals: I couldn’t have, because datasets put them in plain view. (Examples include the Vietnam War, the 1960s–1980s crime boom, AIDS in Africa, and the American opioid epidemic.) True, many of the lines can float upward or downward depending on definitions, such as where you place an arbitrary cutoff like the “poverty line.” But contrary to the claims of progressophobes, they can’t flip from soaring to plunging or vice-versa.
Now compare this picture of the world with the main alternative on offer to most readers. Journalism, almost by definition, is cherry-picking. It reports rare events such as wars, epidemics, and disasters, not everyday states of affairs such as peace, health, and safety. Statistics on longevity and accidents are reported in any year in which they jerk in a bad direction (because that’s “news”), but not in all the boring years in which they keep trending in a good direction.
On top of this built-in tilt toward the negative, journalists put their elbows on the scale in a quest for eyeballs and as part of a moralistic commitment to shake readers out of their complacency (as captured in the satirical Onionheadline CNN HOLDS MORNING MEETING TO DECIDE WHAT VIEWERS SHOULD PANIC ABOUT FOR REST OF DAY). And then there’s the newspapers’ stock in trade, the human-interest/vox-pop feature, which profiles a Joe or Jane grabbed off the street or from the writer’s circle of acquaintances. When these stories are presented in the context of data, they are invaluable in humanizing and deepening readers’ understanding of a trend. But otherwise they are a license to yank readers’ Availability Bias in whichever way the writer wants. It doesn’t have to be that way: one can imagine news sources that cover the major features of the world the way they cover weather, sports, and financial markets: with regular reports of the indicators, whichever way they go.
Professional history, too, has an eye for the juiciest fruit. There are many histories of wars and famines and tyrants and revolutions, but fewer histories of peace and plenty and harmony, and fewer still that trace out measures of well-being over time and explain the ups and downs.
The environment presents a different challenge. I could not have presented a global, long-term dataset on environmental quality, because no historical measure of this omnibus concept exists. But no one would suggest that the state of the environment has improved in the past 250 years anyway—on the contrary, many of the improvements for humanity came at the expense of the planet.
For the past decade, however, we do have a global report card—the Environmental Performance Index—and I noted that it has improved for 178 out of 180 countries and is highest in the most developed among them, suggesting that, overall, the environment is beginning to rebound. A second bird’s-eye view revealed that the main source of pressure on the environment, human population growth, peaked in 1962 and is in steep decline (a little-known fact explored in Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline).
The question I then faced was which of the dozens of components of environmental quality deserved to be broken out into their own graphs. I chose the one with the most alarming trend—CO2 emissions—and four with positive trends (emissions within the United States, deforestation, oil spills, and protected areas). Critics have argued that I could have plotted other negative trends such as biodiversity and fresh water resources, and perhaps I should have. But my goal in those pages was not to summarize the state of the environment but to push back against the relentless fatalism of orthodox environmental journalism and activism.
Looking at numbers on human well-being is amoral and callous and insensitive. What do you say to those people who are suffering?
Most journalists feel at least somewhat sheepish about the innumeracy of conventional human-interest reporting, but occasionally one will flaunt it, as in an ill-tempered review entitled “Steven Pinker Wants You to Know Humanity is Doing Fine. Just Don’t Ask About Individual Humans.” The accusation is inside-out: looking at numbers is the moral, compassionate, sensitive way to deal with human suffering. It treats every life as equally precious, instead of privileging members of the tribe or victims that are photogenic or conveniently nearby (a point developed by Paul Bloom in his case for rational compassion). Data show us where the suffering is greatest, help identify the measures that will reduce it, and reassure us that implementing those measures is not a waste of time. For those who still can’t appreciate the value of the 7th-century invention of place-value number systems in understanding the human condition, I recommend dwelling on this image, taken from the Roslings’ Factfulness:
Your five children have to spend most of the day walking barefoot with your single plastic bucket, back and forth to fetch water from a dirty mud hole an hour’s walk away. On their way home they pick firewood and you prepare the same gray porridge that you’ve been eating at every meal, every day, for your whole life—except during the months when the meager soil yielded no crops and you went to bed hungry. One day your youngest daughter develops a nasty cough. Smoke from the indoor fire is weakening her lungs. You can’t afford antibiotics and one month later she is dead.
Now, replace it with this image:
You can buy food that you didn’t grow yourself, and you can afford chickens, which means eggs. You save some money and buy sandals for your children, and a bike, and more plastic buckets. Now it only takes you half an hour to fetch water for the day. You buy a gas stove so your children can attend school instead of gathering wood. When there’s power they do their homework under a bulb. But the electricity is too unstable for a freezer. You save up for mattresses so you don’t have to sleep on the mud floor.
Then do it again. And again. And again, around the clock for a millennium. That is a way to appreciate a fact that others can summarize as follows: During the past 25 years, a billion people escaped from extreme poverty.
How do you explain Donald Trump? And Brexit? And authoritarian populism? Don’t they spell the end of the Enlightenment and the reversal of progress?
Though the Enlightenment ideals of disinterested reason, scientific naturalism, cosmopolitan humanism, democratic institutions, and human progress offer the best prospects for humanity, they are by no means intuitive. People easily slide back into motivated cognition, magical thinking, tribalism, authoritarianism, and nostalgia for a golden age.
Nor has Enlightenment thinking ever carried the day. It has enjoyed spells of influence which have increased in length since 1945, but always has been opposed by Romantic, nationalist, militarist, and other Counter-Enlightenment ideologies. The authoritarian populism of the 2010s falls smack into that undertow—not just the emotional currents, but a line of intellectual influence. As I noted in EN, “the intellectual roots of Trumpism” is not an oxymoron, and many members of his brain trust and alt-right base proudly credit Counter-Enlightenment theoreticians. These themes can be appealing during periods of economic, cultural, and demographic change, particularly to factions that feel disrespected and left behind.
For believers in Enlightenment and progress, the second year Donald Trump’s presidency felt like being strapped to a table and getting a series of unpredictable electric shocks. They include his kissing up to autocratic thugs, undermining a free press and judiciary, demonizing foreigners, gutting environmental protections, blowing off climate science, renouncing international cooperation, and threatening to renew a nuclear arms race.
But before we imagine the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever, we need to put authoritarian populism in perspective. Despite its recent swelling, populism appears to have plateaued. A majority of Americans consistently disapprove of Trump, and in Europe, nationalist parties won a median of just 13 percent of votes in 2018 elections. The demographic sectors that are the hottest hotbeds of populism are all in decline: rural, less educated, older, and ethnic majorities. The travails of Trump and Brexit in 2018 are a reminder to supporters that populism works better in theory than in practice. Lined up against it are democratic checks and balances within a country and pressures toward global cooperation outside it, the only effective means to deal with trade, migration, pollution, pandemics, cybercrime, terrorism, piracy, rogue states, and war.
And though Trump and other reactionary leaders can do real damage, and will have to be opposed and contained for some time to come, they are not the only actors in the world. The forces of modernity, including connectivity, mobility, science, and the ideals of human rights and human welfare are distributed among a wide array of governments and private-sector and civil-society organizations, and they have gained too much momentum to be shifted into reverse overnight. Most of the kinds of progress documented in EN are continuing. The political economist Angus Hervey of Future Crunch maintains a dataset of positive developments of a kind that tend to be passed over in CNN morning meetings. The year 2018 saw reports of:
46 measures to reduce greenhouse gas emission;
19 expansions of protected areas, including the largest tropical rainforest park in the world (in Colombia);
9 successes in conservation, including jaguars, mountain gorillas, sea turtles, island foxes, long-nosed bats, Gangetic dolphins, three coral reefs, and four rare Polynesian bird species;
18 measures to reduce plastic in the environment;
8 additional successes in pollution control and sustainability;
24 improvements in health, including the near-disappearance of Zika; a major vaccination drive against cholera; a drop in HIV/AIDS which could eliminate infections within a dozen years; and the eradication of malaria in Paraguay, Guinea Worm in South Sudan, trachoma in Ghana, and elephantiasis in Togo;
6 milestones in reducing poverty, including a report that more than half of the world now can be classified as middle class, and record low rates of poverty for American children and African American men;
11 improvements in the rights of women, including the repeal of discriminatory laws in Tunisia, Morocco, India, and Nepal, and a doubling of the proportion of women in the world’s legislatures;
8 advances in human rights, including the abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia and the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, Lebanon, and Trinidad & Tobago;
11 reductions in violent crime, including a halving of the homicide rate in the world’s most murderous country, Honduras, as well as drops in the rates of homicide, incarceration, and recidivism in the United States;
6 advances in peace, including a global decline in battle deaths for the third year in a row, and the end of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea which had killed more than 100,000 people;
Not a single crash of a commercial passenger plane, and an all-time low in deaths from natural disasters;
A record number of democracies and people living in them, including improvements in Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal, Somaliland, and Armenia.
A drop in global suicide rates. Which leads to….
How do you explain the growing epidemic of despair, depression, loneliness, mental illness, and suicide in the most advanced liberal societies?
I don’t, because there isn’t one. Though some sub-populations are tragically suffering (in particular, middle-aged, less-educated, non-urban white Americans), the belief that people are increasingly unhappy is a persistent illusion. It may be called the Optimism Gap, the Personal-optimism/National-pessimism contrast, or the Thoreau illusion (after the essayist’s declaration in 1854 that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” though presumably not him). A good overview is the essay Optimism & Pessimism by Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy, with a graph showing that “in every country people think that others are less happy than they themselves say.” Americans, for example, think that less than half of their countrymen are happy, whereas in reality ninety percent are.
Let’s zoom in on some of the specific claims. Advanced liberal societies, far from being pits of alienation and despair, are in fact the world’s happiest places. According to the World Happiness Report 2018, the world’s ten happiest countries are the five very liberal, very advanced Nordic nations, together with Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. And contrary to an urban legend, Bhutan is not particularly happy, coming in 97th among 156 countries, with a mean self-rating of 5.1 a 10-rung ladder.
What about that epidemic of depression, mental illness, and substance abuse? In Our World in Data’s entry on Global Mental Health, Hannah Ritchie observes, “Many (myself included) have the perception that mental health issues have been increasing significantly in recent years. The data by the IMHE [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation] that we have does, in general, not support this conclusion. The prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders is approximately the same as 26 years ago. (The IMHE attempts to measure the Global Burden of Diseaseover time with a constant yardstick.)
As for suicide, a late-2018 article in The Economist summarized the trend: Suicide is Declining Almost Everywhere. Here are data for the whole world from the Global Burden of Disease project, showing the 38 percent fall since 1994, together with a sample of countries selected by Our World in Data:
The crisscrossing lines for the United States and the world explain why so many people are mistaken about suicide trends. American writers who report a suicide epidemic have picked one of the rottenest cherries from the bin: data for the United States, which is defying the global trend, from a starting year of 1999, when it had sunk to one of its lowest points. Zooming out shows that suicide rates were far higher in the first half of the 20th century, not just in the US but in two other countries for which we have data stretching back that far.
Suicide rates are often inscrutable, but one cause of the worldwide decline is identified by two experts quoted in TheEconomist:
Greater social freedom is one of the reasons, suggests Jing Jun, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing: “Female independence has saved a lot of women.” In a study in 2002 looking at high rates among young rural women, two-thirds who attempted suicide cited unhappy marriages, two-fifths said they were beaten by their spouses and a third complained of conflict with their mothers-in-law. Professor Jing explains: “They married into their husbands’ families; they’d leave their home town; they’d go to a place where they knew nobody.” …
There may be something similar going on in India. “Young women face particularly challenging gender norms in India,” says Vikram Patel of the Harvard Medical School. If parents disapprove of a relationship, they will tell the police their daughter has been abducted. The cops will then take a 21-year-old away from a consensual relationship. So, he concludes, many suicides in India “are related to the lack of agency for young people to choose their own romantic partners”. As social mores have liberalised, that is changing.
In her essay A Hunger Strike Just to Get to College, the Islamic scholar Nadia Oweidat recounts why suicide crossed her mind growing up in another not-so-liberal, not-so-advanced culture, Jordan:
When I told my family I wanted to go to university, they were indignant. Having just finished high school, I already had too much education, they told me. And I was starting to have some crazy ideas like wanting to master the English language to go abroad one day. It was time for me to put all that aside and get married, they insisted.
But I knew there was one way this would end. I would go to university and pursue a higher education, maybe even go to America.
Or I would die trying.
The Durkheimian conventional wisdom that close-knit families, intimate village life, and traditional social norms protect people against anomie and suicide needs to be rethought. As The Economist essay concluded, “All over the world, suicide rates tend to be higher in rural areas than in urban ones. Social bonds sometimes constrain people as well as sustaining them; escaping an abusive husband or tyrannical mother-in-law is easier in a city than in a village.”
All this is lost on those critics of EN who are wistful for a traditional life they never had to live, like Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik, whose review of ENwas subtitled, “In his new book, Steven Pinker is curiously blind to the power and benefits of small-town values.” As I noted in EN, this vicarious nostalgia is curiously blind to the provincialism, conformity, tribalism, and restrictions on women’s autonomy of small-town life. It’s true that the Enlightenment has not solved the problem of how a woman can simultaneously submerge herself in her extended family in a small village andpursue a career as a scientist in a cosmopolitan city. But it’s hardly an indictment of modernity that she now has that choice.
Life poses tradeoffs. The unprecedented freedom in modern societies includes the freedom to trade off intimacy for autonomy, and to surrender to temptations that may not be best for us in the long run. We have not hit upon a perfect libertarian paternalism that would somehow nudge everyone into using their freedom wisely. But as the jurist Richard Posner has pointed out, the recurring fallacy in lamentations of modernity is “to compare an idealized past, its vices overlooked, with a demonized present, its virtues overlooked.”
The Enlightenment will be killed off by its own creations, artificial intelligence and social media.
This was an irresistible storyline in the bicentennial year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. But like the revivification of corpses by electricity, the Artificial General Intelligence that will displace humans is a sci-fi fantasy. In EN, I argued that artificial intelligence is neither going to subjugate us nor inadvertently wipe us out as collateral damage. And though we continue to see tweets and articles about the Robopocalypse, this dread has been defused in new articles, including Ed Clint’s Irrational AI-nxiety, Oscar Schwartz’s “The Discourse is Unhinged”: How the Media Gets AI Alarmingly Wrong, and Rodney Brooks’s The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions.
Brooks, the former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, is scathing about the “fears of things that are not going to happen, whether it’s the wide-scale destruction of jobs, the Singularity, or the advent of AI that has values different from ours and might try to destroy us.” He provides insightful diagnoses of the various misunderstandings, including an update on Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Brooks asks us to imagine time-transporting Isaac Newton to his University of Cambridge home today and handing him a modern Apple, an iPhone. Imagine his astonishment at holding a small object that allows him to watch a movie, listen to church music, zoom in on a facsimile of his Principia, illuminate a dark chapel, mirror and magnify his face, take pictures, record sound, count his steps, talk to people anywhere in the world, and instantly carry out arithmetic calculations to many decimal places. Newton might very well guess that the iPhone would work forever without being recharged, like a prism, or transmute lead into gold, his lifelong dream. “This is a problem we all have with imagined future technology,” Brooks notes. “If it is far enough away from the technology we have and understand today, then we do not know its limitations. And if it becomes indistinguishable from magic, anything one says about it is no longer falsifiable.”
One of the odder magical prophesies of 2018 was offered by Henry Kissinger in an Atlantic article called How the Enlightenment Ends, with the tag line “Philosophically, intellectually—in every way—human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence.” The 95-year-old statesman would not seem to be our best guide to the future of technology given that he himself seems unprepared for the rise of the internet. He declares that “Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning,” presumably unlike those non-Internet users out there, clutching their carbon paper with an almanac balanced on their knee, who are keeping alive the lost arts of contextualizing and conceptualizing meaning. “The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason,” he explains. “The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data.” How this will send us back to the days of burning heretics and believing in the divine right of kings he did not made clear.
How will AI join forces with the internet and kill off the Enlightenment? Kissinger suggests that since the algorithms of artificial intelligence are opaque to human understanding, the handover of decision-making to AI will make the ideal of rationally justified explanations and policies obsolete. But like other semi-comprehending prophets, Kissinger has conflated a recent trend in artificial intelligence, the use of multilayer neural networks trained by error back-propagation (misleadingly known as “deep learning”) with AI itself.
To dispel the magic: Deep learning networks are designed to convert an input, such as the pixels making up an image or the shape of an auditory waveform, into a useful output, like a caption of the picture or the word that was spoken. The network is fed millions of tidbits of information from the input, computes thousands of weighted combinations of them, then thousands of weighted combinations of the weighted combinations, and so on, each in a layer of simple units that feeds the next, culminating in a guess of the appropriate output. The network is trained by allowing it to compare its current guess with the correct output (supplied by a “teacher”), convert the difference into a huge number of getting-warmer/getting-colder signals, propagate those signals backwards to each of the hidden layers, and tune their weights in directions that make its guess closer to the correct answer. This is repeated millions of times, which has become feasible thanks to faster processors and bigger datasets. (For a more detailed explanation of the first generation of these models, see my books How the Mind Works and Words and Rules.)
Deep learning networks are “deep” only in the sense of having many layers of units; their understanding is onion–skin thin. After having the daylights trained out of them, they can map inputs onto outputs surprisingly well (which is how Facebook knows whether you’ve uploaded a picture of a person or a cat), but they don’t represent the meaning of what they compute. A translation network can’t paraphrase sentences or answer questions about them; a video-game-playing program has no grasp of the objects or forces in its simulated world and cannot cope with a minor change in that world or in the rules of the game. And since the program’s intelligence is smeared across millions of little numbers, we humans often can’t reconstruct how it came to its decisions. That’s what has led to fears that AI will have an agenda inscrutable to us, perpetuate biases that we’re unaware of, and pose other threats to Enlightenment rationality.
But this is exactly the reason that many AI experts believe these networks, despite their recent successes, have hit a wall, and that new kinds of algorithm, probably incorporating explicit knowledge representations, will be needed to power future advances. These include Gary Marcus, building on analyses he and I developed in the 1990s; Judea Pearl, the world’s expert on causal modeling; and even Geoffrey Hinton, the inventor of deep learning himself. Marcus, together with the computer scientist Ernest Davis, makes this case in the forthcoming Reboot: Getting to AI We Can Trust. If Marcus and Davis are right, it’s no accident that artificial intelligence will have to represent human ideas and goals more explicitly. AI is a tool, which serves at our pleasure. Unless its workings are transparent enough that we can engineer it to respect our goals, conform to common sense, stay within limits we set, and correct its mistakes, it won’t be truly intelligent.
The other terrifying sorcery of the moment is social media, now blamed for every problem on the planet, from destroying democracy to ruining a generation (the post-Millennial Generation Z or iGen, born after 1995). But before we write off Western civilization, we should keep some historical perspective. New communications media often open up a Wild West of apocrypha, plagiarism, conspiracy theories, and vast wastelands (see, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe), until truth-serving countermeasures are put into place. Such measures always have a constituency because the truth is what doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. There’s little reason to think, this early in the history of social media, that they will become permanent, insidious forms of mind control that destroy democracy and the other institutions of the Enlightenment. Even today, as the political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it in the title of a 2018 article, Fake News and Bots May be Worrisome, but Their Political Power is Overblown. Nyhan found that relatively little of the election-related news that circulated on social media in 2016 was fake, relatively few people were exposed to it, and not many of these were persuadable in the first place.
The psychological effects of smartphones also have to be kept in historical perspective:
That generation “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades”? The psychologist who sounded this alarm in an Atlantic cover story, Jean Twenge, has done groundbreaking research on secular trends in mental health, but her popular writings are almost a caricature of how every generation panics about the kids today, first the narcissistic Millennials, now the smartphone-ruined iGens. (For what it’s worth, my own reading of the literature, summarized in EN’s chapter on happiness, suggests that it’s the Baby Boomers who are the screwed up generation.) Rebuttals to Twenge’s philippic have come fast and furious, including analyses by Amy Orben, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Andrew Przybylski, and Zachary Karabell.
For one thing, the critics note, the kids are (mostly) all right: Compared to preceding generations, they have lower rates of alcohol abuse, smoking, crime, car accidents, pregnancy, and unprotected sex. Teenagers’ happiness has changed little in twenty years, and any declines in their mental health are relatively small and mostly parallel the post-recession American malaise in other age groups. Smartphone use may have positive, not just negative, effects on their mental health, except with extreme overuse (and even that correlation may not be causal, since depressed teenagers may lose themselves in electronic distractions rather than having become depressed by them to start with).
Why were you so mean to Nietzsche?
I’m always surprised at which parts of my books get the biggest rise out of readers. With EN it was my irreverent treatment of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher whose writings are the answer to the question “What’s the opposite of humanism?”
Nietzsche argued that the ideal of increasing happiness and reducing suffering for the greatest number of people was a sentimental holdover of Judeo-Christian “slave morality,” and only gets in the way of the ultimate good, which consists in heroes and geniuses elevating the species through feats of greatness. I reproduced a wall of Nietzsche quotes that included such lovely phrases like “a declaration of war on the masses by higher men,” “the annihilation of the decaying races,” and “the higher breeding of humanity, including the merciless extermination of everything degenerate and parasitical.” I had pared it down from a longer list, which included musings about “the annihilation of millions of the bungled and botched,” and “mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man.” I ventured that it may not have been a coincidence that Nietzsche was adored by the Fascists, the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks, and that he continues to inspire Alt-Right provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and white supremacists like Richard Spencer—together with a surprising number of artists and intellectuals, and fanboys in every generation who see him as an edgy badass.
My disavowal of Nietzscheism was no digression. Many writers had claimed that Nietzsche was the inevitable outcome of the Enlightenment’s rejection of theism, so if you are an Enlightenment humanist you must be a Nietzschean. The illogic is as follows: Nietzsche was an atheist, famously declaring that “God is dead.” Many humanists are atheists, believing that God never existed in the first place. Therefore, humanism is the same as Nietzsche.
Some people who think this way are just clueless: they have been so crippled by theistic morality that they cannot conceive of how one can ground ethics in anything other than God. (Enlightenment philosophers showed how, building on an argument from Plato.) Others know better but can’t stand the ideals of modernity, like science, progress, and liberal democracy, and so hope to smear them by association. (The obvious example is John Gray; for rebuttals, see essays by Anthony Grayling and Jerry Coyne.)
Either way, it’s easy to show that the equation is bogus. Nietzsche deployed every ounce of his considerable literary skill to imply that most human lives are worth nothing, which is the opposite of humanism. Humanism was inspired not by Nietzsche but by the Enlightenment, which Nietzsche despised. As Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK and President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, put it, “Humanism is the joint denial of theism and Nietzsche.”
Several reviewers wrote indignant attacks on my treatment of Nietzsche, claiming that I couldn’t take a joke. He didn’t really mean what he wrote in those genocidal and misogynistic passages, they said; he was being ironic, or writing fiction, or reconstructing the mindset of people in other times and places. I had no right to criticize anything he said, since his writings are aphoristic, personal, non-logical, and riddled with contradictions and puzzles, so no one really knows what he meant.
Well, perhaps. Yet even some of Nietzsche’s defenders, who insist he has been misunderstood by Nazis and the alt-right, acknowledge that the fact “that he’s been hijacked by racists and fascists is partly his fault.” Yes, if your hero gushes about the annihilation of the decaying races and the rise of a single stronger species of mankind, in passage after colorful passage, you should not be surprised that some of his less exegetically sophisticated readers come to believe in the annihilation of the decaying races and the rise of a single stronger species of mankind.
Even the fact that Nietzsche was hostile to the anti-Semites and German nationalists of his day (which I noted in EN) turns out to be a lame defense. The philosopher Kelley Ross documents that “Nietzsche’s racism is unmistakable,” including a racialized contempt for Jews. Indeed, in Ross’s letter and article defending EN’s treatment of Nietzsche, he thought I was too charitable on these points.
Though I make no claim to being a Nietzsche scholar, my reading of him as an anti-Enlightenment, anti-humanist thinker was based on the work of several philosophers and intellectual historians, including Bertrand Russell, Richard Wolin, Arthur Herman, James Flynn, R. Lanier Anderson, and Jonathan Glover. After EN came out, moreover, my reading was vindicated by the legal philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter in an essay pointedly titled Friedrich Nietzsche: The Truth is Terrible:
Nietzsche the “existentialist” exists in tandem with an “illiberal” Nietzsche, one who sees the collapse of theism and divine teleology as tied fundamentally to the untenability of the entire moral world view of post-Christian modernity. If there is no God who deems each human to be of equal worth or possessed with an immortal soul beloved by God, then why think we all deserve equal moral consideration? And what if, as Nietzsche argues, a morality of equality – and altruism and pity for suffering – were, in fact, an obstacle to human excellence? What if being a “moral” person makes it impossible to be Beethoven? Nietzsche’s conclusion is clear: if moral equality is an obstacle to human excellence, then so much the worse for moral equality. This is the less familiar and often shockingly anti-egalitarian Nietzsche.
Why did Enlightenment Now make people so mad?
Perhaps it is because I don’t understand the Enlightenment, am really an enemy of the Enlightenment, have whitewashed the crimes of the Enlightenment, have cherry-picked my data, am callous toward the suffering of individual people, am naïve about the Enlightenment’s imminent demise, and didn’t read Nietzsche closely enough. I don’t think so, but I’m not the best one to judge. If you’re with me so far, allow me to indulge in a bit of speculation on how Enlightenment Now may have touched some nerves in modern intellectual life.
Let them read Proust. Many literary and cultural critics have a streak of Nietzschean Romanticism which exalts feats of artistic and historical greatness as the only authentic virtue and is indifferent to prosaic indicators of mass flourishing such as child mortality, nutrition, and literacy. More than fifty years ago, when C. P. Snow valorized science for its potential to alleviate suffering in poor countries, he was assailed by the literary critic F. R. Leavis because “great literature” is “what men live by.” I faced the same argument in a debate on whether our best days lie ahead from the author Alain de Botton, who insisted that his native Switzerland, that bastion of health, happiness, peace, education, and prosperity, is not a worthy aspiration of the rest of the world, because it does not guarantee that its citizens will appreciate Proust. (I suggested that the rest of the world may want the chance to decide that for themselves.)
This literarism makes it easy to sneer at the menial work of engineers, businesspeople, and bureaucrats in improving the human condition. Those wonks are laboring within the institutions of bourgeois modernity, seemingly vindicating them by their incremental successes. Many intellectuals prefer to adopt a stance of “critical theory,” “radical oppositionality,” or “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” supposing that the modern West is degenerate down to its foundations and must give way to some unspecified but radically different form of social organization.
The Two Cultures. Leavis threw a tantrum at Snow’s broader suggestion that the sciences and humanities be integrated into a “third culture,” in accord with the Enlightenment ideal of consilience. Fury from humanities scholars at any attempt to bridge the two cultures is an enduring feature of modern intellectual life. Scientists keep getting blindsided by this reaction when they accept invitations to why-can’t-we-all-get-along interdisciplinary conferences, offer suggestions on how, say, visual neuroscience may illuminate art or quantitative surveys may shed light on musical universals, and find themselves denounced as vulgarian reductionist Nazis. Like all my work, Enlightenment Now “transgressed the boundaries” between the sciences and humanities, trying to enrich analyses in history, politics, and philosophy with quantitative datasets and explanations of human agency from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.
Conflict versus Mistake. In a recent essay, Scott Alexander shines a searchlight into the foggy arena of modern disputation by distinguishing two mindsets:
Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.
Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.
He explains how many irreconcilable differences in the public sphere align with this cleft. They include the value of debate and free speech, the nature of racism, the good and bad parts of democracy, the desirability of technocratic versus revolutionary solutions, and the relative merits of intellectual analysis and moral passion. (“For a mistake theorist, passion is inadequate or even suspect. Wrong people can be just as loud as right people, sometimes louder. If two doctors are debating the right diagnosis in a difficult case, and the patient’s crazy aunt hires someone to shout “IT’S LUPUS!” really loud in front of their office all day, that’s not exactly helping matters.”)
Enlightenment Now not only engages in Mistake theory but sees it as the essence of the Enlightenment: Progress depends on the application of knowledge. Conflict theorists think this is just an excuse for reinforcing privilege: progress depends on the struggle for power, and the philosophes were woke avant la lettre.
Alexander explains why it’s so hard to find common ground: “Conflict theorists aren’t Mistake theorists who just have a different theory about what the mistake is. They’re not going to respond to your criticism by politely explaining why you’re incorrect. …. There’s a meta-level problem in trying to understand the position ‘don’t try to understand other positions and engage with them on their own terms’ and engage with it on its own terms. If you succeed, you’ve failed, and if you fail, you’ve succeeded.”
People are irrational. They don’t care about facts and arguments. So what were you trying to accomplish with Enlightenment Now?
As Thomas Paine wrote, “To argue with someone who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” I didn’t write Enlightenment Now for people who don’t care about facts and reason. I wrote it for you. As it happens, many people do care about facts, and can change their minds about beliefs that are not sacred to their moral identities—especially, I was tickled to learn, when information is presented in a graph. (EN has seventy-five graphs.) In a study published last year, Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that graphs were effective at disabusing even political partisans of their false beliefs.
As for what I hope to have accomplished, despite all my riposting and self-defending, I have no right to complain. The response to Enlightenment Now has been rewarding beyond my grandest expectations. The book got several effusive reviews for every grumpy one, providing ample material for the “Praise for Enlightenment Now” pages in the paperback (the section that editors call “bumf”). The 1500 letters were mostly positive and almost entirely constructive. But I’m most gratified by three unexpected responses.
One was a set of invitations to confer with seven current and former heads of government or their advisors. They were not seeking political or policy advice, which I’m incompetent to offer, but an opportunity to reflect on the aspirations of liberal democratic governance today. It’s not enough to be an un-populist or an un-socialist, or a custodian of the status quo. Effective democratic leaders must have convictions about the value, indeed the nobility, of their mission. The ideals of the Enlightenment are a good starting point: it’s not easy to improve on “All people have unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Seventy-five graphs showing improvements in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness suggest that the great democratic experiment is succeeding, as long as it constantly renews itself by solving problems, however severe, with new knowledge.
A second encouraging reaction was from journalists who are coming to appreciate the problems with the crushing negativity that has become entrenched in their professional culture. It is driving away readers: In a recent cross-national survey, almost a third of the respondents said they avoid the news. It is misinforming them about the state of the world: Most people underperform chimpanzees in their guesses on multiple-choice questions about poverty, health, and violence. It is corroding their belief that the world can be improved: People who are least aware of human progress are most cynical about the future. And it is creating perverse incentives for terrorists, rampage shooters, tweeting politicians, and other entrepreneurs of outrage.
The third and most heartening response of all has come from readers who have shared with me the effect of reading Enlightenment Now on their lives. Ever since I was anointed a “psychologist,” I have had to disabuse people of the assumption that I am in the business of improving people’s mental health. For the first time in my life I may have earned that credential. Of the many items in my Inbox thanking me for bringing positivity into their lives, this is my favorite, because it confirms my belief that the ultimate effect of learning about progress is not complacency but engagement:
Every week I teach current events to my classes, and it has slowly become a harrowing experience. Since most young people rely on social media and headlines for their news, I am constantly bombarded with the ultra-negative and frightening stories (that are, as you rightly point out, designed to pull us in) for the length of my workday. This process has slowly eaten away at my outlook on everything, even throwing me into bouts of depression from time to time.
Yet your book truly changed my life… I can now face the students each day and provide more context for the fear-mongering headlines that they want to discuss, and most of all I am able to sleep better at night knowing that the world is moving in the right direction.
As someone who works regularly with young people, I cannot agree more that we must treat contemporary social problems as “problems to be solved” rather than an approaching apocalypse. It is vital that these young people recognize that all problems are solvable… because they have an unbelievable energy (I see it every day) that the rest of us do not. We must work to harness that energy, rather than resorting to scare tactics (which nearly every study that I’ve seen indicates don’t work).
Thank you for providing much-needed context to the culture of fear-mongering. I am a much happier person (and teacher) as a result of it.
Appendix: Reviews of, and Commentaries on, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now