Enlightenment Now

Reason: What comprises the Enlightenment?

 Steven Pinker: My point of view identifies four things: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Reason being the ideal that we analyze our predicament using reason as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, intuition, mysticism. Science being the ideal that we seek to understand the world by formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality. Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women, children, and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, and as opposed to religious doctrine. And progress, that if we apply sympathy and reason to making people better off, we can gradually succeed.

Why did the Enlightenment happen when it did?

Because it only happened once, we don’t really know and we can’t test hypotheses. But some plausible explanations are that it grew out of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, which showed that our intuitions and the traditional view of reality could be profoundly mistaken, and that by applying reason, we can overturn our understanding of the world.

Maybe the more proximate technological kickstarter was the growth of printing technology. That was the only technology that showed a huge increase in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution. Everything else had to wait for the 19th century.

Pinker, despite having no idea where the Enlightenment came from, why it happened, nor what the motivations were for the main actors seems to not care at all. He positively revels in his ignorance. But as this is ignorance which supports the current disbursement of power in the western world his brand of ignorant cheerleading is successful. He is a feted professor at Harvard, his books are bestsellers, he is cited by the good and the powerful as a thinker who can prove that our current political order is not only the best, but it is frankly miraculous.

But what of the actual Enlightenment? What did the people involved in it think? What did they actually propose? Was it anything like the definition provided by Pinker? Short answer? No. Hell, is anything Pinker saying corresponding with his definition of Enlightenment? Even from the short passage above it clearly isn’t. I mean, having told us that we should be using reason and not “dogma, authority, charisma, intuition, mysticism” he then informs us that there is no way to know how the Enlightenment happened (which we must trust him on I guess, he is the famous Harvard Professor after all), he then puts forward the “plausible explanation of a scientific revolution” which given it can’t be proven must fail the reason test as being based to some degree at least on intuition. It definitely fails the science test given he states that it must be testable, which it isn’t as he admits. This gets even better when we get to the humanism requirement. What exactly is the basis for his pronouncement here? Is there scientific evidence of this? Can he establish this based on reason? Kant failed and so did all after him as embarrassingly nailed by Nietzsche. Should we even go into the Christian roots of this belief? Is there any point? As for progress, I think he has been listening to Imagine on a loop for too long.

Pinker not only has no idea what happened in the period he is celebrating, he is actively discounting that anyone will be able to demonstrate what happened.


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