Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.
~ Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. xviii.
Steven Pinker is the public face of contemporary neo-Whiggism. In the midst of turbulent transformations and discontents, rather than try to understand the predicament of modernity and its possibility crisis brought forth by the very “Enlightenment” which Pinker subjectively, rosily, and merrily picked from, he doubled down on re-propagating the tired old myth of progress. Notwithstanding his florid but unsubstantial rhetoric, Pinker’s book is the product of a juvenile academic who has become the poster boy of Liberalism’s historicist fantasies.
“Opposing reason is, by definition, unreasonable.” Pinker’s book is filled with pithy phrases like this one which is meant to mystically capture the reader but provide no meaning to such statements. As I’ve briefly written here, looking over the history of philosophy we find two primary usages of ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism.’ The classical tradition, advanced by the likes of the rationalist philosophers of antiquity and Christianity, maintain that reason is that which makes us like God because God is the source of Truth and it is human reason which allows humans to know the objective realities of the good and true and therefore live by that reality. Reason is, in the words of Saint Paul, that which allows us to know and conform to the moral law written onto all human hearts. The second school, the modern tradition—the ‘Enlightenment’ tradition—which Pinker is himself apart of, does not believe this to be so. Though Pinker may pithily protest he believes in such an objective moral reality, or what he calls “moral sentiments,” his ignorance of the history of philosophy and theology is so appalling it is important to remember his doctorate is not in fields of substantial historical knowledge or philosophical reasoning but in psychology. The modern school of reason which Pinker belongs to, which he slips up in exposing himself as belonging to, asserts that there is no moral good which could be rationally known. Instead, what is ‘good’ is whatever is physically and economically beneficial; i.e., that which doesn’t cause bodily harm. Reason is, on this account, basically a utilitarian operative consciousness that allows us to more easily and more effectively seize what we want to bring pleasure to our bodies.
It is important to recognize Pinker for what he is, a neo-sophist. He opens his book not by making any substantial claims but writing floridly and amusingly. The ‘statistics’ he will cite are deliberately deceitful and he cheery picks what ‘facts’ he deems worthy of advancing his argument. The “bleak assessment of the world” which Pinker wishes to deconstruct is, of course, in his view, “wrong.” “[N]ot just a little wrong—wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong,” he writes. Pinker relies on such sophistic rhetoric to capture the gaze of his audience that he knows, as all good rhetoricians and writers know, which all philosophers have known since Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine, because capturing ignorant minds with beautiful rhetoric is easier to achieve one’s mission than lay out boring but substantial arguments.
Pinker’s general ignorance and his slippage into economistic relativism is shown repeatedly throughout his work. 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.” Again, if Pinker knew anything about ‘faith’ and ‘religion,’ particularly the Christian religion which he, although an atheistic Jew, is the cultural inheritor of, he would know his statement is categorically, phenomenologically, and historically false. “Faith,” in Latin, fides, simply means trust. To take something on faith isn’t based on “without good reason,” on the contrary, one has faith precisely because he or she has good reasons. You trust that wife will not kill you in your sleep because you have good reasons to trust that she won’t because you’ve never had such problems in your relationships before. You trust that your children will return home from school on the weekdays because you have good reasons from repetitive experience that they return home around a certain time every weekday or when you come home they are home. Moreover, his claim that religion is anti-rational is the most ignorant of all statements someone who has never read theological writings can make. Had he read even a single book on the subject he would not have said his otherwise demonstrably false statements which are now re-propagating out into society by his ignorant fanboys. Saint Augustine, in Confessions, plainly stated, “You ([addressing God]) have given mankind the capacity to understand.” In De Trinitate, Augustine also states the task of his inquiry in finding the image of God is to “find in the soul of man, i.e., the rational or intellectual soul, that image of the Creator.” And just to add Cicero to the list for his treatise The Laws, the first systematic effort at natural law, which is equally a work of theological analogy, states, “There is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership in reason between man and God.” But I digress.
Pinker’s ‘reason’ is not one of any objective nature or good but simply economistic “well-being.” His hatred toward authentic reason in the classical tradition spills out when he states, “Religions also clash with humanism whenever they elevate some moral good above the well-being of humans.” How pretentious but how revealing all at once! Here, Pinker shows his disdain for the reality of any moral good which reason can know. He also creates a false phenomenological dichotomy in pitting “humanism” and “well-being” against the “moral good.” Quite the opposite in Greco-Roman and Christian anthropological philosophy—which is the true origin of “humanism” as I’ve written here. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, the Christians, and the classical philosophers and theologians asserted the unity of human flourishing (well-being) with the moral good; in fact, human flourishing is impossible without humans being in union with the moral good. But Pinker doesn’t want to be educated where he is in darkness because he considers anything written before 1620 to be rubbish superstitious garbage that elevates a moral good over the well-being of humans. Indeed, Pinker’s blanket assertion that religion is antagonistic to human flourishing runs counter to hundreds of sociological and psychological studies that assert that religion—irrespective of your belief in the Supreme Good and Source of Truth—is very beneficial to human flourishing. But I guess Pinker is depending on his readers not to fact check him or have any knowledge of basic history, philosophy, sociology, or psychology as he pulls out his logical fallacy of the appeal to authority as his schtick of ‘I’m a doctor and psychologist at Harvard, trust me,’ mantra captivates an already ignorant mass of liberals who are his fanboys and fangirls.
Furthermore, Pinker’s association of figures in his Enlightenment is the grossest of examples of distortions and cheery-picked cafeteria buffetism. David Hume, one of the great giants of the Enlightenment, wrote in his Treatise on Human Nature (1738), “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” But hey, since Hume’s enlightenment is not Pinker’s enlightenment he must be ignored by the cheerleader of death masquerading as an angel of light. Pinker’s listing of Rousseau as an anti-Enlightenment figure also condemns Rousseau and the Jacobins and Robespierre to the dustbin of the Counter-Enlightenment even though Rousseau was a product of the Enlightenment and thought very highly of the ideals of liberty and equality. The only problem Pinker has with Rousseau is that Rousseau asserted the propagandists—like Pinker himself today—of the late 1700s were pulling the rug over the masses’ eyes in telling them they were free and equal when, in physical reality, they were suffering oppression. In fact, if Pinker had actually read or understood Rousseau, he would know that Rousseau agrees with him that the only moral good is humanism and human well-being in the form of material prosperity. It was precisely because this is the unfailing reality of modern reason that led Rousseau to criticize the Enlightenment propagandists of his day of failing to be Enlightenment enough! The Jacobins who unleashed the Reign of Terror over France and sent tens of thousands to the guillotines in the first instance of mass political democide was not because they had rejected reason but because they were following the logic of Pinker’s economistic reason to its only logical conclusion. If the masses were poor, but a select group of the population was rich, and the ‘social contract’ was invalid as it was not living up to the ancient agreement to live in universal affluence, then the goddess of reason demanded that those who have been duped claim their birthright ensured to them by reason and the rationally constructed and agreed upon social contract from an imaginary state of nature.
A third school of philosophers who dealt with the subject of reason, whom Pinker considers to be Irrationalists, were, in fact, rationalists of another stripe. While Hume is regarded as an epistemological empiricist, Hume’s relationship to reason was that of a humble skeptic; unlike the prideful and unchained skeptics of today who believe reason to be all-powerful and all-consuming which has always been the view of dictators and madmen from Napoleon to Stalin to Mao. The “Irrationalists” whom Pinker singles out for creating the false counter-enlightenment narrative of cultural decadence and decline were, in fact, rationalists. You can visit a number of my lectures posted on YouTube dealing with the role of reason in German Romanticism and Idealism.
Needless to say, Pinker has not read Kant, Fichte, or Schelling; they are rationalists, Fichte and Schelling especially! If he has, he certainly didn’t understand them and doesn’t understand them and so propagates to his readers an incorrect understanding of these great philosophers whom he slanders with his ignorance. Kant, like Hume, simply thought reason had limits. Reason could only take us so far.
Fichte and Schelling, on the other hand, despised this limitation and humble approach to human reason. They felt reason needed to be all encompassing. Reason needed to be all encompassing because reason itself, in following the Christian tradition which Fichte and Schelling were deeply tied to and part of, was that which allowed humans to know the Absolute Good and, therefore, have a total understanding of all things. The difference with Fichte and Schelling, indeed, the whole German romantic tradition which Pinker slanders, is that humans are not simply balls of matter in motion, lumbering robots, or man-machines like Hobbes, La Mettrie, and D’Holbach maintained. Man was a passionate animal too; a creature filled with thymos. The post-Kantian romantics wanted to have their cake and eat it too: They wanted unbridled passion coupled with unbounded reason in a world of limitless possibilities!
That third school of philosophers dealing with reason, then, are not the limitless rationalists but those who cautioned that reason had limits. In fact, the real Enlightenment tradition was precisely that; champions of limited reason who advanced a new anthropology of physicalism. The “Counter Enlightenment” which Pinker deplores is the tradition of limitless possibilities of unbounded reason—if Pinker thinks this is what reason is capable of achieving there is a delicious irony in that he is actually on the side he condemns throughout his book and against the tradition of skeptical rationalism and empiricism which was the hallmark of the historical Enlightenment which thought fragile minds were incapable of exhaustive ascents to the Good Supreme like Christians claimed. Indeed, it was this irrationalist skepticism which gave birth to the “Enlightenment.” So Pinker condemns the side he is actually on while claiming for himself the very side he deplores as irrational.
Knowing that all good books have a catchy phrase, and that catchy-phrases in dead ancient languages makes you seem all the smarter, Pinker gives us his formulated motto: “Entro, evo, info.” He goes on to state, “These concepts define the narrative of human progress, the tragedy we were born into, and our means of eking out a better existence.” Entro, in Pinker’s pithy phrase, means entropy; entropy is the second law of thermodynamics which is all about creating chaos and from that chaos comes creativity. From this chaotic struggle for survival, as Pinker is a hardcore social Darwinist between the lines, emerges evo. Evo is his pathetic Latin portmanteau of trying to create a Latin sounding word from the English word “evolution.” Hence, Pinker’s Spencerian evolutionism unveils itself in his attempt to copy Descartes’ phraseology of ‘cogito, ergo sum.’ Evolution is the second energy if entropy was Pinker’s first energetic law; from the chaos to struggling creativity wrought by entro, Pinker is saying that evolution advances in a bloodbath of chaos and the struggle which is born in the chaotic disorder brought forth by entropy. If Pinker was at all educated in the history of philosophy and political thought, he would know that this is also a view held by fascists—those deplorable and despicable ‘racists’ whom Pinker also derides despite having similar views to theirs. Finally, the third law of energy derived by Pinker is “info.” Info simply is information; the knowledge that those who survived the bloodbath of chaotic evolution have acquired in the struggle to acquire as much material wealth and prosperity as possible.
The thrust of Pinker’s book is to try to craft a tale—issue a proclamation, in the truest sense of the word, a myth—in which everything good in the last 300 years can be credited to this mystical notion of “Enlightenment” and “science” and everything bad: all the bloodbaths, all the revolutions, all the mass political murders, the countless hundreds millions dead from all the wars waged in the name of reason, evolution, and the millennial utopia, were not the offspring of the Enlightenment but that dangerous creature called the “Counter Enlightenment.” In his other famous book which is equally ignorant and misleading, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker didn’t blink when he brushed aside the 30 major wars and genocides of the 20th century as a meaningless statistic that critics of the Enlightenment and the idea of progress seize upon because they have nothing else to seize upon in their criticisms of progress. Now, however, Pinker goes to great lengths to disassociate the 231 million people, minimally, killed in the political conflicts of the past century as having any tie to his so-called Enlightenment ideals. Only a childish and immature, as well as morally callous and deceitful, individual would try to brush the 231 million dead as everything but the reality that most of those killed were victims of Enlightenment intoxication and the dreams of Pinker’s limitless world of possibilities opened to us by the vicissitudes of progress wrought by “entro, evo, and info.” If we butcher 200 million people to eek out a better existence from the tragic lot we have been thrown into, and without a moral good to subject ourselves too, why should we bother how many we send to concentration camps, gulags, and mass graves? Or perhaps there is a moral good that humans should be subject to instead of the endless pursuit of material progress through conflict.
Pinker is a faithful priest of the religion of liberalism. Though his liberalism is confused by the fusion of his scientism with the economistic rationalism of the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo. What Pinker considers the triumph of progress is nothing more than pointing out wealth statistics, growths in GDP, the economic booms (never focusing on the busts) of the last 200 years. Human well-being, and Pinker’s humanism, has nothing to do with the origins of what human well-being is or what humanism is about; it is nothing but a reduction of human well-being and flourishing to how much cheap goods we can now consume in a comfortable environment as we inevitable return to the dust from whence we came. Pinker’s evidence for progress is nothing but the tired old mathematical statistics of a discipline that I spent four years studying as an undergraduate.
Given Pinker’s motto for advancement, he should celebrate the chaos we now find ourselves in. By his own admission, entro—that first law of Pinker—which brings forth disorder which opens the womb of combat to evo, is what is needed to advance info. But Pinker, you see, doesn’t really believe in his own pithy formulation. Rather, he is a disciple of the “end of history.” Entro, evo, info has completed its movement in the formation of liberal-democratic-capitalistic society. Out of the entro of the 20th century evolved the liberal order of the global corporate market state which provides all our physical needs with relative efficiency. And this is the real meaning of human well-being. Science, now, is the last tool to tinker us along to perfection.
The animosity directed at Pinker’s book isn’t because he’s right, as he has claimed. Taking as a badge of honor all the failing marks on his paper as if it really meant ‘job well done.’ Instead, those who have most vehemently attacked Pinker’s book are those philosophers and historians who actually know what they’re talking and are alarmed at all the misinformation and slander Pinker is spewing from the pages of his book.
Why is Pinker afraid of what entro, evo, info will bring in the 21st century? He’s afraid his posh and comfortable lifestyle as one of the guardians of this liberal order will disappear. Perhaps more personally, it will expose Pinker’s life work as wrong. All wrong. And “not just a little wrong—wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.”
Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
New York: Viking Press, 2018; 576pp.