Steven Pinker. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin Random House, 2018. (556 pages)
There are several possible approaches to the dilemma of this juncture in human history. Some panic. Some celebrate. Some hope and believe. Some simply ignore and go on about their lives. Most do a combination of it all. I believe there is tremendous merit in the approach of this book, which is to count. Numbers, that is.
There are several reasons why.
One, this approach is not about emotions or amygdalae. It’s about data, and frontal cortices. In other words, it’s about reality, what is truly happening in the world, rather than an emotional reaction to an internally perceived reality. Fear and panic are debilitating and brain damaging. Keeping a level head about it all by activating your frontal cortex is empowering, inspiring, and mind-nourishing. And, the more you suppress your fear through critical thinking, the better you are at putting knowledge to work for real people in real matters that make a difference in the well-being of humanity.
Two, this a long-view approach, ensuring that we keep our eyes on the horizon lines and trend lines, not the “headlines.” A long-view approach also tempers our egocentrism, simultaneously evoking compassion and pity for our ancestors, and hope and expectation for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. We are but one installment in the grand scheme of homo sapiens’ journey on earth. Let us steward this moment well through an extended view of history.
Last, counting does not mean the absence of passion. Indeed, it can be the fuel that drives passion, the grounding evidence for meaningful work in this world. Knowing that we’ve cut in half the rate of death by disease, murder, or accidents can be truly invigorating.
Pinker’s numbers and respective interpretation is quite persuasive, and evocative of a counter-emotion that is also important at critical junctures of human history; namely, hope.
Like all history is selective, so is all counting. And just because the content is objective data, the choosing of that data is far more emotional and rhetorical. There are several data points that either need significant nuance, or an all out correction. Climate (specifically C02 projected emissions and consequences), ecology/biology (specifically extinction), and incarceration rates (specifically for African-Americans) are some specific graphs that are not included. It is not necessary to attribute these lacunae to any motivation. We can say that we all suffer from Availability Bias, including those who decry it.
In addition, several charts when looked at carefully, are seeing a decline after a significant increase. Figure 7-4 on famine deaths is one example. To really get a long view of history, one would need to see the famine deaths prior to 1860. In many ways, perhaps we’re just course correcting a problem that we created. This would not be due to the Enlightenment, per se, but human ethics extending through the Industrial Age. This also undermines some of the implied morale, that “Enlightenment” is responsible for the vast majority (if not all) of humanity’s improved well-being.
Regarding the long-view, it is important to embrace the truth that the future is not merely some extrapolation or recapitulation of the past. In other words, just because it was does not mean it will be. What is sorely missing from this work are the additional theories around vast variables (such as chaos theory, and the “nature red in tooth and claw” evolutionary psychology), that make future predictions extremely difficult, if not impossible. Merely applying what Pinker calls “Enlightenment principles/values” is insufficient.
Most important to understand is that Pinker’s social history and philosophy is significantly lacking. He is not just an advocate, but an “Enlightenment chauvinist,” a view that is historically dubious. He rightfully critiques various religious tenets, but completely ignores the intellectual and ethical soil that religion provided for scientific advancement. And, while humanism is laudable, it cannot be philosophically substantiated by either science or reason.
There’s quite a bit more to criticize, and for that, I refer you to the “Critical Reviews” below.
This is one of my favorite reads, but not for extolling reasons. There is tremendous merit in refining one’s thinking about the world, and great honor in leveraging that thinking for actually making the world a better place. Pinker is to be commended for his contribution to that goal, an aspiration that I also champion. But we ought not read this book as a formula for that advancement. Rather, this is a book for the curious, the critical, and the cautious, those who have an unquenchable impulse to understand more in a way that is disciplined, evidentiary, and analytical, being careful in conclusions or judgments. That means evaluating Pinker’s work according to Pinker’s own analytical ethic. It is that which brings me hope, to which I am grateful.
“It’s time to reclaim the mantle of ‘Progress’” for progressives. By falsely tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim. … In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, published earlier this year, Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.” // Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why, by Jeremy Lent
To think of this book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. The purpose of Pinker’s laborious work is to reassure liberals that they are on “the right side of history”. // Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled liberals, by John Gray
But this is just the beginning of the problem. Rather than using primary sources, Pinker draws on anecdote, cherry-picking and discredited talking points developed by anti-environmental thinktanks.// You can deny environmental calamity – until you check the facts, by George Monbiot
Pinker’s hyper-optimism and faith in progress have little to do with the actual views of Enlightenment thinkers. Scholars who point that out aren’t enemies of Western civilization. // Steven Pinker’s new book on the Enlightenment is a huge hit. Too bad it gets the Enlightenment wrong, by Aaron Hanlon
Every year the eminent psychology professor updates the 100 graphs that appeared in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, showing that every form of violence is in decline. Here are his latest findings. // Graphic evidence: Steven Pinker’s optimism on trial
So, even though I believe in Pinker’s graphs, I don’t quite share his optimism. As Voltaire pointed out in Candide, that great Enlightenment text, this never has been, and never will be, the best of all possible worlds. Humans may be capable of sympathy, but they also take eagerly to cruelty. We are not nice, and the world we have constructed is, above all, a response to our selfish demand for more and more of all the things we value. … Enlightenment Now! Enlightenment Now? Enlightenment, for now. Take your choice; but whatever choice you make, this is an important and timely book, because it enables the reader to see just how far we have come since 1758, when Candide set out on his travels. // Comfort history. David Wootton asks: can things really only get better?
In his new book, Steven Pinker is curiously blind to the power and benefits of small-town values. … The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values. // When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough, by Alison Gopnik
Efforts to label the human epoch have ignited a scientific debate between geologists and environmentalists. // What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It? by Joseph Stromberg
The final result, therefore, is a book whose punctilious, readable and important attention to detail and data in one regard (progress) is marred by its casual, vague and sometimes lazy inattention in another. || What Pinker says deserves to be heard and Enlightenment Now, in spite of its historical and philosophical weaknesses, merits a wide audience. Sadly, I am not convinced that being better informed about how rich, comfortable, clever and safe we are compared to our grandparents’ generation will make us happier and more grateful (Pinker is alert to the data on unhappiness and ingratitude and discusses them at length). Nor am I as sanguine as him that all this progress has improved the quality of our relationships. || However, Pinker does show that there is far more room for hope than we have in our current culture, and his take on some of the big issues that vex us, like terrorism, bio–hazards, AI, Armageddon, nuclear war, and other existential threats is a model of common sense, without slipping into complacency. Enlightenment Now deserves to be read and appreciated, but more for what it says about our future than what it does about our past. // Enlightenment and Progress, or why Steven Pinker is wrong, by Nick Spencer
Religion, then, is not an assurance of public virtue. Nor does secularism necessarily lead to nihilism, even though that danger certainly exists. // Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now Is Mostly Right, by Christian Alejandro Gonzalez
Pinker cites a Christianity-rejecting Enlightenment as the source of such progress, obfuscating the fact that much of what he celebrates substantially pre-dates the Enlightenment (e.g. the scientific revolution) and that many leading Enlightenment thinkers had profound religious convictions. As philosopher Ronald Osborn’s book Humanism and the Death of God: Searching for the Good After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche explains so well, the influence of Christianity on values and norms we now see as universal is profound. And we should celebrate this progress. // The Enlightenment Improved the World–But Not without Christianity, by Rebecca McLaughlin
Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind. – Baruch Spinoza
Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. – David Deutsch
I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Enlightenment ideals, I hope to show, are timeless, but they have never been more relevant than they are right now. (xvii)
PART I: ENLIGHTENMENT
The common sense of the eighteenth century, its grasp of the obvious facts of human suffering, and of the obvious demands of human nature, acted on the world like a bth of moral cleansing. – Alfred North Whitehead
The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. I wrote this book because I have come to realize that it is not. (4)
This book is my attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century. (5)
When properly appreciated, I will suggest, the ideals of the Enlightenment are in fact stirring, inspiring, noble–a reason to live. (6)
CHAPTER 1. DARE TO UNDERSTAND!
Enlightenment’s motto, [Immanuel Kat] proclaimed, is “dare to understand!” its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech. (7)
The era was a cornucopia of ideas, some of them contradictory, but four themes tie them together: reason, science, humanism, and progress. (8)
| Foremost is reason. Reason is nonnegotiable. As soon as you show up to discuss the question of what we should live for (or any other question), as long as you insist that your answers, whatever they are, are reasonable or justified or true and that therefore other people ought to believe them too, then you have committed yourself to reason, and to holding your beliefs accountable to objective standards. If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically poly the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generations of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts. (8)
If triangles had a god they would give him three sides. – Montesquieu
It was an escape not just from ignorance but from terror. (9)
…sympathy, which they also called benevolence, pity, and commiseration. Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind, particularly as reason goads us into realizing that there can be nothing uniquely deserving about ourselves or any of the groups to which we belong. We are forced into cosmopolitanism: accepting our citizenship in the world. (11)
The Enlightenment is sometimes called the Humanitarian Revolution, because it led to the abolition of barbaric practices that had been commonplace across civilizations for millennia. (11)
The Enlightenment belief in progress should not be confused with the 19th-century Romantic belief in mystical forces, laws, dialectics, struggles, unfolding, destinies, ages of man, and evolutionary forces that propel mankind ever upward toward utopia. As Kant’s remark about “increasing knowledge and purging errors” indicates, it was more prosaic, a combination of reason and humanism. (11)
If you extol reason, then what matters is the integrity of the thoughts, not the personalities of the thinkers. And if you’re committed to progress, you can’t very well claim to have it all figured out. It takes nothing away from the Enlightenment thinkers to identify some critical ideas about the human condition and the nature of progress that we know and they didn’t. Those ideas, I suggest, are entropy, evolution, and information. (14)
CHAPTER 2. ENTRO, EVO, INFO
The first keystone in understanding the human condition is the concept of entropy or disorder, … Ludwig Boltzman.. (15)
…not because nature strives for disorder, but because there are so many more ways of being disorderly than being orderly. (16)
How is entropy relevant to human affairs? Life and happiness depend on an infinitesimal sliver of orderly arrangements of matter amid the astronomical number of possibilities. (16)
The Law of Entropy is widely acknowledged in everyday life in sayings such as “Things fall apart,” “Rust never sleeps,” “Shit happens,” “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong,” and (from the Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn) “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” (16)
Why the awe for the Second Law? From an Olympian vantage point, it defines the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. (17)
…self-organiztion, which allow circumscribed zones of order to emerge. (18)
Nature is a ware, and much of what captures our attention in the natural world is an arms race. (19)
Information may be thought of as a reduction in entropy–as the ingredient that distin-(19)gushes an orderly, structured system from a vast set of random, useless ones. (20)
Information is what gets accumulated in a genome in the course of evolution. (20)
Internal representations that reliably correlate with states of the world, and that participate in inferences that tend to derive true implications from true premises, may be called knowledge. (21)
…cybernetics, feedback, or control. The idea explains how a physical system can appear to be teleological, that is, directed by purposes or goals. All it needs are a way of sensing the state of itself and its environment, a representation of a goal state (what it “wants,” what it’s “trying for”), an ability to compute the difference between the current state and the goal state, and a repertoire of actions that are tagged with their typical effects. If the system is wired so that it triggers actions that typically reduce the difference be-(21)tween the current state and the goal state, it can be said to pursue goals (and when the world is sufficiently predictable, it will attain them). (22)
The principles of information, computation, and control bridge the chasm between the physical world of cause and effect and the mental world of knowledge, intelligence, and purpose. It’s not just a rhetorical aspiration to say that ideas can change the world; it’s a fact about the physical makeup of brains. (22)
Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny. (23)
It was not an aura of spirituality that descended on the planet but something more prosaic: energy capture. The Axial Age was when agricultural and economic advances provided a burst of energy: upwards of 20,000 calories per person per day in food, fodder, fuel, and raw materials. This surge allowed the civilizations to afford larger cities, a scholarly and priestly class, and a reorientation of their priorities from short-term survival to long-term harmony. As Bertolt Brecht put it millennia later: Grub first, then ethics. (23)
Entro, evo, info. These concepts define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means for eking out a better existence. (24)
| The first piece of wisdom is that misfortune may be no one’s fault. (24)
Galileo, Newton, and Lapace replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for he future. People have goals, of course, but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness. (24)
| This 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 int he 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. (24)
Awareness of the indifference of the universe was deepened still fur-(24)there by an understanding of evolution. Predators, parasites, and pathogens are constantly trying to eat us, and pests and spoilage organisms try to eat our stuff. It may make us miserable, but that’s not their problem. (25)
| Poverty, too, needs no explanation. … As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth. (25)
None of this is to try that the natural world is free of malevolence. On the contrary, evolution guarantees there will be plenty of it. … Another implication of the Law of Entropy is that a complex system like an organism can easily be disabled, because its functioning depends on so many improbable conditions being satisfied at once. (25)
Evolution left us with another burden: our cognitive, emotional, and moral faculties are adapted to individual survival and reproduction in an archaic environment, not to universal thriving in a modern one. (25)
People bare by nature illiterate and innumerate, quantifying the world by “one, two, many” and by rough guesstimates. They understand physical things as having hidden essences that obey the laws of sympathetic magic or voodoo rather than physics and biology: objects can reach across time and space to affect things that resemble them or that had been in contact with them in the past (remember the beliefs of pre-Scientific Revolution Englishmen). They think that words and thoughts can impinge on the physical world in prayers and curses. They underestimate the prevalence of coincidence. They generalize from paltry samples, namely their own experience, and they reason by stereotype, projecting the typical traits of a group onto any individual that belongs to it. They infer causation from correlation. They think holistically, in black and white, and physically, striating abstract networks as concrete stuff. They are not so much intuitive scientists as intuitive lawyers and politicians, marshaling evidence that confirms their convictions while dismissing evidence that contradicts them. They overestimate their own knowledge, understanding, rectitude, competence, and luck. (26)
| The human moral sense can also work at cross-purposes to our well-being. People demonize those they disagree with, attributing differences of opinion to stupidity and dishonesty. For every misfortune they seek a scapegoat. They see morality as a source of grounds for condemning rivals and mobilizing indignation against them. The grounds for condemnation may consist in the defendants’ having harmed others, but they also may consist in their having flouted custom, questioned authority, undermined tribal solidarity, or engaged in unclean sexual or dietary practices. People see violence as moral, not immoral: across the world and throughout history, more people have been murdered to mete out justice than to satisfy greed. (26)
But we’re not all bad. Human cognition comes with two features that give it the means to transcend its limitations. The first is abstraction. People can co-opt their concept of an object at a place and use it to conceptualize an entity in a circumstance, as when we take the pattern of thought hike The deer ran from the pond to the hill and apply it to The child went from sick to well. They can co-opt the concept of an agent exerting physical force and use it to conceptualize other kinds of causation, as when we extend the image in She forced the door to open to She bored Lisa to join her or She forced herself to be polite. These formulas give people the means to think about a variable with a value and about a cause and its effect–just the conceptual machinery one needs to frame theories and (26) laws. They can do this not just with the elements of thought but with more complex assemblies, allowing them to think in metaphors and analogies: heat is a fluid, a message is a container, a society is a family, obligations are bonds. (27)
| The second stepladder of cognition is its combinatorial, recursive power. The mind can entertain an explosive variety of ideas by assembling basic concepts like thing, place, path, actor, cause, and goal into propositions. (27)
Thanks to language, ideas are not just abstracted and combined inside the head of a single thinker but can be pooled across a community of thinkers. (27)
He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. – Thomas Jefferson
[via: cf. Kevin Kelly’s Inevitable, p.208]
When large and connected communities take shape, they can come up with ways of organizing their affairs that work to their members’ mutual advantage. … Also, the desire to be right can collide with a second desire, to know the truth, which is uppermost in the minds of bystanders to an argument who are not invested in which side wins. … With the right rules, a community of less than fully rational thinkers can cultivate rational thoughts. (27)
[via: In other words, we think and believe together.]
So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. Not coincidentally, these were the major brainchildren of the Enlightenment. (28)
[via: So, this is where the historical challenge is critical. These sound like similar ideas and ideals of many ancient civilizations, including (but not limited to) specifically Israel and Greece. Free speech from Deuterocanonical policies, nonviolence from Jesus, cooperation and cosmopolitanism from all sorts of cultures, human rights from Genesis, and fallibility from “sin” are just a few examples of how various institutions have arisen throughout time, and didn’t just appear right at the “Enlightenment” (a moniker as we will learn is not as “enlightened” as we may think it is). Another way to understand this trend is that there are actually common human ideas and ideals that are simply evolving, taking new forms, having new expressions throughout human history. Why the “Enlightenment” is being held up as the preeminent bastion of them may simply be because they’re the most recent iteration, and therefore the most reformed?]
CHAPTER 3. COUNTER-ENLIGHTENMENTS
The Enlightenment was swiftly followed by a counter-Enlightenment,… (29)
There are but three groups worthy of respect,…the priest, the warrior, and the poet. To know, to kill, and to create. – Charles Baudelaire
The most obvious is religious faith. (30)
A second counter-Enlightenment ideas is that people are the expend-(30)able cells of a super organism–a clan, a tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation–and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up. An obvious example is nationalism,… (31)
Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions,… (32)
A final alternative…condemns its embrace of science. …we can call it the Second Culture, the worldview of many literary intellectuals and cultural critics as distinguished from the First Culture of science. (33)
Enlightenment humanism, then, is far from being a crowd-pleaser. (34)
PART II: PROGRESS
CHAPTER 4: PROGRESSOPHOBIA
Intellectuals hate progress. … It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class…n (39)
Psychologists have long known that people tend to see their own lives through rose-colored glasses: they think they’re less likely than the average person to become the victim of a divorce, layoff, accident, illness, or crime. But change the question from the people’s lives to their society, and they transform from Pollyanna to Eeyore. (40)
| Public opinion researchers call it the Optimism Gap. (40)
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. (41)
…the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. (41)
The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatcher can become miscalibrated. (42)
Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? (42)
| The answer is to count. … A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of suffering and thereby know which measures are most likely to reduce it. (43)
…resistance to the idea of progress runs deeper than statistical fallacies. (43)
Many people lack the conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place or not; the very idea that things can get better just doesn’t compute. 944)
So violence has declined linearly since the beginning of history! Awesome!
No, not “linearly”– (44)
Well, if levels of violence don’t always go down, that means they’re cyclical, so even if they’re low right now it’s only a matter of time before they go back up.
No, changes over time may be statistical, with unpredictable fluctuations, without being cyclical, namely oscillating like a pendulum between two extremes. (44)
How can you say that violence has decreased? didn’t you read about the (44) school shooting (or terrorist bombing, or artillery shelling, or soccer riot, or barroom stabbing) in the news this morning?
A decline is not the same thing as a disappearance. (The statement “x>y” is different from the statement “y=0.”) (45)
All your fancy statistics about violence going down don’t mean anything if you’re one of the victims.
True, but they do mean that you’re less likely to be a victim. (45)
So you’re saying that we can all sit back and relax, that violence will just take care of itself.
Illogical, Captain. If you see that a pile of laundry has gone down, it does not mean the clothes washed themselves; it means someone washed the clothes. (45)
To say that violence has gone down is to be naïve, sentimental, idealistic, romantic, starry-eyed, Whiggish, utopian, a Pollyanna, a Pangloss.
No, to look at data showing that violence has gone down and say “Violence has gone down” is to describe a fact. (45)
How can you predict that violence will keep going down? Your theory could be refuted by a war breaking out tomorrow.
A statement that some measure of violence has gone down is not a “theory” but an observation of fact. And yes, the fact that a measure has changed over time is not the same as a prediction that it will continue to change in that way at all times forever. (46)
In that case, what good are all those graphs and analyses? Isn’t a scientific theory supposed to make testable predictions?
A scientific theory makes predictions in experiments in which the causal influences are controlled. (46)
Moral reasoning requires proportionality. It may be upsetting when someone says mean things on Twitter, but it is not the same as the slave trade or the Holocaust. It also requires distinguishing rhetoric from reality. … Finally, improving the world requires an understanding of cause and effect. (47)
…the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper. (48)
The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.) (48)
| One exception to the Negativity bias is found in autobiographical memory. … We are wired for nostalgia: in human memory, time heals most wounds. (48)
Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory. – Franklin Pierce Adams
Experiments have shown that a critic who pans a book is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it, and the same may be true of critics of society. (48)
Always predict the worst, and you’ll be hailed as prophet. – Tom Lehrer
At (48) least since the time of the Hebrew prophets, who blended their social criticism with forewarnings of disasters, pessimism has been equated with moral seriousness. (49)
…while pessimists sound like they’re trying to help you, optimists sound like they’re trying to sell you something. (49)
Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead. – Thomas Hobbes
As we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen. (49)
What is progress? (51)
Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. (51)
| All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress. (51)
If you’re reading this, you are not dead, starving, destitute, moribund, terrified, enslaved, or illiterate, which means that you’re in no position to turn your nose up at these values–or to deny that other people should share your good fortune. (52)
And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it. (52)
CHAPTER 5. LIFE
This period in human history may be called the Malthusian Era,… (54)
…starting in the 29th century, the world embarked on the Great Escape, the economist Angus Deaton’s term for humanity’s release from its patrimony of poverty, disease, and early death. (54)
…progress is an outcome not of magic but of problem-solving. (55)
[no online figure 5-3: Maternal mortality, 1751-2013]
[no online figure 5-4: Life expectancy, UK, 1701-2013]
Life pits biology against physics in mortal combat. – Peter Hoffman
In my view the best projection of the outcome of our multi century war on death is Stein’s Law–“Things that can’t go on forever don’t”–as amended by Davies’s Corollary–“Things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think.” (61)
CHAPTER 6. HEALTH
But whether it’s the scientists or the science that is ignored, the neglect of the discoveries that transformed life for the better is an indictment of our appreciation of the modern human condition. (64)
Yes, “smallpox was.” (64)
[no online figure 6-1: Childhood deaths from infectious disease, 2000-2013]
The fruits of science are not just high-tech pharmaceuticals such as vaccines, antibiotics, antiretrovirals, and deworming pills. They also comprise ideas–ideas that may be cheap to implement and obvious in retrospect, but which save millions of life. … Conversely, progress can be reversed by bad ideas, such as the conspiracy theory spread by the Taliban and Boko Haram that vaccines sterilize Muslim girls, or the one spread by affluent American activists that vaccines cause autism. (67)
CHAPTER 7. SUSTENANCE
…another mean trick has been played on us by evolution and entropy: our ceaseless need for energy. (68)
[no online figure 7-1: Calories, 1700-2013]
[no online figure 7-2: Childhood stunting, 1966-2014]
[no online figure 7-3: Undernourishment, 1970-2015]
[no online figure 7-4: Famine deaths, 1860-2016]
In 1798 Thomas Malthus explained that the frequent famines of his era were unavoidable and would only get worse, because “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.” (73)
Looking at the first of his curves, we already saw that population growth needn’t increase in a geometric ratio indefinitely,… (74)
Looking at the second curve, we discover that the food supply can grow geometrically when knowledge is applied to increase the amount of food that can be coaxed out of a patch of land. (74)
CHAPTER 8. WEALTH
History is written not so much by the victors as by the affluent, the sliver of humanity with the leisure and education to write about it. (79)
We are led to forget the dominating misery of other times in part by the grace of literature, poetry, romance, and legend, which celebrate those who lived well and forget those who lived in the silence of poverty. The eras of misery have been mythologized and may even be remembered as golden ages of pastoral simplicity. They were not. – Nathan Rosenberg, L. e. Birdzell Jr.
Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created. It is created primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor. The corollary, just as radical, sit hat we can figure out how to make more of it. (80)
Adam Smith called it the paradox of value: when an important good becomes plentiful, it costs far less than what people are willing to pay for it. The difference is called consumer surplus, and the explosion of this surplus over time is impossible to tabulate. Economists are the first to point out that their measures, like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, capture the price of everything but the value of nothing. (82)
What launched the Great Escape? The most obvious cause was the application of science to the improvement of material life, leading to what the (82) economic historical Joel Mokyr calls “the enlightened economy.” …trial and error is a profusely branching free of possibilities, most of which lead nowhere, and the tree can be pruned by the application of science, accelerating the rate of discovery. (83)
One was the development of institutions that lubricated the exchange of goods, services, and ideas…
…open economies in which anyone could sell anything to anyone, and their transactions were protected by the rule of law, property rights, enforceable contracts, and institutions like banks, corporations, and government agencies that run by fiduciary duties rather than personal connections. (83)
The third innovation, after science and institutions, was a change in values: an endorsement of what the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls bourgeois virtue. … Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophies valorized the spirit of commerce for its ability to dissolve sectarian hatreds:… (84)
…by depicting men content, and content to be content–differing, but agreeing to differ–the philosophe pointed towards a rethinking of the summer bonum, a shift from God-fearingness to a selfhood more psychologically oriented. The Enlightenment thus translated the ultimate question ‘How can I be saved?’ into the pragmatic ‘How can I be happy?’–thereby heralding a new praxis of personal and social adjustment. – Roy Porter
The Great Escape is becoming the Great Convergence. (85)
Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class. (86)
The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works. (89)
The death of Mao Zedong is emblematic of three of ht major causes of the Great Convergence. (90)
| The first is the decline of communism (together with intrusive socialism). (90)
[Steven] Radelet’s second explanation of the Great Convergence is leadership. (91)
A third cause was the end of the Cold War. (91)
…[war is] development in reverse. – Paul Collier
A fourth cause is globalization, in particular the explosion in trade made possible by container ships and jet airplanes and by the liberalization of tariffs and other barriers to investment and trade. (92)
Progress consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package–as if we had to make a yes-or-no decision on whether the Industrial Revolution, or globalization, is a good thing or bad thing, exactly as each has unfolded in every detail. Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social process as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms. (94)
| The last, and in many analyses the most important, contributor to the Great Convergence is science and technology. Life is getting cheaper, in a good way. (94)
Though it’s easy to sneer at national income as a shallow and materialistic measure, it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing, as we will repeatedly see in the chapters to come. Most obviously, GDP per capita correlates with longevity, health, and nutrition. Less obviously, it correlates with higher ethical values like peace, freedom, human rights, and tolerance. (96)
CHAPTER 9. INEQUALITY
The starting point for understanding inequality in the context of human progress is to recognize that income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being. (98)
From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough. – Harry Frankfurt, On Inequality
cf. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Inequality is seen as a harbinger of opportunity, a sing that education and other routes to upward mobility might pay off for them and their children. (101)
…people prefer un-(101)equal distributions, both among fellow participants int he lab and among citizens in their country, as long as they sense that the allocation is fair: that the bonuses go to harder workers, more generous helpers, or even the lucky winners of an impartial lottery. … People are content with economic inequality as long as they feel the the country is meritocratic, and they get angry when they feel it isn’t. Narratives about the causes of inequality loom larger in people’s minds than the existence of inequality. (102)
What happens when a society starts to generate substantial wealth? An increase in absolute inequality (the difference between the richest and poorest) is almost a mathematical necessity. In the absence of an Income Distribution Authority that parcels out identical shares, some people are bound to take greater advantage of the new opportunities than others, whether by luck, skill, or effort, and they will reap disproportionate rewards. (103)
cf. Kuznets curve
[no online figure 9-1: International inequality, 1820-2013]
[no online figure 9-2: Global inequality, 1820-2011]
[no online figure 9-3: Inequality, UK and US, 1688-2013]
The historian Walter Scheidel identifies “Four Horsemen of Leveling”: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative rev-(106)elation, state collapse, and lethal pandemics. (107)
All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for. – Walter Scheidel
…modernity has brought a more benign way to reduce inequality. As we have seen, a market economy is the best poverty-reduction program we know of for an entire country. It is ill-equipped, however, to provide for individuals within that country who have nothing to exchange: the young, the old, the sick, the unlucky, and others whose skills and labor are not valuable enough to others for them to earn a decent living in return. (107)
…the goal is to raise the bottom, not lower the top, even if if in practice the top is lowered. (107)
Those who condemn modern capitalist societies for callousness toward the poor are probably unaware of how little the pre-capitalist societies of the past spent on poor relief. It’s not just that they had less to spend in absolute terms; they spent a smaller proportion of their wealth. A much smaller proportion: from the Renaissance through the early 20th century, European countries spent an average of 1.5 percent of their GDP on poor relief, education, and other social transfers. (107)
…sometimes called the Egalitarian Revolution, modern societies now devote a substantial chunk of their wealth to health, education, pensions, and income support. (107)
Social spending now takes up a median of 22 percent of their GDP. (108)
Though I am skittish about any notion of historical inevitability, cosmic forces, or mystical arcs of justice, some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force. (109)
cf. Wagner’s Law
[no online figure 9-5: Income gains, 1988-2008]
How do we reconcile the obvious improvements in living standards in recent decades with the conventional wisdom of economic stagnation? Economists point to four ways in which inequality statistics can paint a misleading picture of the way people live their lives, each depending on a distinction we have examined. (114)
The first is the difference between relative and absolute prosperity. … What’s relevant to well-being is how much people earn, not how high they rank. (114)
The second confusion is the one between anonymous and longitudinal data. (114)
A third reason that rising inequality has not made the lower classes worse off is that low incomes have been mitigated by social transfers. (115)
[no online figure 9-6: Poverty, US, 1960-2016]
When poverty is defined in terms of what people consume rather than what they earn, we find that the American poverty rate has declined by ninety percent since 1960, from 30 percent of the population to just 3 percent. The two forces that have famously increased inequality in income have at the same time decreased inequality in what maters. The first, globalization, may produce winners and losers in income, but in consumption it makes almost everyone a winner. … The second force, technology, continually revolutionizes the meaning of income (as we saw in the discussion of the paradox of value in chapter 8). A dollar today, no matter how heroically adjusted for inflation, busy far more betterment of life than a dollar yesterday. It buys things that didn’t exist, like refrigeration, electricity, toilets, vaccinations, telephones, contraception, and air travel, and it transforms things that do exist, such as a party line patched by a switchboard operator to a smartphone with unlimited talk time. (117)
Income inequality, in sum, is not a counterexample to human progress, and we are not living in a dystopia of falling incomes that has reversed the centuries-long rise in prosperity. (119)
Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing. (120)
In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off. (120)
CHAPTER 10. THE ENVIRONMENT
I won’t pretend that all the trends are positive or that the problems facing us are minor. But I will present a way of thinking about these problems that differs from the lugubrious conventional wisdom and offers a constructive alternative to the radicalism or fatalism it encourages. The key idea is that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge. (121)
Starting in the 1970s, the mainstream environmental movement latched onto a quasi-religious ideology, greenism… (122)
Recently an alternative approach to environmental protection has been championed…called Ecomodernism, Ecopragmatism, Earth Optimism, and the Blue-Green or Turquoise movement, though we can also think of it as Enlightenment Environmentalism or Humanistic Environmentalism. (122)
Ecomodernism begins with the realization that some degree of solution is an inescapable consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (123)
No product of agriculture is the slightest bit natural to an ecologist! You take a nice complex ecosystem, chop it into rectangles, clear it to the ground, and hammer it into perpetual early success! you bust its sod, flatten it flat, and drench it with vast quantities of constant water! Then you populate it with uniform mono crops of profoundly damaged plants incapable of living on their own! Every food plant is a pathetic narrow specialist in one skill, inbred for thousands of years to a state of genetic idiocy! Those plants are so fragile, they had to domesticate humans just to take endless care of them. – Stuard Brand, Whole Earth discipline: Why dense cities, nuclear power, transgenic crops, restored woodlands, and geoengineering are necessary
A second realization of the ecomodernist movement is that industrialization has been good for humanity. (123)
The third premise is that the tradeoff that pits human well-being against environmental damage can be renegotiated by technology. (124)
Indeed, a naïve faith in stasis has repeatedly led to prophecies of environmental doomsdays that never happened. (125)
| The first is the “population bomb,” which (as we saw in chapter 7) defused itself. When countries get richer and better educated, they pass through what demographers call the demographic transition. (125)
[no online figure 10-1: Population and population growth, 1750-2015 and projected to 2100]
The flaw has been pointed out many times. Humanity does not suck resources from the earth like a straw in a milkshake until a gurgle tells it that the container is empty. Instead, as the most easily extracted supply of a resource becomes scarcer, its price rises, encouraging people to conserve it, get at the less accessible deposits, or find cheaper and more plentiful substitutes. (127)
| Indeed, it’s a fallacy to think that people “need resources” in the first place. They need ways of growing food, moving around, lighting their homes, displaying information, and other sources of well-being. They satisfy these needs with ideas: with recipes, formulas, techniques, blue-prints, and algorithms for manipulating the physical world to give them what they want. (127)
In reality, societies have always abandoned a resource for ab better one along before the old one was exhausted. It’s often said that the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and that has been true of energy as well. “Plenty of wood and hay remained to be exploited when the world shifted to cool,” Ausubel notes. “Coal abounded when oil rose. Oil abounds now as methane [natural gas] rises.” As we will see, gas in turn may be replaced by energy (127) sources still lower in carbon well before the last cubic foot goes up in a blue flame. (128)
…the United States has slashed its emissions of five air pollutants by almost two-thirds. Over the same period, the population grew by more than 40 percent, and those people drive twice as many miles and became two and half times richer. (129)
[no online figure 10-3: Pollution, energy, and growth, US, 1970-2015]
[no online figure 10-4: Deforestation, 1700-2010]
[no online figure 10-5: Oil spills, 1970-2016]
[no online figure 10-6: Protected areas, 1990-2014]
Like all demonstrations of progress, reports on the improving state of the environment are often met with a combination of anger and illogic. The fact that many measures of environmental quality are improving does not mean that everything is OK, that the environment got better by itself, or that we can just sit back and relax. For the cleaner environment we enjoy today we must thank the arguments, activism, legislation, regulations, and treaties, and technological ingenuity of the people who sought to improve it in the past. We’ll need more of each to sustain the progress we’ve made, prevent reversals (particularly under the Trump presidency), and extend it to the wicked problems that still face us, such as the health of the oceans and, as we shall see, atmospheric greenhouse gases. (134)
| But for many reasons, it’s time to retire the morality play in which modern humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers who will hasten the apocalypse unless they undo the Industrial Revolution, renounce technology, and return to an ascetic harmony with nature. Instead, we can treat environmental protection as a problem to be solved: how can people live safe, comfortable, and stimulating lives with the least possible pollution and loss of natural habitats? Far from licensing complacency, our progress so far at solving this problem emboldens us to strive for more. It also points to the forces that pushed this progress along. (134)
| One key is to decouple productivity from resources: to get more human benefit from less matter and energy. This puts a premium on density. … (Ecomodernists point out that organic farming, which needs far more land to produce a kilogram of food, is neither green nor sustainable.) (134)
All these processes are helped along by another friend of the Earth, dematerialization. (135)
Something int he nature of technology, particularly information technology, works to decouple human flourishing from the exploitation of physical stuff. (136)
Just as we must not accept the narrative that humanity inexorably despoils every part of the environment, we must not accept the narrative that every part of the environment will rebound under our current practices. An enlightened environmentalism must face the facts hopeful or alarming, and one set of facts is unquestionably alarming: the effect of greenhouse gases on the earth’s climate. (136)
The great virtue of science is that a true hypothesis will, in the long run, withstand attempts to falsify it. (137)
…greenhouse gases, which are dominated by heavy industry (29 percent), buildings (18 percent), transport (15 percent), land-use change (15 percent), and the energy needed to supply energy (13 percent). (Livestock is responsible for 5.5 percent, mostly methane rather than CO2, and aviation for 1.5 percent.) …two psychological impediments we face in dealing with climate change. (140)
| The first is cognitive. People have trouble thinking in scale: they don’t differentiate among actions that would reduce CO2 emissions by thousands of tons, millions of tons, and billions of tons. Nor do they distinguish among level, rate, acceleration, and higher-order derivatives–between actions that would affect the rate of increase in CO2 emissions, affect the rate of CO2 emissions, affect the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, and affect global temperatures (which will rise even if the level of CO2 remains constant). Only the last of these matters, but if one doesn’t think in scale and in orders of change, one can be satisfied with policies that accomplish nothing. (140)
| The other impediment is moralistic. …the human moral sense is not particularly moral; it encourages dehumanization (“politicians are pigs”) and punitive aggression (“make the polluters pay”). Also, by conflating profligacy with evil and asceticism with virtue, the moral sense can sanctify pointless displays of sacrifice. (140)
The problem is that carbon emissions are a classic public goods game, also known as a Tragedy of the Commons. People benefit from everyone else’s sacrifices and suffer from their own, so everyone has an incentive to be a free rider and let everyone else make the sacrifice, and everyone suffers. (141)
How, then, should we deal with climate change? Deal with it we must. I agree with Pope Francis and the climate justice warriors that preventing climate change is a moral issue because it has the potential to harm billions, particularly the world’s poor. But morality is different from moralizing, and is often poorly served by it. (142)
…the modern world has been progressively decarbonizing. (142)
The oldest hydrocarbon fuel, dry wood, has a ratio of combustible carbon atoms to hydrogen atoms of about 10 to 1. The coal which replaced it during the Industrial Revolution has an average carbon-to-hydrogen ratio of 2 to 1. A petroleum fuel such as kerosene may have a ratio of 1 to 2. Natural gas is composed mainly of methane, whose chemical formula is CH4, with a ratio of 1 to 4. So as the industrial world climbed an energy ladder from wood to coal to oil to gas (the last transition accelerated in the 21st century but he abundance of shale gas from fracking), the ratio of carbon to hydrogen in its energy source steadily fell, and so did the amount of carbon that had to be burned to release a unit of energy (from 30 kg of carbon per gigajoule in 1850 to about 15 today). (143)
Carbon intensity for the world as a whole has been declining for half a century. (143)
[no online figure 10-7: Carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP), 1820-2014]
[no online figure 10-8: CO2 emissions, 1960-2015]
The long sweep of decarbonization shows that economic growth is not synonymous with burning carbon. (144)
Instead, decarbonization needs to be helped along with pushes from policy and technology, an idea called deep decarbonization. (145)
| It begins with carbon pricing:… (145)
A second key to deep carbonization brings up an inconvenient truth for the traditional Green movement: nuclear power is the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source. (146)
There is no credible path to reducing global carbon emissions without an enormous expansion of nuclear power. It is the only low carbon technology we have today with the demonstrated capability to generate large quantities of centrally generated electric power. – Nordhaus and Shellenberger
It’s often said that with climate change, those two know the most are the most frightened, but with nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened. (148)
The French have two kinds of reactors and hundreds of kinds of cheese, whereas in the United States the figures are reversed. – Ivan Selin
It’s not enough to stop thickening the greenhouse; at some point we have to dismantle it. (150)
An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that human need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them. It seeks the means to do so with the least harm to the planet and the living world. History suggests that this modern, pragmatic, and humanistic environmentalism can work. (154)
The economist Paul Romer distinguishes between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a greenhouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one. (154)
CHAPTER 11. PEACE
Searing images of desperate refugees from the Syrian civil war, many of them struggling to resettle in Europe, have led to the claim that the world now has more refugees than at any time in history. But this is another symptom of historical amnesia and the Availability bias. The political scientist Joshua Goldstein notes that today’s four million Syrian refugees are outnumbered by the ten million displaced by the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, the fourteen million displaced by the partition of India in 1947, and the sixty million displaced by World War II in Europe alone, eras when the world’s population was a fraction of what it is now. (160)
The world is not the problem. Syria is the problem…The policies and practices that ended wars [elsewhere] can with effort and intelligence end wars today in South Sudan, Yemen, and perhaps even Syria. – Joshua Goldstein
[no online figure 11-3: Genocide deaths, 1956-2016]
One can never use the word “fortunately” in connection with the killing of innocents, but the numbers in the 21st century are a fraction of those in earlier decades. (162)
Wars begin in the minds of men. – UNESCO motto
And indeed we find that the turn away from war consists in more than just a reduction in wars and war deaths; it also may be seen in nations’ preparations for war. The prevalence of conscription, the size of armed forces, and the level of global military spending as a percentage of GDP have all decreased in recent decades. Most important, there have been changes in the minds of men (and women).
…not so long ago it was war that was considered worthy. War was glorious, thrilling, spiritual, manly, noble, heroic, altruistic–a cleansing purgative for the effeminacy, selfishness, consumerism, and hedonism of decadent bourgeois society. (165)
[War] enlarges the mind of a people and raises their character – Alexis de Tocqueville
[War] is life itself. – Emile Zola
[War is] the foundation of all the arts…[and] the high virtues and faculties of man. – John Ruskin
Over the long run, a world in which all parties refrain from war is better for everyone. Inventions such as trade, democracy, economic development, peace-keeping forces, and international law and norms are tools that help build that world. (166)
CHAPTER 12. SAFETY
The inventor of the highway guard rail did not get a Nobel Prize, nor are humanitarian awards given to designers of clearer prescription drug labels. Yet humanity has benefited tremendously from unsung efforts that have decimated the death toll from every kind of injury. (168)
This version of historical pessimism may be called root-causism: the pseudo-profound ida that every social ill is a symptom of some deep moral sickness and can never be mitigated by simplistic treatments which fall to cure the gangrene at the core. The problem with root-causism is not that real-(169)world problems are simple but the opposite: they are more complex than a typical root-cause theory allows, especially when the theory is based on moralizing rather than data. So complex, in fact, that treating the symptoms may be the best way of dealing with the problem, because it does not require omniscience about the intricate tissue of actual causes. (170)
[no online figure 12-1: Homicide deaths, Western Europe, US, and Mexico, 1300-2015]
[no online figure 12-1: Homicide deaths, 1967-2015]
It begins with law enforcement. As Thomas Hobbes argued during the Age of Reason, zones of anarchy are always violent. It’s not because everyone wants to prey on everyone else, but because in the absence of a government the threat of violence can be self-inflating. (173)
This “Hobbesian trap,” as it is sometimes called, can easily set off cycles of feuding and vendetta: you have to be at least as violent as your adversaries lest you become their doormat. … A disinterested third party with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force–that is, a state with a police force and judiciary–can nip this cycle in the bud. Not only does it disincentivize aggressors by the threat of punishment, but it reassures everyone else that the aggressors are disincentivized and thereby relieves them o the need for belligerent self-defense. (173)
An effective rule of law, based on legitimate law enforcement, victim protection, swift and fair adjudication, moderate punishment, and humane prisons is critical to sustainable reductions in lethal violence. – M. Eisner
The adjectives effective, legitimate, swift, fair, moderate, and humane differentiate his advice from the get-tough-on-crime rhetoric favored by right-wing politicians. (174)
Together with the presence of law enforcement, the legitimacy of the regime appears to matter,… (174)
Also provably effective is cognitive behavioral therapy. … It is a set of protocols designed to override the habits of thought and behavior that lead to criminal acts. (175)
[no online figure 12-3: Motor vehicle accident deaths, US, 1921-2015]
Wealth buys life. (178)
The Brooklyn Dodgers, before they moved to Los Angeles, had been named after the city’s pedestrians, famous for their skill ta darting out of the way of hurtling streetcars. (179)
[no online figure 12-4: Pedestrian deaths, US, 1927-2015]
American workmen are subjected to peril of life and limb as great as a soldier in time of war. – President Benjamin Harrison
The safeguards spread to other occupations in the early decades of the 20th century, the Progressive Era. (186)
[no online figure 12-7: Occupational accident deaths, US, 1913-2015]
[no online figure 12-8: Natural disaster deaths, 1900-2015]
[no online figure 12-9: Lightning strike deaths, US, 1900-2015]
Who will live and who will die are not inscribed in a Book of Life. They are affected by human knowledge and agency, as the world becomes more intelligible and life becomes more precious. (190)
CHAPTER 13. TERRORISM
Terrorism is a unique hazard because it combines major dread with minor harm. I will not count trends in terrorism as an example of progress, since they don’t show the long-term decline we’ve seen for disease, hunger, poverty, war, violent crime, and accidents. But I will show that terrorism is a distraction in our assessment of progress, and, in away, a backhanded tribute to that progress. (191)
[no online figure 13-1: Terrorism deaths, 1970-2015]
Modern terrorism is a by-product of the vast reach of the media. A group or an individual seeks a slice of the world’s attention by the one guaranteed means of attracting it: killing innocent people, especially in circumstances in which readers of the news can imagine themselves. News media gobble the bait and give the atrocities saturation coverage. The Availability heuristic kicks in and people become stricken with a fear that is unrelated to the level of danger. (195)
Indeed, the rise of terrorism in public awareness is not a sign of how dangerous the world has become but the opposite. (197)
Over the long run, terrorist movements sputter out as their small-scale violence fails to a achieve their strategic goals, even as it causes local misery and fear. … We may never drive the already low numbers of terrorist casulties to zero, but we can remember that terror about terrorism is a sign not of how dangerous our society has become, but of how safe. (198)
CHAPTER 14. DEMOCRACY
Since the first governments appeared around five thousand years ago, humanity has tried to steer a course between the violence of anarchy and the violence of tyranny. (199)
One can think of democracy as a form of government that threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself. A good democratic gov-(199)ernment allows people to pursue their lives in safety, protected from the violence of anarchy, and in freedom, protected from the violence of tyranny. For that reason alone, democracy is a major contributor to human flourishing. But it’s not the only reason: democracies also have higher rates of economic growth, fewer wars and genocides, healthier and better-educated citizens, and virtually no famines. If the world has become more democratic over time, that is progress. (200)
In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that democracy should be understood not as the answer to the question “Who should rule?” (namely, “The People”), but as a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed. … Democracy, [John Mueller] suggests, is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain: “It comes about when the people effectively agree not to use violence to replace the leadership, and the leadership leaves them free to try to dislodge it by any other means.” (205)
The freedom to complain rests on an assurance that the government won’t punish or silence the complainer. The front line in democratization, then, is constraining the government from abusing its monopoly on force to brutalize its uppity citizens. (206)
A series of international agreements beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, drew red lines around thuggish governmental tactics, particularly torture, extrajudicial killings, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the ugly transitive verb coined during the Argentinian military regime of 1974-84, to disappear someone. (207)
[no online figure 14-2: Human rights, 1949-2014]
[no online figure 14-3: Death penalty abolitions, 1863-2016]
The top five countries that still execute people in significant numbers form an unlikely club: China and Iran (more than a thousand apiece (209) annually), Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. … This American exceptionalism illuminates the tortuous path by which moral progress proceeds from philosophical arguments to facts on the ground. It also showcases the tension between the two conceptions of democracy we have been examining: a form of government whose power to inflict violence on its citizens is sharply circumscribed, and a form of government that carries out the will of the majority of its people. The reason the United States is a death-penalty outlier is that it is, in one sense, too democratic. (210)
Southern states have a longstanding culture of honor, with its ethos of justified retaliation, and not surprisingly, American executions are concentrated in a handful of Southern states, mainly Texas, Georgia, and Missouri–indeed, in a handful of counties in those states. (211)
[no online figure 14-4: Executions, US, 1780-2016]
The American death penalty is not so much being abolished as falling apart, piece by piece. (212)
First, advances in forensic science, particularly DNA fingerprinting, have shown that innocent people have almost certainly been put to death, a scenario that unnerves even ardent supporters of the death penalty. Second, the grisly business of snuffing out a life has evolved from the gory sadism of crucifixion and disembowelment, to the quick but still graphic ropes, bullets, and blades, to the invisible agents of gas and electricity, to the pseudo-medical procedure of lethal injection. But doctors refuse to administer it, pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply the drugs, and witnesses are disturbed by the death throes during botched attempts. Third, the chief alternative to the death penalty, life in prison, has become more reliable as escape-proof and riot-proof penitentiaries have been perfected. Fourth, as the rate of violent crime has plummeted (chapter 12), people feel less need for draconian remedies. Fifth, because the death penalty is seen as such a momentous undertaking, the summary executions of earlier eras have given way to a drawn-out legal ordeal. The sentencing phase after a guilty verdict is tantamount to a second trial, and a death sentence triggers a lengthy process of reviews and appeals–so lengthy that most death-row prisoners die of natural causes. Meanwhile, the billable hours from expensive lawyers cost the state eight times as much as life in prison. Sixth, social disparities in death sentences, with poor and black defendants disproportionately being put to death (“Those without the capital get the punishment”), have weighed increasingly on the nation’s conscience. Finally, the Supreme Court, which is repeatedly tasked with formulating a consistent rationale for this crazy quilt, has struggled to rationalize the practice, and has chipped away at it piece by piece. In recent years it has ruled that states may not execute juveniles, people with intellectual disabilities, or perpetrators of crimes other than murder, and it came close to ruling against (212) the hit-and-miss method of lethal injection. Court watchers believe it is only a matter of time before the Justices are forced to confront the caprice of the whole macabre practice head on, invoke “evolving standards of decency,” and strike it down as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment once and for all. (213)
| The uncanny assemblage of scientific, institutional, legal, and social forces all pushing to strip government of its power to oil makes it seem as if there really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice. More prosaically, we are seeing a moral principle–Life is sacred, so killing is onerous–become distributed across a wide range of actors and institutions that have to cooperate to make the death penalty possible. (213)
[via: Sounds like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist and evildoer.” (Matthew 5:38)]
CHAPTER 15. EQUAL RIGHTS
But it’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come. (215)
Like other forms of progressophobia, the denial of advances in rights has been abetted by sensational headlines. (215)
The goal of this chapter is to plumb the depths of the current that carries equal rights along. Is it an illusion, a turbulent whirlpool atop a stagnant pond? Does it easily change direction and flow backwards? Or does justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a mighty stream? [Amos 5:24]
[no online figure 15-1: Racist, sexist, and homophobic opinions, US, 1987-2012]
As we will see in chapter 20, Trump’s success, like that of right-wing populists in other Western countries, is better understood as the mobilization of an aggrieved and shrinking demographic in a polarized political landscape than as the sudden reversal of a century-long movement toward equal rights. (219)
[no online figure 15-3: Hate crimes, US, 1996-2015]
[no online figure 15-4: Rape and domestic violence, US, 1993-2014]
[no online figure 15-5: Decriminalization of homosexuality, 1791-2016]
As societies shift from agrarian to industrial to informational, their citizens become less anxious about fending off enemies and other existential threats and more eager to express their ideals and to pursue opportunities in life. This shifts their values toward greater freedom for themselves and others. (224)
Any secular (in the sense of historical or long-term) change in human behavior, then, can take place for three reasons. The (224) trend can be a Period Effect: a change in the times, the zeitgeist, or the national mood that lifts or lowers all the boats. It can be an Age (or Life Cycle) Effect: people change as they grow from mewling infant to whining schoolboy to sighing lover to round-bellied justice, and so on. Since there are booms and busts in a nation’s birthrate, the population average will automatically change with the changing proportion of young, middle-aged, and old people, even if the prevailing values at each age are the same. Finally, the trend can be a Cohort (or Generational Effect): people born at a certain time may be stamped with traits they carry through their lives, and the average for the population will reflect the changing mixture of cohorts as one generation exists the stage and another enters. (225)
[no online figure 15-6: Liberal values across time and generations, developed countries, 1980-2005]
[no online figure 15-7: Liberal values across (extrapolated), world’s culture zones, 1960-2006]
The statistical result vindicates a key insight of the Enlightenment: knowledge and sound institutions lead to moral progress. (228)
[no online figure 15-8: Victimization of children, US, 1993-2012]
[no online figure 15-9: Child labor, 1850-2012]
CHAPTER 16. KNOWLEDGE
Homo sapiens, “knowing man,” is the species that uses information to resist the rot of entropy and the burdens of evolution. (233)
[via: What is the effect of translating “sapiens” as “knowing” as opposed to “wise?”]
So much changes when you get an education! You unlearn dangerous superstitions, such as that leaders rule by divine right, or that people who don’t look like you are less than human. You learn that there are other cultures that are as tied to their way of life as you are to yours, and for no better or worse reason. You learn that charismatic saviors have led their countries to disaster. You learn that your own convictions, no matter how heartfelt or popular, may be mistaken. You learn that there are better and worse ways to live, and that other people and other cultures may know things that you don’t. Not least, you learn that there are ways of resolving conflicts without violence. All these epiphanies militate against knuckling under the rule of an autocrat or joining a crusade to subdue and kill your neighbors. Of course, none of this wisdom is guaranteed, particularly when authorities promulgate their own dogmas, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories–and, in a backhanded compliment to the power of knowledge, stifle the people and ideas that might discredit them. (235)
| Studies of the effects of education confirm that educated people really are more enlightened. They are less racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian. They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech. They are more likely to vote, volunteer, express political views, and belong to civic associations such as unions, political parties, and religious and community organizations. They are also likelier to trust their fellow citizens–a prime ingredient of the precious elixir called social capital which gives people the confidence to contract, invest, and obey the law without fearing that they are chumps who will be shafted by everyone else. (235)
[no online figure 16-1: Literacy, 1475-2010]
[no online figure 16-2: Basic education, 1820-2010]
Unlike measures of well-being that have a natural floor of zero, like war and disease, or a natural ceiling of a hundred percent, like nutrition and literacy, the quest for knowledge is unbounded.
[via: Ecclesiastes 12:12]
[no online figure 16-3: Years of schooling, 1870-2010]
Though we see little or no global convergence in the length of formal schooling, an ongoing revolution in the dissemination of knowledge makes the gap less relevant. (238)
[no online figure 16-4: Female literacy, 1750-2014]
Intelligence Quotient (IQ) scores have been rising for more than a century, in every part of the world, at a rate of about three IQ points (a fifth of a standard deviation) per decade. (240)
…the Flynn effect is no longer in doubt,… (241)
[no online figure 16-5: IQ gains, 1909-2013]
Stein’s Law: Things that can’t go on forever don’t. The Flynn effect is now petering out in some of the countries in which it has been going on the longest. (241)
Food, health, and environmental quality are among the perquisites of a richer society, and not surprisingly, the Flynn effect is correlated with increases in GDP per capita. (242)
The Flynn effect is not an increase in g, the general intelligence factor that underlies every subtype of intelligence (verbal, spatial, mathematical, memory, and so on) and is the aspect of intelligence most directly affected by the genes. (242)
…the steepest gains have not been found int he concrete skills that are directly taught in school, such as general knowledge, arithmetic, and vocabulary. They have been found int eh abstract, fluid kinds of intelligence, the ones tapped by similarity questions (“What do an hour and a year have in common?”), analogies (“BIRD is to EGG as TREE is to what?”), and visual matrices (where the test-taker has to choose a complex geometric figure that fits into a rule-governed sequence). What has increased the most, then, is an analytic mindset: putting concepts into abstract categories (an hour and a year are “units of time”), mentally dissecting objects into their parts and relationships rather than absorbing them as wholes, and placing oneself in a hypothetical world defined by certain rules and exploring its logical implications while setting aside everyday experience. (243)
Flynn has speculated, and I agree, that abstract reasoning can even hone the moral sense. The cognitive act of extricating oneself from the particulars of one’s life and pondering “There but for the fortune go I” or “What would the world be like if everyone did this?” can be a gateway to compassion and ethics. (243)
[R. W. Hafer] found that a country’s average IQ predicted its subsequent growth in GDP per capita, together with growth in noneconomic measures of well-being like longevity and leisure time. (244)
Policies that hurry the Flynn effect along, namely investments in health, nutrition, and education, could make a country richer, better governed, and happier down the road. (245)
The very fact that so many dimensions of well-being are correlated across countries and decades suggests there may be a coherent phenomenon lurking beneath them–what statisticians call a general factor, a principal component, or a hidden, latent, or intervening variable. We even have a name for that factor: progress. (245)
…life expectancy, GDP per capita, and education (being healthy, wealthy, and wise). (245)
[no online figure 16-6: Global well-being, 1820-2015]
To behold this graph is to apprehend human progress at a glance. And packed into the lines are two vital subplots. One is that although the world remains highly unequal, every region has been improving, and the worst-off parts of the world today are better off than the best-off parts not long ago. … The other is that while almost every indicator of human well-being correlates with wealth, the lines don’t just reflect a wealthier world: longevity, health, and knowledge have increased even in many of the times and places where wealth has not. The fact that all aspects of human flourishing tend to improve over the long run even when they are not in perfect sync vindicates the idea that there is such a thing as progress. (246)
CHAPTER 17. QUALITY OF LIFE
This chapter isa bout a broader cultural pessimism: the worry that all that extra healthy life span and income may not have increased human flourishing after all if they just consign people to a rat race of frenzied careerism, hollow consumption, mindless entertainment, and soul-deadening anomie. (247)
You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think. – Dorothy Parker
But an expansive cafeteria of opportunities to enjoy the aesthetic, intellectual, social, cultural, and natural delights of the world, regardless of which ones people put on they trays, is the ultimate form of progress.
Time is what life is made of, and one metric of progress is a reduction in the time people must devote to keeping themselves alive at the expense of the other, more enjoyable things in life. (248)
…in 1870 Western Europeans worked an average of 66 hours a week (the Belgians worked 72), while Americans worked 62 hours. Over the past century and a half, workers have increasingly been emancipated from their wage slavery, more dramatically in social-democratic Western Europe (where they now work 28 fewer hours a week) than in the go-getter United States (where they work 22 fewer hours). (249)
[no online figure 17-1: Work hours, Western Europe and US, 1870-2000]
Think of it this way: The average American now retires at age 62. One hundred years ago, the average American died at age 51. – Morgan Housel
[no online figure 17-2: Retirement, US, 1880-2010]
[no online figure 17-3: Utilities, appliances, and housework, US, 1900-2015]
…the inflation-adjusted price of a million lumen-hours of light (about what you would need to read for two and a half hours a day for a year) has fallen twelve thousandfold since the Middle Ages (once called the Dark Ages), £35,500 in 1300 to less than £3 today. (253)
[no online figure 17-4: Cost of light, England, 1300-2006]
The real price of every thing…is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. – Adam Smith
A Babylonian in 1750 BCE would have had to (253) labor fifty hours to spend one hour reading his cuneiform tablets by a sesame-oil lamp. In 1800, an Englishman had to toil for six hours to burn a tallow candle for an hour. (Imagine planning your family budget around that–you might settle for darkness.) In 1880, you’d need to work fifteen minutes to burn a kerosene lamp for an hour; in 1950, eight seconds for the same hour from a compact fluorescent bulb–a 43,000-fold leap in affordability in two centuries. And the progress wasn’t finished: Nordhaus published his article before LED bulbs flooded the market. Soon, cheap, solar-powered LED lamps will transform the lives of the more than one billion people without access to electricity, allowing them to read the news or do their homework without huddling around an oil drum filled with burning garbage. (254)
[no online figure 17-5: Spending on necessities, US, 1929-2016]
Figure 17-5 shows that in 1929 Americans spent more than 60 percent of their disposable income on necessities; by 2016 that had fallen to a third. (255)
[no online figure 17-6: Leisure time, US, 1965-2015]
…overall, electronic technology has been a priceless gift to human closeness. (256)
…the plunging cost of photography… (257)
…the shrinking cost of transportation… (257)
[no online figure 17-7: Cost of air travel, US, 1979-2015]
…we must concede that life is better when people can expand they awareness of our planet and species rather than being imprisoned within walking distance of their place of birth. With the rise of disposable income and the declining cost of plane travel, more people have been exploring the world, as we see in figure 17-8. (258)
[no online figure 17-8: International tourism, 1995-2015]
A combination of Internet technology and crowdsourcing from thousands of volunteers has led to flabbergasting access to the great works of humankind. There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow. … Better still, the world’s cultural patrimony is now available not just to the rich and well-located but to anyone who is connected to the vast web of knowledge, which means most of humanity and soon all of it. (261)
CHAPTER 18. HAPPINESS
But are we any happier? If we have a shred of cosmic gratitude, we ought to be. (262)
Though in comparisons within a country richer people are happier, in comparisons across countries the richer ones appeared to be no happier than poorer ones. And in comparisons over time, people did not appear to get happier as their countries got richer. (263)
According to the theory of the hedonic treadmill, people adapt to changes in their fortunes, like eyes adapting to light or darkness, and quickly return to a genetically determined baseline. According to the theory of social comparison (or reference groups, status anxiety, or relative deprivation, which we examined in chapter 9), people’s happiness is determined by how well they think they are doing relative to their compatriots, so as the country as a whole gets richer, no one feels happier–indeed, if their country becomes more unequal, then even if they get richer they may feel worse. (263)
…we must first assuage the critics’ incredulity over the possibility that happiness can even be measured. (264)
| Artists, philosophers, and social scientists agree that well-being is not a single dimension. People can be better off in some ways and worse off in others. Let’s distinguish the major ones. (264)
| We can begin with objective aspects of well-being: the gifts we deem intrinsically worthwhile whether or not their possessors appreciate them. At the top of that list is life itself; also on it are health, education, freedom, and leisure. … One rationale for this apparent paternalism is that life, health, and freedom are prerequisites (264) to everything else, including the very act of pondering what is worthwhile in life, and so they are worthy by their very nature. (265)
Among these intrinsic goods is freedom or autonomy: the availability of options to lead a good life (positive freedom) and the absence of coercion that prevents a person from choosing among them (negative freedom). (265)
The ultimate measure of happiness would consists of a lifetime integral or weighted sum of how happy people are feeling and how long they feel that way. … The next best thing is to ask people how they are feeling at the time, or how they remember having felt during the day or week before. (266)
| This brings us to the other side of well-being, people’s evaluations of how they are living their lives. … Social scientists have become resigned to the fact that happiness, satisfaction, and best-versus-worst-possible life are blurred in people’s minds and that it’s often easiest just to average them together. (266)
| Emotions and evaluations are, of course, related, though imperfectly: an abundance of happiness makes for a better life, but an absence of worry and sadness does not. And this brings us to the final dimension of a good life, meaning and purpose. This is the quality that, together with happiness, goes into Aristotle’s ideal of eudaemonia or “good spirit.” Happiness isn’t everything. We can make choices that leave us unhappy in the short term but fulfilled over the course of a life, such as raising a child, writing a book, or fighting for a worthy cause. (267)
Happy people live in the present; those with meaningful lives have a narrative about their past and a plan for the future. Those with happy but meaningless lives are takers and beneficiaries; those with meaningful but unhappy lives are givers and benefactors. Parents get meaning form their children, but not necessarily happiness. Time spent with friends makes a life happier; time spent with loved ones makes it more meaningful. Stress, worry, arguments, challenges, and struggles make a life unhappier but more meaningful. … Finally, meaning is about expressing rather than satisfying the self: it is enhanced by activities that define the person and build a reputation. (267)
| We can see happiness as the output of an ancient biological feedback system that tracks our progress in pursuing auspicious signs of fitness in a natural environment. We are happier, in general, when we are healthy, comfortable, safe, provisioned, socially connected, sexual, and loved. The function of happiness is to goad us into seeking the keys to fitness:… (267)
Today we have much more evidence on wealth and happiness, and it shows there is no Easterlin paradox. Not only are richer people in a given country happier, but people in richer countries are happier, and as countries get richer (268) over time, their people get happier. (269)
[no online figure 18-1: Life satisfaction and income, 2006]
Absolute income, not relative income, is hat matters most for happiness… (270)
Happiness fluctuates with the times, especially the changing economy–not for nothing do economists call a composite of the inflation rate and the unemployment rate the Misery Index… (273)
Has the Internet created, in the words of another, “an atomized world without human contact or emotion”? To anyone who believes there is such a thing as human nature, it seems unlikely, and the data show it is false: there is no loneliness epidemic. (274)
cf. Still Connected
People try to adapt to changing circumstances so as to protect their most highly valued ends, which include sustaining the volume and quality of their personal relationships–time with children, contact with relatives, a few sources of intimate support. – Claude S. Fischer
[no online figure 18-2: Loneliness, US students, 1978-2011]
On the contrary, the women among them are less stressed, with one telling exception: they get upset when they learn that someone they care about has suffered an illness, a death in the family, or some other setback. Social media users care too much, not too little, about other people, and they empathize with them over their troubles rather than envying them their successes. (277)
| Modern life, then, has not crushed our minds and bodies, turned us into atomized machines suffering from toxic levels of emptiness and isolation, or set us drifting apart without human contact or emotion. How did this hysterical misconception arise? Partly it came out of the social critic’s standard formula for sowing panic: Here’s an anecdote, therefore it’s a trend, therefore it’s a crisis. But partly it came from genuine changes in how people interact. People see each other less in traditional venues like clubs, churches, unions, fraternal organizations, and dinner parties, and more in informal gatherings and via digital media. …just because social life looks different today from the way it looked in the 1950s, it does not mean that humans, that quintessentially social species, have become any less social. (277)
A country’s suicide rate can soar or plummet when a convenient and effective method is widely available or taken away, such as coal gas in England in the first half of the 20th century, pesticides in many developing countries, and guns in the United States. (277)
[no online figure 18-3: Suicide, England, Switzerland, and US, 1860-2014]
We have just seen that the nation is not suffering from any epidemic of unhappiness, loneliness, or suicide, so an epidemic of depression seems unlikely, and it turns out to be an illusion. (280)
The expanding empire of psychopathology is a first-world problem, and in many ways a sign of moral progress. Recognizing a person’s suffering, even with diagnostic label, is a form of compassion, particularly when the suffering can be alleviated. (282)
Though in some surveys people have reported more symptoms of distress, anxiety that crosses the line into pathology is not at epidemic levels, and has shown no global increase since 1990. (283)
Everything is amazing. Are we really so unhappy? Mostly we are not. Developed countries are actually pretty happy, a majority of all countries have gotten happier, and as long as countries get richer they should get happier still. The dire warnings about plagues of loneliness, suicide, depression, and anxiety don’t survive fact-checking. And though every generation has worried that the next one is in trouble, as younger generations go the Millennials seem to be in pretty good shape, happier and mentally healthier than their helicoptering parents. (283)
A modicum of anxiety may be the price we pay for the uncertainty of freedom. It is another word for the vigilance, deliberation, and heart-searching that freedom demands. (285)
[no online figure 18-4: Happiness and excitement, US, 1972-2016]
Though people today are happier, they are not as happy as one might expect, perhaps because they have an adult’s appreciation of life, with all its worry and all its excitement. The original definition of Enlightenment, after all, was “human-kinds’ emergence from its self-incurred immaturity.” (289)
CHAPTER 19. EXISTENTIAL THREATS
For half a century the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse have been overpopulation, resource shortages, pollution, and nuclear war. They have recently been joined by a cavalry of more exotic knights: nanobots that will engulf us, robots that will enslave us, artificial intelligence that will turn us into raw materials, and Bulgarian teenagers who will brew a genocidal virus or take down the Internet from their bedrooms. (290)
cf. Our Final Hour
How should we think about the existential threats that lurk behind our incremental progress? No one can prophesy that a cataclysm will never happen, and this chapter contains no such assurance. But I will lay out a way to think about them, and examine the major menaces. Three of the threats–overpopulation, resource depletion, and pollution, including greenhouse gases–were discussed in chapter 10, and I will take the same approach here. Some threats are figments of cultural and historical pessimism. Others are genuine, but we can treat them not as apocalypses in waiting but as problems to be solved. (291)
…”collapse anxiety”: the fear that civilization may implode and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. (292)
Since we cannot replay history thousands of times and count the outcomes, a statement that some event will occur with a probability of .01 or .001 or .0001 or .00001 is essentially a readout of the assessor’s subjective confidence. This includes mathematical analyses in (292) which scientists plot the distribution of events in the past (like wars or cyberattacks) and show they fall into a power-law distribution, one with “fat” or “thick” tails, in which extreme events are highly improbable but not astronomically improbable. The math is of little help in calibrating the risk, because the scattershot data along the tail of the distribution generally misbehave, deviating from a smooth curve and making estimation impossible. All we know is that very bad things can happen. (293)
The Great Y2K panic does not mean that all warnings of potential catastrophes are false alarms, but it reminds us that we are vulnerable to techno-apocalyptic delusions. (294)
For this reason, the techno-apocalyptic claim that ours is the first civilization that can destroy itself is misconceived. (295)
The Robopocalypse is based on a muzzy conception of intelligence that owes more to the Great Chain of Being and a Nietzschean will to power than to a modern scientific understanding. In this conception, intelligence is an all-powerful, wish-granting potion that agents possess in different amounts. Humans have more of it than animals, and an artificially intelligent computer or robot of the future (“an AI,” in the new count-noun usage) will have more of it than humans. Since we humans have sued our moderate endowment to domesticate or exterminate less well-endowed animals (and since technologically advanced societies have enslaved or annihilated technologically primitive ones), it follows that a super smart AI would do the same to us. (296)
But the scenario makes about as much sense as the worry that since jet planes have surpassed the flying ability of eagles, someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle. The first fallacy is a confusion of intelligence with motivation–of beliefs with desires, inferences with goals, thinking with wanting. … It just so happens that the intelligence in one system, Homo sapiens, is a product of Darwinian natural selection, an inherently competitive process. … But it’s a mistake to confuse a circuit in the limbic brain of a certain species of primate with the very nature of intelligence. An artificially intelligent system that was designed rather than evolved could just as easily think like shoos, the bloody altruists in AI Capp’s comes strip Li’l Abner, who deploy their considerable ingenuity to barbecue themselves for he benefit of human eaters. There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors. Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They’re called women. (297)
| The second fallacy is to think of intelligence as a boundless continuum of potency, a miraculous elixir with the power to solve any problem, attain any goal. (297)
No one in civil engineering talks about ‘building bridges that don’t fall down.’ They just call it ‘building bridges.’ – Stuart Russell
Likewise, he notes, AI that is beneficial rather than dangerous is simply AI. (300)
The question I’ll consider is whether the grim facts should lead any reasonable person to conclude that humanity is screwed. … Has technological progress ironically left the world newly fragile? (301)
| No one can know with certainty, but when we replace worst-case dread with calmer consideration, the gloom starts to lift. Let’s start with the historical sweep: whether mass destruction by an individual is the natural outcome of the process set in motion by the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. According to this narrative, technology allows people to accomplish more and more with less and less, so given enough time, it will allow one individual to do anything–and given human nature, that means destroy everything. (301)
But Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine and author of What Technology Wants, argues that this is in fact not the way technology progresses. (301)
Kelly suggests that because of the social embeddedness of technology, the destructive power of a solitary individual has in fact not increased over time:
The more sophisticated and powerful a technology, the more people are needed to weaponize it. And the more people needed to weaponize it, the more societal controls work to defuse, or soften, or prevent harm from happening. I ad done additional thought. Even if you had a budget to hire a team of scientists whose job it was to develop a species-extinguishing bio weapon, or to take down the internet to zero, you probably still couldn’t do it. That’s because hundreds of thousands of man-years of effort have gone into preventing this from happening, in the case of the internet, and millions of years of evolutionary effort to prevent species death, in the case of biology. It is extremely hard to do, and the smaller the rogue team, the harder. The larger the team, the more societal influences. – Kevin Kelly, May 21, 2017.
Indeed, I venture that the proportion of brilliant terrorists in a population is even smaller than the proportion of terrorists multiplied by the proportion of brilliant people. Terrorism is a demonstrably ineffective tactic, and a mind that delights (303) in senseless mayhem for its own sake is probably not the brightest bulb in the box. (304)
A real-world comparison might be if an army invaded a country, then all got in line in front of people at the Department of Motor Vehicles so they couldn’t renew their licenses. IF that’s what war looks like in the 21st century, we have little to fear. – Bruce Schneier, Threat of ‘cyberwar’ has been hugely hyped
The Doomsday Clock, despite adorning a journal with “Scientists” in its title, does not track objective indicators of nuclear security; rather, it’s a propaganda stunt intended, in the words of its founder, “to preserve civilization by scaring men into rationality.” (309)
The historian Paul Boyer found that nuclear alarms actually encouraged the arms race by scaring the nation into pursuing more and bigger bombs, the better to deter the Soviets. Even the originator of the Doomsday Clock, Eugene Rabinowitch, came to regret his movement’s strategy: “While trying to frighten many into abject fear of blind hatred.” (311)
A positive agenda for removing the threat of nuclear war from the human condition would embrace several ideas. (311)
| The first is to stop telling everyone they’re doomed. (311)
[no online figure 19-1: Nuclear weapons, 1945-2015]
CHAPTER 20. THE FUTURE OF PROGRESS
The poor may not always be with us. (322)
The world is giving peace a chance. (322)
Life has been getting safer in every way. (323)
People are getting not just healthier, richer, and safer but freer. (323)
As people are getting healthier, richer, after, and freer, they re also becoming more literate, knowledgeable, and smarter. (323)
People are putting their longer, healthier, safer, freer, richer, and wiser lives to good use. (323)
A societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated, they have set their sights on the most pressing global challenges. (324)
For all the bleeding headlines, for all the crises, collapses, scandals, plagues, epidemics, and existential threats, these are accomplishments to savor. The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing. Scientists have exposed the workings of matter, life, and mind. Inventors have harnessed the laws of nature to defy entropy, and entrepreneurs have made their innovations affordable. Lawmakers have made people better off by discouraging acts that are individually beneficial but collectively harmful. Diplomats have done the same with nations. Scholars have perpetuate the treasury of knowledge and augmented the power of reason. Artists have expanded the circle of sympathy. Activists have pressured the powerful to overturn repressive measures, and their fellow citizens to change repressive norms. (324)
At the same time… (325)
Seven hundred million people in the world today live in extreme poverty. In the regions where they are concentrated, life expectancy is less than 60, and almost a quarter of the people are undernourished. Almost a million children die of pneumonia every year, half a million from diarrhea or malaria, and hundreds of thousands from measles and AIDS. A dozen wars are raging in the world, including one in which more than 250,000 people have died, and in 2015 at least ten thousand people were slaughtered in genocides. More than two billion people, almost a third of humanity, are oppressed in autocratic states. Almost a fifth of the world’s people lack a basic education; almost a sixth are illiterate. Every year five million people are killed in accidents, and more than 400,000 are murdered. Almost 300 million people in the world are clinically depressed, of whom almost 800,000 will die by suicide this year. (325)
My point in presenting the state of the world in these two ways is not to show that I can focus on the space in the glass as well as on the beverage. It’s to reiterate that progress is not utopia, and that there is room–indeed, an imperative–for us to strive to continue that progress. (326)
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason…On what prin-(327)caplet is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us? – Thomas Macaulay, 1830
No one really knows why productivity growth slacked off in the early 1970s or how to bring it back up. Some economists, like Robert Gordon in his 2016 The Rise and Fall of American Growth, point to demographic and macroeconomic headwinds, such as fewer working people supporting more retirees, a leveling off in the expansion of education, a rise in government debt, and the increase in inequality (which depresses demand for goods and services, because richer people spend less of their incomes than poorer people). (329)
Another explanation is cultural: America has lost its mojo. (329)
We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters. – Peter Thiel
Whatever its causes, economic stagnation is at the root of many other problems and poses a significant challenge for 21st-century policymakers. (329)
In addition to dematerialization, information technology has launched a process of demonetization. (332)
A very different threat to human progress is a political movement that seeks to undermine tis Enlightenment foundations. The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of a counter-Enlightenment movement called populism, more accurately, authoritarian populism. (333)
But will Donald Trump (and authoritarian populism more generally) really undo a quarter of a millennium of progress? There are reasons not to take poison just yet. If a movement has proceeded for decades or centuries, there are probably systematic forces behind it, and many stakeholders with an interest in its not being precipitously reversed. (337)
As for the battle against truth and fact, over the long run they have a built-in advantage: when you stop believing in them, they don’t go away. (338)
The deeper question is whether the rise of populist movements, whatever damage they do in the short term, represents the shape of things to come… (338)
But overt racism shades into resentment and distrust, and the overlap suggests that the regions of the country that gave Trump his Electoral College victory are those with the most resistance to the decades-long process of integration and the promotion of minority interests (particularly racial preferences, which they see as reverse discrimination against them). (340)
[no online figure 20-1: Populist support across generations, 2016]
The children have obtained what their parents and grandparents longed for–greater freedom, greater material welfare, a juster society; but the old ills are forgotten, and the children face new problems, brought about by the very solutions of the old ones, and these, even if they can in turn be solved, generate new situations, and with them new requirements–and so on, forever–and unpredictably. – Isaiah Berlin, “The pursuit of the ideal”
Such is the nature of progress. Pulling us forward are ingenuity, sympathy, and benign institutions. Pushing us back are the darker sides of human nature and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few parent positive difference is compounded over decades into what we might call civilization. … [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect. Which is why I tell people that my great optimism of the future is rooted in history. – Kevin Kelly, excerpt from a talk, shared in a personal communication; adapted from The Inevitable
I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibility. – Hans Rosling
PART III: REASON, SCIENCE, AND HUMANISM
Ideas matter. (249)
Enlightenment ideals, thus unchampioned, fade into the background as a bland default, and become a catch basin for every unsolved societal problem (of which there will always be many). Illiberal ideas like authoritarianism, tribalism, and magical thinking easily get the blood pumping, and have no shortage of champions. It’s hardly a fair fight. (349)
What follows are arguments directed at people who care about arguments. These arguments can matter, because practical men and women and madmen in authority are affected, directly or indirectly, by the world of ideas. (349)
CHAPTER 21. REASON
Opposing reason is, by definition, unreasonable. But that hasn’t stopped a slew of irrationalists from favoring the heart over the head, the limbic system over the cortex, blinking over thinking,… (351)
Liar’s Paradox, featuring the Cretan who says, “All Cretans are liars.”
We don’t believe in reason; we use reason… (352)
…internal coherence…fit with reality. Life is not a dream in which disconnected experiences appear in bewildering succession. And the application of reason to the world validates itself by granting us the ability to bend the world to our will, from curing infections to sending a man to the moon. (352)
…no Enlightenment thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently rational. (353)
…from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made. – Immanuel Kant
What they argued was that we ought to be rational, by learning to repress the fallacies and dogmas that so readily seduce us, and that we can be rational, collectively if not individually, by implementing institutions and adhering to norms that constrain our faculties, including free speech, logical analysis, and empirical testing. (353)
…real evolutionary psychology treats humans differently: not as two-legged antelopes but as the species that outsmarts antelopes. We are a cognitive species that depends on explanations of the world. Since the world is the way it is regardless of what people believe about it, there is a strong selection pressure for an ability to develop explanations that are true. (353)
But reality is a mighty selection pressure, so a species that lives by ideas must have evolved with an ability to prefer correct ones. The challenge for us today is to design an informational environment in which that ability to prevails over the ones that lead us into folly. The first step is to pinpoint why an otherwise intelligent species is so easily led into folly. (355)
Professing a belief in evolution is not a gift of scientific literacy, but an affirmation of loyalty to a liberal secular subculture as opposed to a conservative religious one. (356)
In a revolutionary analysis of reason in the public sphere, the legal scholar Dan Kahan has argued that certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what stye know but who they are. (357)
Kahan concludes that we are all actors in a Tragedy of the Belief Commons: what’s rational for every individual to believe (based on esteem) can be irrational for the society as a whole to act upon (based on reality). (358)
…blue lies. A white lie is told for the benefit of the hearer; a blue lie is told for the benefit of an in-group (originally, fellow police officers). While some of the conspiracy theorists may be genuinely misinformed, most express these beliefs for the purpose of performance rather than truth: they are trying to antagonize liberals and display solidarity with their blood brothers. …preposterous beliefs are more effective signals of coalition loyalty than reasonable ones. (359)
Another paradox of rationality is that expertise, brainpower, and conscious reasoning do not, by themselves, guarantee that thinkers will approach the truth. On the contrary, they can be weapons for every-more-ingenious rationalization. (359)
So convenient a thing is it to be a rational creature, since it enables us to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to. – Benjamin Franklin
We know today that political partisanship is like sports fandom: testosterone levels rise or fall on election night just as they do on Super Bowl Sunday. (359)
So we can’t blame human irrationality on our lizard brains: it was the sophisticated respondents who were most blinded by their politics. (361)
…no group clearly out-stupids the others. They appear about equally stupid when faced with proper challenges to their position. – Daniel B. Klein, I Was Wrong, and So Are You
The facts of human progress strike me as having been as unkind to right-wing libertarianism as to right-wing conservatism and left-wing Marxism. (365)
As we saw, no developed country runs on right-wing libertarian principles, nor has any realistic vision of such a country ever been laid out. (365)
The empirical picture at present suggests that people flourish most in liberal democracies with a mixture of civic norms, guaranteed rights, market freedom, social spending, and judicious regulation. As Pat Paulsen noted, “If either the right wing or the left wing gained control of the country, it would fly around in circles.” (365)
Reason tells us that political liberation would be most fruitful if it treated governance more like scientific experimentation and less like an extreme-sports competition. (366)
Though examining data from history and social science is a better way of evaluating our ideas than arguing from the imagination, the acid test of empirical rationality is prediction. (366)
…superforecasters believe in the wisdom of crowds, laying their hypotheses on the table for others to criticize or amend and pooling their estimates with those of others. And they have strong opinions on chance and contingency in human history as opposed to necessity and fate. (370)
What does it mean that the monkish tweaking of probabilities is a more reliable guide to the world than the pronouncements of erudite sages and narratives inspired by systems of ideas? … Events are determined by myriad small forces incrementing or decrementing their likelihoods and magnitudes rather than by sweeping laws and grand dialectics. (371)
When the audience of 2515 looks back on the audience of 2015, their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials. – Philip Tetlock, Superforecasting
The liberal tilt of academia (and of journalism, commentary, and intellectual life) is in some ways natural. (372)
A liberal tilt is also, in moderation, desirable. Intellectual liberalism was at the forefront of many forms of progress that almost everyone has come to accept, such as democracy, social insurance, religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and judicial torture, the decline of war, and the expansion of human and civil rights. In many ways we are (almost) all liberals now. (373)
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. – John Stuart Mill
A challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction. (375)
Humans may be vulnerable to bias and error, but clearly not all of us all the time, or no one would ever be entitled to say that humans are vulnerable to bias and error. The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances, the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place. (375)
| For the same reason, editorialists should retire the new cliché that we are in a “post-truth era” unless they can keep ups tone of scathing irony. … We are not in a post-truth era. Mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong. The same decade that has seen the rise of pants-on-fire Trump and his reality-challenged followers has also seen the rise of a new ethic of fact-checking. (375)
Over the long run, the institutions of reason can mitigate the Tragedy of the Belief Commons and allow the truth to prevail. (376)
Whenever we get upset about the looniness of public discourse today, we should remind ourselves that people weren’t so rational in the past, either. (377)
What can be done to improve standards of reasoning? Persuasion by facts and logic, the most direct strategy, is not always futile. … But since another part of the human mind keeps a person in touch with reality, as the counter evidence piles up the dissonance can mount until it becomes too much to bear and the opinion topples over, a phenomenon called the affective tipping point. The tipping point depends on the balance between how badly the opinion holder’s reputation would be damaged by relinquishing the opinion and whether the counter evidence is so blatant and public as to be common knowledge: a naked emperor, an elephant in the room. (377)
The beauty of reason is that it can always be applied to understand failures of reason. (378)
Experiments have shown that the right rules can avert the Tragedy of the Belief Commons and force people to dissociate their reasoning from their identities. One technique was discovered long ago by rabbis: they forced yeshiva students to switch sides in a Talmudic debate and argue the opposite position. Another is to have people try to reach a consensus in a small discussion group; this forces them to defend their opinions to their group mates, and the truth usually wins. Scientists themselves have hit upon a new strategy called adversarial collaboration, in which mortal enemies work together to get to the bottom of an issue, setting up empirical tests that they agree beforehand will settle it. (379)
| Even the mere requirement to explicate an opinion can shake people out off their overconfidence. (379)
…the Illusion of Explanatory Depth
[via: “Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”]
Contrary to common bleak assessments of human reasoning abilities, people are quite capable of reasoning in an unbiased manner, at least when they are evaluating arguments rather than producing them, and when they are after the truth rather than trying to win a debate. – Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber
In area after area, the world has been getting more rational. (381)
| There is, of course, a flaming exception: electoral politics and the issues that have clung to it. Here the rules of the game are fiendishly designed to bring out the most irrational in people. (381)
To make public discourse more rational, issues should be depoliticized as much as is feasible. (382)
[via: Ugh. How? ]
Also, the factual state of affairs should be unbundled from remedies that are freighted with symbolic political meaning. (382)
For their part, the media could examine their role in turning politics into a sport, and intellectuals and pundits could think twice about competing. (383)
However long it takes, we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena discourage us from the Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth. If we can identify ways in which humans are irrational, we (383) must know what rationality is. Since there’s nothing special about us, our fellows must have at least some capacity for rationality as well. And it’s in the very nature of rationality that reasoners can always step back, consider their own shortcomings, and reason out ways to work around them. (384)
[via: It is at this juncture that I began to hypothesize that “consciousness” is the primary evolutionary mechanism that promotes rationality.]
CHAPTER 22. SCIENCE
The threat to our humanity today comes not from the transmigration of souls in the next life, but from the denial of soul in this one… – Leon Kass
Science cannot be blamed for genocide and war, and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. On the contrary, science is indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality. (389)
An endorsement of scientific thinking must first of all be distinguished from any belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. The culture of science is based on the opposite belief. Its signature practices, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are designed to circumvent the sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. As Richard Feynman put it, the first principle of science is “that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” (390)
| For the same reason, a call for everyone to think more scientifically must not be confused with a call to hand decision-making over to scientists. (390)
…we’re not talking about which priesthood should be granted power; we’re talking about how collective decisions can be made more wisely. (391)
The life-blood of science is the cycle of conjecture and refutation: proposing a hypothesis and then seeing whether it survives attempts to falsify it. (391)
Science, in the modern conception is of a piece with philosophy and with reason itself. (392)
What, then, distinguishes science from other exercises of reason? (392)
The first is that the world is intelligible. … In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions on which we are forced to concede, “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” (392)
‘Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism, the analysis of a complex system into simpler elements, or, according to the accusation, nothing but simpler elements. In fact, to ex-(392)plain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. (393)
The second idea is that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct. (393)
In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of a knowledgeable person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. … By exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the (394) universe, science forces us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. … And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions–that all of us value our own welfare, and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct–the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. (395)
[via: This particular segment was philosophically challenging. Pinker dismisses Gould’s NOMA, admits that science cannot dictate values, and states that humanism is the forced result of scientific facts (that “is” dictates “ought”).]
…bioethics. … The moral philosopher Julian Savulescu has exposed the low standards of reasoning behind these arguments and has pointed out why “bioethical” obstructionism can be unethical: “To delay by 1 year the development of a treatment that cures a lethal disease that kills 100,000 people per year is to be responsible for the deaths of those 100,000 people, even if you never see them.” (402)
Ultimately the greatest payoff of instilling an appreciation of science is for everyone to think more scientifically. (403)
One of the greatest potential contributions of modern science may be a deeper integration with its academic partner, the humanities. (405)
A consilience with science offers the humanities many possibilities for new insight. (406)
The advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores has inaugurated an expansive new “digital humanities.” (408)
An inquisitive spirit might also be curious about the recurring ways in which minds separated by culture and era deal with the timeless conundrums of human existence. (408)
Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosophy of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him. – Thomas Paine, 1778
What he wrote about the physical landscape applies as well to the landscape of knowledge. In this and other ways, the spirit of science is the spirit of the Enlightenment. (409)
CHAPTER 23. HUMANISM
Science is not enough to bring about progress. … Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish. (410)
| The goal of maximizing human flourishing–life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience–may be called humanism. (Despite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals, but this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.) It is humanism that identifies what we should try to achieve with our knowledge. It provides the ought that supplements the is. It distinguishes true progress from mere mastery. (410)
[via: This is a false dichotomy.]
Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.
Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.
Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
Though humanism does not invoke gods, spirits, or souls to ground meaning and morality, it is by no means incompatible with religious institutions. (412)
Humanism may seem bland an unexceptional–who could be against human flourishing? but in fact it is a distinctive moral commitment, one that doest not come naturally to the human mind. As we shall see, it is vehemently opposed not just by many religious and political factions but, amazingly, by eminent artists, academics, and intellectuals. If humanism, like the other Enlightenment ideals, is to retain its hold on people’s minds, it must be explained and defended in the language and ideas of the current era.
Spinoza’s dictum is one of a family of principles that have sought a secular foundation for morality in impartiality… Impartiality underlies many attempts to construct morality on rational grounds: Spinoza’s viewpoint of eternity, Hobbes’s social contract, Kant’s categorial imperative, Rawls’s veil of ignorance, Nagel’s view from nowhere, Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal, and of course the Golden Rule and its precious-metallic variants, rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions. (The Silver Rule is “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself”; the Platinum Rule, “Do to others what they would have you do to them.” They are designed to anticipate masochists, suicide bombers, differences in taste, and other sticking points for the Golden Rule.) (412)
According to the Declaration of Independence, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “self-evident.” That’s a bit unsatisfying, because what’s self-evident” isn’t always self-evident. But it captures a key intuition. … If angel’s transcendental argument about the non-negotiability o reason has merit–that the act of considering the validity of reason presupposes the validity of reason–then surely it presupposes the existence of reasoners. (413)
| This opens the door to deepening our humanistic justification of morality with two key ideas from science, entropy and evolution. Traditional analyses of the social contract imagined a colloquy among disembodied souls. Let’s enrich this idealization with the minimal premise that the reasoners exist in the physical universe. Much follows. (413)
| These incarnate beings must have defied the staggering odds against matter arranging itself into a thinking organ by being products of natural selection, the only physical process capable of producing complex adaptive design. (413)
Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desires among people. (414)
…the Law of Entropy sentences us to another permanent threat. Many things must all go right for a body (and thus a mind) to function, but it takes just one thing going wrong for it to shut down permanently… (414)
Evolution helps explain another foundation of secular morality: our capacity for sympathy (or, as the Enlightenment writers variously refereed to it, benevolence, pity, imagination, or commiseration). (415)
A different philosophical objection to humanism is that it’s “just utilitarianism”… (415)
A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon. The ideal of human flourishing–that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives–is just such a principle, since it is based on nothing more (and nothing less) than our common humanity. (418)
| History confirms that when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge toward humanism. (418)
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.
The idea that morality consists in the maximization of human flourishing clashes with two perennially seductive alternatives. The first is theistic morality: the idea that morality consists in obeying the dictates of a deity, which are enforced by supernatural reward and punishment in this world or in an afterlife. The second is romantic heroes: the idea that morality consists in the purity, authenticity, and greatness of an individual or a nation. (419)
Many intellectuals who don’t sign on to these alternatives to humanism nonetheless believe they capture a vital truth about our psychology: that people have a need for theistic, spiritual, heroic, or tribal beliefs. Humanism may not be wrong, they say, but it goes against human nature. No society based on humanistic principles can long endure, let alone a global order based on them. (419)
The best way to understand an idea is to see what it is not, so putting the alternatives to humanism under the microscope can remind us what is at stake in advancing the ideals of the Enlightenment. First, we’ll look at the religious case against humanism, then at the romantic-heroic-tribal-authoritarian complex.
What does an appeal to a supernatural lawgiver add to a humanistic commitment to make people better off? The most obvious add-on is supernatural enforcement: the belief that if one commits a sin, one will be smitten by God, damned to hell, or inscribed on the wrong page of the Book of Life.
[via: There is another aspect (or way to think about this?), which is that this belief transcends humanity, an outgrowth or kind of abstraction away from egoism, a philosophy based upon the self.]
But theistic morality has two fatal flaws. The first is that there is no good reason to believe that God exists. (421)
[via: On page 422, Pinker writes “The Bible’s historical accounts could have been corroborated by archaeology, genetics, and philology.” The implicit dismissal of corroborating science, such as archaeology and philology is dishonest and discrediting of his thesis.
On page 423, Pinker mentions “theodicy,” in contrast to the design argument for God’s existence. I can’t say much as Pinker only gives one paragraph to it, but I figure it worth noting that the brevity of his remarks, in addition to the reference to natural events betrays Pinker’s ignorance of the complex and nuanced issues of theodicy.]
Our judgment therefore comes down to which we find more wasteful and inelegant: many worlds or many words. – Max Tegmark
Our best science tells us that consciousness consists of a global workspace representing our current goals, memories, and surroundings, implemented in synchronized neural firing in fronts-parietal circuitry. But the last dollop in the theory–that it subjectively feels like something to be such circuitry–may have to be stipulated as a fact about reality where explanation stops. (428)
Whatever we make of the hard problem of consciousness, positing an immaterial soul is of no help at all. (428)
And that brings us to the second problem with theistic morality. It’s not just that there is almost certainly no God to dictate and enforce moral precepts. It’s that even if there were a God, his divine decrees, as conveyed to us through religion, cannot be the source of morality. The explanation goes back to Plato’s Euthyphro, in which Socrates points out that if the gods have good reasons to deem certain acts moral, we can appeal to those reasons directly, skipping the middlemen. If they don’t, we should not take their dictates seriously. After all, thoughtful people can give reasons why they don’t kill, rape, or torture other than fear of eternal hellfire, and they would not suddenly become rapists and contract killers if they had reason to believe that God’s back was turned or if he told them it was OK. (428)
Today, of course, enlightened believers cherry-pick the humane injunctions while allegorizing, spin-doctoring, or ignoring the vicious ones, and that’s just the point: they read the Bible through the lens of Enlightenment humanism. (429)
For this reason many contemporary philosophers,…are moral realists (the opposite of relativists), arguing that moral statements may be objectively true or false. It’s religion that is inherently relativistic. Given the absence of evidence, any belief in how many deities there are, who are their earthly prophets and messiahs, and what they demand of us can depend only on the parochial dogmas of one’s tribe. (429)
Not only does this make theistic morality relativistic; it can make it immoral. (429)
Defenders of theism retort that irreligious wars and atrocities, motivated by the secular ideology of communism and by ordinary conquest, have killed even more people. Talk about relativism! It is peculiar to grade religion on this curve: if religion were a source of morality, the number of religious wars and atrocities ought to be zero. (430)
[via: Pinker’s arguments in this section were exhausting to try and comment upon. Claiming secular or religious motivations to Hitler and the Nazi regime is a tired tactic. I claim the popular dictum, “The first to invoke Hitler in an argument loses.” Second, in grading morality (in the paragraph above) it is equally peculiar to grade a religion on absolutes.]
An ironic inspiration for faitheism is research on the psychological origins of supernatural belief, including the cognitive habits of over-attributing design and agency to natural phenomena, and emotional feelings of solidarity within communities of faith. …the research has also been interpreted as showing that human nature requires religion in the same way that it requires food, sex, and companionship, so it’s futile to imagine no religion. But this interpretation is dubious. Not every feature of human nature is a homeostatic drive that must be regularly slaked. … That does not imply that people need the complete packages… (431)
That implies that religions should not be condemned or praised across the board but considered according to the logic of Euthyphro. If there are justifiable reasons behind particular activities, those activities should be encouraged, but the movements should not be given a pass just because they are religious. Among the positive contributions of religions at particular times and places are education, charity, medical care, counseling, conflict resolution, and other social services (though in the developed world these efforts are dwarfed by their secular counterparts; no religion could have decimated hunger, disease, illiteracy, war, homicide, or poverty on the scales we saw in part II). (431)
[via: But as critics of Pinker have stated, religion was the soil in which these philosophies and principles have emerged. It is not sensical to say that “religion” could not have done these things when it may very well have been religion that drove the humanistic impulse in the first place.]
Just as religious institutions deserve praise when they pursue humanistic ends, they should not be shielded from criticism when they obstruct those ends. (432)
[via: This is truly a perplexing statement given the other arguments above. If religion is fundamentally against humanistic ideals, and it “fails” to provide any morality, how could they be “praised” at all, unless Pinker is arguing that they’re not practicing “religion” but “humanism.”
With that critique, I do agree with Pinker, however, when it comes to other examples, that he mentions on 432 and 433 regarding religious people’s stance towards things like immunizations/vaccines, environment, education, and politics.]
Christian virtue was trumped by political muscle. (433)
If the factual tenets of religion can no longer be taken seriously, and its ethical tenets depend entirely on whether they can be justified by secular morality, what about its claims to wisdom on the great questions of existence? A favorite tasing point of fait heists is that only religion can speak to the deepest yearnings of the human heart. Science will never be adequate to address the great existential questions of life, death, love, loneliness, loss, honor, cosmic justice, and metaphysical hope. (433)
| This is the kind of statement that [Dan] Dennett (quoting a young child) calls a “deputy”: it has a patina of profundity, but as soon as one thinks about what it means, it turns out to be nonsense. To begin with, the alternative to “religion” as a source of meaning is not “science.” … It’s true that the fabric contains important strands that originated in religion, such as the language and allegories of the Bible and the writings of sages, scholars, and rabbis. But today it is dominated by secular content, including debates on ethics originating in Greek and Enlightenment philosophy, and renderings of love, loss, and loneliness in the works of Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, the 19th-century novelists, and other great artists and essayists. Judged by universal standards, many of the religious contributions to l life’s great questions turn out to be not deep and timeless but shallow and archaic, such as a conception of “justice” that includes punishing blasphemers, or a conception of “love” that adjures a woman to obey her husband. As we have seen, any conception of life and death that depends on the existence of an immaterial soul is factually dubious and morally dangerous. And since cosmic justice and metaphysical hope (as opposed to human justice and worldly hope) do not exist, then it’s not meaningful to seek them; it’s pointless. The claim that people should seek deeper meaning in supernatural beliefs has little to recommend it. (433)
A “spirituality” that sees cosmic meaning in the whims of fortune is not wise but foolish. The first step toward wisdom is the realization that the laws of the universe don’t care about you. The next is the realization that this does not imply that life is meaningless, because people care about you, and vice versa. (434) … And anyone with a humanistic sensibility cares about you, not in the sense of feeling your pain–human empathy is too feeble to spread itself across billions of strangers–but in the sense of realizing that your existence is cosmically no less important than theirs, and that we all have a responsibility to use the laws of the universe to enhance the conditions in which we all can flourish. (435)
Arguments aside, is the need to believe pushing back against secular humanism? Believers, fait heists, and presenters of science and progress are gloating about an apparent return of religion all over the world. But as we shall see, the rebound is an illusion: the world’s fastest-growing religion is no religion at all. (435)
According to an old idea in social science called the Secularization (435) Thesis, irreligion is a natural consequence of affluence and education. (436)
Why is the world losing its religion? There are several reasons. The Communist governments of the 20th century outlawed or discouraged religion, and when they liberalized, their citizenries were slow to reacquire the taste. Some of the alienation is part of a decline in trust in all institutions from its high-water mark in the 1960s. Some of it is carried by the global current toward emancipative values (chapter 15) such as women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and tolerance of homosexuality. Also, as people’s lives become more secure thanks to affluence, medical care, and social insurance, they no longer pray to God to save them from ruin: countries with stronger safety nets are less religious, holding other factors constant. Bu the most obvious reason may be reason itself: when people become more intellectually curious and scientifically literate, they stop believing in miracles. The most common reason that Americans give for leaving religion is “a lack of belief in the teachings of religion.” (438)
Whatever the reasons, the history and geography of secularization belie the fear that in the absence of religion, societies are doomed to anomie, nihilism, and a “total eclipse of all values.” (438)
Cause and effect probably run in many directions. But it’s plausible that in democratic countries, secularism leads to humanism, turning people away from prayer, doctrine, and ecclesiastical authority and toward practical policies that make them and their fellows better off. (439)
Correlation is not causation, but i you combine the fact that much of Islamic doctrine is anti humanistic with the fact that many Muslims believe that Islamic doctrine is inerrant–and throw in the fact that the Muslims who carry out illiberal policies and violent acts say they are doing it because they are following those doctrines–then it becomes a stretch to say that the inhumane practices have nothing to do with religious devotion and that the real cause is oil, colonialism, Islamophobia, Orientalism, or Zionism. (440)
Calling out the anithumanistic features of contemporary Islamic belief (441) is in no way Islamophobic or civilization-clashing. … Criticizing the ideas of Islam is no more bigoted than criticizing the ideas of neoliberalism or the Republican Party platform. (442)
| Can the Islamic world have an Enlightenment? Can there be a Reform Islam, a Liberal Islam, a Humanistic Islam, an Islamic Ecumenical Council, a separation of mosque and state? (442)
Disdaining the commitment to truth-seeking among scientists and Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche asserted that “There are no facts, only interpretations,” and that “truth is a kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.” (446)
Fascism, from the Italian word for “group” or “bundle,” grew out of the Romantic notion that the individual is a myth and that people are inextricable from their culture, bloodline, and homeland. (448)
The reactionary ideology is theoconservatism. (448) … Society should aim higher than this stunted individualism, and promote conformity to more rigorous moral standards from an authority larger than ourselves. The obvious source of these standards is traditional Christianity. (449)
Lilla points out an irony in theoconservativism. While it has been inflamed by radical Islamism (which the theocons think will soon start World War III), the movements are similar in their reactionary mindset, with its horror of modernity and progress. Both believe that at some time in the past there was a happy, well-ordered state where a virtuous people knew their place. Then alien secular forces subverted this harmony and brought on decadence and degeneration. Only a heroic vanguard with memories of the old ways can restore the society to its golden age. (449)
First, the claim that humans have an innate imperative to identify with a nation-state (with the implication that cosmopolitanism goes abasing human nature) is bad evolutionary psychology. Like the supposed innate imperative to belong to a religion, it confuses a vulnerability with a need. (450)
The claim that ethnic uniformity leads to cultural excellence is as wrong as an idea can be. (450) … Roots are for trees; people have feet. (451)
| Finally, let’s not forget why international institutions and global consciousness arose in the first place. Between 1803 and 1945 the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness. … After 1945 the world’s leaders said, “Well, let’s not do that again,” and began to downplay nationalism in favor of universal human rights, international laws, and transnational organizations. (451)
Still, the appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made. (452)
Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember you history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there’s no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too. (452)
| Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seem snappy, unhip, uncool. But what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? (452)
The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifiting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. It goes something like this. (452)
| We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.
| Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to com-(452)bine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are depend with the capacity for sympathy–for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.
| These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.
| As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived.
| 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 enhance human flourishing.
| This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true–true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones false–as any of them might be, and any could become.
| 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. (453)