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The world is getting better, but the Enlightenment (alone) won’t save us

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Global poverty is on the decline. Innovation and exploration continue to accelerate. Freedom and opportunity are expanding across the world. Meanwhile, political pundits and chin-stroking “experts” continue to preach of our impending doom.

Why so much pessimism in a prosperous age?

“I have found that intellectuals hate progress and intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress,” says Steven Pinker, author of the new book, Enlightenment Now. “Now, it’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you…It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class.”

In a recent TED Talk, Pinker explores our cultural preference for pessimism and teases the primary themes of his book, offering a comprehensive, data-driven case for optimism in the modern age.

Highlighting a wide range of improvements—in areas such as economic wellbeing, life expectancy, health, freedom, peace, safety, leisure, and more—Pinker paints a compellingly rosy portrait of our current state. “Progress is not a matter of faith or optimism, but is a fact of human history, indeed the greatest fact in human history,” he says.

Again, despite all this, the cultural pessimism persists, based on a simple and debased prejudice. “If you believe that humans can improve their lot, I have been told, that means that you have a blind faith and a quasi-religious belief in the outmoded superstition and the false promise of the myth of the onward march of inexorable progress,” Pinker explains. “You are a cheerleader for vulgar American can-doism, with the rah-rah spirit of boardroom ideology, Silicon Valley and the Chamber of Commerce. You are a practitioner of Whig history, a naive optimist, a Pollyanna and, of course, a Pangloss.”

As for the solution to such attitudes, Pinker points to the “norms and institutions” of the Enlightenment as the source of our progress and the strongest antidote for our present pessimism:

Progress is not some mystical force or dialectic lifting us ever higher. It’s not a mysterious arc of history bending toward justice. It’s the result of human efforts governed by an idea, an idea that we associate with the 18th century Enlightenment, namely that if we apply reason and science that enhance human well-being, we can gradually succeed. Is progress inevitable? Of course not. Progress does not mean that everything becomes better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would be a miracle, and progress is not a miracle but problem-solving. Problems are inevitable and solutions create new problems which have to be solved in their turn.

Pinker is right to align our focus toward human reason and human effort. Yet, as folks such as Samuel Gregg and Ben Domenech have recently argued, we should also be careful in our generalizations of the Enlightenment and its multiple manifestations. For example, as Christians, we can openly acknowledge the dangers of its excessive secular humanism even as we appreciate the various strides in religious toleration and economic freedom. Likewise, in absorbing Pinker’s reflections, we should note that his Enlightenment-inspired philosophy of life has some to glean, and some to leave.

Pinker summarizes his view as follows:

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 process 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 combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our ingenuity and experience. We are deepened 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.

What’s missing, of course, in Pinker’s glorification of human reason is any acknowledgement of the source and constraints of its “power,” never mind a corresponding design for our “instincts” and “capacity” for the creative and compassionate. Pinker is right that we are fretting, in part, because we have lost faith in man and his faculties. Yet, quite ironically, much of that pessimism stems from an overindulgence in human reason, detached from the hand and heart of a creator God.

Alas, our economic and technological successes have routinely been paired with a humanistic, materialistic ethos, leading us to zero-sum perceptions of human relationship and bleak visions of the future. The temptation to overly relish in our own designs is real, and the failures it’s bound to bring—moral, material, and otherwise—have only served to further distort the prospects of personhood. When trouble strikes, rather than seeing the big picture of God’s abundance—viewing humans as creators and co-creators made in the image of God—we see mass destruction, consumption and pollution.

Again, Pinker’s pro-Enlightenment vision has plenty to offer in reminding us of the power of our reason and social natures while promoting a range of norms and institutions. But this can’t be all that we absorb and embrace.

When we (also) grasp the true source and the purpose of all that, hope and optimism will move far to the front. When the fear of God is the fire that drives our philosophy of life, the fear of man will be replaced quite handily.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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