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Book Review: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now is an argument for reason. How science is the only way we can make sense of the world; and how we still ignore it and go with our gut feelings with the understanding of what is happening in the world. Things are better than we think. We are healthier, freer, and we have a lot more time to enjoy our lives and pursue things we love. Terrorism and other threats we are afraid of are far scarcer than our intuition says, and this is partly due to our extravagant media and our nature to think and expect the worst (and flair for drama.) Enlightenment Now felt like a repetition after listening to it straight after reading Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, but the thing is we, I, need repetition to facts to sink in. Both books have changed how I view the world and how I see facts, studies, and statements provided on media and all together. Now you might wonder which book to read then if they are so similar. I would say both as they offer a different perspective on the same matter. Factfulness is more about how our cognition and data deceive us when we look at the world and how our view is stuck in the seventies. It is also more personal, giving insight to Rosling’s life and his mistakes. Enlightenment Now advocates science and humanistic approach and goes over studies and facts which tell the world is not as we think it is.

Enlightenment Now is divided into three parts. In the first part, Steven Pinker goes over the idea and history of enlightenment. In the second part, he goes over what new studies say about life, health, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, etc. How those things are unlike the image we get from media or from the doomed, ruined world vision we carry around. All of them go through counter-arguments, giving a full picture of the debates going on with things like happiness and quality of life. None of the chapters ignore the issues they handle, saying all is good, stop complaining. That is not the point of the book. The point is to apply reason to the public debate and look at our worries from the science perspective and through data. In the third and last part, Steven Pinker arguments for reason and science and how it is the only way to understand the world and make believable assessments and predictions, and humanism is an essential aspect of it. Here is why:

‘Science is not enough to bring about progress. “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge”—but that’s the problem. “Everything” means everything: vaccines and bioweapons, video on demand and Big Brother on the telescreen. Something in addition to science ensured that vaccines were put to use in eradicating diseases while bioweapons were outlawed. That’s why I preceded the epigraph from David Deutsch with the one from Spinoza: “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.” Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish.

‘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.’

What could I add to that? Than to feel delighted that finally, someone understands the need for humanities, need of the study of literature (he says, I’m paraphrasing here, we find humanity there,) need to understand and study different cultures, etc. along with physics and the rest. This is an excellent book, and I would recommend you to read it even when there are places where it felt like matters were dealt with in the political realm rather than with scientific facts. The mere argumentation about the fear of progress and fear of our resources running short is fun to listen to.

Thank you for reading and have an enlightened day!

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