Anyone for a shift in consciousness? Like, now?

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane; Hb £25.00) Reviewed by Niall James.

Steven Pinker is one of the most influential intellectuals and experimental psychologists working today. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, he argues that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be measured and observed and that our progress as a species depends upon the level to which we embrace the progressive tenets of the Enlightenment. Namely, science, reason and humanism.

The heart of this argument was first posited by Pinker with regard to violence in his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which made a compelling case that we are, despite the headlines, living in the most peaceful time ever experienced by our species. The data in Enlightenment Now, presented comprehensively across a wealth of universal issues, are equally compelling when we consider, just to name a few examples, that universal life expectancy, maternal and child mortality, child labour malnutrition, literacy, workload, the spread of democracy and wealth, all chart dramatic progress over the past hundred years.

It is difficult to argue with the figures and evidence on display here, but the key idea in Enlightenment Now worth exploring is the assertion that if we can free ourselves from the desire to believe those things that prove our loyalty to a particular coalition, we allow ourselves new beliefs based on what is empirically true. Pessimism is not necessarily the most intelligent or most moral choice, and arguments that are not data-based are, at best, fear-based complacent ignorance and, at worst, wilful propaganda.

In an effort to harness social media’s immediacy and scope, larger media outlets have resorted to generating debate, but debate to no end. What is worse is that a distrust of the media, which has been growing since the turn of the century, has reached the point where an expert is treated with suspicion but the opinion of a stranger with an egg for an avatar online will be taken as read. So, what of seemingly ethereal concepts like a newly recharged Enlightenment in a world like this? How do we untangle this mess? And, what is more, how to be enlightened in a world that isn’t? These are the questions on which Pinker is at his most lucid and vital here and why I would suggest Enlightenment Now is both timely and essential.

American scientist Arthur Kantrowitz once said that ‘as sure as pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy too’, and paraphrasing American economist Paul Romer, Pinker encourages us to proceed with conditional rather than complacent optimism in order that we may continue to make real progress on the issues that affect human wellbeing across the globe. Enlightenment Now makes a compelling case that the best of all possible worlds is there for us, if, to borrow a phrase popularised during the Enlightenment, we dare to know.

- Reviewed by Niall James Holohan, musician, writer and BSc in psychology undergraduate at the University of East London @nialljholohan on Twitter

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