Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now : On reading writers you might not like

Steven Pinker, a bone fide factual juggernaut

On a random walk through London last year, I stopped at a lovely bookshop and splurged on a handful of random titles that piqued my interest. One was a little book. A transcript of a Canadian debate between Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley on one side and Alain de Boton and Malcolm Gladwell on the other. It was called ‘Do Humankind’s best days lie ahead?’

It sat by my bedside for months and then I read through it in one sitting.

It’s mostly quite dreadful. All of the participants seem annoying in their different ways and the arguments seem completely mismatched. Alain de Boton, (who had the room next to me in my first year at university) is a elegant writer who I love to read. But he’s a lousy debater – trying to be aphoristic and literary in a discussion that was littered with objective facts. Most of these were supplied by the Harvard professor Steven Pinker who is a bone fide factual juggernaut.

He steamrollers De Boton and Gladwell with a relentless array of facts which prove – over and over – that by every significant metric human existence has got better over time and will continue to do so into the future.

Pessimistic intellectuals and regressive Trumpists are wrong. Flat wrong. 

His style is unfortunate and gets lots of people’s back up. But since Brexit I have made a point of reading things by people whose ideas I don’t much like. And trying to be interested in the almost visceral recoil that goes through me when I encounter notions that run counter to my own comfortable truths.

In his big tome, Enlightenment Now, (he’s talking Kantian Enlightenment not Buddhist) Pinker goes on a rampage against pessimistic intellectuals and regressive Trumpists who claim that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. These people are wrong, he claims. Demonstrably wrong. And he spends 500+ pages and dozens of graphs demonstrating just that. The facts are simply irrefutable, he says.

Despite our pessimistic bias and our tendency to believe bad news over good, the facts speak of a relentlessly positive trend in human existence. Longer life expectancy, greater rights for women, a fall in violence, more leisure time, more disposable income, more freedom for minorities. We may think that he’s just talking about affluent America but his graphs and statistics draw on the whole of the world.

A respect for facts is an antidote to egoism

There was a book when I was doing my psychotherapy training called “The Facts are Friendly” by Mick Cooper which encouraged us to take our heads out of the sand our subjective experience and look fearlessly at the data that is out there in the world. Don’t extrapolate grand theories from our limited client roster or our even more limited imagination (as Freud did). Instead, why don’t we look at the research statistics and base our work on what most people in the country or community experience?

I really took this on board in my therapy research and increasingly in my meditation teaching. Rather than assume you know what’s going on, ask. Ask again and double check. Canvas opinion. Tolerate contradictory evidence. Assume other experiences might be more valid than your own.

This respect for facts is an antidote to egoism.

Naturally we tend to view the world from our ego’s point of view and filter out anything that deflects from it. (This is what the Buddhist notion of the Five Skandha’s describes). What Pinker is extolling is invigorating (like Mick Brown’s book was) because it encourages us to look beyond our subjectivity and trust feedback from the world around us.

We may be objectively well-favoured and still bitterly miserable

Nonetheless, Pinker’s style is grating in the way the Richard Dawkins’ can be. I’m not persuaded by his relentless, factual bullying. It rings alarm bells. In same way that someone who shouts down their opponents rings alarm bells. And when he says something like:

“Are we happier? if we had shred of cosmic gratitude we ought to be”,

I think that he speaks from a place of Spock-like logic rather than human empathy. Because this is the very nub of our human suffering. We can be objectively very well-favoured – rich, healthy and long lived – and still be utterly miserable. From a Buddhist point of view even if we do have all these good things we are still going to suffer. And we suffer precisely because our minds get in the way of enjoying our good fortune. And no amount of graphs are going to bludgeon their way through that haze of dissatisfaction.

If Martin Luther King were just grateful then Civil Rights would not have happened

Another unsettling thing that came up for me again and again in reading was a creeping feeling of worry. If we accept that everything’s getting better doesn’t that lead to a sort of complacency and a relaxing of our guard. As a Guardian review pointed out: if Martin Luther King was just grateful that things were better in 1964 than in 1864 then the Civil Rights movement may not have happened. Isn’t our pessimism and worry the motor of the very ‘Enlightenment’ drive that Pinker champions?

To be fair, Pinker says in his preface that the book arose as a stand against the lazy slip into fatalism that he spotted in the anti-science, false-news miasma that filled the air in 2016 and led to Trump’s election. So I take it as read that he is not a fatalist. As a matter of fact, he would claim that it is the restless questioning of Enlightenment values that will keep us safe. In his chapter of happiness, I found the following oasis of moderation:

“One of the challenges of modernity is how to grapple with a growing portfolio of responsibilities without worrying ourselves to death”

Groping towards the right balance of old and novel stratagems

Which strikes me as profoundly wise. As a Buddhist and meditator I find books like Pinkers partly disquieting because they seem to frown on the unquantifiable aspects of my work. Aspects that I consider absolutely central to a life-well-lived. Aspects like insight, love, the random, the mystical and the magical. And so I loved it when he adds this to the above thought :

“As with all new challenges, we are groping towards the right mixture of old-fashioned and novel stratagems, including human contact, art, meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, small pleasures, judicious use of pharmaceuticals, reinvigorated service and social organisations and advice from wise people on how live a balanced life.”

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