The Case Against the Enlightenment, Reason, Science and Humanism — part 1
My title refers to, and is almost the same as that of, a book by Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress¹. So I have changed ‘for’ to ‘against’, added ‘the’ before Enlightenment, and omitted the word ‘progress’ which, as he says, no sensible person could be against. However, it’s highly debatable whether that is what his worldview and vision are.
This article is the latest in a series asking whether we can find a new mythology to unite humanity in an attempt to solve the world’s problems. (For links to all the earlier articles see footnote 1 in the previous one.) In the main text there I listed some writers, including Pinker, who are trying to do this from the standpoint of (what they perceive to be) science. He believes that his worldview, as expressed in his title, is this story which can unite humanity: “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”. I am indeed convinced of all those things, and I assume all sensible people would agree — you do not have to agree with his ‘scientific’ worldview, or be a humanist to believe in them. The more important question is whether his worldview is true. Unsurprisingly, he believes that it is: “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”.
This is the ‘true’ story, definitely not a fictional myth, we are asked to accept: “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”. The last sentence certainly is true and Pinker, despite his use of the word ‘we’, is obviously not including himself. I will argue, however, that he is an excellent example.
In response to this tragic scenario, this is the comfort he offers: “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”². To some this possibly sounds appealing, but is this the best that we can hope for? For many people it will be very depressing because it does not offer true meaning. As I noted in the previous article, after a talk he had given in which he had outlined his ‘scientific’ understanding of mental life and the brain, a student in the audience asked him, “Why should I live?”(p3). Pinker is, of course, an ‘enlightened’ figure, an atheist opposed to spirituality, and therefore does not believe in meaning or purpose in that sense. In this book he says: “If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts” (p8). Elsewhere he has written: “The findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures… are factually mistaken… We know that the laws governing the physical world… have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers”³. I am not saying that he is mistaken about everything in these lists, but his potpourri, even if we agree that it may contain some superstitious untruths, nevertheless contains some items far truer than those of his worldview. It is not surprising that someone like him would be unable to distinguish between the two. Later in the series I intend to argue that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are in general far more accurate than Pinker’s, and entail that the findings of (what he calls) science are factually mistaken.
William Provine is another writer who thinks along similar lines: “There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either”⁴.
There is a spiritual adage of which I’m very fond: “There is no religion higher than truth”. So I am not one of those who believe that people should turn to religion and spirituality because they offer comfort, escapism in the face of the tragic human situation. If what Pinker, Provine, and others like them, say is true, then we should accept it and live our lives accordingly to the best of our ability. However, it is my belief that what they say, apart from some details, is not true, which is why such ideas have to be resisted at all costs; it is only a truly spiritual vision that can unite humanity. So in the next article I’ll offer a response to Pinker’s book.
(click here for part 2.)
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Penguin Books, 2019
2. The quotes so far can be found on pages 452–3.
3. “Science is Not Your Enemy”, The New Republic, August 19th 2013, p33
4. “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?”, Origins Research 16, no. 1/2, 1994, p9