Graham Pemberton
Aug 16 · 17 min read

The Case Against the Enlightenment, Reason, Science, and Humanism — part 2

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

This article is a response to and critique of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress¹, and follows on from part 1, which it is important to have read before continuing here, in order to establish the context. It is also the latest in a series on the theme of asking whether we can find a new mythology to unite humanity in an attempt to solve the world’s problems. Pinker’s book is relevant because it is an attempt to replace ancient mythology and philosophy with a new story based on atheistic ‘Enlightenment’ science. (For links to all the earlier articles see footnote 1 in this one.) I’m not going to offer a detailed refutation, rather an alternative viewpoint, in the hope of attracting people who might want to form a counter-movement.

Pinker says: “Who could be against reason, science, humanism, or progress?” (p29). This is a rhetorical device, the subtext being that anyone who disagrees with him must be stupid, which is not a helpful starting point in an intelligent debate. Putting that thought to one side, however, it is indeed very hard to argue against reason, science, or progress; the case for Humanism, depending on what we mean by that, is not so clear cut. It is possible, however, to argue against Pinker’s understanding and valuation of enlightenment, reason and science, which I intend to do, since they are not necessarily progress. Let’s go through his idols one by one:

  1. ENLIGHTENMENT
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

All sensible people should be in favour of enlightenment — better knowledge, scientific advance, freedom from superstition — but not necessarily the Enlightenment. This was a philosophical and scientific movement, which obviously had some very good points, and at the time was probably a necessary development for humanity. It becomes a problem, however, when such a worldview becomes entrenched, and people fail to see that we then need to move on even further. If the goal of the Enlightenment was progress towards truth, then it is no longer helpful; it has become a cul-de-sac, not so much enlightenment, rather an ugly black cloud blotting out the sun. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater. In an attempt to free humanity from outdated superstitions and slavish belief in religious texts, vast treasures of spiritual knowledge and thinking were rejected — Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Kabbalah, the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, Hermeticism, the Italian Renaissance, and the mystics of various traditions. Instead of separating the wheat from the chaff, these thinkers decided that everything was chaff, and the worldview of Pinker and those like him is the unfortunate consequence.

He fails to distinguish between what the Enlightenment correctly helped us to leave behind, belief that “witches can summon up storms”, that “the rainbow is a sign from God”, that “comets portend evil” and so on (p9), and genuine spiritual traditions. He is also against “the 19th-century Romantic belief in mystical forces, laws, dialectics, struggles, unfoldings, destinies, ages of man, and evolutionary forces that propel mankind ever upward toward utopia” (p11), and has said elsewhere: “There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers”². I won’t discuss the items on these lists individually, but many of them are arguably true. Pinker says that science has disproved them, which is not true, since no scientific experiment could prove or disprove them; they are logical deductions from the worldview of scientific materialism, what Pinker means when he says ‘science’, which operates according to the following rules:

  • “The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes”³.
  • “Science… by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law”⁴.

For example, Pinker believes that “mental life consists of patterns of activity in the tissues of the brain” (p3), and obviously also believes that consciousness emerged from the brain at some point in the Darwinian evolutionary journey. This is not science, however. Neither of these statements has been proved by experiment; they are merely fiercely held assumptions and, as I said, logical deductions based on false premises. Nothing can be proved if it isn’t true.

If those two quotes correctly describe how science is conducted, which they do, and if the supernatural, the paranormal, and the irrational actually exist, which I believe they do, then by definition and on its own admission science is very limited, and cannot provide a complete explanation and understanding of the universe, even though that is what it aspires to. It is unreasonable, therefore, and wrong for Pinker to claim that science is the only source of truth. The supernatural, the paranormal, and the irrational do not disappear merely because scientists choose to wish them out of existence.

2. REASON

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

No sensible person should be against reason; it is one very useful tool among others available to us. It is possible, however to be against the overvaluation of reason, when it is elevated to a status beyond its true worth, and worshipped, as Pinker does.

According to Carl Jung, reason or thinking is just one of four functions which contribute to the totality of an integrated personality, the others being feeling, sensation, and intuition. The healthy individual is one who has a balance between them, and has therefore achieved wholeness. Jungian analyst Jolande Jacobi wrote: “There is one main function which is as a rule congenital and is the most clearly differentiated… If a person avails himself all his life only of a single — the main — function, there is a danger of neurotic disturbances arising from the partial or complete repression of the other functions”⁵. It is not hard to see that Pinker’s differentiated function is thinking (reason); I leave readers to draw their own conclusions about his psychological health. It’s reasonable to say that Enlightenment thinkers like him are not in favour of psychology and self-awareness of the Jungian type (even though he is a professor of psychology!).

Neither is he a fan of the anti-Enlightenment Romantics, but could learn much from the poet Wordsworth who wrote: “Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy”⁶, referring to the developing analytical, rational mind which prevents consciousness from seeing things how they truly are. As the well known spiritual saying puts it, the mind is the slayer of the real. Far from being, as Pinker claims, the only or best tool for science to understand reality, the rational mind actually prevents this. His problem is that he cannot comprehend that all the things he rejects are beyond the capability of reason to understand. That is the meaning of the prison house, being trapped within the limitations of one’s own mind.

There are various things that Pinker is certain about: “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”. Repeating the earlier quote, “there is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers”². If what follows the words ‘we know’ is a false statement, then it cannot be said that this is known, merely a belief, a logical deduction from a worldview, the deluded rational mind at work. What he thinks he knows is merely due to his psychological predisposition. He says that his worldview “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”. What he calls reasons in reality is the worldview of materialistic science, that is to say his psychological mindset.

3. SCIENCE

Image by luvqs from Pixabay

Everybody should be in favour of science, as I am, as long as by that we mean seeking a true, objective understanding of the universe without bias or preconceptions. When rationalists accuse others of being ‘anti-science’, they are making the assumption that their understanding of science is the correct one. I argue against Pinker, not because I am anti-science, but because I want a better, truer science than atheistic materialism. Just as he overvalues reason, he elevates science to a status way beyond what it deserves; he truly worships it. Such an attitude is often called scientism, and the quasi-religious worship of science is the definition I prefer. Another definition is “the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality”⁷. Even if Pinker would be reluctant to agree that he worships science, it is beyond doubt that the second definition is appropriate.

Pinker is aware of the accusation, but his first response is strangely off the mark, describing scientism as “the intrusion of science into the territory of the humanities such as politics and the arts” (p34). He continues more appropriately, complaining that “in many colleges and universities, science is presented not as the pursuit of true explanations but as just another narrative or myth”.

Science, of course, should be the pursuit of true explanations. Since what Pinker believes to be true is at least highly debatable, probably wrong, and since no scientific experiment can confirm or deny the things he rejects, his ‘science’ can only be just another narrative or myth. It is a philosophical worldview posing as scientific truth. Therefore, another ingredient of scientism is claiming something to be science when it is actually merely a belief, an article of faith.

As an example, let’s consider the question of consciousness surviving death. Although there is circumstantial, anecdotal evidence for this — past-life memories, near-death and out-of-body experiences — it’s hard to imagine a rigorous scientific experiment which could confirm the issue one way or the other. So when the ‘Enlightenment’ thinker William Provine says, “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”⁸, he is merely enunciating his faith; saying such things passionately with conviction does not make them more true.

Pinker further says that science “is accused of robbing life of its enchantment”, and criticises non-believers for only wanting to believe “deep explanations of the universe, the planet, life, the brain” if they involve magic. If by ‘magic’ he means supernatural factors, then modern science is coming round to this point of view — just ask the early quantum physicists, and other new paradigm thinkers. Are the explanations he offers deep or shallow? Based as they are on philosophical materialism, it is reasonable to conclude that they are shallow. He further criticises non-believers for wanting more from life than “longevity, health, understanding, beauty, freedom, love”. There doesn’t have to be more to life than that, but actually there is, much more. (All the above quotes are from pages 34–35.)

Having mentioned quantum physics, it’s worth noting that this is the branch of science which best undermines and refutes Pinker’s arguments. Even though he claims to be promoting a worldview based on science, he hardly mentions it, and even in that brief section he does not address the relevant issues.

I have further criticisms:

Firstly, conveniently for his line of argument, when addressing the question of spirituality, as noted above, he dismisses the wisdom of the great spiritual traditions. Instead he quotes a woman from a comedy sketch: “So I was texting while I was driving. And I ended up taking a wrong turn that took me directly past a vitamin shop. And I was just like, this is totally the universe telling me I should be taking calcium”. He concludes, probably correctly, that “a ‘spirituality’ that sees cosmic meaning in whims of fortune is not wise but foolish”, but then continues: “The first step toward wisdom is the realization that the laws of the universe don’t care about you”. While I’m quite happy to concede that the laws of physics don’t care much about us, that doesn’t mean that there are not other agencies, intelligences that do care. It is reasonable to call them supernatural, and they have been given names like higher self, soul, spirit guide, guardian angel, daimon. I and many others have had experiences of such agencies, although obviously nothing which would persuade Pinker, since they cannot be repeated in a science laboratory. It doesn’t bother me that he would consider me deluded.

Secondly, he misunderstands the concept of purpose, saying: “A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution — perhaps its biggest breakthrough — was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose. In this primitive but ubiquitous understanding, everything happens for a reason, so when bad things happen — accidents, disease, famine, poverty — some agent must have wanted them to happen” (p24). As examples he mentions “witches, who may be burned or drowned”, and sadistic gods who “can be placated with prayers and sacrifices”, then continues with “disembodied forces like karma, fate, spiritual messages, cosmic justice”. It seems to me that once again he has failed to distinguish between what should be rejected, and what is spiritually real, depending on how you define these terms.

Furthermore, this is not a good example of what spiritually minded people understand by purpose. If the universe is saturated with purpose, as I believe it is, it is rather because it is the manifestation of the divine spirit according to some kind of plan. Suitable analogies might be an artist’s creation, or a scientific experiment. Neither of these imply that every event is willed by this divine mind. Just because a lack of purpose and meaning is a logical deduction from Pinker’s scientific viewpoint doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The fact that materialists don’t experience them, and are impervious to them, is irrelevant. Purpose and meaning do not emerge from the physical world; they are supernatural phenomena emerging from higher levels.

Thirdly, Pinker is economical with the facts. He says: “Galileo, Newton, and Laplace replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future… Projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion”. Here he is, conveniently for his argument, misrepresenting Newton who, apart from being a dedicated alchemist — surely something shocking for Pinker — believed that the laws he formulated were manifestations of a divine mind.

Another example would be the following: “Organisms are replete with improbable configurations of flesh like eyes, ears, hearts, and stomachs which cry out for explanation. Before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided one in 1859, it was reasonable to think that they were the handiwork of a divine designer” (p18). Again he conveniently omits to mention that this is precisely what Wallace believed, at least at the end of his life, as is clearly shown by the title of his 1914 book The World of Life: a Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. In it he states his view that the purpose (one of Pinker’s scientific heresies) of evolution is “the development of Man, the one crowning product of the whole cosmic process” (Preface, Pvii). He was also a believer in, and wrote extensively about, spiritualism. Not exactly an Enlightenment figure then, even though Pinker tries to enlist him.

4. HUMANISM

Image by Henning Westerkamp from Pixabay

Pinker defines Humanism as “the goal of maximizing human flourishing — life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience”. It would be hard to disagree with anything on this agenda, but there is nothing specifically Humanist about it. A Christian, Jew, or even a modern Pagan could just as easily be in favour of all these items. He further says that Humanism “promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God” (both quotes p 410). Fair enough. There is indeed abundant evidence that many atheists behave morally, in accordance with the law and humanitarian values.

The problem with Humanism is its underlying philosophical assumptions; it is an atheistic philosophy which rejects religion and spirituality, and believes that in the absence of the Divine and higher worlds, humanity must take on the roles traditionally assigned to them. Humans are therefore compelled to forge their own path, implying that there is no help or guidance available, that we are compelled to become sole arbiters of what is right and wrong. Such an attitude rejects all ideas of spirit, higher self, soul, higher beings, guardian angels, helpful spirits, daimons. In my view, this is a dangerous and arrogant hubris, Pinker’s book being an example of the ignorance that humans can aspire to when they deny the Divine, spirituality, and religion. This is the folly of Humanism.

Pinker quotes the Humanist Manifesto III (2003), much of the material being the same as the themes of his book. One sentence stands out: “We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be” (p411). The author is presumably referring to the common belief that people turn to religion and spirituality to avoid having to face the inevitability of death, and life without meaning. We can turn this statement on its head, however, and note that here Humanists are guilty of what they accuse others. The sentence assumes that humanity knows how things are, therefore that we are in possession of scientific and philosophical truth, an excellent example of the hubris to which I’m referring. The absence of the Divine and the denial of spirituality are further excellent examples of how Humanists wish things to be, a denial and ignorance of how things are. Why they should so passionately want to believe these things is hard to understand.

Pinker says: “Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind… We are forced into cosmopolitanism: accepting our citizenship in the world” (p11). Indeed, although there is nothing specifically humanistic about this goal, which would equally qualify as a spiritual objective; I’ve argued for it in past articles. But where does this capacity for sympathy come from? He presumably believes that it evolved in the Darwinian sense, but offers no explanation for how it might have originated. This viewpoint is the exact opposite of what Richard Dawkins, another arch-rationalist, humanist, and promoter of scientism, believes. He is on record as saying that he has struggled long and hard over the question of how altruism could have evolved through Darwinian evolution, and has come up with no satisfactory answer. He has also said: “Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense”⁹. Perhaps Pinker should consider the possibility that our capacity for sympathy is part of our spiritual nature, an aspect of our soul, the existence of which he denies.

Since this series of articles is on the theme of mythology, it is interesting that on this issue we can learn much from two ancient myths. The first is that of Prometheus, who was a Titan, neither god nor mortal, but preferred humanity to the gods. He therefore decided to steal fire from Zeus for the benefit of humans, fire symbolising knowledge appropriate only to gods. Although the humans were grateful and praised him, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a mountain, where an eagle feasted on his liver forever.

Prometheus is an archetypal figure, like Humanists someone who wishes to challenge the spiritual realm, elevate humanity to the status of, and live without the need for, gods. It is no coincidence that the name chosen for its publishing house by the notorious skeptical, scientismist organisation CSICOP was Prometheus Books. (The acronym stands for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.) The story informs us that the spiritual realm will take its revenge.

The second myth is that of Icarus, son of Daedalus, the creator of the famous labyrinth in Crete. The pair were imprisoned in a tower by King Minos, so that they could not reveal the secret of the labyrinth. An online source continues: “Daedalus managed to create two sets of wings for himself and his son, that were made of feathers glued together with wax. He taught Icarus how to fly and warned him not to fly too high, which would cause the wax to melt, nor too low, which would cause the feathers to get wet with sea water. Together, they flew out of the tower towards freedom. However, Icarus soon forgot his father’s warnings, and started flying higher and higher, until the wax started melting under the scorching sun. His wings dissolved and he fell into the sea and drowned”¹⁰.

What a great lesson for humans! It is dangerous to fly too high (elevating humans to a status beyond their worth, like the Humanists), and too low, remaining close to the Earth, believing that the material world is all there is, remote from the heavens above, like Pinker. We should fly at a safe level, aware of both realms, and fully aware of our true role in the cosmos.

5. PROGRESS.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Of course no one can be against progress. We just have to make sure that what is being claimed as progress is indeed true progress. It’s not clear to me that Pinker, despite his claims, achieves this. He is a Professor of Psychology, so I assume that he has no specialist training in biology and cosmology. When he accepts Darwinian evolutionary theory and the Big Bang unreservedly, therefore, we can assume that he is merely taking on trust the word of biologists and cosmologists. He is against taking things on faith, and what is read in books (scripture/Bible), but believes what he reads in biology and cosmology books. Obviously he thinks what he is reading is science. Other definitions are possible but, if we define science as a system of knowledge of the material world based on facts obtained through observation, then neither of these theories qualify as science, simply because no humans of our era were around to observe them. They are therefore modern scientific creation myths, even though ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers consider them to be science.

Pinker’s book is its own refutation, if the ‘Enlightenment’ has led him to believe the things he does. He says: “Enlightenment ideals, I hope to show are timeless, but they have never been more relevant than they are right now” (Pxv). The ideals of the Enlightenment and science are indeed timeless. His second statement is strangely true, if we add a twist of irony to it. These ideals are relevant today because modern society, as described by him, has abandoned them; he identifies science and Humanism with progress, when they’re actually preventing us from moving forwards.

The title of his first chapter is Dare to Understand. If only Pinker and those like him would take up this challenge! He says, adapting Immanuel Kant: “One age cannot conclude a pact that would prevent succeeding ages from extending their insights, increasing their knowledge, and purging their errors. That would be a crime against human nature, whose proper destiny lies precisely in such progress” (p7). He fails to notice, somewhat ironically, that this is precisely what his book, which is a manifesto compiled from the ignorance and delusions of ‘enlightened’ materialist science, is attempting to do.

According to his book, he has been listed in Prospect magazine’s World Top 100 Public Intellectuals, Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers, and Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today. On the front cover Bill Gates is quoted as calling it “my new favourite book of all time”, and there are many other quotes inside heaping praise upon it. We are living in dangerous times!

Steven Pinker

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Click here for the next article in the series.

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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).

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Recommended Reading:

Article by Joshua Hehe

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Footnotes:

1. Penguin, 2018

2. “Science is Not Your Enemy”, The New Republic, August 19th 2013, p33

3. National Academy of Science, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, National Academy Press, 1998, p42

4. Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended, Addison-Wesley, 1982, p322

5. Jacobi, The Way of Individuation, (tr. R. F. C. Hull), Hodder & Stoughton, 1967, p35–36

6. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, stanza 5

7. J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, Crossway, 2018, back cover

8. “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?”, Origins Research 16, no 1/2, 1994, p9

9. https://www.azquotes.com/quote/1233216 There it is stated that the quote comes from The Selfish Gene, chapter 1

10. https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Mortals/Icarus/icarus.html

Graham Pemberton

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I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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