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Steven Pinker

We Hardly Understand the Dynamics of Progress

Steven Pinker, optimism and how to live

Maarten van Doorn
Aug 20, 2019 · 8 min read

Our intuition tells us that technology, social norms, movements, and ideas just move forward through time, as if progress is a river and those things are on a raft gliding through.

That the passing of time is sufficient for advancements to occur.

Well, it isn’t.

The river of time has no current, and there’s no wind either. The way stuff works is that by default, it stands still, and it advances only when someone pushes it.

I can tell you this for sure because, five years ago, when I lived in a dorm, I used to think problems actually did solve themselves. In fact, I learned later, the reason the shower reliably ‘magically’ regained its ability to function a few days after it broke down was called Dave. His screwdriver forever falsified my theory about problem-solving angels descending to earth and taking care of some issue in my life when I had accumulated enough karma points.

Instead of wondering why progress sometimes stops, we have to ask:

Question 1: Why does progress ever happen at all? How does humanity solve extremely difficult problems?

Humanity’s progress

For a first answer, let’s pay a visit the recent debate about whether we ought to be pessimists or optimists about humanity’s historical track record.

The forerunner for the smiley side is, of course, Steven Pinker. In Enlightenment Now he shows how, when we step back from the screaming headlines and prophecies of doom, there is an upward trend in how the world is doing. The numbers indicate humans worldwide are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives.

And as Matt Ridley documents in The Rational Optimist, modern life cannot even be compared to pre-modern living. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down.

I invite you to consult the UN databases and Hans Rosling’s brilliant Factfulness if you believe the facts paint a different picture.

Look at the broader pattern

Sure — there have been local rebuttals to some optimists’ examples. For instance, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has (poorly) pressed the following valid point. Even if the overall numbers of bloodshed are down, that may not merit the conclusion that our all-things-considered safety has gone up. Due to increased technological capabilities, one occurrence of violence has the potential to kill far more people. (Pinker replies: the concept of scientific prediction is meaningless when it comes to a single event.)

Yet, all in all, such piecemeal disputes don’t undermine the overarching narrative of progress. There is not much of history you’d want to return to — unless you think 40 is a good age to die of typhoid fever.

We can answer ‘Yes’ to the query “Are the statistical extrapolations made by the ‘New Optimists’ accurate?”

The next question we should ask has less of a descriptive and more of a normative bend:

Question 2: What should we do in light of humanity’s progress to make more progress happen?

It is because of the attitude Pinker has taken on this issue that he has recently been dubbed The World’s Most Annoying Man.

Why people dislike Pinker

To get the gist of what goes awry, look at these three examples.

Worried about racism and sexism today? Infinitesimal on a grander scale, Pinker is quick to point out. He relegates a debate about concealed racism as “self-chastisement for Western intellectuals about Western racism” and work by “the political correctness police.”

Subtext: stop whining.

Additionally, he dismisses anyone who doesn’t share Enlightenment Optimism as someone who lacks the “conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place or not.”

Implying: if you disagree, that’s because you’re dumb.

And if someone with critique isn’t put in place as missing IQ points or bemoaning an irrelevant point, Pinker has another ad hominem reply.

He, namely, seems terribly frustrated that people show so little appreciation for the benefits that enlightenment has delivered them. “If we have a shred of cosmic gratitude,” Pinker commands, we “ought to be” happier. Unhappy 21st-century Westerners (or perhaps even 21st-century everyone) should be content — if only they’d realize how lucky they are to have been born here and now.

Meaning: if you’re not feeling fulfilled, that’s because you’re not grateful enough.

Why Pinker makes sense

Here again are our questions:

Why does progress ever happen at all? In light of that, how to make more progress happen?

It was a bumpy ride, but in the meantime we have arrived at Pinker’s view on how to act given humanity’s progress:

It’s in the best interest of everyone if any message — about individual unhappiness or negative events — that could potentially get people to falsely believe that there is no Enlightenment Progress gets discredited. The end justifies the means — meekly subscribing to prophecies of inevitable doom is the enemy of progress. Therefore, future development is greatly helped by people knowing about Enlightenment Progress.

In 2019, the public debate is like a giant online forum. Pinker is one of the moderators, and his commenting rules resemble a reign of terror policy. He attacks everything he judges to be unhelpful or counterproductive.

Considered from this angle, Pinker’s actions are explainable. They are his approach to the how-to-make-more-progress-happen question. They are goal-directed behavior.

What to make of these imperatives to positivity and gratefulness?

Man is better off than a few centuries ago. That’s an important truth. But does it warrant saying that those who disagree with Pinker do so just because they lack conceptual competence? And does it justify invalidating human suffering, saying that those who are crestfallen are so just because they lack any sense of gratitude? Ditto for repeating that contemporary racism is less severe than those 300 years ago — surely that doesn’t make the crime and hurt less serious?

The issue with Pinker’s rebuttals is that they ascribe a personal shortcoming to his opponents. Unhappy folks betray an ethical shortcoming as they lack any “shred of cosmic gratitude”. Intellectual dissidents expose their intellectual inferiority. And those worrying about today’s abuses manifest a lack of historical perspective.

Moralizing almost never does any good. Ranting about how people who disagree with you lack “conceptual tools” and/or a “shred of cosmic gratitude” is unproductive.

In light of the goal of helping future progress, two specific considerations about Pinker’s strategy come to mind.

1. How far does gratefulness get us?

The appeal to gratitude misunderstands how and why people suffer individually, even if life was never as good as it is today collectively. No one who has difficulty providing for his family can pay bills with the fact that GNPs tend to be larger than ever these days.

People view their life from the perspective of that life, not from that of the cosmos.

More importantly for our what-to-do question: is gratitude ever what progress depended on? As The Guardian asks in its review of Pinker’s latest book: Martin Luther King Jr could have been grateful not to be living in 1850s Louisiana, but where would that have got him?

It is a welcome feature of modern societies that people are critical, even as things improve.

2. And what about emphasizing progress?

Pundits have observed that in our post-truth era, people are more apt to be wrong about simple things than ever before. And if someone concludes the “truth is in the middle” with regard to Enlightenment Progress, he is mistaken.

In an age of information overload, unfortunately, the mere presence of a discussion is enough to make people go “Meh, I suppose they both have a point,” even if actually one of them is firing blanks.

This makes me sympathize with Pinker.

He has an important message. Attacks on it will cause most people to doubt it. No matter the magnitude. Even if they are stray bullets.

A reign of terror commenting policy seems a logical strategy to try to prevent the kneejerk-response about truth being in the middle from occurring.

Is the debate about humanity’s progress pointless?

Pinker is correct to point out the long-term trend. And his disputants are right to take issue with his moralistic dismissal of those who emphasize the continuing presence of abuses.

Let’s be real. For all the smoke and mirrors, the general narrative of Enlightenment Progress is well-supported. The data are straightforward.

The debate about how much progress exactly has taken place is rather pointless. It’s the wrong question.

When talking progress, we should discuss how to — not how much exactly.

Who fixed the shower?

The obviousness of the fact that there’s not much of history you’d want to return to has a dangerous caveat. It causes people to misunderstand progress.

People misinterpret numbers that show we have advanced as a mystical force that will make things turn out all right. They think of it as a mysterious current that lifts the world upward.

As a magical elf fixing your shower when you’ve accumulated enough karma points.

It’s not that. Progress doesn’t happen automatically.

It’s the result of problem-solving. Of Dave fixing the shower.

Developments do not happen automatically as time passes. They take actual work.

Humanity only moves forward if someone pulls it.

We still need a lot of progress!

Fixing showers, however, might not particularly captivate your imagination.

So, which problems should we tackle to make the biggest difference? And how do we navigate these bewilderingly complex puzzles?

Weirdly, progress itself is understudied. We hardly understand the dynamics of progress nor target the deeper goal of speeding it up.

No, really, there are no scientific object-level causal models of how this works.

Therefore, we must affirmatively make the case for the study of how to improve human well-being.

While true, the message that the world used to be worse, therefore we ought to be more grateful and less negative, offers a negative enticement for further improvement.

To show progress the way, we must first reveal what goes wrong.

Perhaps today is the best day to be born. Be that as it may, there’s still plenty of work to be done:

We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we don’t yet understand how best to predict or mitigate all kinds of natural disasters; we aren’t yet able to travel as cheaply and quickly as we’d like; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. — Patrick Collison & Tyler Cowen, We Need a New Science of Progress

Progress matters a lot

We know what we can work on.

These are huge things. Lifegoals. Not side-projects.

Chasing these kinds of goals is not for everyone, I think, and I’m not at all sure about what I will do with my life. Insane commitment is only the ante of sitting at this table. The chips are the years of your life.

If wagering those chips and losing seems like an unbearable possibility to you, then don’t.

Because you can lose.

Important projects by exceptionally intelligent people can fail. It’s not set in stone that Tesla and SpaceX will succeed, and never has been.

But if there’s something you can imagine that’s even worse than wasting your life, if there’s something you want that’s more important than thirty chips, then you may have cause to attempt one of the items on the list.

Relegating the solution to “out there” robs yourself of the chance to make a contribution.

Aren’t people these days missing the sense of belonging to something bigger?

There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more reasons to be happy, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

The Understanding Project

Applying insights from cognitive science and social epistemology to everyday opinion-forming

Thanks to Nico Ryan, Michael Thompson, and John Mashni

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

The Understanding Project

Essays about why we believe what we do, how post-truth societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better.

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

The Understanding Project

Essays about why we believe what we do, how post-truth societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better.

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