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Problems with Pinker’s progress

23 March 2018

Nick Spencer takes issue with the American thinker’s paean to the Enlightenment



In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker sees religion as a roadblock to progress

In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker sees religion as a roadblock to progress

HUMANS measure. We measure our intelligence (thanks to IQ tests), our personality type (thanks to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), and now — thanks to the Gray-Pinker scale that I have just invented — our attitude to progress.

The Gray-Pinker scale gauges what we think about progress: its reality, its scale, its inevitability. It ranges from one end, in which believing in progress is a sign of mental illness, to the other, in which not believing in progress is a sign of mental illness.

I named it after John Gray, the British philosopher who has built a formidable reputation for obliterating “progressive” assumptions over the past 20 years, and Steven Pinker, the American cognitive psychologist, who has recently published a 576-page book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress (Allen Lane), replete with dozens of graphs that prove, beyond doubt, that progress is real.

None of us is neutral on this matter, and here is my confession: I am temperamentally right up at the Gray end of the scale, intuitively sceptical about claims of progress and, in particular, moral progress. The kind of person who imagines that we can scrub the Fall/300 million years of evolutionary history (delete according to taste) with central heating, tertiary education, and the internet is several books short of a Bible.


AND yet, in his book, Pinker does a remarkably good job of showing how much progress we have made in the past few hundred years. His tactic is to measure everything: from life and disposable income to intelligence and the chance of being struck by lightning. If you can count it, Pinker does; and what he counts proves our progress.

There are caveats. Pinker does not (quite) argue that the human species has made ethical leaps, even if he is certain that human society has. Nor does he imagine that progress is inevitable. Indeed, one of the reasons for the book is precisely the fear that it is not: the threat of irrational populism, post-modern idiocy, and, of course, “faith” haunts our rational calculations. And therein lies the problem with an argument from measurements.

Commenting on Pinker’s position in The Guardian, George Monbiot wrote that, while he was “broadly sympathetic to [Pinker’s] worldview”, he found himself increasingly disaffected, as “the mainstream environmental movement”, about which Monbiot has written for decades, was caricatured and distorted by cherry-picking, poor scholarship, and straw-man fallacies.

Any Christian reader will have a similar feeling. For all that Pinker’s case for progress is packed with hard data, his explanation for that progress is lazy, and generally unburdened by the precision that characterises the measurements in the first three-quarters of the book.

“Science”, “reason”, and “humanism” have, we are told, powered humanity to progress. What they are, and precisely how they have fuelled progress, is far from clear. What is certain is that their roots go no deeper than an Enlightenment that is exemplified by Kant (the only Enlightenment figure who plays anything more than a walk-on part, and he has hardly more than that) but otherwise left vague and ill-defined.

Religion, in contrast, has, in Pinker’s view, been little more than a roadblock to progress. If the Enlightenment is Kant writ large, religion is basically the Crusades plus the Inquisition, with a few credits added for being a source of social capital — albeit no different from, and no more effective than, a sports club or the Women’s Institute. Disproved by science, preferring faith to reason, and undermining humanism by its uncompromising preference for eternal salvation over earthly happiness, Pinker’s religion is, like James Joyce’s history, a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.


PINKER’s progress is demonstrated by measurements and implicitly explained by them. In about 1770, the good guys — Kant and the scientists — started scoring more points than the bad guys. The idea that “science” and “reason” have, on occasion, lost points by leading us into some of history’s darker cul-de-sacs is as absurd as the idea that religious faith might have added to progress. It does not compute.

That this is a crude caricature hardly needs pointing out. History is a messy business. Christianity played a vital part in providing many of the raw materials — political accountability, the rule of law, the idea of rights, human worth and equality, the legitimation of science, even (from some) the virtue of tolerance — from which the Enlightenment helped to assemble modernity.

Conversely, the Enlightenment, with its measurements, efficiency, and instrumental reasoning, provided the raw materials for the Panopticon, the workhouse, and, at least according to some more excitable critics, the Holocaust. History is full of wheat and tares, and cannot be counted into clarity.

Lecturing on “Freedom and its enemies” in 1952, Isaiah Berlin summed up the approach of Claude Adrien Helvétius, a quintessential Enlightenment thinker, thus: “Scientists know the truth, therefore scientists are virtuous, therefore scientists make us happy. . . What we need is a universe governed by scientists, because to be a good man, to be a wise man, to be a scientist, to be a virtuous man are, in the end, the same thing.”

Pinker is not quite as blunt as this, but he is not far off. We do need to measure and to count — but there are some things that elude our calculus.

Nick Spencer is research director of Theos. His The Political Samaritan: How power hijacked a parable is published by Bloomsbury.

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