In Defence of Progress

A vigorously written, widely-researched and powerful defence of the Enlightenment

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: May 19, 2018 12:15:05 am
Steven Pinker at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Saturday. *** Local Caption *** Steven Pinker at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Saturday. Express photo by Oinam Anand. 21 January 2012

Title: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
Author: Steven Pinker
Publisher: Allen Lane
Pages: 556
Price: Rs 699

Steven Pinker’s book is a bracing defence of three ideas. The first is, to put it quite simply, that human beings have never had it so good. Despite all the conflicts, inequality, environmental risks etc, there has never been a time in human history where more humans lived longer, more prosperously, more happily, more cooperatively, more freely, being more morally aware and more mobile, and with more access to knowledge than ever before. Using close to a hundred graphs that plot everything from mortality rates to democracy, and from leisure time to happiness, Pinker uses data to show that on all measures of well-being, humans are flourishing as never before. Progress is not just an ideology but an accomplished fact. It is something that can be tangibly measured.

Those who might want to contest Pinker on this front will choose two grounds. We can contest his graphs, though for the most part they are quite convincing. Or, more likely, we can contest his interpretation of what this means for the idea of progress. For one thing, Pinker is quite breezy about rare but high-impact events, like the possibility of severe nuclear destruction or environmental catastrophe. His discussion on inequality is again a little too quick. He diffuses the worry about inequality by controversially delinking equality from happiness and concentrating more on poverty reduction.

The second big claim in the book is explanatory. What made this progress possible was the Enlightenment, a mix of science, reason and humanism that emancipated us from ignorance, our own worse passions, and debilitating belief in religion. Reason helped overcome the sway of habit, science used reason to understand the world and master it, and humanism created the secular world which appealed to a common human nature rather than more divisive manifestations of the divine. Together these three helped create the world where progress became a fact; and the further achievement of progress requires holding onto these values, almost as zealously as other have held on to religion.

The third claim revolves around a paradox. If progress is a fact why is it not embraced more whole-heartedly? Why is there an embarrassment about progress to the point where the hallmark of progressivism has become the denial of progress itself? Is it just enhanced moral delicacy, where we think there is something morally callous about claiming progress till all our major problems have been solved and all suffering has been eradicated? Or is something else going on? Perhaps a more sinister investment in the denial of progress itself. This matters a lot to Pinker, since part of his worry seems to be that we jeopardise progress by not recognising it. The sense that the world is not amenable to progress opens up the way to irrationalism, anti-scientism, and anti-humanism. The idea of progress is, for Pinker, something akin to a secular religion. Like God, progress is both a fact, and something towards which we strive. It endows our actions with meaning, by placing them in a broader chain of significance. It motivates us to act. But the belief that the world is not getting better, and cannot get better usually ends with an enervation of the will, or worse, some atavistic fantasies, where nothing really matters. Pinker’s worry is that despite considerable progress, the dominant ideologies of our time deny progress.

It is the second and third claims where Pinker is more a polemicist than a social scientist. There used to be a term for 18th century thinkers like Hume and Smith — “sceptical Whigs”. Whig referred to the belief that considerable progress had taken place over the course of civilisation. But they were sceptical of the view that progress was simply the result of getting values like science, reason and humanism right. Progress could me more conjunctural, where often “bad” forces conspired to produce outcomes that were in the end good. Pinker’s discussion of the Enlightenment is relatively untextured, and you wish he had picked up that trait that makes the parts of the Enlightenment so fascinating: progress tempered by an underlying sensibility that was also deeply sceptical.

But his claim that the biggest danger to progress is our progressophobia is more debatable. He has lots of interesting asides on what CP Snow called the two cultures problem, the gap between the sciences and the humanities. To oversimplify, science in the broad sense, is the ally of enlightenment values, whereas humanities professors, armed with Nietzsche, have given over to relativism, irrationalism and arbitrary faith. The media amplifies stories of failure because good news is not news, and a whole range of intellectuals have an investment in carving out a social identity for themselves by a chic anti-progressivism. The political ascendancy of anti-progressivism is also a danger for democracy: if you keep telling people the world is going to hell the only place it can go is to hell. He does not quite say it, but the implication is almost that anti-progressivism is driven by a kind of ressentiment against people who actually make lives better. You may not quite agree with his exposure of the politics of anti-progressivism. But this vigorously written, widely researched and powerful defence of the Enlightenment will still enrich you.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University

For all the latest Lifestyle News, download Indian Express App

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement