Enlightenment Now

"Enlightenment Now: the case for reason, science, and humanism" by Steven Pinker. Viking, 2018.

In this book Pinker positions himself as the best replacement of C.P. Snow in the debate that erupted in 1959 with his Rede lecture "The Two Cultures"[1]. The reply was given by F.R. Leavis in a lecture published as "Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow" [2]. The debate is important. It is unfortunate that Snow and Leavis are, each in their own way, unsuitable as protagonists.

The two cultures that Snow refers to are those of the scientists and of the literary intellectuals. He deplores that the typical scientist lacks the appreciation of literature that it deserves. He deplores that the literary intellectuals lack appreciation of the high intellectual level on which scientists operate and of the good they have done for the world.

So far so good. The problem is that Snow viewed himself as uniquely qualified to offer suggestions for improvement. The unique qualifications are, in his view, beyond doubt: he had been a research physicist and was a novelist. When I first read the Rede lecture, Snow made me cringe by his choice of the minimum of science that a literary intellectual should be able to appreciate. Though I am a scientist and suffer from the defects that Snow deplores in the typical member of my species, I sensed there was something wrong when he took it for granted that his activities as a novelist would make him a literary intellectual. Although I had not read any of his novels, I sensed that these were the kind of reading that is celebrated by a number of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. What was painful for me in "The Two Cultures" was that such a phoney would be widely celebrated as a defender of my kind of people. We need a better defender of the culture of scientists, and I think Pinker has shown himself to be one such in "Enlightenment Now".

What of Leavis as representative of the literary intellectuals? His reply "Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow" has been largely dismissed; "a vicious ad-hominem attack" was the typical characterization. I think this misses the merit of Leavis, as one can see by reading his lecture. Leavis wrote that his purpose was to warn of a deplorable tendency he saw in the intellectual climate of his time; that the best way to characterize the tendency would be to illustrate it with a concrete example. It was not the Rede lecture itself that goaded Leavis to action. But when he noticed the inordinate significance attributed to it, when he saw earnest essays on the Rede lecture appearing in applications for scholarships, Leavis decided to sound the alarm. For his stated purpose, Leavis had to juxtapose the insignificance of the person and the significance accorded him by the "chattering classes". For this it was necessary to expose C.P. Snow as "a non-entity".

Before nominating a replacement for Leavis as representative, let me hasten to affirm that he was not a non-entity. Unlike Snow, he was somebody. The twenty years of "Scrutiny", the quarterly Leavis founded with E.R. Knight in 1932 and served as editor of until the last issue in 1953, is testimony to what he was.

On the basis of his "Science: the Glorious Entertainment" [3], I propose Jacques Barzun as a better representative of the humanities than Leavis. Barzun has a high reputation as historian and essayist, but he stands out among other eminent humanists because of "Science: the Glorious Entertainment". Here he shows himself to be a keen observer of scientists and their ways. After having documented their failings in the first few chapters, he adds another chapter, and another, and yet another. All this is not to be construed as Barzun being "against science" (literary critics criticize literature without being "against literature").

And yet. Science is huge; it may not be an exaggeration to believe that there are a hundred thousand scientists in the world. It is a system and had to be invented. As David Wootton argues, this invention happened in the 17th century in Europe. The secret of its great success is that one does not have to be a great intellect to contribute: it thrives in spite of, and partially because of, the fact that most scientists are not exceptional intellectually (this is documented at great length and with considerable relish in "Science: the Glorious Entertainment"). And yet. For all of Barzun's apt criticisms, one doesn't get the merest glimpse that

We must regard science then from three points of view. First it is the free activity of man's divine faculties of reason and imagination. Secondly it is the answer of the few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory, gifts which it will grant only in exchange for peace, security and stagnation. Finally it is man's gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and evil elements in his own soul. ["Daedalus, or Science and the Future", a paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge, on February 4th, 1923, by J.B.S. Haldane]

Although this is beyond the ken of Barzun, he is still the best representative of The Other Culture.

Let us return to "Enlightenment Now", Pinker being my current favourite as representative of the science culture. Among the many things that need fixing in today's world is the perception that the world is worse now than in the past. He points out that this perception is easy to explain: the news. You see, good news is not news. Look at the obituaries. I pick a recent newspaper off the pile, and see that Amos Oz has died. That is not good news. The corresponding good news happened on May 4, 1939, when he was born, but that was not news. A nice surprise is Pinker Figure 4.1: Tone of the News, 1945-2010. It's very much up and down, with a downward trend. This is a fitting opening for the list of 75 figures in total. These "figures" all report numbers on a wide variety of things. It would be too much of a good thing to list them all. My best bet for an unbiased selection is to pick every tenth figure. Here they are:

This gives an idea of the amazing variety of data gathered by Pinker. It contrasts their mostly positive trend with the downward trend in Figure 4.1: Tone of the news.

Pinker amassed an impressive array of data. It is instructive what they say, and surprising what there is. There is no hint of reservations such as in D. McCloskey's book "The Rhetoric of Economics" which argues that, while numerical data are important in economics, what matters is rhetoric, the art of putting together a convincing argument. Lord Kelvin, the great British physicist, is famous for his dictum

when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind
To which McCloskey reports the retort: "And when you can express it in numbers, then your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind". This was Leavis's project in Scrutiny: rigorous argument about matters too subtle and too important to be captured in numbers.

The bulk of Pinker's bulky book is a progress report on the Enlightenment project of the 18th century. Equally valuable is chapter 3: Counter-Enlightenments. Here Pinker writes "But it is the idea of progress that sticks most firmly in the craw." Unfortunately, this is almost the end of the chapter. We do not get to hear an explanation.

I think this is because at first sight working towards progress implies having a goal in mind. The discredited ideologies believed in progress towards stated goals and wreaked havoc as a result. It needs to be explained that one does not need to have a goal in mind. One does not need to formulate what is wanted, it is enough to know what one does not want: hunger, misery, injustice, ... these are plenty to keep one busy. After some time, looking back, one may find, as Pinker does in this book, that progress has happened, somehow, by muddling along.


[1] The Two Cultures by C.P. Snow. First published 1959. With an introduction by Stefan Collini, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
[2] The Two Cultures?: the Significance of C.P. Snow by F.R. Leavis. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
[3] Science: the Glorious Entertainment by Jacques Barzun. University of Toronto Press, 1964.