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Steven Pinker Loves the Enlightenment

The Harvard psychologist splits the difference between Dr. Pangloss and Pope Francis.

Steven Pinker is famous for observing that human material well-being has undergone tremendous, and vastly underrated, improvement over the last few hundred years. "We've got this problem called obesity," the famous Harvard linguist and psychologist wryly notes. "Historically, as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have compared to the alternative of mass starvation."

In 2012's The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker argued persuasively that we're "living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence," with war, crime, and abject poverty all at historic lows. Microsoft founder Bill Gates called it "the most inspiring book I've ever read."

Many people assume this all means Pinker sees advancements as inevitable, irreversible. Not so, he insists: "We're always in danger of losing them," particularly if we forget the principles and commitments that have made possible the miracle of modern life.

In his telling, the world as we know it grew out of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that dominated Europe's culture in the 18th century and directly informed the great American idea that all people have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But these all-important values are fragile, he explains in a new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking), and the presumption in their favor is fraying under pressure from both left and right.

Pinker has been named among the 100 most influential public intellectuals by both Time magazine and Foreign Policy, though he may be even better known as the first nominee to the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, a project of the satirical Annals of Improbable Research. In March, he visited Reason's Washington, D.C., office to talk with Nick Gillespie about his work.

Reason: What comprises the Enlightenment?

Steven Pinker: My point of view identifies four things: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Reason being the ideal that we analyze our predicament using reason as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, intuition, mysticism. Science being the ideal that we seek to understand the world by formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality. Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women, children, and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, and as opposed to religious doctrine. And progress, that if we apply sympathy and reason to making people better off, we can gradually succeed.

Why did the Enlightenment happen when it did?

Because it only happened once, we don't really know and we can't test hypotheses. But some plausible explanations are that it grew out of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, which showed that our intuitions and the traditional view of reality could be profoundly mistaken, and that by applying reason, we can overturn our understanding of the world.

Maybe the more proximate technological kickstarter was the growth of printing technology. That was the only technology that showed a huge increase in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution. Everything else had to wait for the 19th century.

Steven Pinker. Photo by Jeff Riedel/Contour by Getty Images.Steven Pinker. Photo by Jeff Riedel/Contour by Getty Images.Between the year 1000 and about 1800, people in many places saw very little increase in material well-being.

Yeah. Economic growth was sporadic at best. But printing technology did take off in the 18th century. Pamphlets were cheap and available, and broadsheets and books, and they got translated. They were circulated across all of the European countries as well as the colonies, so that the exchange of ideas was lubricated by that technological advance.

Another possible contributor was the historic memory of the wars of religion. That showed that dogmas about faith and scripture and interpretation and messiahs and so on could lead to tremendous carnage, and people thought, "Let's not do that again." These are all the ingredients. Which one was causal, we don't know.

A large section of the book documents the incredible material progress that we've made. What for you are some of the key markers that show the impact of Enlightenment thinking on our world?

Certainly the conquest of hunger—the fact that now we've got this problem called obesity, the obesity epidemic. Historically, as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have compared to the alternative of mass starvation.

There still is hunger, especially in war-torn, remote regions, but by and large famine—one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse—has been tamed. And sheer longevity, the fact that in the world as a whole, life expectancy now is 71. For most of human history, it was 30. Literacy—the fact that 90 percent of people under the age of 25 can read and write, when in Europe a couple of hundred years ago it was 15 percent. Less obviously, war has been in decline over the past 70 years or so, and crime has declined, even in a pretty crime-prone country like the United States.

But violent crime on a day-to-day basis started declining in the late Middle Ages, right?

Yeah, so we can't credit the Enlightenment for that, because it was part of the transition to modernity. But it got a boost in the 19th century with the formation of professional police forces and with the more systematic application of criminal justice, and then another boost in the 1990s and the 21st century with data-driven policing.

I found one insight related to criminal justice really interesting. Talk about the idea of having a prison sentence or a sanction against a criminal fit the crime.

Prior to the Enlightenment, there were gruesome criminal punishments for what we would consider rather trivial misdemeanors. Drawing and quartering, cutting a person open, ripping out his entrails while he was still alive and conscious.

I'm sure he was guilty of something, right?

Poaching. Criticizing the royal garden. Then in the 18th century, Cesare Beccaria, who also coined the term "the greatest good for the greatest number"—later picked up by Jeremy Bentham as a model for utilitarianism—argued for proportionality. Not so much to satisfy some cosmic scale of justice, but just to set up the right incentive structure. He pointed out that if you're going to apply the severest penalty to rather minor crimes, criminals could say, "Well, why stop at that? If I'm going to take a chance, I may as well go all the way—kill the witnesses, kill the witnesses' families, if I'm going to get the same punishment as just burglarizing the house in the first place." It's a real rational, incentive-based argument.

You say, "The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker. Almost no one knows about it." Why don't we acknowledge that more?

Some of it is that we have no exposure to it. Our view of the world comes from journalism. As long as rates of violence and hunger and disease don't go to zero, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news. Since our intuitions about risk and probability are driven by examples—the "availability heuristic"—we get a sense of how dangerous the world is that's driven by whatever events occur, and we're never exposed to the millions of locales where nothing bad happens.

I think there's also a moralistic bias at work. Pessimists are considered morally serious. As Morgan Housel put it, "Pessimists sound like they're trying to help you. Optimists sound like they're trying to sell you something." We attach gravitas to the doomsayer.

You beat up on Dr. Pangloss, the character in Voltaire's Candide who's fond of saying this is "the best of all possible worlds," so everything in it is perfect. If you want to be a data-driven optimist—a rational optimist, in Matt Ridley's phrase—how do you prevent yourself from becoming Panglossian? Because there's no question, compared to 500 years ago we're much better off, so stop complaining, you know?

As Matt points out, Pangloss was a pessimist. An optimist thinks that the world can be much better than what it is today.

Voltaire was really satirizing Leibniz's argument for "theodicy," namely that God had no choice but to allow earthquakes and tsunamis and plagues, because a better world was ontologically impossible.

[To keep from being a Pangloss, you should] stick with the data and notice that some things get worse. Right now, for example, the opioid epidemic is clearly an example. There have been fantastic setbacks: the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918–1919, World War II, the 1960s crime boom, AIDS in Africa. You've also got to be aware of low-probability but high-impact events. Such as nuclear war. Such as the possibility of catastrophic climate change.

Let's look at some of the groups that you see as anti-Enlightenment. The first one I want to talk about is the Romantic Green movement. What do you mean by that phrase, and who are these people?

Well, my particular foil for that would be Pope Francis, and I know that arguing with a man who's infallible must be the ultimate exercise in futility.

That's why you have tenure, right?

That's exactly right. This is the idea that humanity made a terrible mistake when it began the Industrial Revolution, that we've been raping and despoiling the environment, which has been getting steadily worse and worse and worse, and that we will pay the price in a dreadful day of reckoning.

Even if we did have 200 years of progress from 1800 on, everything's about to go to hell?

Right. Or the progress that we've experienced so far is illusory, since we're breathing in carcinogens as we speak and since species are dropping like flies, so actually our situation is getting worse and worse and worse. This movement tends to be opposed to the technology-driven increase in living standards over the last couple of years. It tends to see humanity as a scourge on the planet. In the book, I acknowledge that concern with the environment certainly is a good thing, and we have the Green movement to thank for reminding us that there can be harms from pollution.

However, there is an alternative approach to protecting the environment, sometimes called ecomodernism or ecopragmatism, that acknowledges that pollution has been a price that we have paid for enormous benefits to humanity—more than doubling lifespans, emancipating slaves, emancipating women from domestic drudgery, emancipating children from farm labor and getting them into schools. Some degree of pollution is worth paying just as some amount of dirt in your house is worth it, because the effort to keep it perfectly clean would mean sacrificing everything else good in life.

It's not that the world exists merely for us to blow it up if we want to, but rather that a lot of the Romantic Greens don't seem to put any value on human flourishing.

An example would be the implacable opposition to genetically modified organisms, which promise increased nutrition and in fact promise enormous environmental benefits—crops that need fewer pesticides, fewer fertilizers, less acreage.

Less water, fewer resources.

Right. So paradoxically, that would be a case in which adherence to a romantic ideology—what is natural is good, what is human-made is bad—actually can harm the environment.

Another aspect of ecomodernism is the recognition that affluence in general is good for the environment. When people are so poor that electricity itself offers a big leap in their living standards, they'll live with an awful lot of pollution in return for electric current coming out of their walls. Once you get a little bit richer, and you're starting to choke on smog and you can't see the horizon, then you're willing to pay for the pollution control devices that give you the electricity without all the pollution.

China 50 years ago just wanted enough to eat, and they were willing to industrialize without thinking about pollution. Now you're starting to see that as Chinese people get richer, they want cleaner air.

Absolutely. The world's most polluted areas are poor countries. Poverty is the greatest polluter.

I would think neo-Marxists would say, "Well, that's because the rich parts of the world are exporting their pollution to poor countries."

That's not literally true. Most of our pollution can't be exported because it's involved in the generation of power and home heating and so on. And a lot of the pollution in the developing world comes from burning wood or dung, especially indoors, and from contaminated drinking water.

Let's talk a bit about climate change. First and foremost, you believe that it's happening and that human activity adds to it, right?

Yeah.

"The world's most polluted areas are poor countries. Poverty is the greatest polluter."

You talk about how there's a strong argument for nuclear energy if what you care about is how to get the most energy out of the fewest greenhouse gases. How did you come to appreciate nuclear?

Partly from thinking through that we really do need scalable, abundant, affordable energy, particularly in the developing world. There's a moral imperative to allow India and China and Africa to enjoy the benefits that we've enjoyed from abundant energy. Nuclear energy doesn't involve burning anything, so it doesn't emit carbon, and a lot of our dread of nuclear energy is because it hits all of our cognitive buttons for the fear response: It's novel; we can imagine a catastrophe; it's man-made as opposed to natural. There are a few salient events that lodge in our cultural memory, mainly Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, despite the fact that the human damage in each case was trivial compared to what we tolerate day in and day out from burning coal.

I hadn't thought about it in these terms, but you mention that only 60 or 100 people died directly in Chernobyl.

Yeah, and then there probably was a slightly elevated cancer rate, barely detectable.

So is this a case where we can imagine the disastrous outcome and that overwhelms the cognitive ability to talk about this stuff rationally?

That's right, because the far greater number of deaths come from fossil fuels—from mining, from transporting, from pollution. It just never happens all at once in a photogenic event. Coal kills, according to one estimate, about a million people a year, but that doesn't make the headlines.

You also note that France and Germany, which are countries that get a lot of electricity generation out of nuclear power, are moving toward getting rid of it, right?

Germany most of all, and their carbon emissions have gone up. Because when nuclear power plants are taken offline, they're replaced by fossil fuels.

Part of the Romantic Green movement is this idea that you can get something for nothing. But if you wanted to use wind energy or solar panels, there's a vast amount of area that would need to be covered with these things in order to generate the type of energy we need.

And also the wind is sometimes becalmed, and the sun doesn't shine at night. Even with the enormous penetration of photovoltaics, which is clearly a good thing, there's a limit to how much of the energy demand [solar] can assume, since a modern economy also has to provide energy at night, and there are long periods of time in which there's pretty thick cloud cover. If we need a fossil fuel backup, then it doesn't really help with reducing carbon emissions, because we still have to have those gas or coal plants.

This is all pursuant to the idea that climate change is happening, and that it makes sense for the planet to reduce carbon emissions. In your reading of the data, what are the odds the bad scenario is going to happen?

I couldn't assign a number to it. It strikes me as high enough that we should reduce the tail risk.

There's a range of pretty gruesome scenarios as to how high sea levels could rise, and possible flips like the Gulf Stream being diverted that would turn Europe into Siberia. Not definitely going to happen, but high enough of a probability that the consumer should worry about it.

Your preferred fix to this is a carbon tax. How would that work?

The idea would be to, as they say, internalize the externality of emitting the carbon that could result in climate change that harms everyone—but without the command-and-control mechanism where someone decides what source of energy we should use, what conservation methods we should adopt. The advantage of carbon pricing is that the decisions are distributed across billions of agents, who can weigh the various trade-offs—the benefit that you get from fossil fuels as opposed to the cost that the carbon tax would impose.

Political economy people worry about how to figure out the cost of a ton of carbon or exactly how much damage it does. How do you price it so that you don't create a false market that causes malinvestment?

That risk can never be zero, because no one's omniscient, but I think having one is better than not having one.

Some people hate modernity because of environmental concerns, but it seems that the anti-Enlightenment attitudes on the right come from a different place.

Some of the concerns are religious—we shouldn't play God by extending human lifespans, or, conversely, we don't even have to worry about climate change because God wouldn't let any bad thing happen.

Part of it comes from something that's called theoconservatism—the idea that the Enlightenment roots of the American social order were a big mistake, that it has led to relativism and homosexuality and pornography.

Women wearing pants?

And worse! Decadence and degeneration, because the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is just too tepid for a morally robust society. So we need something, some sort of rock-solid principles, which immediately are provided by religion—particularly Catholicism. This is a movement that distrusts science for its Promethean usurping of power from the gods, especially when it merges with classical liberalism and other Enlightenment values.

It seems to me that there are two major legacies of the Enlightenment. One is scientific progress, or the idea that we can and should investigate all aspects of the world and get to understand them better. But that leads to scientific determinism, where we know why things happen, and we know they're going to happen in pretty predictable ways, and that limits our autonomy. On the other hand, there is the political legacy of the Enlightenment, which is the idea that each of us should be able to run our lives more than we did in the past, because we're all thinking agents who deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Is there a tension between those two legacies? Because life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means we have an open society, and an open society means we sometimes come across scientific discoveries that tell us we're not that special. You're never going to be a baseball player. I'm never going to be a Harvard professor. How do we maintain equality in the political sphere as science tells us we're more and more unequal?

We have to embrace the ideal of equality of opportunity and equality of treatment under the law, as opposed to equality of outcome. That's an inescapable consequence of the fact that we're not clones. We're genetically different. But if you adopt a principle that we're not going to prejudge an individual by the characteristics of his or her group, that's a moral and political decision that is justifiable, and it's one that we can stick to.

Talk about the structural postmodern critique of the Enlightenment.

It didn't take long after the Enlightenment for there to be a counter-Enlightenment movement. The 19th century Romantics, the cultural pessimists like [Arthur] Schopenhauer and [Friedrich] Nietzsche, led to the Frankfurt School of [Max] Horkheimer and [Theodor] Adorno, and to the existentialists, and then to the postmodernists, who rejected pretty much every one of the Enlightenment ideals. [They thought] reason was just a pretext to exert power, and the individual was a myth—individuals are embedded in a culture and it's the culture that's real.

One strain of that led to blood-in-the-soil nationalism. We're just cells of a superorganism. There's no such thing as objective truth, just competing narratives, and far from there being progress, there has been deterioration, and any moment now the entire society will collapse.

Are there critiques of the Enlightenment that you find convincing? I'm thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer saying the Enlightenment is totalitarian, because it controls every aspect of the human experience, much like Nazism or Stalinism or Maoism. You say, "No, those were perversions of the Enlightenment."

Yeah, there is the danger of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. But no, Nazism was not an Enlightenment movement. I don't think you can trace it back to Adam Smith and David Hume and [Baruch] Spinoza and James Madison. It was counter-enlightenment in valorizing the tribe over the individual, and it was opposed to liberal movements of the 19th century that tried to generate wealth, reduce injustices, maximize flourishing of as many people as possible. These were all anathema to the Nazis.

Isn't there a hubris that's part of the Enlightenment legacy that we always need to be on guard against?

Yeah, and the Enlightenment had many contradictory strains, so it's in the very nature of the Enlightenment that it wasn't a doctrine or a catechism of beliefs. It would be impossible to say everything about the Enlightenment is worthy, because they disagreed with each other. There also was a critique of the Enlightenment from Edmund Burke, that we're just not smart enough to design a society from rational principles, so we should respect tradition and [existing] social structures even if we can't explain their rationale, because they keep us from teetering over the brink.

His great example of that was the French Revolution, which leveled all sorts of past institutions.

Here's the way I would put it: Yes, the Enlightenment as a movement was filled with flaws. Because they're just guys. They couldn't have gotten everything right on the first try. They disagreed with each other, and there was a lot of stuff they didn't know. They didn't know evolution. They didn't know thermodynamics. It's really the ideals that I associate with the Enlightenment that we ought to venerate.

You say in the book that politicization makes us dumb. What's your general argument?

People identify with what you might call tribes, and leftism and rightism have become tribes. We'll evaluate any idea in terms of how well it conforms with a particular set of ideas that happen to be associated with that tribe. We'll resist evidence to the contrary. We'll demonize those who disagree with us.

"We can't converge on a most likely hypothesis if there are some hypotheses that are undiscussable. It's only in the crucible of ideas and debate that you can converge on the truth."

There are studies that show that people, when evaluating data from a hypothetical experiment—if it's politically neutral, like the efficacy of a skin cream—do a decent job of interpreting the numbers. But as soon as it's a political hot button, like concealed weapons laws, then they'll systematically misread the data in the direction that favors the position associated with their coalition.

What are the ways around that?

Ideally, it would be reminding people that this phenomenon exists—that political tribalism makes us make math errors, that it is a human failing, and that we should evaluate policies in terms of evidence about their effects and how well they conform with what we want.

That is the idealization, but of course if we were rational enough to accept that, we probably wouldn't have fallen into tribalism in the first place. [Another solution], with perhaps more of an appeal to our emotional selves, would be to find spokespeople who are branded with the opposite coalition to speak in favor of a particular position. In the case of climate change, it would be far more effective if there were people on the libertarian right who were chosen as spokesmen, as opposed to Al Gore, who was the Democratic candidate for president, to frame issues in a way that doesn't immediately trigger your tribal affiliations.

We do know that issues can flip. Environmentalism used to be thought of as a right-wing position, because these were gentlemen in their country estates who valued the view and duck hunters who wanted the habitat preserved for their prey. Whereas serious progressives cared about real issues—

They wanted to put dams everywhere so that they could provide energy for poor people.

Exactly.

You chastise the libertarian right for embracing a rigid dogma over serious introspection on things. Libertarians will go right from a regulation getting introduced to "We're at the final terminus of the road to serfdom."

The next thing you know we're Venezuela, yeah.

Then there's the way politics damages academia. What are the worst outgrowths of this politicization as it affects you on a daily basis?

There are some hypotheses that are hard to advance without being branded as a this-ist or a that-ist. The fact that men and women aren't indistinguishable, the fact that intelligence is in good part heritable, the fact that parenting doesn't have a lasting effect on the personalities of children, the fact that rates of crime differ across ethnic groups, the fact that policing has a large effect on the crime rate. I could go on.

The problem is that because of the politics around these issues, you're not even supposed to investigate them.

I think there are two problems. One is simply that we can't converge on a most likely hypothesis if there are some hypotheses that are undiscussable. It's only in the crucible of ideas and debate that you can converge on the truth.

The other is that, by making certain hypotheses undiscussable, you open a niche for people who stumble across them outside of the sandbox of academia. And they can often attach themselves to the most extreme versions, since they feel empowered that they've discovered a truth that's undiscussable in academia.

You get communities in the alt-right that often embrace quite illiberal, extreme views, because they feel so exhilarated that they've come across them. A silly example would be Milo Yiannopoulos saying that because women place a greater emphasis on family vs. career in their lifestyle trade-offs, we should keep women out of medical school, because they're just going to drop out and have babies.

It is actually a fact that there is a difference in the distribution of life priorities between men and women. Of course, that doesn't mean that all men place 100 percent weight on their career and 0 percent on family, or vice versa. And there are moral and political arguments why, even if it were the case that more women drop out, we would not want to keep them out of medical school. But that debate doesn't even take place if you can't acknowledge the fact that men and women have different distributions.

But in the university, it's not the Milo Yiannopouloses of the world that are keeping that conversation from happening.

That's right, yes, but then these views can fester in these online communities. Likewise, another example that I've given is that you can't really understand crime in this country without noting that there are pretty severe differences in rates of incidence across different ethnic groups and races. But if that's undiscussable and then you stumble across it because you go to FBI.gov, you might think, "Oh, it shows that African Americans are inherently more violent." Which of course is nonsense, because rates of crime [aren't static]. At other points in American history, it was the Irish-Americans who had the high rates of violent crime. So actually, by suppressing a basic statistical fact, it can encourage racism in these alternative communities, because they never get pushback in an arena in which all hypotheses are out there and their limitations can be rationally discussed.

In grad school in the late '80s and early '90s, I had a lot of professors who had gone to Berkeley in the '60s. I was libertarian and they didn't particularly agree with me about a lot of things, but they were interested in discussing them. That seems to have faded. Why is the university no longer the place where you argue all ideas and get rid of the ones that can't go more than a few rounds without being revealed as lightweight?

I don't know the exact history, but there was a fair amount of intolerance in the '70s. It was not exactly a golden age for speech. A lot of speakers were, as we now say, deplatformed. But it does seem to have gotten worse in the last 5–10 years, and I don't know if it's that the baby boom generation itself had some intolerance toward non-leftist views, then became the establishment and established norms that the millennial generation has internalized.

Is it coming more from the faculty or the students?

I think a lot of it actually comes from the student life bureaucracy, the various deans and associate deans and Title IX administrators and affirmative action administrators. They have formed this new guild that operates outside the ordinary university chain of command, with a president and a provost who rose from the faculty and presumably have some commitment to intellectual values. This is an autonomous culture that moves laterally from university to university. They have their own norms, and the control of a lot of student life has been outsourced to them.

Steven Pinker. Photo by Jeff Riedel/Contour by Getty Images.Steven Pinker. Photo by Jeff Riedel/Contour by Getty Images.You make a case for studying the humanities as well as hard sciences. Yet you're also extremely critical of what's happening in the humanities.

Well, if the humanities are defined as the study of, say, products of the human mind—of symbolic creations including art, ideas, political philosophies, and so on—there shouldn't be a debate between the sciences and the humanities. We've obviously got to nurture scholarship of artists and writers and thinkers, past and present, and that has to be reinterpreted every generation with new understanding both of sources and of the greater intellectual context.

It's just this particular set of assumptions that happens to have taken over big sectors of the humanities that I think is a source of the problem. Obscurantism in expression—the fact that by far the most turgid, jargon-ridden prose comes out of the postmodernist humanities—the deep hatred of the institutions of modernity, the equation of liberal democracy with fascism, the feeling that society is in an ever-worsening spiral of decline, and the lack of appreciation, I think, that the institutions of liberal democracy have made the humanities possible, made them flourish. It's that cluster of ideas, which is not the same as the humanities, but just happens to have descended over large sectors of the academic humanities.

You're making a defense of the Enlightenment. Are you optimistic that your intervention here will help?

The honest answer is I don't know. I think it would be grandiose to say that my book will change the situation. I'm doing what I can. The optimism that I'm associated with in this book isn't just thinking that everything is bound to get better—that there's some law of nature that will carry everything ever upward. It's really more an empirical defense of progress. We have made accomplishments. They're precious, we're always in danger of losing them, and what will happen going forward depends very much on the choices that we make now.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a video version, visit reason.com.

Photo Credit: Jeff Riedel/Contour by Getty Images

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  • Tom Bombadil||

    "We've got this problem called obesity," the famous Harvard linguist and psychologist wryly notes. "Historically, as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have..."

    Reminds me of Norm MacDonald again.
    "I've got a friend who has the disease of alcoholism. I like to look on the bright side of things. So I told him, 'it's true you have a disease...... but I think you've got the best one.'

  • Mickey Rat||

    With rare exceptions, obesity and alcoholism are choices. They can only occur where an abundance of food or alcohol is available. Starvation is caused by the opposite.

  • sarcasmic||

    I can see you know absolutely nothing about alcoholism.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    I think Mickey understands the most fundamental point about both problems: You can't get fat in the middle of a famine, you can't be a drunk if there's no alcohol available.

    That's WHY we're biologically predisposed to end up overweight in an environment with unlimited food availability: Because through most of our evolutionary history, fat wasn't a disadvantage, it was insurance against starvation in hard times. Having food available to you and not eating it was a really bad choice until very recently.

    As for alcoholism being a choice, you don't have a choice about having the predisposition, but the predisposition means squat if you don't start drinking in the first place. The real answer to alcoholism is a good test to see if people are predisposed to it in the first place, so the people who are won't start drinking to begin with.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Having an inclination to alcoholism is not a choice, being an alcoholic is one, even if the the temptation is dire to resist.

  • Tony||

    Addiction by definition is the absence of choice. What is the point of what you're saying? We'd have no heroin addicts if there were no heroin either.

  • ThomasD||

    "Addiction by definition is the absence of choice. "

    No.

    Wrong.

    Were that the case it would be untreatable.

  • Mickey Rat||

    So no one ever broke an addiction to the point that were able to make a conscious choice to refuse to use the substance they were addicted to? Are drugs and alcohol forced on people?

    The point is that you cannot become addicted to something if it was not a choice available in the first place. The addict must first have the ability to choose to use a substance before they can abuse it.

  • Mickey Rat||

    So no one ever broke an addiction to the point that were able to make a conscious choice to refuse to use the substance they were addicted to? Are drugs and alcohol forced on people?

    The point is that you cannot become addicted to something if it was not a choice available in the first place. The addict must first have the ability to choose to use a substance before they can abuse it.

  • Mickey Rat||

    So no one ever broke an addiction to the point that were able to make a conscious choice to refuse to use the substance they were addicted to? Are drugs and alcohol forced on people?

    The point is that you cannot become addicted to something if it was not a choice available in the first place. The addict must first have the ability to choose to use a substance before they can abuse it.

  • Tony||

    Well that's certainly a stunning insight.

  • some guy||

    Addiction by definition is the absence of choice.

    That's asinine. Plenty of addicts make the conscious decision every day to stop using whatever it is they are addicted to. Addiction isn't the absence of choice, it's just that the choice is harder than normal to make. Addiction is also a spectrum.

  • Tony||

    Okay, it's the reduction of choice.

    What it's not is a moral condition. Or at least we shouldn't treat it as such if we want to do anything useful about it.

  • An Non||

    "What it's not is a moral condition. Or at least we shouldn't treat it as such if we want to do anything useful about it."

    The medical model has the same problem, as long as there are people who believe that "But I've got a disease!" excuses everything--the addiction and the behavior it causes.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Alcoholism exists on the border between medical and psychological. Which is only to be expected because we do our thinking with biological brains.

    On that border, both biology and will power matter, because each is just a way of describing the other.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Did you guys know Mickey Rat is an angel? He has never sinned in his life. Sinning is a choice, after all, and he simply chose not to be a sinner. He's got an express ticket to heaven already punched. Rumor has it he gonna be Jesus' assistant and might take over once Jesus retires.

  • Linda C||

    Red herring much.

    I know yo think every violent crime is not a matter of choice, but of programming right? so no punishment of Gun control advocates like Weistien when they commit rape?

    By the way millions of people have overcome alcoholism by choice, will and support. My father in law did.

    Your assertion that people have no agency in their own lives is absurd.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Did you guys know Mickey Rat is an angel? He has never sinned in his life. Sinning is a choice, after all, and he simply chose not to be a sinner. He's got an express ticket to heaven already punched. Rumor has it he gonna be Jesus' assistant and might take over once Jesus retires.

  • Mickey Rat||

    That is a bizarre conclusion to draw from what I wrote.

  • ThomasD||

    Heaven forfend libertarians attempt to hold people responsible for their actions.

    Fucking anarchy!

  • Mickey Rat||

    Furthermore, "sinning", by definition, is a choice. If one is incapable of exercising free will and reason over one's actions, then those actions cannot be sins. Of course, if an adult does not have free will over his actions then he is mentally incompetent.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    "Why is the university no longer the place where you argue all ideas and get rid of the ones that can't go more than a few rounds without being revealed as lightweight?"

    "I don't know if it's that the baby boom generation itself had some intolerance toward non-leftist views, then became the establishment and established norms that the millennial generation has internalized."

    It's the march through the institutions, a conscious effort to take over the high ground of cultural transmission. The left is consciously trying to take over institutions, which means that they eventually succeed, because there's no organized push back.

  • some guy||

    I don't think "The Left" is doing anything consciously. It's just that the people who tend to be professors and administrators tend to lean left politically. It's just correlated variables. Some on "The Left" might think it is a conscious decision, but they're the same ones who thought it was impossible for Trump to be president.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Literally, they've written papers and essays on it, discussed it extensively. If it isn't a conscious effort, nothing is.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    "Why is the university no longer the place where you argue all ideas and get rid of the ones that can't go more than a few rounds without being revealed as lightweight?"

    "I don't know if it's that the baby boom generation itself had some intolerance toward non-leftist views, then became the establishment and established norms that the millennial generation has internalized."

    It's the march through the institutions, a conscious effort to take over the high ground of cultural transmission. The left is consciously trying to take over institutions, which means that they eventually succeed, because there's no organized push back.

  • TGoodchild||

    "Our view of the world comes from journalism. As long as rates of violence and hunger and disease don't go to zero, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news."

    Oh, I am sure "journalists" can be counted on the manufacture such incidents.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Maybe the more proximate technological kickstarter was the growth of printing technology. That was the only technology that showed a huge increase in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution. Everything else had to wait for the 19th century.

    Is this really true? My impression has always been that textiles -- spinning thread and weaving cloth in the home -- saw tremendous productivity improvements in the 1700s, although the 1800s extended that to factories and making cothes. The Newcomen and later Watt steam engines also improved mining in the 1700s.

  • markm23||

    And there were great advances in iron-working, beginning well before the enlightenment, but most historians - including the ancient writers our historians rely upon - don't understand technology and are aware only of improved armor and weapons. Rome dominated the world partly because most of their men of military age could equip themselves with iron weapons and a bit of armor, but their ironsmiths could neither make a musket barrel, nor make chainmail for more than a few officers.

    In the "Dark Ages" after Rome fell, ironworking improved to the point that everyone could have at least an axe or spear with a head of hardened iron, and the professional warriors nearly all had chain-mail - aside from some infantry that didn't care to load themselves down with the weight. A few centuries later, plate armor supplemented and then replaced chain mail for the mounted warriors. Furthermore, by the 1400's , foundries existed with many workers, and using a water wheel to drive the bellows and hammers rather than depending entirely on human muscle. (It's not clear if this started several centuries earlier but no one wrote anything about the new techniques, or if it was a response to labor shortages after the Black Plague, This era may have also been when commercial shipping largely turned to sails instead of oars - which was a necessity for the Age of Exploration, because no ship could carry the provisions for a long voyage with a crew of oarsmen.)

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    As long as rates of violence and hunger and disease don't go to zero, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news.

    When violence is common, everyone knows about it, and it's not news. As it becomes rarer, it becomes news. And because newspapers are in business, they need to latch on to the uncommon to get readers to sell ads. Hence, newspapers don't just gather news, they make mountains out of molehills.

  • Linda C||

    One of my grad students surveyed 300 fellow grads on whether US gun murder rate had risen, been flat, or fallen in a generation (defined as early 1990's).

    over 90% got it wrong, with 80% saying it was up and 9% saying "the same."

    It has plunged 55%. And murder in the 5-year-old to 22-year-old "student age" cohort has fallen 60%.

    Amazingly, the further left the student self described themselves, and the more prestige news media they consumed -- the more likely they were to get it wrong.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I'm becoming increasingly persuaded that libertarianism is a rational refutation of enlightenment ideals.

    The last time humans invented a grand unified theory to make our existence sustainable was when Karl Marx came up with dialectical materialism. The theory had great success in changing human behavior over large areas of our planet. But the changes did not prove to be sustainable, and the theory did not remain unified. It seems likely that [similar theories] will run into similar difficulties.

    The choice of an imagined future is always a matter of taste. [Insert enlightened intellectual] chooses sustainability as the goal and the Grand Unified Theory as the means to achieve it. My taste is the opposite. I see human freedom as the goal and the creativity of small human societies as the means to achieve it. Freedom is the divine spark that causes human children to rebel against grand unified theories imposed by their parents.

    ---Freeman Dyson

    http://www.nybooks.com/article.....verything/

  • Ken Shultz||

    Adam Smith's observation that idiotic individuals pursuing their own stupid interests from their own stupid perspectives will always outperform geniuses attempting to direct their activities from above was a reaction to and refutation of the enlightenment. Darwin showed us that market signals make idiot insects so smart in terms of making themselves flourish, that it is unnecessary for an omniscient, omnipotent God to create or direct them.

    Leaving people free to pursue their own idiot interests is not what I think of when I think of the enlightenment, and yet isn't that what free minds and free markets are all about?

  • Mickey Rat||

    I suppose you could say that some in the Enlightenment went for a deterministic view which culminates in Marxism, and some embraced a chaotic theory. Both are rational, but one describes the world a bit better.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I think we've come to associate the enlightenment with rationality--because it supposedly went against religion maybe? But if Adam Smith (and some of the other Scottish enlightenment figures) were a reaction to it, then how can they also be a part of it?

    Think Voltaire ridiculing Leibniz in Candide and Swift excoriating enlightenment figures by way of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels. We've come to associate both of those figures with rationality, but apart from being rational, I'm not sure we can make them a part of the same movement as the people they're excoriating.

    It is a great irony that elitist intellectuals the world over both go after religion in the wake of evolution, but seem to ignore its implications for the necessity of geniuses to oversee progress. Meanwhile, Adam Smith, the foundation upon which evolution was built, is roundly ignored by the same bunch.

    That isn't surprising given that the essential message of both flies in the face of the elitism that's central to the enlightenment. If one of the core ideas of the enlightenment is the idea that we can't have the ignorant making decisions that might impact the rest of us--and Adam Smith is over in the corner proving them wrong--how can they be part of the same movement?

  • RafaelGuzman||

    The chief characteristic of the Enlightenment was the centering of reason as the primary arbitrator in society.

    In fact, many philosophers shared an affinity for this elevation of reason while formulating radically different world-views. Eg: Hume/Mills vs Hegel

  • ThomasD||

    "how can they be part of the same movement?"

    So long as they were arguing their points, and not seeking to write each other out of a particular movement then I'm inclined to be inclusive.

    To my mind the Continentals went awry starting with Rousseau, and all of his philosophical descendants . Do not forget that Voltaire was also jumping on his shit when he Rousseau argued that the victims of the Lisbon earthquake basically got what they deserved for living in a modern built up city center.

    Likewise Hume is as problematic for the English speaking enlightenments.

    Perhaps the one thing we've most lost is the ability for correction, but I think that was not by accident.

    Pinker is something of a celebrity author right now, if we are going to talk enlightenment the person Reason should interview is Alan Charles Kors.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Ever see a chatroom atheist blow a gasket after being told that religion is a social adaptation like language? You'd think that would be central to atheism, but it isn't it. It's a total refutation of their some of their dearest tropes--among them, that stupid people pursuing their own stupid goals couldn't possibly be a path to progress.

  • ||

    That's why I hate government intervention predicated on the notion of 'there are too many 'x' business ergo we need to regulate or restrict it because it costs society 'x' dollars'.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The central problem with utilitarianism is its inability to account for qualitative considerations. Ultimately, it always boils down to elitists substituting their own qualitative preferences for those of their supposed lessers.

    Only markets allow individuals to make choices for themselves that represent their own qualitative preferences. Show me someone who thinks the problem is other people's qualitative preferences, and I'll show you an elitist authoritarian.

    Part of it is that they don't think they can persuade irrational people to change their minds. They're wrong about that.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Utilitarianism is a metaphor gone cancerous; Just because you might speak, metaphorically, of summing up utility, doesn't mean it's actually possible as a practical matter.

  • RafaelGuzman||

    "Leaving people free to pursue their own idiot interests is not what I think of when I think of the enlightenment, and yet isn't that what free minds and free markets are all about?"

    I hardly think that was Smith's formulation, nor is it all that accurate a description of how free markets work.

    Smith made an argument that the free market was in fact more efficient that one guided by mercantilist policy. In order to make this argument Smith had to employ *reason*: he suggested that, all else being equal, an idiot (or non-idiot) would do best to have choice in the economic matters closest to him, rather than have someone else make those choices for him. He then reasoned that in the aggregate, having the economy be governed by decentralized decision-making was in fact more efficient and beneficial than any alternative.

    His argument was thus built on utilitarian grounds, following the model of the philosopher David Hume.

    tl;dr - Yes, Adam Smith was part of the Enlightenment

  • Ken Shultz||

    "I hardly think that was Smith's formulation, nor is it all that accurate a description of how free markets work."

    People make decisions within the framework of a market as if they possessed knowledge that they do not possess. There's this thing called the invisible hand. It's much wiser (and benevolent) than the individuals participating in the market. It is also much wiser than any "intellectual" who would try to direct these individuals' actions from above.

    The implications are devastating for elitist intellectuals from the enlightenment through today

    Evolution works much the same way. There isn't an ant anywhere who can explain what it's doing or why. They just do what seems right from their own individual perspective--and the species flourishes.

  • ThomasD||

    "Adam Smith's observation that idiotic individuals pursuing their own stupid interests from their own stupid perspectives will always outperform geniuses attempting to direct their activities from above was a reaction to and refutation of the enlightenment."

    Wut?

    Adam Smith was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Which, to be sure, was quite different than what was going on over on the Continent, but it was enlightenment non the less.

    That the Scottish Enlightenment was the one that more strongly informed the formation of the United States quite likely being the best explanation for what we did not turn out as badly as the French Revolution did.

  • ThomasD||

    ...for why we did not turn out...

  • Brett Bellmore||

    I'd say the chief reason the American revolution didn't turn out as badly as the French revolution, is that the American revolution wasn't a revolution.

    We already de facto had most of our independence, we had our own governing institutions, we were largely running things ourselves. King George wasn't trying to maintain British control, he was trying to restore it.

    So we didn't have to cobble together governments in the middle of fighting one that was already in place. We just had to beat back the effort to overthrow the governments we already had.

    Yes, we resorted to the Articles of Confederation, but that was, consciously, a defensive alliance of already independent states.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    One argument in favor of individualism as the core political philosophy is that contracts can simulate socialism without breaking individualism, but socialism cannot tolerate individualism and certainly can't simulate it.

  • ||

    True. But socialism is about tinkering. It's about social engineering to fit its visions of what constitutes an 'enlightened' society.

    Of course, the elites get to make those decisions.

    In short: We get filet mignon. You get....well we're not sure.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I;ve reserved that particular argument for wanna-be socialists who don't really know what it is, but want it anyway, and claim it doesn't force anything on anybody. It's a waste of time, I suppose, but so is every hobby :-)

  • ||

    "...But some plausible explanations are that it grew out of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, which showed that our intuitions and the traditional view of reality could be profoundly mistaken,"

    And Christianity. They used it as a springboard, if you will, to bounce off their theories. Without Christianity, which was rooted in reason and science in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (in that it, for example, protected the ancient knowledge), the Enlightenment would be just a yin without its yang. They're more complementary than people think.

    Like mustard and hamburgers.

    But NOT pineapple and pizza.

  • ThomasD||

    To fail to note that Scholasticism was an essential basis for what became the enlightenment also seems a bit of an oversight.

  • ace_m82||

    "Then in the 18th century, Cesare Beccaria, who also coined the term 'the greatest good for the greatest number'—later picked up by Jeremy Bentham as a model for utilitarianism—argued for proportionality."

    Proportionality, sounds like "an eye for an eye" to me...

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Yes, Hamurabi's code was considered a huge advance in justice at the time, because it limited vengeance to be proportional to the wrong being avenged.

  • ace_m82||

    "Then in the 18th century, Cesare Beccaria, who also coined the term 'the greatest good for the greatest number'—later picked up by Jeremy Bentham as a model for utilitarianism—argued for proportionality."

    Proportionality, sounds like "an eye for an eye" to me...

  • ace_m82||

    The squirrels agree.

  • ThomasD||

    Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women, children, and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, and as opposed to religious doctrine.

    Or, at least humanism purports to do so.

    But what about religions that 'hold out the well-being of men, women, children, and other sentient creatures as the highest good'?

    Or, at least purport to do so.

    And, why is acceptance of one always and everywhere a rejection of the other?

  • ThomasD||

    Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women, children, and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, and as opposed to religious doctrine.

    Or, at least humanism purports to do so.

    But what about religions that 'hold out the well-being of men, women, children, and other sentient creatures as the highest good'?

    Or, at least purport to do so.

    And, why is acceptance of one always and everywhere a rejection of the other?

  • ThomasD||

    " I know that arguing with a man who's infallible must be the ultimate exercise in futility."

    I like Pinker, and am no fan of Francis. But that sort of cheap shot - a genuflection to atheism really - only beclowns himself.

    Pinker would only come up against Papal Infallibility if he chose to specifically argue over Catholic Doctrine. The Pope is not infallible anywhere else.

    Or is Pinker revealing his ignorance on the subject?

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Even when it comes to Catholic Doctrine, the Pope is only regarded as infallible if he claims to be speaking "ex cathedra", which is a very rare event. I think the last time that happened was in 1950.

  • FreeRadical||

    I was also disappointed in that cheap shot. It shows massive ignorance. I'm a catholic and I regularly see this incorrect assertion.

    As Brett says, the doctrine of infalliblity is extremely narrowly defined. As Brett says, it's very rare.

  • Mickey Rat||

    He is ignorant. He thinks his readers are ignorant. He is making a cutesy joke that no one is going to call him out on.

    Take as many if those three that you think apply.

  • markm23||

    Keep in mind that Catholic Doctrine does have real-world consequences. Birth control is still a sin, unless parishioners and their local priests ignore the most recent time a Pope spoke "ex-cathedra". Women are banned from the higher ranks of the Church, as are most men who have any experience as a parent - so when the Church is working the way its leaders think it should, it attempts to control the lives of its parishioners according to doctrines invented by male naifs.

  • ThomasD||

    blockquote>It didn't take long after the Enlightenment for there to be a counter-Enlightenment movement. The 19th century Romantics, the cultural pessimists like [Arthur] Schopenhauer and [Friedrich] Nietzsche, led to the Frankfurt School of [Max] Horkheimer and [Theodor] Adorno, and to the existentialists, and then to the postmodernists, who rejected pretty much every one of the Enlightenment ideals.

    This cannot be said often enough, or loudly enough. The entirety of Marxist thought is an expressed rejection, and open opposition to the principles of the enlightenment.

    They are the reactionaries opposed to individual liberty and are the enemies we tolerate within our midst.

  • ThomasD||

    Because it only happened once, we don't really know and we can't test hypotheses. But some plausible explanations are that it grew out of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, which showed that our intuitions and the traditional view of reality could be profoundly mistaken, and that by applying reason, we can overturn our understanding of the world.

    This is plausible, and broad enough to speak to any or all sorts of enlightenment thought. Speaking more narrowly, not so much of the academic world of enlightenment thought, but to the portions that inform our practical world of society and government some of the foundational events no doubt include the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.