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IT IS only appropriate to offer some optimism after yesterday’s SimanaitisSays item on Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 dark and wonderful Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
In Science, published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Michael Shermer’s “Reason (and Science) for Hope” reviews Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker. As with Dr. Strangelove, this book is appropriate entertainment, nay, enlightenment, for us “in these days of Trump, Putin, Kim, Xi, and other world statesmen.”
Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor in Harvard University’s Department of Psychology, known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. His writings are both academic (Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles) and popular (“Science is Not Your Enemy,” New Republic).
AAAS reviewer Shermer describes this book as “an estimable sequel to Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which Bill Gates called ‘the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.’ ”
“This is not hyperbole,” Shermer continues. “Enlightenment Now is the most uplifting work of science I’ve ever read.”
Pinker describes how the European Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries followed from the Scientific Revolution a century before. Merriam-Webster defines such movements as stressing “the belief that science and logic give people more knowledge and understanding than tradition and religion.”
Come to think of it, ”Bernstein’s (and Voltaire’s) Candide” was a recent discussion along these lines here at SimanaitisSays.
On the other hand, Pinker is very much an optimist, more in Leibnitz’s camp than Voltaire’s.
As noted by Pinker, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is part of the story. It’s the one predicating entropy, an inevitable decline to complete disorder. Shermer notes, “In the world in which our ancestors evolved the cognition and emotions that we inherited, entropy dictated that there were more ways for things to go bad than good.”
But then came the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment: Pinker’s 75 charts and graphs show that “more people live longer, healthier, happier, and more meaningful lives filled with enriching works of art, music, literature, science, technology, and medicine.”
“This,” Shermer continues, “is not to mention improvements to food, drink, clothes, transportation, and houses, nor the ever-increasing ease of international travel or instant access to much of the world’s knowledge that many of us enjoy today.”
What about wars? “In most times and places, homicides kill far more people than wars,” Pinker writes, “and homicide rates have been falling as well.” He cites statistics over the 20th century that show diminishing likelihoods of deaths through car accidents (96 percent), fire (92 percent), and on-the-job (95 percent), among others.
Though reasons for these improvements vary, Pinker attributes them overall to what he calls “Enlightenment humanism.” Shermer characterizes this as “a secular worldview that values science and reason over superstition and dogma. It is a heroic journey.”
Journeys have their fits and lags, but would that this one continues. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018