In 2019, I wrote a book review of “Enlightenment Now” by Stephen Pinker. I revisited this review in 2022. In these three years, I’ve experienced a worldwide pandemic, Russia at war with Ukraine, and domestic turmoil in the US. Despite the turbulent times, I still agree with Pinker. Here’s my review; this is a book worth reading.
Life is better than ever for most humanity; despite a barrage of media that paints a dismal picture of life on Earth. Most of society would agree with Barack Obama’s 2016 view “…. if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.”  In “Enlightenment Now,” Stephen Pinker provides a quantitative assessment of how life has improved throughout human history. He asserts:
“…. I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. …. I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.” 
The book starts with three chapters that explain the Enlightenment, some basic science, and the counter-Enlightenment. The majority of the books, seventeen chapters, deal with progress in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. The final three chapters deal with reason, science, and humanism in our world.
First, Pinker asks: What is the Enlightenment? He starts with Immanuel Kant’s 1784 definition:
“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” — that is the motto of Enlightenment.” 
Of course, if the Enlightenment was so great, why aren’t all human problems solved? Pinker says:
“And if you’re committed to progress, you can’t very well claim to have it all figured out. It takes nothing away from the Enlightenment thinkers to identify some critical ideas about the human condition and the nature of progress that we know and they didn’t. Those ideas, I suggest, are entropy, evolution, and information.”
Pinker next explains entropy, evolution, and information. I found this chapter a bit hard to grasp. Perhaps my engineering background causes me to yearn for straightforward definitions. Let’s say that entropy is the tendency towards disorder (such as in my office), and energy is required to counteract entropy. A brief synopsis of Pinker’s description:
[Entropy] “Living things are made of organs that have heterogeneous parts which are uncannily shaped and arranged to do things that keep the organism alive (that is, continuing to absorb energy to resist entropy).”
[Evolution] “The replicating systems would compete for the material to make their copies and the energy to power the replication. Since no copying process is perfect—the Law of Entropy sees to that—errors will crop up, and though most of these mutations will degrade the replicator (entropy again), occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that’s more effective at replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition.”
[Information] “Information may be thought of as a reduction in entropy—as the ingredient that distinguishes an orderly, structured system from the vast set of random, useless ones.” 
Here’s a summary of why we should care about entropy, evolution, and information:
“Getting back to evolution, a brain wired by information in the genome to perform computations on information coming in from the senses could organize the animal’s behavior in a way that allowed it to capture energy and resist entropy. …. Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny.” 
Next chapter, there are some details of the counter-Enlightenment. Pinker provides four alternatives:
- Religious faith
- “People are the expendable cells of a superorganism .…”
- [declinism] “One form of declinism bemoans our Promethean dabbling with technology.”
- [scientism] “… the intrusion of science into the territory of the humanities ….
A summary of why the counter-Enlightenment should be transcended:
“Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance—a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.” 
The majority of “Enlightenment Now” deals with progress in many areas of human life. Here are a few of my most significant findings from Pinker’s extensive research, supported by much data.
[Sustenance] “… in spite of burgeoning numbers, the developing world is feeding itself. Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated from all regions outside Africa.”. … “Famine as an endemic problem in Asia and Europe seems to have been consigned to history.”…
“Once the secrets to growing food in abundance are unlocked and the infrastructure to move it around is in place, the decline of famine depends on the decline of poverty, war, and autocracy.” 
[Wealth] “Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created. It is created primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor. The corollary, just as radical, is that we can figure out how to make more of it. …. “Also, technology doesn’t just improve old things; it invents new ones. How much did it cost in 1800 to purchase a refrigerator, a musical recording, a bicycle, a cell phone, Wikipedia, a photo of your child, a laptop and printer, a contraceptive pill, a dose of antibiotics? The answer is: no amount of money in the world. The combination of better products and new products makes it almost impossible to track material well-being across the decades and centuries. “
[Inequality] “Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing.” … “As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative, or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved….” 
[Environment] “The key idea is that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge. …. humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide.” “An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them.” 
[Knowledge] “Homo sapiens, “knowing man,” is the species that uses information to resist the rot of entropy and the burdens of evolution. …. But some of the causal pathways vindicate the values of the Enlightenment. So much changes when you get an education!
• They are less racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian.
• They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech.
For all these reasons, the growth of education—and its first dividend, literacy—is a flagship of human progress.” 
[The Future of Progress] “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades into what we might call civilization . . . . [progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect. Which is why I tell people that my great optimism of the future is rooted in history.” Hans Rosling, who, when asked whether he was an optimist, replied, “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist.” 
The final part of “Enlightenment Now” explains the importance of reason, science, and humanism. Pinker makes a strong case for using reason to understand the world. Here’s a brief selection of why reason matters:
- “Making reason the currency of our discourse begins with clarity about the centrality of reason itself.”
- “The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place.”
- “People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems. A second impediment to effective teaching is that pupils don’t spontaneously transfer what they learned from one concrete example to others in the same abstract category.” 
Pinker advocates that science is the best tool humanity has to understand the world. Here is his explanation of what distinguishes science from other exercises of reason:
“All the methods are pressed into the service of two ideals, and it is these ideals that advocates of science want to export to the rest of intellectual life.
1. The first is that the world is intelligible.
2. The second ideal is that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.
When scientists are pressed to explain how they do this, they usually reach for Karl Popper’s model of conjecture and refutation, in which a scientific theory may be falsified by empirical tests but is never confirmed.” 
The book’s final chapter explains humanism, why it matters, and how it substitutes for religion in the modern world. Here are some of Pinker’s explanations of humanism:
- “Spinoza: “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.” Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish. The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism.”
- “There is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.” 
Pinker addresses many of the deficits of religion in this chapter. I can’t synopsize all his arguments, but here is one quote that stuck in my mind:
“To begin with, the alternative to “religion” as a source of meaning is not “science.” No one ever suggested that we look to ichthyology or nephrology for Enlightenment on how to live, but rather to the entire fabric of human knowledge, reason, and humanistic values, of which science is a part.” 
One issue I see is that current representations of human knowledge aren’t in a holistic framework that covers the “entire fabric of human knowledge” accessible to most humans. It would be helpful to have an accessible form of humanism, the closest that I’m aware of are Unitarian Universalists.
To summarize, “Enlightenment Now” makes a strong case, using data, references, and compelling explanations, that life is improving for most humans. As Pinker asserts: “As always, the only way to know which way the world is going is to quantify.” 
The author makes a strong case that reason and science are the root cause for the progress of human life across many dimensions. In contrast, while Pinker explains well the importance of humanism, in the end, I’m not sure how to truly put humanism into practice in my life and community. That said, “Enlightenment Now” is a profound and encouraging book. I agree with Pinker:
“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” 
 As quoted in “Enlightenment Now”, Part III
 “Enlightenment Now”, Preface.
 Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (Was ist
Äufklarung?), 30 September, 1784. Pinker translates the Latin “Sapere aude!” as “Dare to understand!” Instead of “Have courage to use your own reason!”
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 2. I’d note that the majority of living things are single cell organisms but that doesn’t change Pinker’s observation.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 3.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 3.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 7.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 8.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 9.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 10.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 16.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 20.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 21.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 22.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 14.
 “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.