My wife, Laurel, belongs to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which publishes an excellent publication, Free Thought Today.
The most recent issue has an edited version of Steven Pinker's speech to the FFRF convention in 2017 where he talks about the message of his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
You can read the Free Thought Today story, "Knowledge has enhanced human flourishing," online. Here's how it starts out:
It is an honor to speak about my forthcoming book in public for the first time in front of this audience.
We’re going to begin with some big questions.
• Why is the world filled with woe?
• How can we make it better?
• How do we give meaning and purpose to our lives?
These may seem like unanswerable questions, but all too many people have answers to them.
For example, “Morality is dictated by God and holy scriptures; the world will be better when everyone obeys his laws.” “The world’s problems are the fault of a certain kind of evil people who must be defeated and punished.” “One tribe of people is inherently worthy. It should have power and prestige, implemented by a strong leader who channels its authentic virtue and experience.” “At some time in the past, there was a well-ordered state, then alien forces subverted its harmony and led to decadence and degeneration. Only a heroic vanguard with memories of the old ways can restore the society to its golden age.”
Well, what about the rest of us?
The point of my book, Enlightenment Now, is that there is an alternative system of beliefs and values, namely the ideals of the Enlightenment, also sometimes known as classical liberalism, secular humanism, or the Open Society. In a sentence, it’s that we can use knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
Other ideologies have passionate advocates, and I believe that Enlightenment values need a positive defense and an explicit commitment as well. The Enlightenment values center on four themes: reason, science, humanism and progress.
It all begins with reason, with the conviction that traditional sources of belief are generators of delusion — including faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, conventional wisdom, gut feelings, subjective certainty and the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts. In place of these generators of error, we must rely on reason.
To be sure, human beings are not particularly reasonable. Cognitive science tells us that people are apt to generalize from anecdotes, to seek confirming evidence and to ignore disconfirming evidence, to project stereotypes onto individuals, and to be overconfident about their own knowledge, wisdom and rectitude.
However, people are capable of reason, and there are norms and institutions that can refine our puny powers — norms such as free speech, open debate and criticism, logical analysis, fact checking and empirical testing.
That brings me to the second of the Enlightenment values: science. The underlying conviction of science is that the world is intelligible; that we can understand the world by formulating possible explanations and testing them against reality. Science has proven to be our most reliable means of understanding the world, including ourselves.
Science also provides fundamental insights about the human condition. One is naturalism, the discovery that the laws of the universe have no goal or purpose related to human welfare. Another is entropy. In a closed system, one that is without input of energy, disorder increases because there are vastly more ways for things to go wrong than for things to go right. Yet another is evolution: Humans are products of a competitive process which selects for reproductive success, not for well-being.
That leads to the third Enlightenment ideal: humanism.
Humanism is the value that the ultimate moral purpose is to reduce the suffering and enhance the flourishing of humans (and other sentient beings) — maximizing their life, health, happiness, knowledge, beauty, love, friendship and social connectedness.
This may seem obvious and uncontroversial, but there are distinct alternatives to humanism, such as that the ultimate good is to enhance the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith; to achieve feats of heroic greatness, including martial conquest; to advance some mystical force or dialectic or struggle or pursuit of a utopian or messianic age; or to obey the dictates of the divinity and pressure others to do the same.
Humanism is feasible because people are endowed with a sense of sympathy, an ability to have a concern for the welfare of others. Now, our circle of sympathy, as given to us by evolution, is rather small. We naturally apply it only to kin, friends, allies and cute little fuzzy baby animals.
But our circle of sympathy can be expanded through forces of cosmopolitanism: education, journalism, art, mobility and even reason, the realization that there can be nothing special about me just because I’m me and you’re not.
And that leads to the fourth of the Enlightenment ideals: progress.
If we apply knowledge and sympathy to reduce suffering and enhance flourishing, we can gradually succeed. How is this progress possible? The Enlightenment thinkers proposed that much of the answer comes from benevolent institutions.
These institutions deploy energy and knowledge to combat entropy, and they magnify the positive parts of human nature — the better angels of our nature, as Abraham Lincoln put it, such as reason and sympathy — while marginalizing the negative aspects — our biases, illusions, susceptibility to magical thinking, tribalism, dominance and vengeance.