Much of Pinker’s talk was devoted to showing how most of the things than humans care about (except climate) have been getting drastically better over the last few centuries and decades. The roster includes length of life, health, food, prosperity, education, human rights, freedom from violence and accidents, leisure, and happiness — world wide.
That good news is surprising to many and unwelcome to some, who fear it could foster complacent optimism. “While pessimists sound like they’re trying to help you,“ Pinker noted, “optimists sound like they’re trying to sell you something.” So Pinker explored the specific causes of progress in each domain and what it will take to keep the progress going over the coming decades and centuries despite inevitable setbacks and new threats.
The main roots of continual advance Pinker sees as the values pushed by the 18th Century Enlightenment — reason, science, humanism, and progress. Those values can’t be taken for granted because they are far from universal. From the 18th Century to this day, they are opposed and sometimes defeated by authority, tradition, faith, mysticism, intuition, ideology, romanticism, and exclusion.
Human nature doesn’t change much, but progress can proceed anyway thanks to benign institutions such as democracy, markets, a free press, schools and universities, scientific societies, declarations of rights, and global organizations for cooperation. Their job is to apply knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing. It is no accident that “Secular liberal democracies are the happiest and healthiest places on Earth.”
What is the program for continued progress? Don’t treat every problem as a sign that we should burn down our institutions and hope for something better to rise out of the ashes. Nor should we treat progress as a mystical force guaranteed to lift us ever upward. Progress is the result of human effort, guided by an idea: that if we apply reason and science to make a better world, we can gradually succeed. If we continue to embrace that idea, Pinker concluded, it’s reasonable to expect progress to continue. If we don’t, it may not.
The above is a summary of Steven Pinker’s Seminar “A New Enlightenment”, presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is the author of: Enlightenment Now (02018); The Better Angels of Our Nature (02011); The Blank Slate (02002); How the Mind Works (01997); and The Language Instinct (01994).
To watch or listen to this Seminar, visit the Steven Pinker Seminar Page. To follow the series, you can become a Long Now Member, watch the videos, or subscribe to our podcast. Members help to support this series and can access tickets to the talks, our live stream, and HD video of our full catalogue of Seminars. Long Now started these monthly talks in 02003 to build a compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking.