Steven Pinker: Knowledge has enhanced human flourishing
This is an edited version of Steven Pinker’s speech at FFRF’s annual convention in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 16, 2017. He was introduced by Stephen Hirtle, FFRF Executive Board chair.
I’m very pleased to introduce FFRF’s honorary president, Steven Pinker, who is a cognitive scientist, experimental psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He’s one of the foremost writers on language, mind and human nature. He has taught at Stanford and MIT, and has received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards, and numerous prizes for his books. He has an upcoming book called Enlightenment Now.
Steven is the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and has served as editor or advisor for numerous scientific and scholarly media and humanist organizations. He served as honorary president of the Canadian Psychological Association and has been listed in Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes award in 2004.
Please welcome the distinguished Steven Pinker.
By Steven Pinker
Thank you. 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.
One brainchild of the Enlightenment is democracy. Humans are poised between the violence of anarchy and the violence of tyranny. But democratic governments can steer between these extremes by deploying just enough force to prevent people from preying on one another without preying on the people itself. These limits are implemented by declarations of rights, such as the French, English and American declarations of rights — red lines that governments may not cross, such as the deprivation of life and liberty without due process, the use of cruel punishments, infringements on speech.
Another brainchild of the Enlightenment is the market. A major insight of the Enlightenment is that the natural condition of humankind is poverty, and wealth must be created. It’s created by specialization, the application of knowledge and skill to produce things that people want and like; by exchange, where different specialists can exchange the fruits of their ingenuity and labor; and by prices, which propagate information about need and availability throughout society in a way that no central planner acting on his own ingenuity could do. Moreover, that exchange makes people not just richer, but nicer, the Enlightenment theory of “doux commerce,” gentle commerce. As Ludwig von Mises put it, if the tailor goes to war against the baker, he must henceforth bake his own bread.
Yet another brainchild of the Enlightenment consists of global institutions. These institutions foster international trade, which generalizes gentle commerce to relations among nations, making it easier to buy things from other countries than to invade and occupy them, and making people in other countries more valuable alive than dead. (You don’t kill your customers; you don’t kill your debtors.) Global institutions can also foster peace, by making war an illegitimate move in relations among countries. Conquest is no longer recognized, but rather punished by sanctions, shaming and withdrawal of cooperation, and international peacekeeping forces can separate belligerents.
One more family of brainchildren of the Enlightenment consists of institutions of science and scholarship, such as journals, societies, universities. They are designed to develop and disseminate knowledge, and to foster norms of disinterested inquiry, in particular, rejection of authority and dogma, open debate, peer review, and empirical testing.
This may all sound just fine in theory, but how did that Enlightenment thing work out in practice? If you ask most intellectuals, the answer is “not very well.” I have discovered that intellectuals hate progress, and intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress. If you think that we can solve problems, I have been told, then you have a blind faith or a quasi-religious belief in the outmoded superstition and false promise of the myth of the onward march of inevitable progress. You are a cheerleader for vulgar American can-do-ism with a rah-rah spirit of boardroom ideology. You are a naive optimist, a Pollyanna, and, of course, a Pangloss, named after the Voltaire character who believed that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
Progress, in fact, is not a matter of faith or temperament, but rather an empirical hypothesis. Aspects of human well-being can be measured: life, health, sustenance, wealth, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, richness of experience. If they have increased over time, that is progress.
Let’s begin with life. Life expectancy for the world as a whole increased from a global average of 30 in the 19th century to 71 today, and in the richer countries to 81. The growth in longevity shows a pattern that we will see is general across aspects of human flourishing. Before the Enlightenment, pretty much everyone all over the world was wretched. Then there was an escape from universal wretchedness, first in Europe and the Americas, but other parts of the world have been catching up: Asia, followed by Africa.
Much of this increase in longevity was driven by a decline in child mortality. In the 18th century, Sweden, one of the richest countries in the world, had a child mortality rate of one-third. That is, one-third of Swedish babies did not live to the age of 5. Today, that fate befalls less than 6 percent of people in the poorest parts of the world. A child in Ethiopia today has the same chance of living to the age of 5 as a child in Sweden just 70 years ago.
Maternal mortality shows a similar pattern. Once again, in areas that we think of as affluent and blessed, like Sweden, about 1 percent of mothers died in childbirth. Starting in Europe, followed by the United States, then Asia, and then Africa, rates of maternal mortality have been falling fast.
Health. The rate of childhood deaths from the worst infectious diseases have all been in decline: pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles, and HIV/AIDS. Some diseases, such as smallpox, have been eradicated altogether. Others, such as polio and Guinea worm, are down to a few dozen cases each year, and are slated for extinction.
Sustenance. Famine was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and was a threat to every society. But from the 19th century to the present, the risk of catastrophic famine has disappeared from most of the world, except for certain remote and war-torn regions in Africa. A less dramatic form of suffering from lack of food is undernourishment: children who are stunted, because they don’t get a minimum number of calories to flourish. Once again, the poorest parts of the world are making tremendous progress.
Prosperity. Before the Industrial Revolution, poverty was the universal condition of humankind, except for a few wealthy people who had the luxury to write about their lives, and our picture of the past comes from them. The United Kingdom was the first to make the great escape from universal poverty, and other regions — South Korea, Chile, now China and India — are replicating the escapes.
As a result, the poor will not always be with us. Extreme poverty is defined as not having enough income to pay for food for oneself and one’s family. In 1820, approximately 90 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, the rate is about 10 percent, and the World Bank and the United Nations have set a goal of eliminating extreme poverty from the face of the Earth by the 2030s. As a result, international inequality — after a long increase as some parts of the world escape from poverty, while others have been left behind — is now starting to reverse, because poor countries are getting richer faster than rich countries are getting richer. Meanwhile, within rich countries, there has been a huge increase in the amount of redistribution. A century ago, the richer countries of the world devoted 1 percent of their wealth to supporting children, the poor and the aged. Today they spend about a quarter of their wealth.
Peace. The world is giving peace a chance. Through most of human history, war was the natural state of relations between nations, and peace was a brief interlude between wars. About 500 years ago, the great powers were pretty much always at war; now they are pretty much never at war. Of course, there were two horrific exceptions to this general trend: the spikes of bloodletting centered on the two world wars. But contrary to widespread predictions that a third world war was inevitable — predictions that many of us grew up with — World War III never happened. We are living through a period that historians call the Long Peace.
The rate of death in war since 1946 shows a kind of undulating rollercoaster but one with an unmistakable downward trend. The proportion of people killed annually in wars now was about a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, a sixth of what it was in the 1970s, a sixteenth of what it was in the early 1950s, and a half percent of what it was during World War II.
Freedom and rights have been expanding (despite highly publicized backsliding in countries like Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela). Democracy has been increasing steadily since the 1970s. Two centuries ago, a handful of countries, embracing about 1 percent of the world’s people, were democratic. Today, two-thirds of the world’s countries, embracing about two-thirds of the world’s population, are democratic. Human-rights protection, again, despite some salient counterexamples, has also been on the increase. Even repressive countries like China are far more respectful of human rights than during the horrific years of Mao in the 1950s and 1960s.
We see many specific reforms toward recognition of human rights worldwide. Despite backsliding in Russia and some African countries, the worldwide trend has been to decriminalize homosexuality. Capital punishment, too, is being abolished in country after country. If current trends continue — no one is certain that it will — then capital punishment will be eliminated from the face of the Earth by 2026.
The United States is in many ways backward compared to its peers among rich countries. But even in the United States, which, unlike virtually every democracy, retains capital punishment, the death penalty appears to be on death row. It’s only a matter of time before this practice is struck down once and for all.
Child labor has been in decline. Child labor used to be pretty much universal across the globe. Child labor was considered not a form of exploitation but of moral education, protecting children from idleness and slough. Today, the world as a whole is pushing back against the practice of child labor.
People are not just richer and freer and more peaceful and healthier and longer lived, but also safer. The trends in homicides since 1965 for the United States show this. After the great rise in the American crime rate in the 1960s to the ’80s, there was a dramatic decline starting in the 1990s. Americans today are about half as likely to be murdered as they were just two dozen years ago. This is true of the world as a whole. People have about 70 percent of the chance of being murdered that they had just 20 years ago.
Violence against women is in decline. Few people realize that the rate of rape has declined by more than 75 percent since its peak in the early 1970s, and that intimate partner violence — what used to be called wife beating — has been in dramatic decline as well.
Violence against children. Despite panicked news reports about child abuse, kidnapping, sexual abuse, and bullying, every measure of violence against children is in decline, including violent victimization at school, physical abuse by caregivers, and sexual abuse by caregivers.
We’re also safer not just from deliberate malice but the forces of nature and technology. Over the course of the 20th century, Americans became 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car accident, 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk; 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 59 percent less likely to fall to their deaths, 92 percent less likely to die by fire or by drowning, 92 percent less likely to be asphyxiated. (The only exception is an increase in “deaths by poison,” which is an indication of the current opioid epidemic.) Americans are 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job. Worldwide the chance of dying in a flood, earthquake, tornado, tsunami, hurricane and so on is down 96 percent from its peak in the 1920s.
And what about the very archetype of an act of God? The projectile that Zeus hurled down from Olympus? The common idiom for an unpredictable date with death? The literal bolt from the blue? There has been a 37-fold decline since the turn of the 20th century in the chance that an American will be killed by a bolt of lightning.
Knowledge. The world has embarked on an escape from its original condition of universal illiteracy. About 10 to 15 percent of the world was literate in the 16th century. First Netherlands, Britain, United States and Germany began to teach their children to read, followed by countries of Southern Europe such as Italy, countries of Latin America, such as Chile and Mexico, followed by other countries in the Global South. Similarly, more and more of the world is receiving a basic education. Today, most of the world is literate. The reason that some figures are still far below 100 percent is that there are many old people who were never educated. But education is now close to universal among younger people.
This schooling, together with health and wealth, are literally making us smarter. IQ scores have been rising by about three points a decade all over the world. We are about 30 IQ points, or two standard deviations, above the scores of our ancestors just several generations ago.
The richer, the happier
Do all of these gains in longevity and health and wealth and education actually make life better? As it happens, the richer the country, the happier its citizens. And within each country, the richer the person, the happier relative to his or her compatriots. In general, money does buy happiness, and as the world becomes richer, the world becomes happier.
But it’s not just paychecks that have been improving. Americans work 22 fewer hours a week than they used to, and now have on average three weeks of paid vacation.
And as a result of the spread of running water, electricity and labor-saving devices such as washing machines, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, stove, dishwashers and microwaves, the number of hours that people lose to housework has declined by 43 hours a week. Unlike our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, we — and by “we” I mean especially women — are less likely to spend their time “slaving over a hot stove, working their fingers to the bone.”
As a result of the increase in income and the decrease in the price of necessities such as food and clothing, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of a typical person’s paycheck that they turn over to necessities. Today, Americans spend about a third of their paycheck on necessities, rather than more than 60 percent just a few decades ago.
Leisure time has increased. Men have about 10 hours a week more of leisure than they did in the 1960s, women five hours more. The reason for the discrepancy is that women spend more time with their children than their mothers and grandmothers did. Indeed, a working or single mother today spends more time with her children than a stay-at-home mom did in the 1950s.
While we are enjoying all of these benefits, many aspects of the environment have improved. Since the Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, population has increased, GDP has increased, we have been driving more, our consumption of energy rose and then leveled off, our emission of CO2 rose and is now plateauing, and amazingly — thanks to regulations on emissions and emission control devices —the emissions of the five major air pollutants have all been in decline. At the same time, we see a decrease in the number of forests that have been cleared, the amount of oil that has been spilled at sea, and an increase in the amount of land and sea that’s been set aside as nature preserves. The world may have peaked in its consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal, perhaps even carbon.
Is progress inevitable? Of course not! Solutions create new problems, which take time to solve in their turn. And the world will always throw nasty surprises at us, such as the two world wars, the crime boom from the 1960s to the 1980s, AIDS in Africa, and opioid overdoses among middle-aged non-college educated whites in the United States.
Also, there are severe global challenges that we have not yet solved. Foremost among them are climate change and nuclear war. But even then, although these are wicked, horrendous problems, the case can be made that they are solvable. Since the extraordinary circumstances of the closing days of World War II, nuclear weapons have not been used in the 72 years in which they have existed — as I mentioned, contrary to every expert prediction in the 1960s and 1970s that a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union was just a matter of time.
Few people realized that the world’s nuclear stockpiles have been reduced by 85 percent since the 1980s, and there are more reductions to come. Few people realize that about 10 percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from nuclear fuel repurposed from nuclear weapons. And with the exception of the rogue regime in North Korea, nuclear testing has ceased and proliferation has been frozen. Again, this does not mean that the problem is anywhere close to being solved. But it does show that progress is possible and that we should resolve to continue it.
Climate, too, is a massive unsolved problem. But it can be solved with a combination of technology and policy. There is, to be sure, a widespread assumption that the world’s prosperity depends on flaming carbon. But the world has progressively been emitting less CO2 to generate a dollar of GDP. The fact that the rate of carbon emissions has declined does not mean it has declined enough, nor does it show how we can sequester the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere, as we must do. But it shows that economic growth and prosperity can be decoupled from CO2 emissions.
Progress is not a law of nature. It is a gift of the ideals of the Enlightenment — of reason, science and humanism. Only by dedicating ourselves to these ideals can we hope for progress to continue.
A final objection. Does the Enlightenment somehow go against human nature, as some conservative critics assert? Is humanism an “arid” or “tepid” or “flattened” view of humanity? Is the conquest of disease, famine, poverty, violence and ignorance . . . boring? Do people need to believe in a father in the sky, a strong chief to protect the tribe, myths of heroic ancestors? It’s doubtful.
Secular liberal democracies are the happiest places on Earth, and the top destination of people who vote with their feet. And when we put aside these myths and superstitions, we can see that applying knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing is heroic, glorious and spiritual.