BreakPoint: Enlightenment Now?

The Feel-Good Philosophy of Scientism

Things sure are getting better now that science has all the answers. At least that’s what one Harvard professor thinks.

On their classic Sgt. Pepper album, the Beatles sang “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better . . . A little better all the time.” This ode to optimism was interspersed with lines like “it can’t get no worse.”

Obviously, the lads from Liverpool weren’t entirely convinced.

But a prominent scientist has written a best-selling book arguing that things are getting better and will continue to do so. But his argument is far from convincing.

The book is “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.

In Pinker’s estimation, “None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.” He is annoyed that people are moaning, whining, carping, and, to use a delightful Yiddish word, kvetching “as much as ever” despite how awesome the world has become.

In some respects, he’s correct: on average, people in the industrialized world enjoy a standard of living their not-too-distant ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of. Widespread famine, which killed millions of Europeans less than two hundred years ago, and killed millions of Indians less than seventy-five years ago, is all but extinct.

And Pinker is correct that science deserves much of the credit. The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 70s turned Paul Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb” into science fiction.

But, while we do have a lot to be grateful for, the world is nowhere near as paradisaical as he makes it sound.

Take war and violence. In his previous book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Pinker argues that the world is getting more peaceful and more just. He continues that argument here.

But “what about World Wars I and II? Or, the civil wars that left tens of millions dead since the end of World War II?” you ask. His answer, in effect, is, one, we haven’t had a World War since 1945, and, two, the only such war going on now is the one in Syria. Ergo, such wars must be a thing of the past. Seriously?

No wonder that the New York Times called Pinker’s “chipper triumphalism” a “version of magical thinking.” But Pinker would no doubt insist that it isn’t magic but, instead, science.

In his review of “Enlightenment Now,” philosopher John Gray called Pinker “an evangelist for science – or, to be more exact, an ideology of scientism.” Scientism, according to historian T.J. Jackson Lears, is the “faith” that “science has discovered (or is about to discover) all the important truths about human life.” Or, as one leading proponent of scientism—the late Stephen Hawking—put it: “The scientific account is complete. Theology is unnecessary.”

The problem is that, as Gray writes, “science cannot dictate human values.” He points out what Pinker obscures, ignores, and tries to explain away: a great deal of evil has been committed by those claiming to act in accordance with the dictates of science.

Scientism has given us “Marxism-Leninism, Nazism,” and what historian Thomas Leonard called the “illiberal reformers” of early 20th century America most responsible for eugenics. “Science” wasn’t enough to prevent one of the darkest moments in American history: the Tuskegee Experiment, in which 400 Black men with syphilis were purposely left untreated to study the effects of the disease.

Gray calls “Enlightenment Now” “a rationalist sermon delivered to a congregation of wavering souls.” In other words, Pinker is preaching to the choir.

Now, if you’re ready to take what John Stonestreet calls “a deep dive” into learning Christian worldview, now’s the time to check out our outstanding Colson Fellows Program. We’re accepting applications now. Come to ColsonFellows.org for more information.

 

Enlightenment Now? The Feel-Good Philosophy of Scientism

Go deeper, as Eric mentioned, and  study the various worldviews in the Colson Fellows Program. It’s a powerful nine-month program that equips people of faith from every walk of life with practical skills, biblical knowledge, and a solid Christian worldview. Click here to learn more about becoming a Colson Fellow.

 


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  • Scott

    “The problem is that, as Gray writes, “science cannot dictate human values.” He points out what Pinker obscures, ignores, and tries to explain away: a great deal of evil has been committed by those claiming to act in accordance with the dictates of science.”

    It also can’t reconcile relationships or provide an answer for how two completely different minded people will get along. As Eric points out, It has no answer morality, but it also has no answer for love.

    • gladys1071

      Alot of evil has been committed by those claiming to act accordance to religious belief also. Ever heard of the inquisition and people being burned alive for being accused of heresy.

      Human beings acting evil is not the fault of science, religion, secularism, atheism or any of those things. Human beings act evil and cruel because it is part of the human condition.

      We need to look no further than ourselves for the evil and cruelty of this world.

      • Scott

        I think you missed my point.

        My comment was about truth. What science does and doesn’t have answers for. In Eric’s quote he pointed out that it doesn’t have an answer for morality/”human values.”

        Whether Christians obey scripture or not, God’s word does have answers for right and wrong… your comments actually support this. Science has no answer for the existence of evil and although we try to quantify why a specific act of evil was committed, science cannot make the connection between all collective acts of evil. The “human condition” explanation in more a naturalists explanation (with some biblical connection), but it also falls short of what the bible describes as evil.

        Take Larry Nassar for example. We all know his actions represented evil. Science might attempt to place blame on some quantifiable psychological malfunction or some past trauma that led him to commit such acts… and there might even be some truth to such discoveries. But that naturalistic approach is limited to physical laws and speaks nothing to spiritual health. It has no way of determining whether or not there are forces of evil at work in this world that might have affected Larry’s actions.

  • For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, Rom 1:21-22

  • David

    I was channel surfing 2 weeks ago and happened upon a station where a guy was just starting a talk at what I
    think was a Barns and Nobel’s bookstore. The speaker had a bit of an odd and eccentric look to him so I lingered. Come to find out it was Steven Pinker giving a talk about this very book. As I listened, It all sounded very good and well-meaning but at the end of it, it was the same old same old to me. There is large leap
    of faith required in all the things yet unexplained by reason, science, humanism and progress. As someone who has put his faith in Christ, I think faith is one of the greatest of all things and would even recognize the other sides faith in the Theory of Everything even though I think it is misguided. What I have come to really dislike is how many of Steven Pinker’s type call my faith outdated, ignorant and superstitious while their faith is reasonable, acceptable and natural. Needless to say I very much enjoyed today’s Breakpoint. Pot? Kettle? Thank you for serving the Lord in this way.

  • jason taylor

    Until recently nobody had “a” war. They just had war.