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I’ll say it again. Read the book. It has so much more to say than I have the energy or willpower to cover here.

I began my Facebook introduction to these blog posts with the central thesis of the book, which I will repeat here:

“(H)ow can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.”

Counting helps us escape our preconceived notions. It serves as an objective arbitrator. It shows us that our gut feelings and anecdotal recollections can give an inaccurate picture. It helps us to know ourselves.

“Remember your math,” Pinker tells us on the final pages of the book,”an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past.”

But it does mean that, by applying the ideals of the Enlightenment and our own ingenuity and compassion, we can make it better tomorrow. I believe we will.

 

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Steven Pinker states in the introduction that his book is not about the Trump presidency. Fair enough, but for me reading it is and was a referendum on Trump, and solidified my reasons for despising this least enlightened of all presidents. This final entry on Enlightenment Now will summarize how Pinker (near the end of the book in Chapter 20) helped me solidify my opposition.

None of this, you’ll notice, has anything to do with Russian interference or conspiracy to steal an election. Did Trump cheat? Maybe, but even if he did, the fact remains that millions upon millions of Americans voted for him. It never should have been even close. The fact that it was is an indictment of our country, a sign that we, collectively, have failed to absorb the message of the Enlightenment. Maybe Pinker’s book will help.

Consider all the anti-Enlightenment stances Trump has supported.

Through the knowledge of the Enlightenment and the empathy it has helped foster, public health in America and across the world has improved. But Trump  supports withdrawing health insurance from millions and endorses debunked claims about vaccines causing autism.

The Enlightenment led to a globalized economy that has greatly reduced famine and extreme poverty, and is pulling more and more people into prosperity even as population continues to increase. Yet Trump supports protectionist trade wars and sees international trade as a zero sum game with winners and losers. He thinks trade wars are “good and easy to win” though there is zero historical evidence to support this claim.

The lifeblood of the improving world since the Enlightenment is innovation, education, infrastructure, and regulated financial institutions. Trump is indifferent to technology and education, supports tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the social safety net, and wants eliminate the regulations that stabilize the global economy.

The Enlightenment led to the greatest explosion of equal rights in history. Trump demonizes immigrants, tried to ban Muslims from the country, demeans women, tolerates vulgarity, accepts support from white supremacists and equates them with their opponents, and appoints people who are hostile to civil rights movement. And that’s not even to mention the “why do we want all these people from shithole countries” crack that came to light in recent months).

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on individuals and their welfare opened the door for the environmental movement which has been enormously successful in cleaning our environment. Trump’s administration is rolling back environmental regulations. Trump’s environmental appointees are both unqualified and hostile to environmental protection. Trump has called climate change a hoax and has withdawn the US from the Paris climate agreement.

Another gift of the Enlightment’s emphasis on the individual (one that, admittedly, took a long time to realize) is the personal safety we enjoy in public and in the workplace. But Trump is anti-regulation, saying he wants to kill two regulations for every new one. How many of those “killed” regulations contributed to the plunging numbers of workplace and traffic deaths?

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason leads to evidence-based policies for crime prevention. But Trump is contemptuous of experts and facts and prefers tough talk and his brand of common sense to those methods that actually work to reduce crime. Not surprising as one of his trademark lies was that crime is out of control and that only he can fix it.

Since the end of World War II especially, the world has seen how trade can cement peace. Trump villifies international trade and threatens to tear up agreements and weaken international organizations.

One of the cornerstones of the Enlightment is freedom of the press. Trump has kept up a running attack on the free press and wants to change libel laws to chill written dissent.

If the Enlightenment was one thing, it was a repudiation of violence as a way of solving disputes. Trump flaunts the rule of law. He encouraged violence against his critics, tried to discredit the popular vote without evidence, threatened to imprison his opponent,  and attacked the legitimacy of the judicial system when it went against him.

The Enlightenment was above all a respect for knowledge. Trump repeats ridiculous conspiracy theories and “sees public discourse not as a means of finding common ground based on objective reality but as a weapon with which to project dominance and humiliate rivals)

Most critically, since the end of Warld War II enlightened thinkers have supported a nuclear war tabo. Trump wondered why we shouldn’t use nuclear weapons and wants to renew a nuclear arms race that, before Trump, showed every signs of disappearing into the dustbin of history.

And, in the middle of this section on Trump, Pinker went there “Several members of Trump’s administration secretly colluded with Russia in an effort to lift sanctions against it, undermining a major enforcement mechanism in the outlawry of war.” (page 398)

The great hope that Pinker points to is that the president is not a dictator. There are checks on his power. I tend to agree, and rather than impeachment I hope we just get a president who is so boxed in he has nothing left to do, and then fades away in the 2020 election.

There’s one knock-down argument that pessimists can level at all the progress Pinker has pointed to so far. What happens when we’ve so damaged the Earth that no one, not the rich, not the poor, not the West, not the East, not Africa, not South America, no one can live on it?

You know what? You’re absolutely right. If we don’t solve our problems, we’re all doomed. So let’s solve them.

First, we have already come a long way. The Industrial Revolution filled the air with smoke and the water with sludge. Today, people fighting for cleaner air and water have made huge strides, so that rivers all over the planet are recovering, forests are being replanted, and a record amount of land and water has been set aside as wildlife and natural preserve. Though many problems remain, what the past 50 years have shown is that all these problems can be solved with a combination of government initiatives, public-private partnerships, and individual activism.

Except, perhaps, one.

That is the problem of human-caused climate change.

Most of our activities dump carbon dioxide into the air, and this extra carbon dioxide must warm the planet. If you want to debate that, go get your paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is simply a fact, and no reputable scientist can suggest any way in which excess carbon dioxide in the air will not lead to higher temperatures.

The question is how to fix it (and fix it we must, as, again, the scientific consensus is that this warming will be harmful, possibly devastatingly so). Solar and wind energy are nice, but limited, and require enormous swaths of land (reversing the trend mentioned earlier about preserving more and more land as natural space). Pinker’s most important answer is one I’ve long held (and again one that will cause my liberal friends to turn away): nuclear power.

I’ll be honest. I was first attracted to nuclear power because I think it’s cool. The idea that this esoteric nuclear phenomenon, the fission (or fusion) of atomic nuclei, along with Einstein’s E=mc^2, could be the answer to the world’s energy woes got my little physics heart pumping. One should always be wary of ideas one is especially fond of.

But nuclear power’s safety record is impressive, its lack of carbon dioxide emissions alluring, and the myriad ways that problems such as waste and proliferation can be dealt with is promising. Whether fission with thorium reactors and sodium salts or fusion with seawater and fuel from the Moon are the future, the promise of nuclear power as a solution to the very real threat of global warming is hard to pass up.

One inescapable fact about the world is that it doesn’t care what we think. If we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the air and do nothing to mitigate the damage, we will see the results. No amount of science denial or nuclear fear will hold the water back.

In Chapter 9 of the book, Pinker tackles a difficult topic: economic inequality. While it is true that globalism and free markets have given the world as a whole amazing gifts such as increased literacy, longer life spans, and reduced child mortality, it is also true that in the West a certain portion of the population – namely, workers without a college education – have been left behind. Pinker shows a graph shaped like an elephant, showing how the greatest increases in income have come among the poor and very poor (the elephant’s back and body) and the very rich (the elephant’s trunk tip). The main portion of the trunk itself represent those members of Western democracies who were not among the wealthiest members of their societies – factory workers, farmers, truck drivers and so on – who have been hurt the most by globalization.

This is a tough problem and you need to read Pinker’s chapter among other things. I certainly am not going to solve the problem here. A few of Pinker’s main points:

  • Unlike poverty, inequality itself is not an evil. JK Rowling has a lot more money that most of us, but that’s because she invented something that made a lot of people’s lives better, so we paid her for it.
  • While it is true that the middle class in America is being hollowed out, a great deal of the hollowing is because people who were formerly middle class are moving into higher income brackets.
  • While globalization may have stifled earnings for some, it also has greatly reduced costs for all, so that the “poor” today are able to live in ways that no one in the past could (how much would George Washington have to pay for a cell phone?)

You may not buy Pinker’s arguments about economic inequality, but I hope you see the wisdom in his proposed fixes. These include dealing with the real problem, which is less outsourcing and more automation, which has and increasingly will change the ways that everyone interacts with the world of work. What are the answers? Basic minimum income? Negative income tax? Certainly, education and job training, as well as an expanded social safety net that includes guarantees for essentials like food, clothing, and housing.

Like so many of our problems today (and we will always have problems, but as David Deutsch said in The Beginning of Infinity, problems are soluble), the problem of economic inequality is one of abundance, not scarcity. Another problem of abundance, that of environmental degradation, Pinker tackles next.

In the previous post I touched on only a few of the things that have gotten better over time. Others include the decline in violence (the topic of Pinker’s previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature), including both homicide and warfare, the decline in traffic and air travel fatalities, the decline in workplace fatalities, the increase in literacy, the increase in women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and children’s rights, and on and on. Read the book; you’ll see.

But in this post I want to talk a bit more about why these changes have occurred. And here I will lose some of my liberal friends. One of the great drivers of progress has been (wait for it) the creation of wealth.

Pinker is a believer in free market economies, and through him I have become a big believer, too. There is much that is good about free markets – though much that needs to be regulated. First we must realize that wealth really is something that is created. Wealth is not a zero-sum game. There’s not a set amount of wealth in the world that can then be divvied up; rather, we create wealth with our actions – our creativity, our drive, our hard work.

What drives the increase in wealth? Pinker lists these causes (again, liberals are not going to like this much. Sorry.)

1 – the fall of communism and other totalitarian systems and the spread of democracy

2 – the end of the Cold War

3 – globalization

4 – science and technology

It is important to note that Pinker is not endorsing a world free of regulation, the Libertarian ideal that, interestingly, exists in exactly zero countries of the world.

“(T)he market economies which blossomed in the more fortunate parts of the developing world were not the laissez-faire anarchies of right-wing fantasies and left-wing nightmares. To varying degrees, their governments invested in education, public health, infrastructure, and agricultural and job training, together with social insurance and poverty-reduction programs.”

And just because globalization has been successful doesn’t mean we have to accept all the less palatable parts. We can put pressure on companies to make working conditions better and environmental impacts less severe. “Progress consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package – as if we had to make a yes-or-no decision on whether the Industrial Revolution, or globalization, is a good thing or bad thing, exactly as each has unfolded in every detail. Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social process as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms.”

As the book progresses, we see again and again how tightly these ideas are related to one another. For instance, globalism isn’t just about creating wealth (though it’s very good for that). It’s also about peace. As Pinker states late in the book, “Let’s not forget why international institutions and global consciousness arose in the first place. Between 1803 and 1945, the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness. It didn’t turn out so well.”

All this wealth was a great, maybe the major, contributor, of just about every improvement we’ve made since the Enlightenment. But there are certainly downsides, and I’ll look at two of them – economic inequality and environmental damage – in the next posts.

I’ll say this again and again: read the book. I can’t do justice to it here. I can’t just quote the whole thing. The ways the world has changed for the better will make you leap for joy and will inspire you to try to fix the many, many things that are still to be done. Here’s just a short list of what has gotten better:

Life expectancy has increased, to a great extent (though not entirely) because child mortality has fallen.

“The loss of a child is among the most devastating experiences. Imagine the tragedy; then try to imagine it another million times. That’s a quarter of the number of children who did not die last year alone who would have died had they been born fifteen years earlier. Now repeat, two hundred times or so, for the years since the decline in child mortality began.”

Many disease have been eradicated. Others are on their way out. Knowledge of how disease spreads, and the resulting vaccines, water treatment facilities, and medical protocols have saved millions of lives.

Famine is decreasing. Famine deaths, once in the hundreds or thousands per 100,000 people, are today so low as to be unmeasurable on the same graph.

“In 200 years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10 percent, with almost half that decline occurring in the last 35 years.” And this at a time when population is increasing. Possibly the most powerful graph in the book is figure 8-5, which shows how the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen (not just percentage-wise but in actual numbers) while the total population has grown.

By the way, before you jump on Pinker (and me) for being polyannas, consider this quote:

“The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”

In the next post I’ll look at the causes.

I begin where Pinker ended.

Life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

If you find these statements to be true, then Enlightenment Now is for you. Pinker uses this long, carefully-annotated and researched book to show that in all these areas – life, health, abundance, freedom, happiness, and knowledge – the world has gotten better since the Enlightenment. And that’s no coincidence. For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings struggled to make their lives safer, happier, freer from pain, and almost all failed. Only when we began applying the ideas of the Enlightenment did we make real and sustained progress in these areas.

What are those ideas? Pinker lays them out in chapter 1:

Reason – The belief in reason does not depend on humans being perfectly reasonable thinkers. Far from it. “The deliberate application of reason was necessary because our common habits of thought are not particularly reasonable.” We failed to make progress for so long precisely because reason does not come naturally. When we consciously make the choice to apply reason to our thinking, we make progress possible.

Science – As Richard Feynman said, science is the process we use to keep from fooling ourselves. Science is not a set of facts; rather, it is a way of examining the world.

Humanism – By recognizing individuals – not nations, tribes, ethnic groups, and so on – as the units of humanity, we discover purpose and meaning.

Progress – This book is not so much a history of the Enlightenment thinkers – in fact, it’s hardly that at all. The Enlightenment thinkers had some terrible ideas – and that’s the point! Progress means that all ideas are up for scrutiny, revision, and improvement. We are better today because the tradition of the Enlightenment encourages us to question the past. Progress is possible; we can get better. And we have.

I was wrong.

I’ve been wrong about lots of things in my life, but maybe never more spectacularly than in the 2016 presidential election.

I was happy when Donald Trump emerged from the pack to take the Republican nomination. Not happy because I supported him, not even close. I viewed him as a con-artist, a cartoon figure, someone who could not possibly win in the general election.

I supported Hilary Clinton, viewing her combined experience as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State as making her uniquely qualified to become our country’s first female president. The first female, when she does get elected (as she must) will have to be good, very good, to overcome the built-in prejudices her gender will, well, engender. I believed Hilary Clinton was that person.

I also believed that she would have a difficult time winning. A lot of people, for whatever reason, had very negative reactions to a woman reaching for power, so she would face hurdles no man would ever have to overcome. And so I was glad that the Republican party had ham-stringed itself with such a carnival barker candidate. I felt that the American people, as Barack Obama opined, understood that the presidency was a serious job. I felt they would never give this clown the reins. I was wrong.

Those on the right will dismiss me as another whining liberal. Fine. I am a liberal and I disagree with Republicans on most things. But Trump is different. It’s not just that he’s wrong on policy. He essentially has no policy other than the conviction that all the progress we’ve made since his unspecified golden age was not progress at all. He wants to “Make America Great Again” by reversing that progress. And to do it, he lies about where we’ve been and what we’ve done. He lies about immigration. He lies about trade. He lies about globalism. He lies about violence, war, tax policy, international agreements, people from “shithole countries,” and on and on. And those lies are destructive to our country, to our view of ourselves, and to our view of the world.

I looked forward to Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now as an antidote to those lies. I wasn’t disappointed. In this remarkable book, Pinker shows just what we humans have accomplished over time. He demonstrates why so few people recognize the progress we’ve made, and continue to make. And he shows how we can continue to be optimistic, despite the anti-Enlightenment champion that somehow finds himself in the White House.

I’ll use the next few blog posts to discuss the message of Enlightenment Now and how that message can keep us engaged and fighting for the future we all deserve, even in this age of Trump. I hope you’ll keep reading.

I own a universe.

This universe is of my own creation. It exists only within me; when I die, it will disappear with me.

I decide what goes into my universe. My great task is to find the right things, the good things, the worthwhile things, to put into my universe.

I just finished reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It has no place in my universe.

I’m trying, I really am trying, to make fiction a part of my universe. Slaughterhouse Five is short. That’s the last positive thing I’ll say about it.

On the surface, Slaughterhouse Five seems like the kind of story I might like. It’s anti-war. I’m anti-war. It’s a non-linear story. I appreciate and understand non-linear stories. The language is simple. I like simple language (despite what you might believe, Shakespeare’s language is overwhelmingly simple – try it and you’ll see that it’s true).

The problem with Slaughterhouse Five is that it lacks optimism. OK, that may sound like an utterly ignorant comment. The central event of Slaughterhouse Five is the bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands (the actual numbers are disputed, but that’s hardly the point) of German civilians were either blown to bits, incinerated, or suffocated by the firestorm purposely created by merciless Allied bombing. Nothing is positive about such evil and murderous carnage. The end does not justify the means.

And maybe in my sheltered, ridiculously peaceful and tranquil universe, I can’t possibly understand how observing this horrific event (as the author, his narrator, and the book’s protagonist all did) can change one’s outlook on life.

Fine. All fine. But here’s the thing. If the result of your experiences is to conclude that nothing matters, nothing changes anything, all is pre-decided anyway (“so it goes”), then you have nothing to offer me. Why should I even read your book, if all is pre-decided, if we’re just playing out our pre-determined fate? Even if this is true (and I don’t see how it possibly could be true), since we can’t possibly know what the future holds, we have to live as if the future is yet to be decided. Our actions have to matter.

Matter to what, you might ask? Matter to our universe, the universe we create.

My favorite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. When the title character gives his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, he is voicing the philosophy of Slaughterhouse Five. Life is a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. So it goes.

If that’s what we take from Macbeth, we’ve misread it. Macbeth isn’t a simple morality play; the richness of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are endless. But it is clear that Macbeth’s conclusion about life is not Shakespeare’s, and it is certainly not mine. I let Macbeth into my universe not because I agree with the soliloquy, but rather because I see this nightmare vision as the sort of universe worth fighting against. Even if Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, I will fight to the last. I will not yield.

Maybe the same is true of Slaughterhouse Five. But I don’t think so. Just one example; the Tralfamadorians know that their own actions (experimental fuel) will lead to the end of the universe – the ultimate evil, I think we have to agree. Yet these wise and powerful aliens do nothing, won’t even consider doing anything, to try to avoid this outcome. Maybe the Tralfamadorians, like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, are not to be emulated. Yet Billy Pilgrim does emulate them, doing nothing to save his own life, the lives of dozens of innocents on a plane destined to crash, even his own wife coming to see him in the hospital. So it goes.

No! No, no, no, no no! We must not simply accept all evil. We must rage against the dying of the light.

Hemingway’s great short book The Old Man and the Sea tackles much the same idea as Slaughterhouse Five and Macbeth. In Hemingway’s story, Santiago realizes the meaningless of everything, too, and yet he fights against it. He realizes that he and the great fish are one, and yet he exercises his will, his incredible will, to affect the universe. Yes, all he accomplishes is to kill a fish and feed a lot of sharks. Yes, his efforts seem meaningless in the end. But Santiago experiences life, experiences the application of his experience, his knowledge, and his will to the brute fact of the world. His universe is fuller because of it. The means justifies the end.

David Deutsch quotes Karl Popper in The Beginning of Infinity:

“The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,’ this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework (1994)

Yes, there are terrible things in the world. Yes, there is evil, cruelty, stupidity, ridiculous death, and waste. We, as universal constructors, universal explainers, actors with the will and the power (and the responsibility) to choose, must not decide that life is meaningless. For if we do, we make it so.

 

 

 

We are all going to die one day. One day we will awaken, not knowing, not realizing, that today we will experience an event like no other, an event from which we will not recover. A ceasing. An end. The rest is silence.

Teaching takes up nearly all my time these days, but I found a little space to read both Hamlet and King Lear. They remain, in my mind, Shakespeare’s two greatest plays. Both ask deep questions about death. Both have a high body count. Beyond that, these plays could not be more different. For me, King Lear remains the greater of the two.

“Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear tells Cordelia in the play’s first scene. Later, Lear tells his Fool (the unresolved connection between Cordelia and the Fool remains one of the endless fascinations of this play), “nothing can be made out of nothing.” At the close of the play, a murdered Cordelia in his arms, Lear gives his final pronouncement on nothing:

No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

In between, Lear comes to know something about himself, and about nothing, his greatest foe (indeed, the foe we all must face). Again and again in King Lear, when characters call on the gods, they are met with – nothing. No help. No harm. Merely silence. Nothing. The universe is not kind, nor is it malevolent. It is merely indifferent. This is the most frightening truth available to us.

So frightening is this truth that we have invented mythologies, institutions, entire cultures dedicated to the idea that we may (if we play our cards right) survive the nothingness of death. I find no evidence to indicate that this is even possible, let alone likely. Such an opinion isn’t pretty. It doesn’t earn friends or praise. (As Lear says to Cordelia, “thy truth then be thy dower!”) But if you look at the way we all fear death, how we go to such lengths to avoid it, it seems clear that we humans see death not as Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” but rather as Lear’s “never, never, never, never, never.”

As he struggles with madness, Lear delivers one of his most poignant lines,

“When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.”

We enter crying. We end in nothing. So what’s the point? Lear finds his point; in disowning the one daughter who dares to tell him the truth, in losing everything to the treachery and greed of his other two daughters, in finally stumbling to Dover to meet Cordelia once again, he finds forgiveness and unconditional love.

Lear: Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For (as I am a man) I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

Cordelia: And so I am! I am!

Lear: Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.

Cordelia: No cause, no cause.

In all the words in all the plays, I still feel this may be the most beautiful passage of all.

Joseph Campbell said,

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

We enter crying, we leave dying. In between, we do our very best to feel the rapture of being alive. Not a bad way to spend fourscore and upward on this distracted globe. If we are lucky. King Lear reminds me, each time I rediscover it, that we create our own meaning, our own experience, our own rapture. And it’s all the sweeter for that.

 

 

 

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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