a new age of enlightenment

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane; Hb £25.00) reviewed by Niall James Holohan

Steven Pinker is one of the most influential intellectuals and experimental psychologists working today. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, he argues that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be measured and observed and that our progress as a species depends upon the level to which we embrace the progressive tenets of the Enlightenment. Namely, science, reason and humanism.

The heart of this argument was first posited by Pinker with regard to violence in his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which made a compelling case that we are, despite the headlines, living in the most peaceful time ever experienced by our species. The data in Enlightenment Now, presented comprehensively across a wealth of universal issues, are equally compelling when we consider, just to name a few examples, that universal life expectancy, maternal and child mortality, child labour malnutrition, literacy, workload, the spread of democracy and wealth, all chart dramatic progress over the past hundred years. 

It is difficult to argue with the figures and evidence on display here, but the key idea in Enlightenment Now worth exploring is the assertion that if we can free ourselves from the desire to believe those things that prove our loyalty to a particular coalition, we allow ourselves new beliefs based on what is empirically true. Pessimism is not necessarily the most intelligent or most moral choice, and arguments that are not data-based are, at best, fear-based complacent ignorance and, at worst, wilful propaganda. 

 In an effort to harness social media’s immediacy and scope, larger media outlets have resorted to generating debate, but debate to no end. What is worse is that a distrust of the media, which has been growing since the turn of the century, has reached the point where an expert is treated with suspicion but the opinion of a stranger with an egg for an avatar online will be taken as read. So, what of seemingly ethereal concepts like a newly recharged Enlightenment in a world like this? How do we untangle this mess? And, what is more, how to be enlightened in a world that isn’t? These are the questions on which Pinker is at his most lucid and vital here and why I would suggest Enlightenment Now is both timely and essential. 

American scientist Arthur Kantrowitz once said that ‘as sure as pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy too’, and paraphrasing American economist Paul Romer, Pinker encourages us to proceed with conditional rather than complacent optimism in order that we may continue to make real progress on the issues that affect human wellbeing across the globe. Enlightenment Now makes a compelling case that the best of all possible worlds is there for us, if, to borrow a phrase popularised during the Enlightenment, we dare to know. 

- Reviewed by Niall James Holohan, musician, writer and BSc in psychology undergraduate at the University of East London
@nialljholohan on Twitter



Some very interesting questions

Niall James Holohan reviews Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Robert Wright Simon & Schuster; Hb £20.00). The Psychologist, January 2018. Vol. 31 (pp. 59). 



I have always been interested in secular Buddhism and evolutionary psychology and first heard the name Robert Wright after taking his Princeton Coursera on Buddhism and Modern Psychology in 2016. Anyone who has taken this course or read Robert’s books will attest to his deceptively amiable style of reorganising expert knowledge into witty but suitably challenging teaching
and writing.

In The Moral Animal, published in 1994, Wright outlined how human desires were selected for by evolution and noted that the result is that we are not necessarily designed to see the world clearly or to be satisfied. But if we concede the human brain’s design has been selected to court unease, impatience, jealousy and depression, then what are we as individuals to do about it?

In Why Buddhism Is True, Wright makes the case for mindfulness meditation rooted in Buddhist philosophy as a practical way to dispel the delusions that lead to the suffering we feel, fastened to the hedonistic treadmill. Where CBT interrogates the logic behind intrusive thoughts, Wright argues that Buddhist meditation seeks to disembody thought in order to rebel against the agenda set for us by natural selection. We may not be in a position to defy our biological engineering but through meditation rooted in Buddhist philosophy, it is possible to detach from the oleaginous rails of our desires and simultaneously sit with noetic conflicts that we may ordinarily seek to escape and at least periodically wrangle our emotion life into a collaborative space rather than be blindly driven by naturally selected needs that are heretofore obscured from our view.

While light on citations and relying heavily on Wright’s own theories, this book does provoke some very interesting questions on the subject of Buddhism and psychology, particularly regarding the correlation Wright sees between the Buddhist teaching of not-self and the modular model of the mind most recently expounded by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius in their book The Rational Animal. It is at the very least an affable aid to those interested in meditation, evolutionary psychology, Buddhism and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Its conclusion, brought to mind the infamous words of US statistician W. Edwards Deming: ‘In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.’

- Reviewed by Niall James Holohan, musician, writer and psychology undergraduate at the University of East London @nialljholohan on Twitter.