The fourth Enlightenment principle, ‘Progress’, is the topic of a separate article. Suffice it to say that Pinker assembles an impressive 75 graphs of statistics demonstrating empirical evidence for improvement and progress in: life expectancy, health, sustenance, wealth, equality, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, rights, knowledge, quality of life, happiness, and existential threats.
Enlightenment thinkers had their share of foibles and faults and were products of their times: and, of course, they did not know then, what we know now. According to Pinker we now have three additional items to help us understand the human condition which were not available to Enlightenment intellectuals: entropy, evolution, and information (these are discussed elsewhere). These has been associated with the vast changes that have occurred in the human physical environment, largely as a result of the application of science and technology.
In 1800 communication was by letter and books, transport was by horse, the world population was 1 billion, and about 3% of the world population lived in cities. In 2018 communication is through an electronic world wide web and smartphones, transport is by cars, planes, and trains, the world population is 7.6 billion and more than 50% live in cities. What do you think the philosophes would have made of such a momentous socio-cultural transition?
As 21st century philosophes we need to consider the broad significance of what has happened in the last 200 years. What would we pass back to the philosophes from what we have learned in subsequent times? This, Pinker suggests, can be summarized with three foundational ideas: entropy, evolution, and information. These concepts ‘define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means of eking out a better existence‘.
As discussed at length elsewhere I take exception to the the view that:
‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its bigggest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose. Which is a ‘primitive but ubiquitous understanding, everything happens for a reason . . . ‘ . . . ‘Projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion’.
Here Pinker is targeting anthropomorphic agents like God, or innocent ethnic and religious minorities, say witches, who may be held responsible for social ills like famines and other natural disasters, possibly inflicted as punishments etc. But putting this wrong-headed kind of thinking aside, it is science itself that trumpets the axiom that ‘everything happens for a reason’. And where could reasons be more evident than in the functional design of nature? Reasons are a short step from purposes. Is it the purpose of our eyes to see, or is seeing the reason why we have eyes … or what? Scientists constantly and legitimately use purpose talk, not as metaphor, but as a description of what has come from within nature (not God) – (see the various articles on Purpose). The ultimate long-term human reason or purpose is to fulfil our destiny by becoming victims of entropy. But short-term we can fulfill many purposes – all of them, even our conscious choices, a consequence of scientific deterministic reasons.
‘Events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future’ … ‘projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion’. Here we have must confront the dilemma of free will and determinism. Goals link to ends which link to effects. If we believe in the power of scientific explanation, that consciousness is not something over and above scientifically explicable things going on in our brains. Our minds, and consciousness, are not independent of nature but a part of it. There are reasons in nature which, when they appear in the human domain we elevate, using expressions like ‘purpose’, and ‘conscious decision’. Once it is accepted that this concept applies across nature then the choice of the word ‘reason’ or ‘purpose’ does not matter. I prefer the word purpose. And confining the use of the word ‘purpose’ to human activity is yet another form of human presumption and arrogance.
What scientists need to do now is to take purpose away from God and spooky consciousness and place it where it truly resides – in nature.