Steven Pinker – Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Pinker, Steven (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking. ISBN: 9780698177888. Pagine 576. 11,99€.

amazon.it

Non so se posso definire un pamphlet un libro di oltre 500 pagine.

A rigore no, perche secondo il Vocabolario Treccani il pamphlet (“dall’inglese pamphlet «opuscolo», a sua volta dall’antico francese Pamphilet, titolo popolare della commedia latina in versi Pamphilus seu de amore, del secolo XII, che acquistò, in Francia, il significato odierno nel secolo XVIII”) è un “libello, breve scritto di carattere polemico o satirico”. Questo carattere polemico, però, è nell’esplicito intento dell’autore, che afferma di avere scritto questo libro dopo essersi reso conto che il principio illuminista secondo cui si può applicare la ragione per promuovere il progresso umano può sembrare ovvio, banale e antiquato ma non lo è affatto, e che – oggi più che mai – gli ideali della ragione, della scienza, dell’umanesimo e del progresso hanno bisogno di una difesa incondizionata.

È dunque un pamphlet nei contenuti, e anche nella forma, se si considera la passione e la veemenza con cui Pinker – che è uno scienziato per formazione – inanella le sue considerazioni, sempre sostenute da una mole ampia e accurata di dati, grafici e tabelle. È l’attenzione maniacale all’accuratezza delle argomentazioni, alla volontà di farci capire ogni passaggio, alla completezza della documentazione che giustificano la lunghezza del testo, che però si legge senza fatica.

Il libro ha moltissimo meriti e consiglio vivamente di leggerlo.

La documentazione statistica e più in generale quantitativa è un punto di forza del libro, soprattutto nella seconda delle tre parti in cui è articolato: chi mi segue sa quanto sono sensibile a questi aspetti. Da questo punto di vista – oltre che da quello dell’ottimismo razionale – siamo su un terreno molto vicino a quello di Hans Rosling e del suo Factfulness, di cui mi propongo di scrivere su questo blog (prima o poi). A proposito, come ci ricorda Pinker, Rosling non si definiva un ottimista, ma un serio possibilista, o un possibilista serio.

I grafici sono il filo conduttore delle argomentazioni della parte dedicata al progresso. Per la maggior parte provengono da un sito meravoglioso, che vi suggerisco di visitare e consultare: Our World in Data. Oltre ai grafici (attualmente, 2.746 grafici e infografiche su 297 argomenti) troverete spiegazioni esaurienti in un linguaggio chiaro (anche se, naturalmente, in inglese): un lavoro non da poco, come sa chiunque abbia fatto lo sforzo di rendere comprensibile il gergo specializzato degli esperti e degli scienziati.

Naturalmente, il libro non è esente da difetti. Il principale, secondo me, è di essere troppo attento al caso statunitense (l’autore è canadese, ma insegna negli Stati Uniti): comprensibile che si rivolga al pubblico “di casa”, ma in molti campi gli Stati Uniti sono in parte un’eccezione, rispetto ai paesi europei. Tuttavia, indubbiamente per noi anche questo aspetto è utile, perché ci porta a riflettere su quanto sia importante l’esperienza europea sotto il profilo storico e con riferimento anche alle conquiste più recenti, in un periodo in cui le istituzioni europee sono da molti considerate un inutile impiccio di cui liberarsi al più presto.

Il libri è articolato in tre parti – illuminismo (quella che a me è piaciuta di più); progresso; ragione, scienza e umanesimo – e 23 capitoli. Troppo per infliggervi una recensione puntuale.

Preferisco dare ampio spazio a segnalare i numerosi passi che hanno attirato la mia attenzione e le mie riflessioni:

The Enlightenment also saw the first rational analysis of prosperity. Its starting point was not how wealth is distributed but the prior question of how wealth comes to exist in the first place. Smith, building on French, Dutch, and Scottish influences, noted that an abundance of useful stuff cannot be conjured into existence by a farmer or craftsman working in isolation. It depends on a network of specialists, each of whom learns how to make something as efficiently as possible, and who combine and exchange the fruits of their ingenuity, skill, and labor. (pp.12-13)

Specialization works only in a market that allows the specialists to exchange their goods and services, and Smith explained that economic activity was a form of mutually beneficial cooperation (a positive-sum game, in today’s lingo): each gets back something that is more valuable to him than what he gives up. (p.13)

“If the tailor goes to war against the baker, he must henceforth bake his own bread.” (p.13: citazione di Ludwig von Mises)

It follows that any perturbation of the system, whether it is a random jiggling of its parts or a whack from the outside, will, by the laws of probability, nudge the system toward disorder or uselessness—not because nature strives for disorder, but because there are so many more ways of being disorderly than of being orderly. (p.16)

Since no copying process is perfect—the Law of Entropy sees to that—errors will crop up, and though most of these mutations will degrade the replicator (entropy again), occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that’s more effective at replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition. (p.19)

Information may be thought of as a reduction in entropy—as the ingredient that distinguishes an orderly, structured system from the vast set of random, useless ones. (pp.19-20)

Internal representations that reliably correlate with states of the world, and that participate in inferences that tend to derive true implications from true premises, may be called knowledge. (p.21)

The principles of information, computation, and control bridge the chasm between the physical world of cause and effect and the mental world of knowledge, intelligence, and purpose. (p.22)

They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future. (p.29)

In many colleges and universities, science is presented not as the pursuit of true explanations but as just another narrative or myth. (p.34).

The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy. (p.41)

Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. (pp.42-43)

A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. (p.43)

Progress cannot always be monotonic because solutions to problems create new problems. (p.44)

“The most important of all limitations on knowledge-creation is that we cannot prophesy: we cannot predict the content of ideas yet to be created, or their effects. This limitation is not only consistent with the unlimited growth of knowledge, it is entailed by it.” (p.46: citazione di David Deutsch)

What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer.
Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured.
If they have increased over time, that is progress. (p.51)

[…] progress is an outcome not of magic but of problem-solving. (p.55)

History is written not so much by the victors as by the affluent, the sliver of humanity with the leisure and education to write about it. (p.79)

(As Jefferson noted, he who receives an idea from me receives instruction without lessening mine.) (p.95)

Though it’s easy to sneer at national income as a shallow and materialistic measure, it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing, as we will repeatedly see in the chapters to come. (p.96)

Inequality is devilishly complicated to analyze (in a population of one million, there are 999,999 ways in which they can be unequal), and the subject has filled many books. (p.98)

[Harry] Frankfurt argues that inequality itself is not morally objectionable; what is objectionable is poverty. (pp.98-99)

“From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” (p.99: citazione di Harry Frankfurt)

[…] I suspect that it’s less effective to aim at the Gini index as a deeply buried root cause of many social ills than to zero in on solutions to each problem: investment in research and infrastructure to escape economic stagnation, regulation of the finance sector to reduce instability, broader access to education and job training to facilitate economic mobility, electoral transparency and finance reform to eliminate illicit influence, and so on. (p.102)

[…] it happens not because people in poor countries start breeding like rabbits but because they stop dying like flies. (p.125)

Indeed, it’s a fallacy to think that people “need resources” in the first place. They need ways of growing food, moving around, lighting their homes, displaying information, and other sources of well-being. They satisfy these needs with ideas: with recipes, formulas, techniques, blueprints, and algorithms for manipulating the physical world to give them what they want. (p.127)

[…] the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones […] (p.127)

Risultati immagini per xkcd.com/1007
xkcd.com/1007

“We’re not going to win this as bean counters. We can’t beat the bean counters at their own game. We’re going to win this because this is an issue of values, human rights, right and wrong. We just have this brief period where we also have to have some nice stats that we can wield, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that what actually moves people’s hearts are the arguments based on the value of life.” (p.139: citazione – vergognosa e ridicola – di Naomi Klein)

Blowing off quantitative analysis as “bean-counting” is not just anti-intellectual but works against “values, human rights, right and wrong.” Someone who values human life will favor the policies that have the greatest chance of saving people from being displaced or starved while furnishing them with the means to live healthy and fulfilled lives. In a universe governed by the laws of nature rather than magic and deviltry, that requires “bean-counting.” (p.139)

The trend can be a Period Effect: a change in the times, the zeitgeist, or the national mood that lifts or lowers all the boats. It can be an Age (or Life Cycle) Effect: people change as they grow from mewling infant to whining schoolboy to sighing lover to round-bellied justice, and so on. Since there are booms and busts in a nation’s birthrate, the population average will automatically change with the changing proportion of young, middle-aged, and old people, even if the prevailing values at each age are the same. Finally, the trend can be a Cohort (or Generational) Effect: people born at a certain time may be stamped with traits they carry through their lives, and the average for the population will reflect the changing mixture of cohorts as one generation exits the stage and another enters. It’s impossible to disentangle the effects of age, period, and cohort perfectly, because as one period transitions into the next, each cohort gets older. But by measuring a trait across a population in several periods, and separating the data from the different cohorts in each one, one can make reasonable inferences about the three kinds of change. (pp.224-225)

Yet the single best predictor of emancipative values is the World Bank’s Knowledge Index, which combines per capita measures of education (adult literacy and enrollment in high schools and colleges), information access (telephones, computers, and Internet users), scientific and technological productivity (researchers, patents, and journal articles), and institutional integrity (rule of law, regulatory quality, and open economies). Welzel found that the Knowledge Index accounts for seventy percent of the variation in emancipative values across countries, making it a far better predictor than GDP. The statistical result vindicates a key insight of the Enlightenment: knowledge and sound institutions lead to moral progress. (p.228)

Homo sapiens, “knowing man,” is the species that uses information to resist the rot of entropy and the burdens of evolution. Humans everywhere acquire knowledge about their landscape, its flora and fauna, the tools and weapons that can subdue them, and the networks and norms that entangle them with kin, allies, and enemies. They accumulate and share that knowledge with the use of language, gesture, and face-to-face tutelage. (p.233)

They are also likelier to trust their fellow citizens—a prime ingredient of the precious elixir called social capital which gives people the confidence to contract, invest, and obey the law without fearing that they are chumps who will be shafted by everyone else. (p.235)

In practice, “consumerism” often means “consumption by the other guy,” since the elites who condemn it tend themselves to be conspicuous consumers of exorbitant luxuries like hardcover books, good food and wine, live artistic performances, overseas travel, and Ivy-class education for their children. (pp.247-248)

“The housewife of the future will be neither a slave to servants nor herself a drudge. She will give less attention to the home, because the home will need less; she will be rather a domestic engineer than a domestic laborer, with the greatest of all handmaidens, electricity, at her service. This and other mechanical forces will so revolutionize the woman’s world that a large portion of the aggregate of woman’s energy will be conserved for use in broader, more constructive fields.” (p.252: citazione di Thomas Edison)

The technology expert Kevin Kelly has proposed that “over time, if a technology persists long enough, its costs begin to approach (but never reach) zero.” (p.254)

He could fact-check rumors on Snopes, teach himself math and science at Khan Academy, build his word power with the American Heritage Dictionary, enlighten himself with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and watch lectures by the world’s great scholars, writers, and critics, many long dead. (p.260)

Among these intrinsic goods is freedom or autonomy: the availability of options to lead a good life (positive freedom) and the absence of coercion that prevents a person from choosing among them (negative freedom).
[…]
Positive freedom is related to the economist’s notion of utility (what people want; what they spend their wealth on), and negative freedom to the political scientist’s notions of democracy and human rights. (p.265)

Finally, meaning is about expressing rather than satisfying the self: it is enhanced by activities that define the person and build a reputation. (p.267)

An implication of the circumscribed role of happiness in human psychology is that the goal of progress cannot be to increase happiness indefinitely, in the hope that more and more people will become more and more euphoric. But there is plenty of unhappiness that can be reduced, and no limit as to how meaningful our lives can become. (p.268)

[…] there is no Easterlin paradox. Not only are richer people in a given country happier, but people in richer countries are happier, and as countries get richer over time, their people get happier. (pp.268-269)

[…] a country is a collection of tens of millions of human beings who just happen to occupy a patch of land. (p.272: collegato alla fallacia ecologica)

[…] economists call a composite of the inflation rate and the unemployment rate the Misery Index (p.273)

Here’s an anecdote, therefore it’s a trend, therefore it’s a crisis. (p.277)

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word no. (p.282)

There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors. Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They’re called women. (p.297)

[…] a casual slide from nuisance to adversity to tragedy to disaster to annihilation. (p.305)

Virulence and contagion thus trade off […] (p.306)

Joel Mokyr notes that “aggregate statistics like GDP per capita and its derivatives such as factor productivity . . . were designed for a steel-and-wheat economy, not one in which information and data are the most dynamic sector. Many of the new goods and services are expensive to design, but once they work, they can be copied at very low or zero costs. That means they tend to contribute little to measured output even if their impact on consumer welfare is very large.” (p.332)

In addition to dematerialization, information technology has launched a process of demonetization. Many things that people used to pay for are now essentially free, including classified ads, news, encyclopedias, maps, cameras, long-distance calls, and the overhead of brick-and-mortar retailers. People are enjoying these goods more than ever, but they have vanished from GDP. (pp.332-333)

In another page-jumper, Silver found that the regional map of Trump support did not overlap particularly well with the maps of unemployment, religion, gun ownership, or the proportion of immigrants. But it did align with the map of Google searches for the word nigger, which Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has shown is a reliable indicator of racism (chapter 15). (pp.339-340)

Opposing reason is, by definition, unreasonable. But that hasn’t stopped a slew of irrationalists from favoring the heart over the head, the limbic system over the cortex, blinking over thinking, McCoy over Spock. […] There’s the postmodernist credo that reason is a pretext to exert power, reality is socially constructed, and all statements are trapped in a web of self-reference and collapse into paradox. (p.351)

“The claim ‘Everything is subjective’ must be nonsense, for it would itself have to be either subjective or objective. But it can’t be objective, since in that case it would be false if true. And it can’t be subjective, because then it would not rule out any objective claim, including the claim that it is objectively false. There may be some subjectivists, perhaps styling themselves as pragmatists, who present subjectivism as applying even to itself. But then it does not call for a reply, since it is just a report of what the subjectivist finds it agreeable to say. If he also invites us to join him, we need not offer any reason for declining, since he has offered us no reason to accept. (pp.351-352: citazione di Thomas Nagel)

We don’t believe in reason; we use reason […] (p.352)

A white lie is told for the benefit of the hearer; a blue lie is told for the benefit of an in-group (originally, fellow police officers). (p.359)

“There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table” (p.387: citazione di Anton Čechov)

It looks more like Bayesian reasoning (the logic used by the superforecasters we met in the preceding chapter). A theory is granted a prior degree of credence, based on its consistency with everything else we know. That level of credence is then incremented or decremented according to how likely an empirical observation would be if the theory is true, compared with how likely it would be if the theory is false. (p.393)

One of these movements was retroactively dubbed social Darwinism, though it was advocated not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer, who laid it out in 1851, eight years before the publication of The Origin of Species. (p.399)

If they veto the possibility of putting numbers to them, they are saying, “Trust my intuition.” (p.403)

What would happen over the long run if a standard college curriculum devoted less attention to the writings of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon and more to quantitative analyses of political violence? (p.405)

As I mentioned in chapter 2 (following an observation by John Tooby), the Law of Entropy sentences us to another permanent threat. Many things must all go right for a body (and thus a mind) to function, but it takes just one thing going wrong for it to shut down permanently—a leak of blood, a constriction of air, a disabling of its microscopic clockwork. (p.414)

As the psychologist Peter DeScioli points out, when you face an adversary alone, your best weapon may be an ax, but when you face an adversary in front of a throng of bystanders, your best weapon may be an argument. (p.415)

Fine-tuning is a fallacy of post hoc reasoning, like the Megabucks winner who wonders what made him win against all odds. (p.424)

If reason contradicts intuition once again, so much the worse for intuition. (p.425)

Disdaining the commitment to truth-seeking among scientists and Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche asserted that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” and that “truth is a kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.” (p.446)

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” (p.481: citazione di Philip K. Dick)

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