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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > May June 2018 > PROGRESS OPHOBIA Why Things Are Better Than You Think They Are

PROGRESS OPHOBIA Why Things Are Better Than You Think They Are

Intellectuals dislike the very idea of progress. Our own mental bugs also distort our understanding of the world, blinding us to improvements in the human condition underway globally—and to the ideas that have made them possible.

Adapted from ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Steven Pinker.

Buy online at: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/317051/enlightenment-now-by-steven-pinker/.

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bien-pensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class—the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.

An entire lexicon of abuse has grown up to express their scorn. If you think knowledge can help solve problems, then you have a “blind faith” and a “quasi-religious belief ” in the “outmoded superstition” and “false promise” of the “myth” of the “onward march” of “inevitable progress.” You are a “cheerleader” for “vulgar American candoism” with the “rahrah” spirit of “boardroom ideology,” “Silicon Valley,” and the “Chamber of Commerce.” You are a practitioner of “Whig history,” a “naïve optimist,” a “Pollyanna,” and of course a “Pangloss,” a modern-day version of the philosopher in Voltaire’s Candide who asserts that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Professor Pangloss, as it happens, is what we would now call a pessimist. A modern optimist believes that the world can be much, much better than it is today. Voltaire was satirizing not the Enlightenment hope for progress but its opposite, the religious rationalization for suffering called theodicy, according to which God had no choice but to allow epidemics and massacres because a world without them is metaphysically impossible.

The Underappreciated Enlightenment

The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. I wrote Enlightenment Now because I have come to realize that it is not. More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense. We take its gifts for granted: newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket. But these are human accomplishments, not cosmic birthrights. In the memories of many readers—and in the experience of those in less fortunate parts of the world— war, scarcity, disease, ignorance, and lethal menace are a natural part of existence. We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions, and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril.

Epithets aside, the idea that the world is better than it was and can get better still fell out of fashion among the clerisy long ago. In The Ideaof Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman shows that prophets of doom are the all-stars of the liberal arts curriculum, including Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel West, and a chorus of eco-pessimists.1 Surveying the intellectual landscape at the end of the 20th century, Herman lamented a “grand recessional” of “the luminous exponents” of Enlightenment humanism, the ones who believed that “since people generate conflicts and problems in society, they can also resolve them.” In History of the Idea of Progress, the sociologist Robert Nisbet agreed: “The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West.”2

Yes, it’s not just those who intellectualize for a living who think the world is going to hell in a handcart. It’s ordinary people when they switch into intellectualizing mode. Psychologists have long known that people tend to see their own lives through rose-colored glasses: they think they’re less likely than the average person to become the victim of a divorce, layoff, accident, illness, or crime. But change the question from the people’s lives to their society, and they transform from Pollyanna to Eeyore.

Public opinion researchers call it the Optimism Gap.3 For more than two decades, through good times and bad, when Europeans were asked by pollsters whether their own economic situation would get better or worse in the coming year, more of them said it would get better, but when they were asked about their country’s economic situation, more of them said it would get worse.4 A large majority of Britons think that immigration, teen pregnancy, litter, unemployment, crime, vandalism, and drugs are a problem in the United Kingdom as a whole, while few think they are problems in their area.5 Environmental quality, too, is judged in most nations to be worse in the nation than in the community, and worse in the world than in the nation.6 In almost every year from 1992 through 2015, an era in which the rate of violent crime plummeted, a majority of Americans told pollsters that crime was rising.7 In late 2015, large majorities in eleven developed countries said that “the world is getting worse,” and in most of the last forty years a solid majority of Americans have said that the country is “heading in the wrong direction.”8

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Progressophobia: Why Things Are Better Than You Think They Are STEVEN PIKER Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars The Curious Question of Ghost Taxonomy and much more!
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