I note that psychologist Steven Pinker has a new book out this week, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It’s quite a clever title — who could actually be against any of these things? I almost feel guilty about daring to complain. In fact, all these things are so obviously desirable that one wonders why we need a book advocating them. Obviously I haven’t read it yet, but I suspect that the title does not reveal the true agenda of the book — it is more likely to be making a case against certain things, namely religion, and a spiritual understanding of the world, both of which sometimes have apparently irrational aspects to them. Here is a clue. I have a book by Professor of Anthropology Pascal Boyer called Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors (1). On the front cover is a quote from Steven Pinker: “a deep, ingenious, and insightful analysis of one of the deepest mysteries of the human species”. So he thinks that having a religious attitude is a deep mystery, therefore almost incomprehensible.
So, is his new book going to be making a case for science — the objective search without preconceptions for a true understanding of the nature of the universe? Or is it going to be celebrating scientism, an over-the-top worship of rational science at the expense of seeking the truth? I hope I’m wrong but I suspect it’s going to be another tract in the tradition of those other arch-scientismists Richard Dawkins and his Foundation for Reason and Science, and Carl Sagan and his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (2).
As for reason, I hope we can all agree that it is in general a good thing. To overvalue it and start worshipping it, however, means that you end up excluding the irrational, and therefore limiting your explorations of the nature of reality. William James put it brilliantly: “…our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (3).
There were obviously some very good aspects about the movement called the Enlightenment, but in its attempt to free itself from previous false beliefs it, in my opinion, threw the baby out with the bathwater. Now that it has ended up proclaiming a godless, purposeless universe seen through materialist eyes, it has become not so much enlightenment, rather an ugly black cloud blotting out the sun. Reason and science, as understood by the authors mentioned above, cannot lead to true progress; they have already led us into a cul-de-sac, from which we need to escape.
(1) Vintage, 2002 (2) Ballantine Books, 1996 (3) The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: New American Library 1958, p298