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Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker - 3 Big Ideas

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

I want my enlightenment. And I want it now!


It made it onto Amazon’s 20 most read books list, it was an instant New York Times best seller and it’s Bill Gates’ new favorite book.

Steven Pinker, the author, says “This book is my attempt to restate the ideals of the enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century.”


In this week’s show:

  • Life sucks and then you die

  • What is the enlightenment?

  • What’s really the state of things?

So what are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. Are we living in one of the worst times ever?

Violence, injustice, terrorism, drones, sweat shops, gangs, refugees, inequality, cyberbullying, assault, hate crimes.

The family is breaking down. Everyone is racist and sexist.

And if the environment doesn’t kill us, social media will.

I remember just this morning I woke up and began the farming ritual that would take the entire day, sent one of my surviving kids to go get water 20 miles away and I chopped my own leg off because it turned green. While crawling through the fields my other son came to say he was being sent off to war. When I complained to the government about it, I got sent to jail to be shot the next day.

Oh wait no… that didn’t happen.

My child is alive and in great health, I spend 2 hours a week retrieving food, I have clean water whenever I want and I can take a pill to rid myself of a painful infection. No one is sent off to war against their will, we can criticize the government without fear and we have the entire world’s knowledge and culture available in our pockets.

But wait there’s more…

95% of American households below the poverty line have electricity, running water, flush toilets, a refrigerator, a stove and a color TV. 150 years ago not even the richest people had these things.

We’re healthier, better fed, richer, safer, more peaceful, smarter, better protected from natural hazards and disasters and are able to express ourselves politically.

This is what most people would call, “progress.”

So sure, we may be living in one of the worst times ever… but certainly not in relation to the past.

So what is to blame for all of this progress?

2. What the Heck is Going On?

Steven Pinker says that all of this progress is due to the enlightenment. A philosophical movement from the 1800s designed to use our progress to make more progress as according to the values of reason and sympathy.

There are 3 principles Steven Pinker uses to express the enlightenment values.

And I’m going to tell you them.


Humans are biased.

Each of us think we are above average, we fall in love with our ideas and we paint the pictures that we want to see.

With all of us thinking different things about the world, how are we able to measure, and more importantly, make progress?

Well -- by putting our ideas out there to be openly debated, peer reviewed and studied through double-blind methods and having them tested and challenged by groups of people who are dying to prove you wrong.

That’s right. We make progress through science. Materially, mathematically and measurably testing and discovering what is going on – and generally putting it to use.


Opposing reason is, by definition, unreasonable.

Reason, as a way of understanding and being swayed, is not to be confused with:

Faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut-feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.

Reason is what gave rise to science and the scientific method.

Ultimately, reason is making a case for something using facts and well-founded ideas and is therefore also a pillar of our progress.

Number 3 humanism.

The ought to the is.

The goal of using our knowledge and progress and our reason and sympathy to maximize human flourishing, life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love and richness of experience.

Humanism has had all of these things improving and has led to wonderful systems of connecting humans and ideas such as:

Democracy and globalization

And yes maybe you shudder at the idea of democracy. And say “more like demo-crazy.”

But Steven Pinker points out that democrazy is not just about elections. As a governmental system it is mainly effective for things like complaining and peaceful takeovers. Take suffrage for example. Women could not vote to give themselves a vote but they ended up with it through other means - showing that deep rooted things could change in this system through the application of reason.

Enlightenment ideas are not given enough credit. These are amazing things we have accomplished through these enlightenment ideas. Human accomplishments, not cosmic birthrights.

Good stuff that only gets gooder!

3. Stat Bonanza!

People are putting their longer, healthier, safer, free-er, richer and wiser lives to good use. Americans work 22 fewer hours per week than they used to, have 3 weeks paid vacation, lose 43 fewer hours to housework and spend just 1/3 of their paycheck on necessities, as compared to 5/8ths on necessities in the past.

An American in 2015 compared to their counterpart 50 years ago will live 9 years longer; have had 3 more years of education, earn an additional $33,000 a year per family member and have an additional 8 hours a week of leisure – which they can spend on the web, listening to music, streaming movies or skyping with friends or relatives.

The average American retires at 62. 100 years ago the average American died at 51.

The family is fine. Typical American parents spend more time with their children than previously. In fact, single and working moms spend more time with their children than stay at home married moms did in 1965.

The world is happier. From 1981 to 2007, happiness increased in 45 of the 52 countries surveyed. And on average, the respondents in the 150 country world happiness report 2016, judged their lives to be on the top half on the scale from worst to best.

According to the charts and graphs in the book:

These are on the decline:

Child mortality - Maternal mortality - Childhood deaths from infectious disease – Undernourishment - Famine deaths - Poverty and extreme poverty - Global inequality – Deforestation - Oil spills - CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP - Genocide deaths - Homicide deaths - Motor vehicle accident deaths - Pedestrian deaths - Plane crash deaths - and racist, sexist and homophobic opinions

And these are on the incline:

World life expectancy – the social spending of democratic states with market economies – Protected environmental areas – Democracies – Human rights – Liberal values in countries – Literacy – Basic education – and global well-being


We should give ourselves some credit, because things are pretty good

Reason, science, humanism, the enlightenment and ourselves are the sources of our prosperity

Things really are measurably and tangibly improving both locally and globally


This book turns the naïve opinion of optimism into the statistical analyst and historian’s realistic and respected opinion.

In the book he does admit there are problems today, and he goes through a lot of them. But mainly this book is about pointing out our progress and refuting most of the negative misconceptions of culture today.

It was swell.

It was a long read but if you want to really delve into it and learn much much more about all this, I suggest you check it out.

We hope this show improved your life in some way.

Subscribe so you don’t miss next week’s video and-

We’ll see you next week!


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