World of optimism
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - April 5, 2018 - 12:00am

It’s easy to have a pessimistic view of the state of the world today. Even the Easter message of Pope Francis focused on a message of hope as if to counteract the feeling of despair that is spreading throughout the world.

Every day and night, media is filled with news and images of war, poverty, conflicts and scandals. Leaders all over the world are predicting a cataclysm of wars and crime and corruption engulfing societies. We hear terms constantly that add to this feeling of despair: “billions are trapped in poverty”; “education system is broken”; “ crime and drugs are destroying our lives”; and, “moral values are constantly being eroded.”

The world cannot seem to agree on who or what to blame for all these conflicts and confusion. The blame is usually placed on the so-called “elite” or “power structure.” The latest demons are the tech giants like Facebook and Google who are now being accused of controlling our behavior.

There is no question that there are very serious problems in the world today. The rise in global income inequality has given rise to a worldwide trend toward the election or selection of populist leaders. 

The most unfortunate by product of this pessimism about the condition of mankind is the increasing debate about the validity of liberal democracy and even the principle of human rights. 

I must confess that I have written some pessimistic columns in the past few years. But a book I just read is motivating me to take a second look at the world. Perhaps, there is after all, cause for optimism. The book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker, published by Viking 2018. Yes, it is a newly published book.

On the back cover there is this introduction to the book:

“Is the world really falling apart? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the prophets of doom, which bring out the worst in our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: in 75 astonishing graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West but worldwide. This progress is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that knowledge can enhance human flourishing.

The Enlightenment, we now know has worked but needs a vigorous defense today. Its ideals swim against the currents of human nature –  tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking – that demagogues are all too willing to exploit. At the same time, religious, political, and cultural pessimists insist that Western civilization is in terminal decline. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation. With intellectual depth and literary flair, Pinker makes the case for reason, science and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress.”

It is a 556-page book that is full of charts and narratives. Pinker centers his thesis on Enlightenment . However, one of his most profound section is his own quotation of David Deutsch’s defense of enlightenment who said that if we dare to understand the essence of enlightenment,  progress is possible in all fields, scientific, political, and moral. 

“Optimism is the theory that all failures – all evils – are due to insufficient knowledge. Problems are inevitable because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.”

In his book, Pinker covers a wide range of topics including Wealth, Inequality, Environment, Peace, Knowledge, Happiness. He displays charts showing that the world has actually progressed in all these different areas. 

One of his most interesting chapters was on Democracy when he said that the world has become more democratic. He wrote: “Since the first government appeared around five thousand years ago humanity has tried to steer a course between the violence of anarchy and the violence of tyranny...One can think of democracy as a form of government that threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself. A good democratic government allows people to pursue their lives in safety, protected from the violence of anarchy, and in  freedom, protected from the violence of tyranny. For that reason alone, democracy is a major contributor to human flourishing. But it is not the only reason: democracies also have higher rates of economic growth, fewer wars and genocides, healthier and better educated citizens and virtually no famines. If the world has become more democratic over time, that is progress.”

Pinker’s theme is expressed in his final sentence: “ ...life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

Summer creative writing classes and workshop for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on April 7, 14, 21 and 28, May 12, 19 and 26 (1:30pm-3pm; independent sessions); Wonder of Words Workshop on May 7, 9, 11, 14, 16 and 18 (1:30-3:30pm for 8-12 years old/ 4-6pm for 13-17 years old) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration contact 0945-2273216 or writethingsph@gmail.com.

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

POPE FRANCIS
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