Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pinker: "The Enlightenment Is Working"

Steven  Pinker, writing about his new book in The Wall Street Journal, here. A taste:
The headway made around the turn of the millennium is not a fluke. It’s a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.
Comment: Reflect on the word "progress" and "progressive." "Progressive" has come to be associated with a left political movement. But let's reflect on its literal sense. Human Progress. It's not the Left-Progressives who are behind this excellent site that validates Pinker's thesis and data.

I think someone like Peter Thiel, who isn't as optimistic as Pinker, as almost like a visionary prophet for human progress, especially as viewed through a technological lens. His thesis is that we have been stagnating since the 1970s. Yet, much of Pinker's data has shown how much better the rest of the world has become since 70s. Yes, the least well off parts of the world. And they've become better off while taking advantage of the breakthroughs of the 1st world which Thiel sees as stagnating since 1970.

Information Technology of course, is excepted. (And what a big exception it is.)

Regarding the "Enlightenment" part of the thesis, it helps to look at periods on a timeline. The way I see it, Enlightenment ended around 1800, the very year in which all of this progress started to take off. It could be what triggered the growth is that's when aliens or spirits started diffusing knowledge down to humanity. But that, alas, is not a falsifiable hypothesis, with the current level of empirical understanding we have.

So I'm assuming and concluding it was the seeds planted by the Enlightenment figures like America's Founders and their influences. Men like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, all of whom were either actual or armchair scientists and wanted to put man's focus on figuring out how material things work and how we can improve things.

As Franklin put it:
I have been long impressed with the same sentiments you so well express, of the growing felicity of mankind, from the improvements in philosophy, morals, politics, and even the conveniences of common living, and the invention and acquisition of new and useful utensils and instruments; so that I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will, before that period, be produced; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages, but have my curiosity gratified in knowing what they are to be. I see a little absurdity in what I have just written, but it is to a friend, who will wink and let it pass, while I mention one reason more for such a wish, which is, that, if the art of physic shall be improved in proportion to other arts, we may then be able to avoid diseases, and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis; to which, I suppose, we should have little objection.
It's interesting to see how Franklin mentions wanting to live 200-300 years in the future to see how all of this unfolds. He wrote the letter in 1788. Meaning Franklin wants to see 1988-2088. In other words, right now. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

Or not.

Thus, the idea that science was invented in the seventeenth century, "when a weakened Christianity could no longer prevent it," as it is said, is false. Long before the famed physicist Isaac Newton, clergy like John of Sacrobosco, the author of Sphere, were doing what can be only called science. The Scholastics—Christians—not the Enlightenment, invented modern science.

Three hundred years before Newton, a Scholastic cleric named Jean Buridan anticipated Newton's First Law of Motion, that a body in motion will stay in motion unless otherwise impeded. It was Buridan, not an Enlightenment luminary, who first proposed that the Earth turns on its axis.

In Stark's words, "Christian theology was necessary for the rise of science." Science only happened in areas whose worldview was shaped by Christianity, that is, Europe. Many civilizations had alchemy; only Europe developed chemistry. Likewise, astrology was practiced everywhere, but only in Europe did it become astronomy.

That's because Christianity depicted God as a "rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being" who created a universe with a "rational, lawful, stable" structure. These beliefs uniquely led to "faith in the possibility of science.

Hume is of no help.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yet it all began to take off around 1800.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

Correlation is not causation. You could also ascribe the Industrial Revolution to Max Weber's theory about the Protestantism of Northern Europe and the "Puritan work ethic" being the driving force, proved by the Catholic south doing little.

I don't necessarily agree, but this habit of ascribing human progress to secular philosophies doesn't work for me either.

Phil Laut, the author of Money Is My Friend, has defined hard work as “doing what you don’t want to do”, and suggests that to operate with integrity, you should forget work and do what you want. This revolutionary viewpoint directly opposes certain beliefs which have become codified into our work ethic courtesy of the Puritans. Puritan sects were greatly over-represented among the early major industrialists (quoted in Ashton’s History of the Industrial Revolution), and their belief that suffering is required to redeem our ‘original sin’ as human beings became part of their work ethic. This is a notion which continues to underlie our attitude towards work even today.

This is why, in our society, work is closely related to, and often motivated by, guilt. To sweeten their view of work and provide positive motivation, the Puritans believed that honest toil, if persevered with, led to mundane and spiritual rewards. The modern equivalents of these archaic religious beliefs are:

i) Hard work is the main factor in producing material wealth.
ii) Hard work is character building and morally good.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It's not causation. But the fact that it occurred when it did begs for an explanation.

Like I said, "It could be what triggered the growth is that's when aliens or spirits started diffusing knowledge down to humanity. But that, alas, is not a falsifiable hypothesis, with the current level of empirical understanding we have."

I think the Calvinist or Protestant work ethic is actually part of the equation; but you needed Adam Smith's economics as well as other Enlightenment ideas (arguably Richard Price on finance; but that's just one of many others) for the for the entire formula to "work."

Jonathan Rowe said...

And where it did.

jimmiraybob said...

It was Buridan, not an Enlightenment luminary, who first proposed that the Earth turns on its axis.

If by “Buridan,” Chuck Colson*, the author of the article that you give no citation for, means the ancient Greek or Indian or Sumerian /Babylonian/Persian or early Medieval Muslim astronomers and mathematicians, then sure. Otherwise ……..

A little Googling also reveals that Buridan abandoned the Earth rotation hypothesis and adopted an Aristotelian model of the heavens rotating around a fixed Earth.(1)

Likewise, astrology was practiced everywhere, but only in Europe did it become astronomy.

Oy. The foundation of the Medieval discussions on astronomy is the work done by ancient pre-Christian philosophers and astronomers, starting with Sumerian written accounts dating to 1200 BCE (including complex observational charts), that was continuously expanded upon during late antiquity into Medieval times, including by the early Muslims.

What started happening late in the Medieval study of scientific topics (coincident with expanding Enlightenment and humanism), formerly natural history, is the application of complex mathematics and a rigorous system of empirical observation, experimentation, reporting and testing of initial hypotheses as well as well-supported established theories.

This resulted in a focus on naturalistic explanations that were not dependent on attribution to God, or the gods or demons. And in doing so, phenomenon such as earthquakes, volcanoes, the movement of heavenly bodies, and the brilliant streaking to earth of meteorites was removed from the quiver of the clergy and priests and placed squarely into the realm of predictable, explainable, every day events. This is when “modern science” began to expand and flourish into the dependable system that we know today.

Chuck Colson, and presumably Stark, are ignorami on this subject and citing him/them really diminishes the seriousness of any rational discussion.

*The earliest published version of this article that you give no citation for that I found was from 2003.

1. Edward Grant, 2007. A History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. p. 198.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Colson piece was to start discussion and you had no trouble finding it so cut the crap, bub. If you want to take on legitimate scholar Rodney Stark, good luck. Your nitpicking leaves his thesis unmolested.

jimmiraybob said...

Stark’s scholarly credentials include a MS & PhD in sociology. There is no evidence of education or advanced training in the physical sciences, the history of science or history. While this does not exclude someone from independent study and commentary on these subjects it does not lend any scholarly weight or bona fides.

His major writings (books) appear to be in the genre of Christian apologetics or at least slanted that way. Thus, Stark’s apparent statement "Christian theology was necessary for the rise of science," is the result of viewing through a very, very narrow lens and completely lacks a historical or scientific understand or rigorous approach to the subject. It is only meant to sway, pursued and comfort his target Christian audience.

Perhaps Colson, another Christian apologist writer with no relevant scholarly credentials, misquotes Stark or, by choosing quotes selectively in a way that creates an impression other than what Stark conveys, – tactics for which some Christian apologists seem to be excessively prone – then maybe Stark might not come off as so badly mis/uninformed about the history of science if read without Colson’s handiwork.

Tom Van Dyke said...

genetic fallacy

what a bore

Jonathan Rowe said...

The Ferguson link, btw the very informative. I can find little to disagree with it. Ties together Scotland, Adam Smith and both the Enlightenment and Christianity in that time period. That was a special area.

On the work ethic -- and all these issues in fact -- it shows how culture is changeable and malleable. Cultures can and do for good or ill (and hope for good) "appropriate" from one another.

My mother is and has always been nominally or non-religious from a Catholic background. Yet when I was growing up and my family didn't need me to work a chicken shit job for family finances, the mantra we got was three words: "Work builds character." The principle rested on the foundation of family authority, nothing else. That's the Protestant work ethic, but it's also a generic work ethic for any group who wants to appropriate it. A lot of Asian places have it. Whether they got it from the Protestant West or an alternative authentically Asian place might be a different, interesting story. But they have it.

Lecture given by a true Scotsman, Dr. Ferguson.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not sure about Weber either, but we still must ask why did southern Europe fall so far behind the north?

And with the exception of Japan [whose own social development was arrested in other ways] Asia was not affluent until it Westernized, even if Ferguson is correct. His thesis seems more an assay of the decline of the West, though I do agree with him that hard work requires the other factors that safeguard its fruits. [Which is why socialism fails.]

As for Stark, that Christian thought's belief that God and therefore the universe was rational is considered a big deal in the philosophy of science, by some, the necessary cornerstone. Attacking Stark is infantile. 3 of Ferguson's 6 can be traced to that foundation.

Scientific Revolution
Property Rights
Modern Medicine
Consumer Society
The Work Ethic

Property rights are also affirmed by Aquinas, in an argument not uncongenial to Adam Smith, who contrary to popular notion, was quite communitarian.

Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.

We need to create wealth before we can share it.

jimmiraybob said...

What of the 4th through 12th century period of Christianity? What are the great math and science contributions? It wasn't until the Italian and eventual European Renaissance and the spread of Humanism, stemming from the introduction of Greco-Roman scientific (natural philosophy) ideas and mathematics from around the Mediterranean and East (via expanding trade) that Scientific ideas even began to be discussed in Europe and "Christendom."

To say that Christian special thinking, or theology(ies), is any better than any other religious special thinking at making and inventing science is absurd. The intellectual pursuit of science, especially modern science, is about intellectual curiosity, rigor, going where the empirical evidence leads, and open sharing of ideas - very non-dogmatic and open to change with new data.

But, do carry on with your childish insults. That's what makes you the extraordinary apologist to the apologists that everybody has become accustomed to.

The best you can say is that Christianity, at least liberal Christianity, does not preclude pursuing science and mathematics. The more conservative and dogmatic wings of Christianity actively discourage scientific, non-scriptural study and mocks the methodologies, conclusions and theories that are beyond their comprehension and not in service to scripture.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Another secular slander, more of the usual uninformed nonsense. The Church was and is a friend to science. Copernicus was a deacon of some sort and Galileo only got in trouble because he was an asshole.

[There is a debt to Islamic culture preserving Aristotle and furthering the scientific method. However, Islam dropped those things (see al-Ghazali vs Averroes) just as the Christian West picked them up.]

jimmiraybob said...

"The Church was and is a friend to science."

Historically it is a mixed bag. Some institutions like the monastic schools provided a haven for the intellectually curious to partake in natural philosophy. And, no doubt, some natural philosophers we devout Christians and even some theologians took part.

But whether "the Church was or wasn't friendly to the developing field of science and mathematics is an entirely different animal than, "Christian theology was necessary for the rise of science." You may as well say that Islamic theology was necessary for the rise of science since it was largely through the transmission from Islamic lands that the seeds of classical thought entered the Christian realms in any substantive manner.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually I credited Islamic culture, that is until al-Ghazali [or some guy named al-Tusi, see below] drove science and philosophy out of the Islamic world.

And although the Islamic world did interesting observation and theory, it never translated them into technology.

Art Deco said...

I'm not sure about Weber either, but we still must ask why did southern Europe fall so far behind the north?

The Maddison Project's latest reports assess comparative domestic product per capita as follows (indexed to that of Britain):

In 1800:

Great Britain: 1.00
Spain: 0.88
Portugal: 0.60
Italy: 0.60
Sweden: 0.52
German states, NOS: 0.43
Finland: 0.38
Polish territory: 0.33

In 1830:

Great Britain: 1.00
Netherlands: 0.77
Denmark: 0.76
Austria: 0.65
France: 0.65
Italy: 0.63
Norway: 0.59
Portugal: 0.56
Sweden: 0.53
Poland: 0.32

In 1870:

Britain: 1.00
Belgium: 0.88
Switzerland: 0.76
Netherlands: 0.75
Denmark: 0.70
Spain: 0.68
Ireland: 0.62
France: 0.62
Germany: 0.61
Norway: 0.54
Austria: 0.52
Czech and Slovak territory: 0.52
Sweden: 0.47
Greece: 0.43
Italy: 0.39
Bulgaria: 0.39
Portugal: 0.34
Poland: 0.33
Finland: 0.32

In 1913

Belgium: 1.07
Britain: 1.00
Switzerland: 0.88
Germany: 0.87
Denmark: 0.87
Netherlands: 0.86
Norway: 0.82
France: 0.81
Sweden: 0.75
Spain: 0.69
Austria: 0.59
Ireland: 0.58
Czech and Slovak territory: 0.57
Italy: 0.43
Finland: 0.36
Poland: 0.35
Portugal: 0.26
Greece: 0.25
Hungary: 0.24

In 1958:

Switzerland: 1.16
Iceland: 1.02
Denmark: 1.00
Britain: 1.00
Sweden: 0.98
Germany: 0.91
Norway: 0.90
Netherlands: 0.89
France: 0.86
Belgium: 0.79
Czechoslovakia: 0.77
Austria: 0.70
Finland: 0.66
Italy: 0.57
Spain: 0.52
Ireland: 0.49
Bulgaria: 0.40
Greece: 0.38
Hungary: 0.36
Poland: 0.35
Portugal: 0.32

In 1989:

Switzerland: 1.44
Iceland: 1.30
Norway: 1.16
Sweden: 1.12
Germany: 1.09
Denmark: 1.06
Finland: 1.05
Netherlands: 1.03
France: 1.02
Italy: 1.01
Britain: 1.00
Austria: 0.98
Belgium: 0.97
Russia: 0.80
Czechoslovakia: 0.74
Ireland: 0.70
Greece: 0.68
Spain: 0.67
Portugal: 0.56
Hungary: 0.53
Bulgaria: 0.47
Poland: 0.35
Roumania: 0.29

In 2016:

Norway: 1.95 [n.b. natural resource rents]
Switzerland: 1.58
Ireland: 1.42 [n.b. corporate revenue booking for tax adv]
Netherlands: 1.26
Germany: 1.20
Denmark: 1.16
Austria: 1.15
Sweden: 1.13
Iceland: 1.10
Belgium: 1.01
France: 0.99
Finland: 0.98
Italy: 0.89
Spain: 0.80
Czech and Slovak Republics: 0.77
Portugal: 0.71
Poland: 0.66
Greece: 0.63
Hungary: 0.61
Russia: 0.59
Roumania: 0.48
Bulgaria: 0.46

This isn't a proper analysis. It does strike me, though, that the Mediterranean's loss of relative position was largely a 19th century phenomenon (and most puzzling and severe re Portugal).

Tom Van Dyke said...

But one might also say that Catholic Spain, Portugal and the Italian maritime republics rose only as the result of seagoing trade and conquest, and slipped back to their norms when empire failed. By contrast, Protestant Britain and Germany [and America] became industrial powers, which Catholic Europe never did. [Neither did Catholic Canada or Latin America.]

There's also an earlyish quote out there from Ben Franklin on Catholic southern Europe, that because their societies were more charitable, the people were less industrious.

[France and the Low Countries fit in here more or less, though not as bright examples.]

Art Deco said...

I'm not aware of any country other than some postage stamps which achieved modern affluence without developing a considerable industrial sector. The relative size of the industrial sector may have varied, but all had considerable industry. For the last 40-odd years, industry in general and manufacturing in particular have lost salience to services. The share of value added in (1) manufacturing and (2) the sum of extractive industry, construction, and utilities is now (2009-16, median) as follows:

Czech and Slovak Republics: 24% and 13%
Roumania: 23% and 13%
Germany: 22% and 8%
Hungary: 22% and 8%
Ireland: 22% and 6% [again, stat unreliable due to revenue booking]
Switzerland: 19% and 7%
Poland: 18% and 15%
Austria: 18% and 10%
Sweden: 18% and 9%
Finland: 17% and 10%
Italy: 16% and 8%
Bulgaria: 15% and 12%
Belgium: 14% and 8%
Russia: 13% and 20%
Spain: 13% and 10%
Denmark: 13% and 10%
Iceland: 13% and 10%
Portugal: 13% and 9%
Netherlands: 12% and 9%
France: 11% and 8%
Britain: 10% and 10%
Greece; 9% and 7%
Noway: 7.7% and 33% [again, petrostate]

15% and 9% are about typical.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Europe is also post-Christian now. But I don't think there's any question that Britain and Germany were at one point the industrial-economic powerhouses and that southern Europe lagged.

As for the high numbers for Central Europe here, I still wouldn't compare them in any meaningful way to Germany. The Protestant countries dominate the top of the list.

Art Deco said...

But I don't think there's any question that Britain and Germany were at one point the industrial-economic powerhouses and that southern Europe lagged.

1. The loss of position was a mid-19th century phenomenon which has been gradually reversed since.

2. Germany retains a more manufacturing-oriented economy than Britain. That came to be during the period running from 1870 to 1914, when Germany's development of heavy industry was notably more robust than Britain's. Britain specialized in light industry.

3. Countries developing can be classed trichotomously: those doing so by processing primary products, those doing so through import-substitution, and those doing so through export-led growth. Any one of these three paths incorporates industrial development.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The top of the GDP list is almost all Protestant. And Ireland is a new addition. [And is pretty post-Catholic these days.]

Art Deco said...

In terms of historical confession, you have this:

Norway: 1.95 [n.b. natural resource rents] protestant
Switzerland: 1.58 mixed
Ireland: 1.42 [n.b. corporate revenue booking for tax adv] catholic
Netherlands: 1.26 mixed
Germany: 1.20 mixed
Denmark: 1.16 protestant
Austria: 1.15 catholic
Sweden: 1.13 protestant
Iceland: 1.10 protestant
Belgium: 1.01 catholic
Britain: 1.00 protestant
France: 0.99 catholic
Finland: 0.98 protestant
Italy: 0.89 catholic
Spain: 0.80 catholic
Czech and Slovak Republics: 0.77 mixed
Portugal: 0.71 catholic
Poland: 0.66 catholic
Greece: 0.63 orthodox
Hungary: 0.61 mixed
Russia: 0.59 orthodox
Roumania: 0.48 orthodox
Bulgaria: 0.46 orthodox

I'm seeing a mild correlation there. Not sure how the weight of it would compare with other factors.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not sure I buy Weber either. The weather's much nicer in Southern Europe. Why work?

[Or study!]

If maps were shaded like balance sheets, the bottom part of mainland Europe would be deepest red. Italy, Spain and Portugal are heavily in debt. They are also Catholic countries. Their predominantly Protestant neighbours to the north, including Germany and Scandinavia, are in comparatively good shape financially. Is that simply a coincidence, or is Max Weber's theory about the Protestant ethic being intertwined with the spirit of capitalism still valid, over 100 years on?

Dr Sascha Becker moved to Warwick University from Munich, where Weber finished his career as a sociologist. And his recent research leads him to suggest that religion is a factor in the budgetary discrepancies between the north and south of Europe. "There are plenty of other factors, too, and they're not easy to disentangle," concedes the deputy director of Warwick's Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy [Cage]. "But even data compiled as recently as 2000 suggests that Protestants generally are educated to a higher level than Catholics. They have a higher probability of going to university and finishing their course."

Tom Van Dyke said...

more, ibid.

Together with Ludger Woessmann, professor of economics at Munich, he started by looking at data from 19th-century Prussia, the society that Weber was born into. The region was split into 450 counties, around two thirds of them predominantly Protestant and the other third Catholic. "Religiosity was more pervasive at that time than it is today," he says, "and it seems that religion was the main driver behind education differences. Protestants were more likely to be encouraged to go to school. And this higher level of education translated into jobs in manufacturing and services rather than agriculture. Accordingly, they earned higher incomes than their Catholic neighbours."

In a paper written in 2009 for the Quarterly Journal of Economics, entitled Was Weber Wrong?, Becker and Woessmann argue that Protestants were more successful because they had the advantage of a better and longer education. Further research has led them to conclude that the educational advantage began soon after Martin Luther broke away from the established Church in the 16th century and has continued to play its part in creating economic success throughout Europe.

Luther wanted women as well as men to be able to read the Bible, he points out.