The best of all possible worlds

The best of all possible worlds. Photo: Neil Alexander McKee (CC BY-NC 2.0). Elcano Blog
The best of all possible worlds. Photo: Neil Alexander McKee (CC BY-NC 2.0).
The best of all possible worlds. Photo: Neil Alexander McKee (CC BY-NC 2.0). Elcano Blog
The best of all possible worlds. Photo: Neil Alexander McKee (CC BY-NC 2.0).

‘The best of all possible worlds’ is a simplistic expression stemming from the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s complex 1710 Essays of Theodicy. Voltaire lampooned it, its idea of evil and its alleged optimism in Candide, in which he had his character Pangloss declare that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ (‘tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles’). There is now a concerted effort to promote a new optimism, armed with data and also backed by philosophy.

Around the year 2000, at the height of the post-Cold War era and the rise of globalisation, the optimists staged a comeback. Subsequent jihadist terrorism, notably on 11 September 2001, and the economic and financial crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, 10 years ago this autumn, swept them away. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, twice as many people in Europe thought that their children would be worse off than them. The fact is that expectations about the future do more to shape optimism and pessimism than advances secured in the past; the vast majority of Spaniards these days have a better life, albeit with less power, than Philip II. Humans are more neurally wired to look towards the future than to look back.

One voice at the forefront of the new outbreak of optimism, accompanied by publications of serious academic quality, is the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. In 2011 he brought out a well-researched book that generated widespread interest titled The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he primarily focused on using data to show that the world has never been less violent. Now he has gone further with a new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (to be published in Spanish in June as En defensa de la Ilustración: por la razón, la ciencia, el humanismo y el progreso).

It is not only a matter of the world being safer, less violent and more prosperous; now the claim extends to many other milestones humanity has notched up and areas where it can still make great strides. These range from life expectancy at birth (which has risen worldwide from 30 years at the time of the Enlightenment to 71 today; and in Spain, it might be added, from 41 to 83 in the last century), to health (Pinker is delighted to point out that according to Wikipedia ‘smallpox was’ –in the past tense– ‘a serious infectious disease’), to an overpopulation problem that is being curbed, among other phenomena. This portrait is also supported by Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by the Swedish physician Hans Rosling, who died last year, written in conjunction with Anna and Ola Rosling. When simple questions are posed about global trends –such as: what percentage of the world’s population lives in poverty? How many girls complete their schooling?–, Rosling argues that both laypeople and the elites at the Davos Forum consistently come up with the wrong answers. They are so wrong, he claims, that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random would reliably outperform the gurus, journalists, Nobel Prize-winners and investment bankers. He sets out the ‘fight against devastating global ignorance’ as a mission of overriding importance. He billed himself not as an optimist but a ‘possibilist’.

IQ scores have risen worldwide by three points in a decade. The number of people using mobile phones exceeds 5 billion out of a global population of 7.6 billion. Naturally there is still a long way to go, and the pressing need to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 proves it. Pinker sets out 15 ways of measuring progress in human welfare, and he documents them. He does not discount the idea that humans are destroying the Earth and that therefore progress is not sustainable. He thinks that solutions will be sought and found.

Pinker argues that ‘reason is non-negotiable’, which does not mean that human beings are perfectly rational. He possibly errs on the side of utilitarianism and positivity. And his idea of the Enlightenment, while based on Kant, is ultimately not particularly Kantian because of the lack of centrality given to critical rationality and the sense of ‘maturity’ favoured by the philosopher from Königsberg (nowadays the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad). In his new book Pinker gives more weight to this critique, and to what it entails: that reason, science and humanism drive progress and that this is real, albeit not inexorable. He continues to reject fatalism outright, whether in terms of coexistence among humans or between humans and new machines, which hold no fears for him.

Pinker identifies some things that run counter to the Enlightenment, essentially religious faith (he is a ‘secular humanist’, as John Gray would say), the idea that people are the ‘replaceable cells of a superorganism’ (collectivism and communitarianism), what he terms the ‘romantic green movement’, which ‘subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity’, a focus on the ‘decline’ of civilisation, and opposition to science on the grounds that it undermines some of the preceding elements. He also includes populist movements –he acknowledges that the book was written essentially before Trump’s victory in his home country– the emergence of authoritarianism, global warming and the return of the nuclear issue.

The general direction of the Enlightenment has drifted off course. Pinker’s attempt to restore it is much to be welcomed, although not everything is as solvable as presented by the author, who thinks some problems will solve themselves. Whether by their actions (or omissions), humans sometimes create problems so complex that they are incapable of solving them. Many critics of his new book agree that he continues seeing the glass as half full, rather than half empty.

Whereas Pinker highlights the global coming together of societies in terms of wealth, the ‘great convergence’ that is revolutionising the world, he underestimates or rejects one of the major preoccupations of our age: inequality within societies, which has particularly grown since the 1980s, on the grounds that it is not ‘a fundamental component of wellbeing’. He is more interested in poverty reduction. He criticises those intellectuals who are labelled ‘progressives’ but who, he claims, actually ‘hate’ progress. Pinker believes in progress.

Candide of course ended up concluding that optimism was nothing but a mania for insisting that ‘everything goes well, when things are going badly’. Pinker, however, allows us to realise that many things are going much better, even though we are not in the best of all possible worlds, since, as he himself puts it, ‘the problems faced by the whole planet are formidable’. He is not in radical disagreement with Voltaire. He thinks that nothing is guaranteed in this unstable world, but that many things have improved, and setting out from this recognition they can and should be improved much more.

It is true that bad news, not to mention fake news, which is peddled and circulated more, masks good news. It bolsters people’s fears. The ‘gravitas market’ described by Pinker functions well. Many of the people attending the Munich Security Conference this year left feeling alarmed. Nor were the participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos particularly optimistic. Pinker’s new book had not yet been published of course. Mario Benedetti said that ‘a pessimist is a well-informed optimist’. Pinker would beg to differ, with data. In any event, in the debate between optimism and pessimism it is important not to downplay realism.