Progress and Redemption:

A Jewish Values Critique of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now


Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, tells a provocative story. The central thesis is that about three hundred years ago human values and practices began to coalesce in ways that have allowed humans to live longer, healthier, safer, and more productive lives. Particularly convincing to the reader are the measured data and informative tables Pinker uses throughout the text to illustrate and to confirm his story of exponential human progress. He tracks the changes to a broad set of variables, across scores of domains, over hundreds of years.

The Jewish values critique is based on an examination of two ancient Jewish practices: Sabbath observance and the performance of acts of loving-kindness. This critique does not nullify Pinker’s deeper message about the meaning of science, but it does suggest that Pinker’s view, while necessary is not sufficient for living a fully human life. A more encompassing and useful narrative than Pinker’s would include the practice of science as a legitimate source of human meaning and values among many other practices, including those legitimated outside of a scientific paradigm. Unlike Pinker’s either/or story, the story I want to tell here is both/and.

In Section I, the paper summarizes the most important criticisms that have been lodged at Pinker. In Section II, I argue that despite these criticisms, Pinker’s general story survives the onslaught. In Section III, I offer a more encompassing narrative that includes Pinker’s story but, based on a Jewish values critique, offers a more inclusive perspective on the search for human meaning in what often does seem like an indifferent universe.