Renowned psychologist Steven Pinker spoke at the Second Annual Noesis Lecture on Tuesday, April 23 in Wait Chapel.
The Eudaimonia Institute began the Noesis Lecture Series to provide the Wake Forest community with an opportunity to learn from a leading intellectual who has made significant achievements and contributed to genuine human flourishing, or “eudaimonia.”
Continuing the tradition of the inaugural Noesis Lecture that featured Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the Faculty Advisory Board of the Eudaimonia Institute selected Pinker as the speaker for the Second Annual Noesis Lecture.
Pinker offers a wealth of knowledge and exemplifies an intellectual commitment to the ideal of achieving noesis, Plato’s word for the highest level of human knowledge.
As Executive Director of Wake Forest University’s Eudaimonia Institute, James Otteson commented on the benefits that the Noesis Lecture contributes to the Wake Forest community.
“The Noesis Lecture brings to campus annually a world-renowned thought leader, a person whose work, scholarship and research have demonstrated the highest levels of human accomplishment and … have the greatest prospects for benefitting humanity and improving human well-being, or eudaimonia,” Otteson said.
During the Noesis Lecture, his talk focused on his most recently published book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, as he delivered an argument for human progress through the spread of the Enlightenment values.
Otteson commented on the groundbreaking nature of this scientific argument, which confronts the outlook of current news stories with an alternative narrative of advancement.
“He makes the case that on virtually every objective measure, human life is better now than it has ever been in human history,” Otteson said. “His argument is both controversial and provocative, and we hope his wide-ranging ideas will give the audience reason to reconsider the narrative one often hears that things in the world are bad and getting worse.”
Pinker began his talk with a discussion of the four prominent aspects of the Enlightenment that he argues have spread throughout society and contributed to human progress. These values are reason, science, humanism and progress.
“Progress is an empirical hypothesis,” Pinker said.
To verify his hypothesis of human progress, Pinker subsequently presented the audience with a multitude of colorful and analytical graphs that showed improvements in objective measurements of human well-being and marked societal advancement over time.
Attendee and freshman Emily Kachinski commented on Pinker’s effective use of visual aids to illustrate his scientific argument to the audience.
“The graphs really caught my attention,” Kachinski said. “Seeing the statistics, I thought some of them were surprising.”
In fact, some of the statistics that Pinker cited included remarkable downward trends in violent crime, like domestic violence, sexual assault and child labor.
Pinker also referred to notable upward trends in life through longer life expectancies, health through improvements like lower mortality rates from diseases, provision of adequate sustenance through advancements like the agricultural revolution, prosperity through Gross Domestic Product (GDP) upturns and the growing international recognition of more freedom and rights.
Pinker explained that a feeling of shock in response to these facts occurs due to the human psychological tendency to deny progress. He further noted that this overarching pessimistic attitude toward human society emanates from a combination of the nature of cognition, the nature of news and negativity bias.
Pinker warned of the dangers of believing wholeheartedly in the negative narrative that the news distributes in alarming headlines and journalistic reports on the current condition of society because this can lead to fatalism and radicalism.
However, Pinker offered ways to counteract this pessimistic outlook with evidential support and reason.
“Progress consists of using knowledge to solve problems,” Pinker said.
Although conceding that progress is not technically inevitable, Pinker explained that individuals and communities can initiate further progress through addressing complex issues facing modern society, like decarbonization and denuclearization.
He concluded his lecture on an optimistic note, pointing toward the capability of humans to continue to apply knowledge to solve existing societal problems that remain unsolved, yet are still solvable.
“Use knowledge to enhance human flourishing,” Pinker said.
Otteson linked Pinker’s lecture with the Wake Forest community.
“As a top-tier institution of higher learning, Wake Forest is dedicated to the life of the mind with the high and noble commitment to Pro Humanitate,” said Otteson. “The Noesis Lecture gives the Wake Forest community an opportunity they might not otherwise have to hear and learn from the world’s leading thinkers.”
Pinker is currently the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, though he has previously taught at Stanford and MIT. His teaching and psychological research on linguistics, cognitive psychology and social science has received numerous accolades, including the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences.