The eminent Harvard Professor Steven Pinker and the author, playwright and comedian Stephen Fry discuss the challenges we face in the 21st century and what we need to do to defend the values and ideas of the Enlightenment.
According to the headlines, the world in the 21st century is sinking into chaos, hatred and irrationality. The dominant narrative is of society in decline, and prophecies of doom are playing to our worst psychological fears – or temptations.
So, are things really getting worse? Not according to Harvard’s world-famous cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, who has argued eloquently and cogently that the case is other. That our lives have become longer, healthier, freer, safer and more prosperous – not just in the West, but worldwide. Epidemics, famine, extreme poverty, childhood mortality, deaths from infection disease and illiteracy are all decreasing – historically and globally.
The reason? Because the project of Enlightenment has succeeded, and human life has become more precious. The dream of reason has become our reality.
But progress is not an accident, or a cosmic coincidence: it is the consequence of a coherent value system that most of us embrace without even realizing it. These ideas and institutions are fragile, not fixed – and they can change. In a time of fundamentalism and fatalism they need vigorous defense, because they swim against currents of human nature which demagoguery is all too ready to exploit. The Enlightenment project is only a few centuries old. It has succeeded, but it can also fail. We can fall as well as rise.
In this film, Steven Pinker and Stephen Fry explore the challenges we face, and make the case for an Enlightenment newly recharged for the 21st Century.