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‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress’ by Steven Pinker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gods may be crazy, as the tribal men thought when they picked up a bottle of coke dropped from an airplane. But the world is not crazy and will not be crazier unless you wish it. So you’d better lose faith in the doomsday industry that prompts you to think so because our faculty is intuitive rather than reasoning, rather physical than metaphysical. Steven Pinker points out in this book that we need rationality or a habit of rational thinking to aspire to objective understanding lest we should fall back on the doomsday scenario of a dystopian world.

To begin with, the enlighten movement is not a product of the west but rooted in human nature as the universal feature. The spirit of the enlightenment movement is “Dare to Understand,” which means applying knowledge to understanding our world to enhance our human welfare to the full effect and force. Enlightenment is comprised of Reason, progress, science, and humanism. However, the currents of modernity flow into global populist tractions that champion totalitarian relativism from individual modes of thinking to social and political policy-making in the name of progressive liberalism or conservatism, when it is not with the absence of Reason and humanism. The proponents of the ideologies described above take precedence of faith over Reason, nation, or culture over individualism and metaphysical over real because they couldn’t care less about it.

The most impressive finding that I have described from this book is Pinker’s perceptive analysis of the counter-enlightenment movements run by both conservatives and liberals, especially in the States. As many people might conjecture, Pinker is not an ultra-right-wing intellectual because his view on former President Trump and his cult is logically solid and intellectually revoking. He explains that the philosophical roots of Trumpism are a synthesis of a militant derivative of Nietzchean school of philosophy and anti-enlightenment humanism. It’s not conservatism but racism lite, shading into authoritarian populism and romantic nationalism, harping on the good ole days, which weren’t good in respects of the quality of living conditions and level of human rights.

Amid the bipartisan world of ideologies, the heightened pessimistic opinions of our planet from the environment to social services, Pinker’s education on what Enlightenment means on human progress shines like a beacon of light on Slough Despond. This book gives the world a sense of self-confidence in our cultural progress this far as a collective human enterprise. The history of the world is not cyclical or linear, but progressive and in progress as long as humanity continues. It is this humanity that Pinker emphasizes in the truest sense of Enlightenment that the thinkers such as Voltaire and Kant also professed to be an inseparable element of human progress. Progress without humanism is not progress. Humanism is not a sign of shallow intellectual culture akin to pastoral romanticism or unproductive ideals. Humanism represents the sense, as science reason, which are universal human traits common to all. That is what this book wants to teach us.

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Posted in book review

Isaac Newton as he was

Isaac Newton: A Life From Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never particularly liked Newton despite his paramount discovery of the law of Universal Gravity from the fallen apple tree in his mother’s little garden. Maybe it was his somber, irate facial expression adorned with a long white wig. He was a reluctant spiritual godfather of physicists Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, whose theoretical findings are based on and upgraded from Newtonian laws of physics. However, being a keen observer of human characteristics, I am inclined to write the review about Newton’s personality traits, not a drab biological chronology and analyses of his laws of motion.

Isaac Newton was never the kind of chap whom you could be jovial with. If you caught Newton in a cafeteria or a coffeehouse and asked for an autograph, he would first give you a look with an exasperated grimacing and either reluctantly succumb to your request if he was in a good mood or curtly said, “I am busy.” His gaucheness in social interactions might be due to a deficiency in maternal affection and care. Newton’s mother willingly separated from her young and tender son when she married her second husband after the death of Newton’s father, whose name was also Isaac Newton. Although I object to profiling any kind and any person because it leads to a grave miscarriage of justice in many cases, Newton’s character profile doesn’t read favorably in any of his writings. To illustrate, Newton used to be harsh on his family servants, whom he often mistreated with corporeal measures and hit his younger sister. Nevertheless, his genius purchased indemnity for all his character flaws and beautified them as individual eccentricities endemic to the intellectual elites.

But the illustrated Godfather of Science was also a discreet practitioner of alchemy in search of the Philosopher’s Stone to turn it into gold. I wonder if all of the laws of motion Newton discovered were unexpected comeuppance of his private practice of alchemy. Not surprisingly, Newton kept his behind-the-façade business, and it was until the mid-18th century that the truth came to shine in his journal. Despite its occultist nature and nuance, Alchemy was also not too far from chemistry in studying metals according to three principles: Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury, based on four elements of air, earth, fire, and water. To this fascinating manipulation of heaven and earth, Aristotle added the 5th element of aether that was believed to fill the universe beyond the terrestrial sphere. The weightlessness due to the absence of gravity occurs in outer space full of invisible aether propagating light waves. As Newton’s principal muse to inspire his scientific musings, Aristotle is plausible to understand Newton’s fascination with alchemy. He treated it not as a magical practice but as a branch of chemistry that would have looked magical to the uninitiated.

Grumpy as he was, Newton was nonetheless a remarkable individual who devoted life to the pursuit of truth, a satisfaction of reason, in the temple of science, believing there are more than material bodies in this world, which became a foundation of quantum physics. With his head filled with the mystery of numbers and frail body subsisted on the nourishment on the mind, Newton was a lifetime bachelor without chivalric anecdotes or sybaritic tell-tales. Instead, he spurred his energy on his studies, wallowing in the delicacy of quiet and uneventful solitude. Newton influenced multidisciplinary studies including philosophy, and music, with his laws of motion, especially making the word “inertia” so democratically popular with the public that British pop band Blur made it a title song in their first Leisure album. You don’t have to like Newton to appreciate his contribution to the consilience of science and humanities. But it wouldn’t hurt you to learn what makes him enshrined in the Parthenon of civilization of humankind, even though he wasn’t a nice person to chat with.

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