In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explores the role that science, reason, and rationality played in mankind’s journey to become less violent. Throughout the long run of human history we have become less violent, less impulsive, more rational, and more considerate of others. Most humans alive do not live in small warring tribal bands. Most humans do not commit violent acts in the name of a deity. Most humans do not kill their neighbors for their own personal gain. Becoming smarter, Pinker argues, helped us become more peaceful in all of these areas. Becoming less impulsive and more thoughtful of how we relate to others has been a slow human process, but has played out in many important ways that contribute to the reduction in violence. We gained more knowledge about the world and pacified ourselves.
Pinker explores what enabled us to become smarter and what shifts in knowledge institutions played an important role in humans changing the ways we think. Science is one of the big factors that Pinker explores and he suggests that becoming more scientific, believing in objective inquiry rather than divine revelation, put people on a path toward peace. About science and knowledge he writes,
“Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge – not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.”
The values within science represent an important shift in an approach to human knowledge. Knowledge from a deity is absolute and cannot be challenged. Recognizing that our knowledge is instead limited, subject to revision and updating in the face of new information, and based on objective reality and not the word of authority or divine spirits is a departure from much of human history. It is uncomfortable to live with uncertainty and questions we have no way to answer, but it also makes us more peaceful. It makes us more considerate of the world, less sure of our selves, and less willing to follow leaders who encourage violence for dubious reasons.
Pinker continues, “though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it.” Moving forward in human history, this is an important lesson we need to continue to think about. We don’t have all the answers about the physical world and we have even fewer answers about the human social world. We need to acknowledge that there is information we can be confident about even if we cannot prove every aspect of a scientific theory or belief. We need to recognize that we are fallible and cannot have complete confidence in our own beliefs and worldviews. We have to be willing to learn and update our beliefs. Doing so is the only way we can continue to exist and cooperate as a peaceful species.