This is the third in the series of four reflections on progress. The first was about the ancient idea that a supreme god maintains the universe with a long-term design. Progress is then about achieving the purposes for which we have been designed to live at our best. It is a positive claim.
The second was about the ideas of progress most common today, new technologies and economic growth. We ended up with some rather negative observations. New technologies and wealth can help in some ways, but when we treat them as what progress is all about, we make things worse for ourselves.
This post pushes it a bit further. It isn’t just that wealth and technology don’t always produce progress. As long as we treat progress as a matter of us getting what we want, as long as we think we can work it all out for ourselves, everything we work towards is limited by our imaginations.
The secular cult of progress
To illustrate the point here are some 19th century theories of progress. The 19th century was the time when progress was the dominant idea in European society. It was also the time when progress was systematically secularised. Some people replaced God with a rather vague idea of Providence guiding humanity. Others thought there was a scientific law of progress, which makes progress inevitable.
Here’s the German Fichte writing in 1800:
The perfect formation of our globe has yet to be accomplished… This dominion of man over Nature shall gradually be extended until at length no further expenditure of mechanical labour shall be necessary than what the human body requires for its development, cultivation and health; and this labour shall cease to be a burden.
And Herbert Spencer, 1865:
Progress… is not an accident, but a necessity… The modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues, and the constitution of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness… as surely as there is any meaning in such terms as habit, custom, practice;—so surely must the human faculties be moulded into complete fitness for the social state; so surely must evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect.
Since it was supposed to be inevitable, there was nothing we could do to stop it.
How was it going to happen? Not only technology and economic growth, as described in the previous post. In the nineteenth century there were other methods too.
One was education. Today we think of schools and universities differently, but in the nineteenth century governments saw them mainly about the progress of society. If children were left with their parents, they would grow up no better than their parents. If the state took over their education, they could be trained to produce a better society. Communist Russia at one stage experimented with taking children away from their parents as a matter of course to bring them up in what they thought would be a more scientific way.
Another was punishment. Deterrence became the aim of punishment. If a really nasty punishment doesn’t deter criminals, make it even nastier. The idea of progress by eliminating crime led to the cruellest punishments in our history. Over 200 offences carried the death penalty. Lots of people were shipped off to Australia for lesser crimes. Many of the criminals had stolen food because they were starving.
The most popular of all nineteenth century theories of progress was racism. By means of evolution we have progressed further than other races. Inevitable progress means white Europeans are destined to take over the whole world, so when we invade other countries and kill off their populations we’re speeding up progress. This is what made the British Empire seem so glorious at the end of the nineteenth century. Today we call it genocide. Then, they called it progress. Winston Churchill, 1937:
I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race… has come in and taken its place.
Where it went wrong
What was wrong with all this? They were making three kinds of mistake.
The first is determinism. The earlier idea of progress was that God designs us to live well but gives us freedom to live well or badly. When progress was transferred from God to the laws of nature, we lost our freedom, because the laws of nature made everything inevitable.
2) Value-free change
Secondly, we also lost the destination. Progress means change for the better. What counts as better? As long as we believed that humanity was designed for a purpose, better meant progress towards that purpose. If on the other hand we have been created by unthinking impersonal forces of nature, our lives have no purpose so there is no destination towards which to progress. Today, our society still lacks a shared sense of what we are trying to progress towards. We can all think of ways our own lives can improve, if we ignore the effects on other people. But if that’s all we mean by progress we’ll always be in conflict with each other.
3) Nature may not provide for our needs
Thirdly, when we replace a designer god with impersonal forces of nature, we have no reason for confidence that nature will continue to provide for our needs. Perhaps we are all about to be destroyed by another ice age or a meteor hitting us. To be confident that we are not all going to be destroyed next week, we’d have to know all the laws of nature – and we’re nowhere near achieving that.
In the twentieth century, the two world wars changed the mood. People became increasingly sceptical of progress. Some atheist intellectuals have swung to the opposite extreme, from inevitable progress to impossible progress.
An example is John Gray’s best-selling book Straw Dogs. Gray tells us that the very idea of history having any meaning is an error introduced by Christianity:
Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.
To the assumption that we can only live well if we have the power to remake the world – the classic nineteenth century expectation for progress – Gray replies:
Yet most humans who have ever lived have not believed this—and a great many have had happy lives. The question assumes the aim of life is action; but this is a modern heresy. For Plato contemplation was the highest form of human activity. A similar view existed in ancient India. The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly… At the start of the twenty-first century the world is strewn with the grandiose ruins of failed utopias.
To the idea of progress through evolution, he replies:
Humanity is a species, and species cannot control their fates. They are ‘only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments.
Progress means change for the better. Who decides what counts as better?
If our lives are the product of impersonal, unintending laws of nature, then progress can only mean what each of us decides to count as progress. If that’s all it means, we know what happens. Each of us tries to do what we want, and we come into conflict with each other. Progress for me means things are better for me, but perhaps worse for somebody else.
It’s a pretty grim prospect. It means we shall always be in conflict with each other, and this is as good as it gets.
The alternative is that we have been intentionally designed by someone who gives our lives a purpose, and makes progress towards that purpose possible.
This is what I described in the first post in this series. The final one will return to it and describe how Christian theologians have offered more positive, hopeful accounts of progress.
1) Do you hope for a better future for yourself and your family? If so, what would it be like?
2) Do you think modern society is making progress? How?