Thursday, December 2, 2010

A meditation on progress

In Chapter Three of The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek sets out to justify a measured form of progress. He begins,
Writers nowadays who value their reputation among the more sophisticated hardly dare to mention progress without including the word in quotation marks. The implicit confidence in the beneficence of progress that during the last two centuries marked the advanced thinker has come to be regarded as the sign of a shallow mind. Though the great mass of the people in most parts of the world still rest their hopes on continued progress, it is common among intellectuals to question whether there is such a thing, or at least whether progress is desirable.

Up to a point, this reaction against the exuberant and naive belief in the inevitability of progress was necessary.... There never was much justification for the assertion that "civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction," nor was there any ground for regarding all change as necessary, or progress as certain and always beneficial....

But if the fashionable disillusionment about progress is not difficult to explain, it is not without danger. In one sense, civilization is progress and progress is civilization. The preservation of the kind of civilization that we know depends on the operation of forces which, under favorable conditions, produce progress.

The strength of Hayek's critique comes in part from the fact that even before the onset of "postmodernism," he was already critiquing the modernist belief that history progressed according to certain "laws" and that progress was inevitable. Thus it is all the more believable when he names the disillusionment following World War II for what it is: in the grand scheme of things, it is but a childish reaction to a frustrated plan that was doomed to fail from the beginning. One generation of intellectuals dreams of creating a perfect social order, and the next declares the world to be a wasteland. Shall we call this wisdom? Or is it rather the intellectual coming face to face with reality, much as an adolescent must learn sooner or later that he isn't the center of the world?

Hayek reveals quite a depth of understanding of the human condition here. "Progress by its very nature cannot be planned," he says, because the desire to conquer new challenges never stops. As soon as some problems are solved, more are created or revealed. And at this point is where he touches on perhaps the most poignant truth about the progress of society:
It is knowing what we have not known before that makes us wiser men.

But often it also makes us sadder men. Though progress consists in part in achieving things we have been striving for, this does not mean that we shall like all its results or that all will be gainers. And since our wishes and aims are also subject to change in the course of the process, it is questionable whether the statement has a clear meaning that the new state of affairs that progress creates is a better one.... The question whether, if we had to stop at our present stage of development, we would in any significant sense be better off or happier than if we had stopped a hundred or a thousand years ago is probably unanswerable.
Sadly, all Hayek has to offer us is a rather stoic view of the value of progress:
The answer, however, does not matter. What matters is the successful striving for what at each moment seems attainable.... Progress is movement for movement's sake, for it is in the process of learning, and in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence.
What's clear to me from reading Hayek is that he loved life--not only the thing itself, but even the idea of it. The idea of spontaneous order, the possibilities of unrestrained progress, and the organic beauty of a society evolving freely all had a special attraction for him. But in order to appreciate these things, one has to give up a sense of certainty about what the future holds, or in what direction the future should go. One must merely look to the future in hopes that we will learn something new, not that we will find what we are currently looking for.

There is wisdom in this. Yet often humans, burdened by uncertainty, seek consolation in convincing ourselves that there is strength in embracing our uncertainty. Thus Socrates bragged (not so subtly, really) that he was the wisest in all Greece because he knew that he knew nothing. Is this really wisdom? Is there not dignity in the person who is willing to hope for something, despite his own lack of ability to know with certainty whether it is coming? Is there not courage in risking oneself on a belief in something more than we can ever justify to ourselves?

But I do know that even what I hope for--a world redeemed from its misery--is not static, but full of life. A world where there is no growth is a lifeless world. And a world where there is no learning is a world without growth. One thing I feel certain of in my soul, that to be living is always to be learning, and to be learning is to be truly human. If new creation really is what's in store for this world, then I intend to spend all eternity learning more and more.

It is beyond strange that the same realization, that I really am an incredibly small part of this universe, can be both liberating and depressing. I don't know what this means about us. Perhaps we were meant for more than we can possibly envision, or perhaps we can envision more than we were ever meant to experience. Probably the truth is a mixture of both. That is the human condition.

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