Monday, March 19, 2012

Myths of Progress

Human reason can neither predict nor deliberately shape its own future. Its advances consist in finding out where it has been wrong.  -- F. A. Hayek
It's common among some of my intellectual peers to speak of the "myth of progress," a term used disparagingly of the idea of progress made popular in Western consciousness ever since the Enlightenment era. The idea that "civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction" is a very easy target for intellectual criticism, because it both impacts our everyday thought and speech and is obviously false. Yet I find myself a little dissatisfied by the apparent alternatives. Indeed, in my experience there seem to be three different myths of progress, all working together, often paradoxically. Here they are:

  1. The myth of inevitable progress: the idea that whatever is newer is better. You see this a lot when it comes to technology, of course (it's actually a little sad to know how many people are willing to line up for the latest toy being released by Apple or Microsoft). But you also see it all the time when it comes to morality. On multiple occasions, for instance, I have pointed out to a friend that the 19th century feminists were pro-life. Typical response: "They lived a long time ago."
  2. The myth of progress on demand: the idea that if we want more progress, we just have to fight for it. Think of Occupy Wall Street on the left, or the "cultural warriors" on the right. Intentionally militant language is used to signify that progress is both necessary and achievable through unrelenting determination.
  3. The myth of nihilism: there is no such thing as progress, and nothing we do really changes anything in the long run. We're no better nor worse than our ancestors, we can judge no one and no one can judge us. This is, in some ways, an immature reaction to the first two, but it is also deeper than that. Reflecting on our astonishing lack of knowledge can easily lead an intellectual down the pass to despair. Perhaps we really know nothing, after all, and everything we think we know is just a narrative we tell ourselves to keep going. But this is itself a narrative we tell ourselves, and I suspect it is because we have grown weary of traveling down the arduous path of discovery.
All of these are myths, stories we tell ourselves to simplify the world. Or, perhaps, they are stories which really do capture a genuine truth about ourselves. Myths cannot be so easily dismissed as falsehoods. For a myth to become so deeply rooted in society, it must have some ring of truth to it, after all.

Nevertheless, all of these claims are demonstrably false once they are stated clearly. The myth of inevitable progress cannot stand up to the fact of two world wars, in addition to many other credible examples of moral decline. The myth of progress on demand cannot stand up to the fact that, for example, communist revolutions have largely resulted in far worse totalitarianism than anything devised by the reigning aristocracy. The myth of nihilism is equally flawed: the world really has, in a way which is simply unprecedented in history, repudiated institutions such as slavery which were finally seen for the evils that they are. And technological progress, for all of the difficulties it brings with it, really has made people healthier and more productive than ever before.

The reason all of this is important is that we as modern people thrive on the idea of progress. We place our hopes in it; we demand it; and, precisely because we love it so much, we sometimes despair of ever attaining it. It is important that intellectuals lay a proper foundation for thinking rightly about progress, a foundation that accords with both high ideals and common sense.

I began with a quote from a chapter of The Constitution of Liberty entitled, "The Common Sense of Progress." I think this essay is a fantastic read, and it's worth reading all the way through, but I think one can also distill from it a few basic principles that are worth repeating. Here they are:
  1. Progress is necessary. No, it isn't inevitable, and no, it doesn't come by simply demanding more of it, but it is what we want, and that's both natural and healthy. As Adam Smith pointed out years ago, a static society is awful for those who are least fortunate, and a regressive society even worse. The only way we can meet the needs of the many is to continue to make progress.
  2. Progress is unpredictable. Just because I think I know how to solve a problem doesn't mean I will. A much bigger point is that many problems cannot even be named, much less solved, until I solve other ones. I won't even know what further progress means until I overcome today's problems.
  3. Progress does not always satisfy. Sometimes, in solving the problems of the day, I may just wind up wishing I hadn't. But if we always knew this ahead of time, there wouldn't be any need for progress in the first place; we'd already know everything we need to.
  4. Progress is nonlinear. Just because we improve in one way doesn't mean we improve in every way. Sometimes in order to make progress in one area, we end up stagnating or even regressing in another. It is impossible to know ahead of time how this balance will play out in the long run.
  5. Progress begins locally. No innovation can immediately affect everyone, but it must undergo a refinement process which always starts with the people with enough expertise to understand the innovation. I think this even applies to moral progress: it is only through determined visionaries, who see the problems of society in a specialized way, that movements can arise to reform society.
  6. Progress is good. Even though we can't say this without qualification, it is nevertheless true that progress is good. If for no other reason than the mere satisfaction of learning something new, progress is a good thing that will always continue to attract the imagination of human beings.
Hopefully these principles are a reasonable enough baseline for thinking about progress in the modern world, so that we as intellectuals can actually say things with both confidence and realistic expectations. Nothing we do will ever result in quite the thing we wanted or expected, but that is no reason not to do it. Nothing we believe is ever invulnerable to criticism or change, but that is no reason to believe nothing. The more realistic we are in our desire for change, the more hopeful we can be that change is possible. We will never know in our lifetimes whether it was all worth it, but we can be sure that such was true also of our heroes of the past.

As for me, I would like to believe that there really is some meaning behind all of our history, civilization, and progress. If we in the modern world have trouble believing in God, then I would rather that we at least believe in something that extends beyond ourselves. And since we are so prone to believe in progress, it would help if we at least believed something true about it.


  1. You are hinting around at a central tenent of the Tao Te Jing if there can exist such a thing.

  2. Your first mistake might be to assume that you have "intellectual peers"!

    A great observation, Jameson. Not only does it speak to the arguments made by intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, it also is very relevant to about 50% of the news headlines out there.

    Humanity's perspective of their journey affects every step taken.


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