Monday, January 4, 2010

Is Progress Possible?

Progress doesn’t have as good a reputation as it used to. There was a time when it seemed evident to most people in the Western world and increasingly in many other parts of the world, perhaps particularly Japan, that progress was a goal worth striving for. But now there seem to be more and more people who question the idea of progress.

Those who spoke so enthusiastically for progress throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early years of the twentieth centuries often did so on the basis of their belief in the power of science and technology to improve the quality of human life. This enthusiasm was often accompanied by an optimism that saw everything getting better and better “every day in every way.”

But beginning way back almost one hundred years ago now, World War I shook the widespread (Western) belief that progress was inevitable and that human reason and science would conquer all the problems of the human race. And even though the idea of progress continued to be a prevalent idea through the past century, increasingly people seem to have grown skeptical about the possibility of progress. And, certainly, it has become quite evident that science can be used in destructive ways as well as in constructive ones.

But, I still believe that progress is possible and that pursuing progress is good and important. This belief is closely related to my affirmation of a linear worldview. We humans can learn from the past in order to improve the future. A quote alluded to in comments made about my previous blog posting comes from George Santayana (1863-1952). In The Life of Reason, Or,The Phases of Human Progress (Vol. 1, 1905), Santayana wrote, “Progress . . . depends on retentiveness. . . . Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In other words, we need to remember the past in order to change the future for the better.

A linear world view does not mean that progress is inevitable, nor does it mean that human history moves ever upward. As another Thinking Friend commented, a wheel can move backward as well as forward. There have been times in human history that the world has seen regression (or retrogression) rather than progress. But, still, progress is possible and striving for positive progress is imperative.

A circular worldview tends to lead those who hold such a view toward passivity, toward acceptance of what is, toward fatalism. Such a worldview also uses the image of a wheel, but the wheel is seen as spinning horizontally (on its side) rather than vertically. Progress is possible only when the “rubber hits the road.”

We humans can, and do, help create the future. Our challenge is to join with all people of good will to work for progress so that at the end of this new year the planet and those who dwell on it, especially those who are suffering the most, will be better off than they are now.


  1. Leroy,

    I do not equate linearity with progress as you do, and I would ask that you support your assertions/stereotypes of those having a circular wordlview with evidence. You say that a circular view of the world leads people toward passivity, toward fatalism --- to whom are you referring and to what fatalism are you referring? I believe your assertion is prejudicial and biased.

    I am one who views the world from a circular perspective, so I take some offense at the notion that such people ("all people" is implied in your broad generalization)are fatalistic and passive. I don't believe anyone who knows me (including you) would consider me "passive" or "fatalistic."

    I know many others who have a worldview based on circularity and they are anything but passive and fatalistic, and to the extent some societies appear to be so, as many historians, philosophers, and others have asserted, much of what you view as the fatalism and passivity is the result of oppression, persecution and conquest undertaken by "linear thinkers" of the Western world, and has nothing to do with circular v. linear worldview.

    In fact, many societies that have circular worldviews (indigenous populations in societies that the west would view as "undeveloped") have extremely high "happiness" index scores, and much of Western science (including Western medicine) is paying close attention to the wisdom/knowledge of the passive/fatalistic societies to which you refer in areas as diverse as medicine, religion, psychology, politics, and environmental sciences. Much of the food we eat and many of the medicines we now use come from plants developed/cultivated/sustained for 1,000s of years by circular worldview peoples, and many of the sustainability practices undertaken result from studies of indigenous peoples (i.e. those with circular worldviews).

    I see these circular worldview people working against great odds, striving to overcome great challenges caused by modern "progress" as you put it. The fatalism we see, I would suggest, is a modern (late 20th century) reaction/response to the idealism of linear progress you propound.

    Thankfully, civilization seems to be moving beyond "modernity," and the related concepts of linearity, beliefs in universal stories (metanarratives), claims of absolute truth, and supposed rationalism, thanks in part to new voices of marginalized peoples speaking from feminist/womanist, post-colonial, post-modern, and other critical theory perspectives.

  2. Lines and circles are both abstractions. The theory of evolution gives us another, the tree of life. These are all metaphors, nothing more. Just as we can argue with Ecclesiastes over whether anything new is possible under the sun, only to find ourselves trying to define "new," so this debate over lines and circles seems to be at heart a struggle over the definition of "progress." Certainly the history of man on earth is filled with tens of thousands of years of radical change. Is this progress?

    When I was a child, there was a girl living across the street with a withered arm. She was a polio survivor. By the time I was old enough to understand, there was a polio vaccine. Today polio is almost unknown. Is this progress? When I was born there were a little over three billion people on earth. Today that number has more than doubled. Is this progress? Today, most children in school can study the periodic table of the elements. Just past Uranium, the last natural element, is Plutonium, a man-made element of both great terror and promise. Is this progress?

    Change comes faster and faster. Can we return to the garden of innocence? Can we survive the world of change? Do we have any choice other than to look for progress? Can we define progress in such a way that it furthers peace and justice, life and hope, rather than just measuring acres of trees cut down? If progress is just another name for dystopia, then what is the alternative? The world cannot return to a paleolithic lifestyle without first killing about seven billion surplus people. And if that were done, what would stop history from repeating itself? It took nearly two thousand years for the western world to match the engineering prowess of the ancient Greeks, but finally it did, and then some.

    Something I learned from the recent Ken Burns special on the National Parks, was what a fierce, long struggle it took to create the system. The current system was not at all envisioned by the people who started the process. Yet today America is unimaginable without it, and our national parks are emulated all over the world. This is a model of progress I can live with. Progress requires fierce, long struggle. Justice does not come easily. Real grace is never cheap. Perhaps it says something that the President who signed the first bill leading toward our national parks was Abraham Lincoln.

  3. There is much more to say on this than I can here. But,since Craig mentioned Ecclesiastes, it's clear that the writer had some notion of the circular procession of time and experience. The much celebrated 3rd chapter ("There is a time for X and a time for opp-X...")is not just about the apropriateness of certain activities over the course of a persons's life, but also about the inescapable cycles of reality ("all rivers flow into the sea..."). Does the writer of Ecclesiastes have any hope, that is in the sense that we understand the term? Well, he's seen no evidence that there is any ultimate fate for humanity beyond that of a dog. But, he does urge that one simply must trust God as a kind of surrender.

    It further interests me that Ecclesiastes' observations do include the natural world, something tht cultural notions of progress, certainly Christian notions of progress, fail to do except in rare cases. Is nature heading somewhere? The entropic conditions of the universe say not really. The anthropic principles that allow human life imply that our existence still successfully operates (if not succeeds) within such entropic boundary conditions; to do so, we almost have to trick ourselves into forgetting that those conditions exist. The result is a sort of cosmic struggle between the ultimately inevitable diminishment of energy and the creaturely resistance to this principle.

    Notions of the good are influenced by at least these two (and other) cosmic forces that stand in opposition to each other. Human civilizations craft values that reflect these forces (though often unbeknownst to the practitioners). And we commit our lives to them. "Believing" certain human goals and outcomes to derive from the inference of the linear and teleological progression of human existence does not make the factual boundary conditions of human existence any different than they are. It may make a difference in how one gets through the day, though. It may also influence how one relates to others, especially those who might not share such a supposition of the purposiveness of creation.

  4. Here are comments received by e-mail from two Thinking Friends:

    "I've witnessed unbelievable progress in medicine alone, Leroy. I spent a month in a comma with pneumonia when I was seven. Penicillin had been invented, but it wasn't in use yet in 1938. Medicines have virtually eliminated the tuberculosis from which several of my neighbors in Missouri died that same winter, polio that another neighbor had to endure inside a lung machine, etc. I'm the beneficiary of microsurgery on both ears that has enabled me to hear again. I believe, as you do, in progress."


    "I would affirm that progress is generally a good concept and acceptable in some way by most. But, defining progress can be quite elusive. One man’s progress is frequently another’s regression which can lead to conflict or war between them when their progress is aimed in opposing directions. Compromise?? Lord Chamberlain’s answer for Britain’s progress. What a cost. Many would argue for no compromise. What a cost."

  5. I received another e-mail from the Thinking Friend quoted first in the previous comments. He is an out-of-State TF, and an outstanding scholar. Here is what he wrote:

    "Early Christians addressed what they saw as the main problem of the cyclical view--its fatalism. People in the Roman world lived in fear of 'Heimarmene' or 'Fortuna,' fate. The most powerful response was to apply the linear/eschatological view Christianity inherited from Judaism. The classic expression is Augustine's 'The City of God.'

    "We need to distinguish between the short and the long run. There is a cyclical pattern for the short run, e.g., the nature cycle. For the long run, however, humans need hope that life is not merely whirling around in circles but is going somewhere. Teilhard de Chardin made good use of an evolutionary model to project a philosophy of hope. His view is in many ways an advance beyond Augustine's in that it uses both nature and history."

  6. It is funny that many who advance notions of linearity and progress also express the desire to return to some past time, some grand, more noble, more ethical time in history --- no one here, mind you, that I'm aware of, but others who scoff at indigenous notions of preservation of culture as being an out-dated, antiquated worldview, while holding to some idealistic notions of a return to biblical principles and ethics --- and a return to a simpler time in the United States as a return to a more "Christian" nation. Indeed, conservative Christians emphasize the notion of the Fall, rather a regression from an idealistic utopian Garden of Eden to the human condition resulting from sin, only to be changed by an ultimate judgment in some future time (here, please note the linearity) resulting in change as determined by God not by people.

    These individuals seek to preserve some concept of a Christian nation and seek evidence of this in an historical document (Bible, Constitution, letters of the Founders), not in something held out before us in the future. It is progress only when owned by those claiming it --- as shown when people dare to claim to conservative, evangelical Christians that progress in the United States means movement away from unitary, Christian conceptions of faith and towards a multicultural, multifaith and/or more secular understanding of society. If society is progressing, then, does the fact of "progress" coinciding with the reduction of Christian influence in this country (based on church attendance, etc.) suggest that progress is found in other faiths and/or a more secular world?

    Many liberal Christian notions of progress were completely shattered by events of the 20th century, which century has been described by historians as one of the most, if not the most, violent centuries known to humankind. This shattering of the myth of social progress as seen in the 20th century, as commentators have noted, led to the existentialism and angst of the mid to late 20th century.

    Progress is found in the eye of the beholder. Civilizations and societies devastated by imperialism and conquest, have not seen progress in the way the imperialist has. So, what is progress? I've seen too many responses equating "societal progress" with technological advancement, which concepts, to me, are not synonymous. Was development and use of an atomic bomb societal progress? Was development of chemical agents of horrific destruction --- nerve gas, anthrax, and other forms of chemical/biological warfare progress?

    Has the steady increase in economic disparity around the world and in these United States suggested progress? Does the increase in the number of genocides occurring around the world in the last half of the 20th century suggest a march toward progress? Do excessive levels of pollution (carbon emissions, etc.) and increased levels of cancers, food borne illnesses, etc. serve as symbols of linear progress, always and ever advancing?

    We can all proof-text, we can all find examples to support our assertions, which means simply that the meta-narrative of "progress" is the narrative of those in and of power.