Progress

October 23, 2010 at 6:51 pm (By Realpc)

I used to believe we were evolving in a positive direction. I was a liberal and a progressive because I grew up in that context, and it was reinforced in college. But my progressive beliefs gradually fell away until now hardly any are left. I have questioned all of it and found it to be a big pile of myths, without a connection to reality.

Human societies all have myths, so of course ours does also. Myths are the things that go without saying and are too obvious to mention.

But because our society is so enormous and diverse and complex, we have multiple, contradictory, mythologies.

The progressive myth is widely believed, by political conservatives as well as by the political left. It says we are becoming smarter, nicer, safer, healthier, all thanks to western science and technology.

Then you have the people who cling to guns and religion — they don’t entirely buy the progressive myth. And I am, more or less, on their side now. Think I might get a gun, and maybe join a church.

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13 Comments

  1. realpc920 said,

    As always, I’ll be the first to comment on my own post. I was motivated to write it partly by reading the Strieber article. I never actually heard of him before, although I’ve heard of Art Bell. I love all that kind of fringe stuff. But sometimes those people have worldviews that are in some way extremely progressive. And Strieber said some things that are 180 degrees from what I believe. For example, that modern science understands the brain (I actually know that to be untrue), and that intelligent machines will be created (no one knows the future, but I very strongly believe that will never happen). And that our lives are longer and healthier and safer thanks to modern medicine. Even medical doctors will admit that is largely a myth.

    But I was thinking about writing about the myth of progress anyway, before I read that article. For example, I recently saw a comment on facebook saying this country’s problems result from Americans being poorly educated. That is typical of what college-educated Americans believe — “if only the American public could be smart and educated and nice and tolerant and peaceful, like us, then we wouldn’t have all these problems.”

    Those ignorant, religious, violent, intolerant, greedy, uneducated people, they need to be educated into our glorious enlightened western worldview. They are the problem, and we are the solution.

    But is it true? I certainly don’t think so. But I can see how it might look that way. And I dimly remember believing something like that even into my 30s.

  2. wj said,

    Allow me to make two points. First off, any discussion of whether society (or civilization, or mankind) progresses can’t really start until there is some kind of agreement as to what is meant by progress. If “progress” means increased technological complexity, no question that we have made progrerss over the last few centuries. If “progress” means greater belief in our religion, that’s more problematic.

    Second, no matter what we mean by progress it is IMHO vital to recall that we are talking about a noisy signal. That is, even if there is progress over the long haul (say looking at time in centuries), there may be no progress, or even the opposite of progress, if we look at shorter time frames. (Consider, for a technological example, Roman road building technology vs. that in use in Medieval Europe.)

    To take your education example, suppose we agree that progress means more education. But education in what? Who is “better educated,” someone who knows a lot about technology and nothing about religion, or someone who knows nothing about technology and a lot about religion? Until that kind of question is resolved, there is no way for anybody to say whether we have become more educated andtherefore made progress.

    P.S. It also occurs to me that some agreement is useful concerning what particular population we are talking about. All of mankind? A single continent? One nation? A few dozen square miles? (OK, that last is perhaps a bit extreme. But yousee the point.) However we define progress, and whatever the time horizon we are looking at, there may be differences, probably large ones, from one group to the next.

  3. realpc920 said,

    I am talking about the contemporary progressive philosophy. You will hear a lot of people saying almost exactly the same things. It is valid to generalize when there is so much agreement. I understand that no generalization is true 100% of the time — by definition, a generalization is only generally true.

    The progressive philosophy involves faith in human intelligence and goodness, faith in western civilization, and downplaying or rejection of religion. Most materialists are progressives, but so are humanists in general, and they are not all materialists.

    The article about the development of the individual in western civilization is an example of extreme progressivism, although it’s hard to tell if he’s a materialist or not. The label “materialist” is sometimes problematic.

    Ray Kurzweil is a typical example of a contemporary materialist progressive. He is extreme, but his beliefs are very widely held. I guess if you want to know what i mean by a progressive, Kurzweil is a good example.

  4. Peter Hoh said,

    The only thing constantly changing is change, and it’s always for the worse.
    — Lou Reed

    Here’s a futurist painting a bleak forecast:

    In the future, it’s going to get worse: no silver linings, no lemonade. The elevator only goes down, and the bright note is that the elevator will, at some point, stop.

  5. realpc920 said,

    Yeah, but we’re having FUN! I am anyway. Without the internet, I doubt I could have learned to play bluegrass. Nothing is meant to last forever, on this level.

  6. realpc920 said,

    Kurzweil and people like that think this is the ONLY level, and think they can make it last forever. They are Flatlanders.

  7. wj said,

    Unfortunately, most of what passes for philosophy, at any given time, seems to be nonsense. A few pieces will stand the test of time, but it is challenging to guess which, a century or two from now, will be remembered, let alone valued. (I suspect that the only difference here from the past is that it is easier to churn out stuff that can be labeled as “philosophy” these days.)

    Whether what you call “contemporary materialist progressive” philosophy will be one such, I wouldn’t venture to guess. But my lack of faith in current philosophy are what led me to suggest starting with a definition. That and the fact that I have heard various definitions of “progress” used, in various contexts, over the years — so I an wary of assuming that any particular one is in the mind of a given individual.

  8. realpc said,

    There are some simple basic ideas that most progressives have. You can see the same ideas expressed, or taken for granted, any time you read or listen to progressives. Similarly for conservatives. The ideas are over-simplified, but that is true of most ideas, since we are human after all. You can’t expect us to have the perspective of gods.

    Progressives have faith in human intelligence, in western education, and in basic human goodness. They believe that if everyone had a good western education, most problems would get solved.

    They tend towards socialism, because they don’t like competition and don’t see a need for it. They think war can usually be prevented, because they believe intelligent western-educated humans can reason things out and come to agreement.

    The “truth” is obvious to them. The chaos and problems of the world are the result of ignorance, superstition, and tribalism. They don’t feel they are tribal, because they are “tolerant” and non-violent.

    ALL THE ABOVE IS UNTRUE. Progressives are just as nasty, competitive, angry, selfish and self-righteous as any conservative. But they are good at self-deception. We all are.

  9. wj said,

    Just so I’m clear, are you defining “progressives” as the opposite of “conservatives”? (In short, a political definition.) Or are you defining them as those who hold the particular world-view that you describe? (A philosophical definition.)

    I ask because I see the two kinds of definitions as specifying different sets of people. Overlapping to some degree, but far from identical.

    Thanks

  10. realpc920 said,

    wj,

    These are vague and approximate concepts. The label “progressive” is now being used by people who used to call themselves “liberal,” maybe because the label “liberal” became confused with socialism? ‘The labels are constantly shifting and playing off each other.

    When I generalize about progressives, it is based on my observations. I have seen very similar ideas repeated by many different people. I think most progressives actually define themselves in terms of what they are NOT. They are not ignorant or intolerant or violent or greedy.

    Whatever bad traits they perceive in conservatives is what they are NOT. And conservatives do the same thing. They are NOT immoral, lazy, elitist, unrealistic.

    I have noticed two different tribes of progressives — scientific atheists and new-agey utopianists. They agree on some things, strongly disagree on others. Both tend to be educated, but in different subject areas.

    Conservatives are divided also, of course.

    If you split enough hairs, you will find as many different tribes as there are people. But any useful analysis has to begin with grouping things together into categories.

  11. wj said,

    realpc,

    Another part of the reason I asked was that I consider myself a conservative (albeit more like Reagan or Goldwater than the current bunch, who brand anyone with records like those two as RINOs) — certainly a fiscal conservative. Perhaps having served in the military and been a Republican since college (arguably, since high school), colors my thinking here.

    But I also consider myself “NOT immoral, lazy, elitist, unrealistic,” nor atheistic either. Not to mention having faith in “human intelligence … and in basic human goodness” — not to say that evil people don’t exist, just that they are not the norm IMHO. All of which would appear, even as a generalization, to get me classified as a “progressive” under these criteria.

    So on the “not a conservative” criteria, I am obviously not a progressive. But under the “defined by characteristics” criteria, if I’m reading them correctly, I definitely am a progressive. You can see why I ask.

  12. Randy said,

    wj: I resemble your remarks ;-)

  13. realpc said,

    wj,

    I don’t fit any of the categories I was talking about either. I am NOT talking about individuals. Besides this blog was originally created for people who don’t fit into any of the most popular categories.

    So when you question my categories just because you don’t fit any of them, you are missing my whole point.

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