On Progress and Historical Change: Response

Interesting article: On Progress and Historical Change

I don’t think the intellectual forebears of ‘progress’–scientists, statesmen, and philosophers, such as Voltaire, Locke, and Bacon–could have conceived progress becoming the monstrosity that it is today, that is 21-century social-justice progressivism, and many of the Founding Fathers and writers of Colonial America opposed direct democracy.

The problem is not progress, such a technological innovation, in isolation, but rather when progress supplants religion instead of coexisting with it; when progress presupposes ‘reason’, which is a hard word to define, and it’s perhaps arrogant for anyone to claim a monopoly on reason under the banner of ‘science’. Also some find the inevitably (teleologically, as mentioned by the article) of progress disconcerting, as if neither individuals nor God can have any control over the process. One could liken modern progress and its associated bureaucracies as the 21-century equivalent of what Hobbes called the Leviathan, and although the Leviathan is necessary for stability and order, it puts morality in the hands of a social contract created by man, not the divine, much means it does not entail any notion noblesse oblige to its subjects (I discus in more detail here).

Another problem is the ‘slippery slope,’ where a little bit of progress, under the guise of ‘good intentions’, leads to a cavalcade of dysfunction later. So first-wave feminism becomes SJW-feminism, 50 versions of gender pronouns, and false rape accusations.

An additional problem is the use of science to try to solve ethical and moral problems (such as the issue of euthanasia and abortion), rather than just strictly scientific ones, which is where the common complaint of ‘scientists playing god’ comes into play.

We now use the word “progress” in many senses, many more than Bacon and his peers did. There is “technological progress.” There is “social progress.” There is “economic progress.” We sometimes lump these together, and sometimes separate them.

I have argued that the first definition is compatible with counter-enlightenment thought, and that by rejecting ‘progress’ we need not also reject technology, and that technology and liberalism need not be mutually inclusive. For example, the Reactionary Modernism movement combines an affinity for modern technology and a rejection of Enlightenment values and liberal institutions. “Economic progress” is subjective. Marx probably considered his theories to be ‘progress’, as well as Stalin and Mao who also believed they were carrying out ‘economic progress’ despite the millions of deaths and famine as a result. On the opposite extreme, neoliberals probably also consider their economic policies to be progress. Regarding NRx and the Dark Enlightenment, the greatest criticism is leveled against ‘social progress’.

At least she is cognizant of the criticisms of progress. One of the defining characteristics of rationalism are how rationalists are self-aware of the criticisms of rationalism. Progress paradoxically gives both abundance (technology, commercial goods, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, etc.), and yet nothing (fulfillment). Post-2008 American society is one of great technological abundance and wealth, yet simultaneously great scarcity (attention). The role of religion, community, and morality, which are harder to quantify in a scientific sense, fill the gaps that materialistic progress cannot (think of the scene in Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane is alone in his mansion full of stuff but he still feels unhappy).

Rod Dresser, in a profile by The New Yorker, laments the decline of Christian communities, and how the rise of Trump [1] is symptomatic of secular society that worships ‘the self’ (essentially, to quote Nietzsche, a world where ‘God is dead’, which means religion no longer serves as a moral compass):

…The election of Donald Trump, he said, proved that the country was in the midst of a profound moral and spiritual crisis; the fact that so many Christians voted for him suggested a weakness in their faith. American Christianity had been replaced with “a malleable, feel-good, Jesus-lite philosophy perfectly suited to a consumerist, individualistic, post-Christian society that worships the self,” he said. “The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God’s grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we do find dry land again, and can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth.”

Going back to the original article, these passages also stood out:

One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?” The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%. But it’s also not 90%. That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm. That is progress.

Sometimes I hear people say they think that things today are worse than they’ve ever been, especially the hate, or the race relations in the USA, that they’re worse now than ever. That we’ve made no progress, quite the opposite. Similarly, I think a person who grew up during one of the peaceful pauses in the French Wars of Religion might say, when the violence restarted, that the wars were worse now than they had ever been, and farther than ever from real peace. They aren’t actually worse now. They genuinely were worse before. But they are really, really bad right now, and it does really, really hurt.

For the Foucauldian/Derrida/Marxist/Rawlsian post-modern, deconstructionist left, progress=power=oppression/exploitation, which is why that logic doesn’t work on them. For the far-left, what is called ‘social progress’ is built on an inherently exploitative and oppressive system (Foucault called it ‘Governmentality’), and such oppression is manifested in all facets of society, such as in written language itself, as theorized by Derrida, even if unintentional.

I don’t think sticking chickens in ice is refrigeration, nor is it a 17th century discovery. Even humans of the Pleistocene era knew that food could be preserved by immersing it in ice. Refrigeration is the use of a refrigerant (such as Freon) to create an artificially cold environment, specifically to avoid having to use ice to preserve food. The story may not even be true.

[1]Many Christians voted for Trump, not as a betrayal of their faith, but because they saw Trump as being better than the alternative.