Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Primer on Progress

by Tibor R. Machan

In some realms, progress means the creation of more and more efficient means by which to achieve worthwhile objectives.  So we find that in the area of technology progress has been nearly undeniable (although some argue that with each improvement of the means to reach one worthy objective, the attainment of some other worthy objective has been impeded).  Elsewhere it means advancement toward a better and better state of being. In philosophy there have been some notable champions of the idea that not just humanity's journey in history but that of reality itself is taking a progressive course.  The future, on the whole, is always an improvement over the past, not just technologically but ethically, aesthetically, politically and so forth.  Hegel and Marx are obvious examples of progressivism but John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer are also likely candidates.

In contemporary science fiction the idea is commonplace that humanity is always lurching ahead, and that only through unnatural influences does it ever regress.  There are detractors even here, ones who hold that the future will be worse than the past has been. They produce the opposite of utopian fiction, namely, dystopian literature.

In particular there is a good deal of thinking that sees the future improved by means of genetic engineering and other "artificial" means, to the point that some envision human beings improved intellectually and even morally or, alternatively, the emergence of artificial intelligence suppressing what humans are capable of.  Arguably, however, such a picture challenges the idea that those who would embody such progress would still be human beings.  Moreover, one of the most well-entrenched conceptions of human nature is that we are all capable of both good and evil, regardless of our levels of intelligence.  So while progress may be possible in one or another special region of human life, the idea that humanity in its essence might somehow become upgraded is likely to be wrong. Evolution or God produced humanity and it is what it is. There may emerge something different from it but also much like it but that would no longer be humanity.

What is likely is that progress of the fundamental sort that motivates the works of optimistic science fiction writers can take place only in the course of an individual human being's life.  Someone may become a better and better person, although even there nothing is guaranteed.  Certainly one can improve one's skills and techniques, learn to play an instrument or a sport better and better up to a point.  We all may well reach a later stage of life at which we must face the end and this may be advantageous to some, while not so much to others--it depends on their character, ultimately. (Character is detiny, said Heraclitus wisely many moons ago!) Yet the inevitability of death and old age, as far as current mainstream understanding has it, seems to place a limit before everyone's progress.

When one is inclined, as have been Hegel and Marx, among others, to treat humanity (even reality) as a developing organism, the idea of holistic progress comes naturally to one's mind, since the organisms with which we are familiar, including ourselves, do undergo progress or development. But the extrapolation is probably mistaken.  Progress of the kind that would in the future remove the necessity for individual effort, for vigilance and tenacity, is not likely to be possible.

In general, the kind of progress that it's reasonable to strive for in human communities has to do with individual self-improvement, some measure of improvement on the system of laws, and the overall deployment of technologically improved means for doing what is important to people. None of this, however, can reasonably be guaranteed or expected and regress, stagnation, as well as progress, are always a possibility. Expectations that progress is inevitable are not reasonable when it comes to human beings, given their nature as self-directed, self-governing beings, each of whom individually needs to make the choice to advance in life. If that choice isn't made on a sustained, ongoing basis, progress will not be forthcoming.  Nor can the diligent, effortful life of one person carry over to his or her offspring.

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