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The Myth of Progress

In Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative", Worldview on February 22, 2014 at 11:40 pm

Progress myth“People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved'”  — Agent Colson, Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. (pilot episode)

In the modern world, we assume progress.

We do so because, among other things, we see it all around us.  The iPhone 5S was better than the iPhone 5C, which was better than the iPhone 5, which was better than the iPhone 4S, which was better than the iPhone 4, which was better than the iPhone 3GS, which was better than the iPhone 3G, which was better than the 1st generation iPhone.  I remember the dial telephone with a three foot coiled cord.

It could be our infatuation with technology that underlies our assumption that civilization is forever progressing.

But it’s wrong.

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy.  This was my favourite part of the story the first time that I read it.  He has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear shot that severed the braggarts tongue.  Aeneas is attempting to recover the body, but has to face Diomedes who “picked up a stone, a massive rock which no two men now alive could lift. He threw it all by himself with ease.”

The Greeks thought that the great men of old were better than we are today.

The modern story is much more optimistic. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the achievements which follow as knowledge is converted to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Philosopher John Gray, author of The Silence of the Animals: On Progress and other Modern Myths, suggests that growth of scientific knowledge and  technological power is not the same thing as ethical development.  We do not become more civilized, rather we merely produce new forms of civilization as well as new forms of barbarism.

He points out that we don’t unlearn scientific knowledge, but we regularly forget the moral lessons of the past.  Errors in science don’t come back, but we regularly resurrect and repeat the moral errors of the past.  Progressives tend to believe in gradual and incremental progress, but this idea assumes we retain what has gone before.  This is not the case; we destroy our ethical foundations and without the stability of the past we can never improve.  Gray says, we are constantly changing what is good and what is evil, consequently what appears to be moral evolution is always a short upward movement toward whatever the fashionable idea of the day.

I’m currently reading Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings.  In the beginning of hostilities in WWI, the Germans were so angry at the French francs-tireurs (guerrillas of sorts) in the Franco-Prussian war over 40 years earlier, that the leadership authorized the execution peasants and the burning of villages.  Consequently, in the opening days of the war, almost 6,500 civilians were executed (often without even meager evidence) and many thousands left homeless in Belgium and France by the Kaiser’s armies.  In The Iliad, Homer tells the story of Achilles, so violently despondent over the death of his cousin that he profanes the body of noble Hector after slaying him in combat.  It’s the same story, separated by millennia.  100 years of tremendous technological advancement separate us from the German atrocities of World War I, and the same scenario is reported everyday in the newspapers all over the world.

Human cultural, ethical, moral progress is a myth.

Scientific knowledge and technology doesn’t make us better, it just give us more power to do what we do–whether that be good or evil.

The Olympic Spirit and Human Goodness

In Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on February 20, 2014 at 6:00 pm

OlympicsAre human beings basically good, or are they more inclined to do evil?  There is plenty of evidence for both sides of this long debated philosophical question.

There is a lot of evidence for human goodness–we see it in the so called “Olympic Spirit” where individuals dig so deeply to find incredible resources that we all admire.  Athletes of different nations come together, despite so many differences (some of them very serious), and show the world that unity might be possible.  There are many stories coming out of the Olympics that show the good humanity is capable of, like Justin Wadsworth, a Canadian Coach, who helped Russian skier, Anton Gafarov with his broken ski.  Or Gilmore Junio who gave his position in the  1000m event of men’s speed skating to Denny Morrison who fell in the Canadian trials and did not quality.

But each of these athletes must undergo a rigorous regimen of testing because it is certain that some will resort to drugs and sophisticated doping methods to win.  Judging scandals are also not uncommon. Cheating is exactly the opposite of what the games stand for, yet we expect it will occur as surely as we are of the Dutch winning a lot of speed skating medals.

Where modern manifestations of liberalism are a little more mixed in their ideas of human nature, classical liberalism has a positive view of human nature.  Historically, more liberal political parties, starting from a position of human goodness, would work very hard to eliminate things like poverty and oppression or to promote things like education, for they believed that the evil men do comes from environmental factors.

This is another reason I might not be a liberal, at least not a classic one.  I don’t have a lot of faith in human goodness.  While environmental factors can certainly play a role, I think people are evil regardless of environment or education.  To a large extent I suppose I agree with Hobbes.  Not the Calvin’s side-kick, the stuffed tiger, Hobbes.  Although these two explored this idea as well . . .

Calvin and Hobbes - evil nature

 

 

 

 

 

 

. . . but the philosopher.  In his Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes said that without the authority represented by government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings will behave very badly.  For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war.  According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness.  This natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man.  He also argues that competition, diffidence and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety and reputation.  We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life.  This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights.   To ensure that these contracts are performed, a society needs an authority who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints.  We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.

Because of humanity’s basic nature, Hobbes says that the “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

OK, I’m not completely in agreement with Hobbes.    I believe that human beings are capable of amazing expressions of altruism, but I think our default is to be selfish.

When I look at myself in the best possible light, I find, that even my best behaviour is usually motivated by selfishness in some way.  I won’t even begin to talk about those times when I behave badly.

I Think the Bible is True

In Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on February 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm

BibleMost liberals like parts of the Bible–they usually like what Jesus said, but there are other parts of the Bible that many reject outright.

I am not like most liberals because I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and, as such, it’s true and it’s relevant, and it’s also authorative.

But let me say that there are certain parts that I am really uncomfortable with as well.

But, I can’t easily reject them for two reasons.

One reason is past experience.  I have frequently misunderstood what the Bible is saying.   This is most often the case with the parts that I don’t like.  It frequently happens that realize I had been misreading the Bible my whole life.  I’ll be reading something or listening to a sermon and I find a beautiful resolution to these puzzling passages.

Take, for example, the problem of hell–how could a loving God send people to hell.  That really bugged me for a long time, but then I read C. S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” and saw that God’s role is not so much sending people to hell as allowing people to choose to walk away from him–we were made to be with him, and to not be with him will be hellish.  This idea of God allowing human beings to choose is central to the teachings of the Bible (and I might point out, liberal democracies).  The problem of hell is still with me, but I’ve discovered enough through reading the Bible and other folks much smarter than I am that it is not necessarily incompatible with a loving God.  By the time I got to reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I benefited from his critique on the Christian approach to the idea of hell, without accepting many of his conclusions.

Yesterday I came across another thought in Dr. John  Patrick’s keynote from last year’s Apologetics Canada Conference.  The idea was this:  It’s not too hard to accept that God is both pure Love and pure Justice.  Just as it is inconceivable that a loving God allow people to be in hell, it is also just as inconceivable that a just God would allow people into heaven, but nobody argues about that.  It is a puzzling paradox, but it makes some sense if God is both living AND just.

There are still passages that are puzzle me, or that I just don’t like.  But I am no longer tempted to reject the Bible because of them, because perhaps I am misinterpreting it.

The second reason why I don’t reject the Bible because I don’t like what’s in it is–If the Bible were truly the word of God, then I doubt it would say only things I agreed with.  I doubt it would only say the things that citizens of 21st century  liberal democracies liked.

If the Bible really were the word of a transcendent God, it is highly doubtful that it would present only those ideas that are palatable us, only here and only now.  That wouldn’t make any sense, especially since we keep changing our idea of what is right and wrong/good and evil every few centuries, or decades, or years.  I haven’t been on this planet for very long, yet in my mere 50 years I have seen a lot of change.  If the Bible perfectly conformed with culture, it would be reasonable to assume that authors of culture were God, and not the ultimate author of the Bible.

One of the arguments in favour of the Bible actually being the word of a transcendent God is that there are parts I am very uncomfortable with.

I understand that a significant barrier to acceptance of the Bible in (some) African cultures is that it demands we forgive each other.  In North America, we have no problem forgiveness, but apparently this is as hard for them to accept as, say, sexual constraint is for North Americans.

I think the Bible is true, even though there are some parts that we have a lot of trouble with.

In some cases, we are troubled because we think it’s saying what it actually isn’t.  In others, it’s actually putting its finger on an area where the Creator of the Cosmos is telling us we have strayed from the path of righteousness.

The trick is knowing which we are dealing with.

 

I Might Not Be a Bigot (or a Commie)

In Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on February 7, 2014 at 3:30 pm

IndividualismIndividualism is so strong in the United States, that if you suggest any sort of limitation of individual freedom you might be called a bigot (by the left) or, worse yet, a socialist (by the right).

I think this might be the reason I find myself feeling more at home in Canada where, it seems,  individualism is softened a bit.

Individualism arises from a particular view of the self–the self is first an individual, and second, a member of a group.

Individualism is not just liberal thing.  Both Liberals and Conservatives enthusiastically support the tenets of the liberal democracies, of which personal freedom is one–they just tend to emphasize different ones.  The liberals tend to be more interested in political and social freedoms and the conservatives are more insistent on economic ones.

I sometimes catch myself wondering if individual freedoms are the ultimate good, or if there might be some merit to sacrificing some of those freedoms for the common good.

I am not a liberal because I question the primacy of individual political and social freedoms.

My ideas about marriage, for instance, lean toward common good at the expense of individual freedom.

If the self is an ultimately an individual (I don’t think too many liberals would argue that this is pretty central to their beliefs) then the primary purpose of marriage is to serve the needs of the individual–it should contribute to happiness and aid in the flourishing of the individual.  If the marriage is no longer achieving this end, then one might legitimately get a divorce and move on.

If the community takes primacy over the individual, then communal flourishing is more important than that of the individual.  Under these conditions the purpose of marriage is to benefit the greater community in some way, say, by providing a secure environment for the nurturing of children.

It seems to me that in our culture we are unbalanced toward the side of individualism and showing no sign of moving toward equilibrium.  Liberals are not responsible for this shift, but  in the area of political and social freedoms, they tend to push that direction.

Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, free speech are complicated issues and many Christians, and other groups who have a more collective mentality, are at odds with those who lean toward the individualist side of the continuum.

Importantly, it is sometimes ones view of the self–whether it is primarily individual or communal–that determines one’s position on these issues and not, simply, ones bigotry or communist leanings.

Paul Tillich wrote that there is a “polar tension” between individuals and community because you can’t have one, without the other.  A community needs individuals to challenge the identity of the community in order to keep it alive, and the identity of the individual is derived from the greater community.

I am a little worried that we are in danger of losing the tension.