Home Page

Posts Tagged ‘Myth of Progress’

The Myth Progress

In Time on December 31, 2015 at 4:33 am

The above quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I don’t think it’s true. For one thing, I don’t think it is necessarily the most dangerous phrase — others are more dangerous. For instance, “because we’ve always done it this way, let’s try something else” would be more dangerous when applied to driving on the left or eating glass.  Sometimes the way we’ve always done things is the best way to do it.

That’s the way it is with sayings; they aren’t universally true, but they communicate a truth.

Hopper’s saying resonates particularly with Westerners because we love change. We tend to equate change with progress.  We believe that new ways are better than old ways.

We believe time is structured by progress.

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. In one episode, Diomedes has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear throw that severs the braggart’s tongue. Aeneas attempts to recover Pandarus’ 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 the men alive in their time, and not only in terms of physical strength.

The modern story, however, believes that our times are better than previous times. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the conversion of knowledge to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Check out this Radio Shack flyer from twenty-five years ago. The author of the accompanying article points out that the function of almost every item from the coolest page in the newspaper in 1990 is now on the phone in my pocket. If that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

It is progress, but only in two categories.  Progress in scientific knowledge and technological power is not the same as cultural or moral development.  In these we’ve not progressed at all; human beings remain the same. The problem is that our scientific knowledge and technological power do not make us better, they only increase the effects of what we do–whether that be good or evil.

Human cultural and moral progress is a myth.

People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved.’

The nugget of truth in this saying, uttered by Agent Colson, in the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D., is that time is not structured by progress.  C. S. Lewis agrees:

“The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. ”

— (“The World’s Last Night”)

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter, on how to undermine the faith of “the Patient” and thereby secure his soul for damnation. One of the diabolical strategies for populating hell, is to control how modern man understands the past.

Screwtape describes the “the intellectual climate which [the demons] have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe” (139). He jubilantly reports,

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done so by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. . . . To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is important to cut every generation off from all the others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. (139-140)

Lewis calls this view of history, “chronological snobbery,” and defines it as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy 167).

We are certainly progressing technologically, and we are moving steadily toward a more free, open, liberal or tolerant society. But make no mistake, humanity is making no progress culturally, politically or morally.  Nor will we–ever.

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.