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Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

When actions are taken which change the state of a particular system, and this new state is (correctly) evaluated to be better than the previous state, then this is progress.

Some, shall we say, believers in Progress adopt the idea that advances in science, social organization, and technology can improve the human condition. Believers, it would seem, imagine that people can become happier and improve their quality of life; that economic conditions can be better; and that the application of science, technology, evidence based policy, and so on can make all of these endeavors sustainable and diminish their hidden costs. Indeed, some go so far as to suppose that there is progress in science itself.

Historical notions of progress[edit]

The idea of progress is strongly associated with the eighteenth century Enlightenment period. As a theory of history, it takes its cues from the Bible's assumptions concerning the philosophy of time: a future ordained by prophecy, in which history does not repeat itself cyclically, but moves under God's direction through epochs starting with the Fall of Man and moving through the history of revelation and human salvation that culminates in the Kingdom of God.

It can be contrasted with the theory of eternal return that appeared in classical antiquity, being espoused by Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius, and also endorsed by the Hindu and Buddhist ideas of the wheel of life. It also contrasts with the historical spiral or pendulum-swinging of Marxist dialectical materialism and historicism.

Liberal and non-fundamentalist sects[edit]

Some have taken to liberal interpretations of their text, and asserted that progress has already happened.

Steven Pinker suggests that violent crime has diminished over time.[1]

Richard Carrier comes up with the interpretation that "no one today, who really knew the facts, would trade this century for any other".[2] He cites health, rights and equality, governance, compassion in action, and other scriptures in support of this.

Myths of progress[edit]

No, evolution didn't have humans as a goal.

Others, however, have characterized this view of progress as a "myth". In 1932, English physician Montague David Eder wrote: "The myth of progress states that civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction. Progress is inevitable... Philosophers, men of science and politicians have accepted the idea of the inevitability of progress."[3] Eder argues that the advancement of civilization is leading to greater unhappiness and loss of control in the environment.

There is no progress in evolution[edit]

The notion of a myth of progress influences the misapplication of teleology to evolution. Here, the assumption is that evolution strives for the development of "higher" or "more advanced" forms of life from "lower" forms, and that of course it reached its crowning achievement in Homo sapiens, a species whose culture allows it to throw off its evolutionary past and become immune to the effects of natural and sexual selection. This, of course, invokes human exceptionalism.

"The idea of evolutionary progress is the most common – and probably the most damaging – misunderstanding of evolution. It lingers behind the phrase 'higher animals' and the claim that humans evolved from apes (we are apes). It lurches into full view in the famous March of Progress illustration which has, unfortunately, become iconic of evolution."[4] Evolution also fails to remove vestigial organsWikipedia such as the vermiform appendix, a useless bit of flesh that's the site for a number of deadly medical problems; or the coccyx, which is where our tails are supposed to go. In the 'sea devil' angler fishesWikipedia, males become parasites on the bodies of females, unable to survive on their own, and with all organs beside the reproductive ones subject to atrophy.

The "right side of history"[edit]

In historical writing, the myth of progress takes forms such as presentism and Whig historyWikipedia. In Whig history, the past is presented as an inevitable progress towards ever greater enlightenment and prosperity that are exemplified by the present. Past historical figures are either heroes because they advocated for changes that were accepted and became part of the contemporary consensus, or villains who opposed those measures. "According to its critics, a Whig interpretation requires human heroes and villains in the story." [5]

This tendency of Whig history generates an informal fallacy of argument. Here, the interlocutor will argue that the audience wants to be on the "right side of history" by getting on the bandwagon of progress. If they fail to do so, they will appear as the villains in the future's version of Whig history because they opposed the inevitable future in which the interlocutor's cause triumphs. The argument attributes an agency to history that doesn't exist. It assumes that the idea advanced actually will inevitably prevail; when in fact nothing should be taken as inevitable in politics. And most importantly, it assumes that the idea being advanced really is all that, as opposed to a nasty failure like prohibition, which was supposed to do all sorts of wonderful things by its advocates.[6]

This notion of progress also encourages smugness and complacency in the advocates for change. If all is inevitable and the future is better than today, we can relax and congratulate ourselves on being part of the wondrous future. But as Molly Ivins wrote, "Those who think of freedom in this country as one long, broad path leading ever onward and upward are dead damned wrong. Many a time freedom has been rolled back--and always for the same sorry reason: fear."[7]

Technological progress does not necessarily lead to a better quality of life[edit]

On the one hand, it's true that scientific advancements have made it so we can live longer and more comfortably. At the same time though, many of those advancements have ended up creating new problems down the line that end up being at least as bad or even worse than the ones they were supposed to solve- the Industrial Revolution and its long-term effects are a big case in point, as are the "labor-saving" devices that (according to critics) have actually increased the amount of time people spend working. Even when a new technology seems like its drawbacks are easily managed or non-existent, the possibility of unforeseen issues that would never have happened in the absence of that progress cannot be dismissed outright.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3
  2. Sense and goodness Without God, p305
  3. David Eder, Montague (1932). The Myth of Progress. The British Journal of Medical Psychology, Vol. XII. p. 1. 
  4. Sadeer El-Showk, The Evolution Institute, Towards a Better Future: The Myth of Progress, November 6, 2015
  5. Jenifer Hart, "Nineteenth-Century Social Reform: A Tory Interpretation of History," Past & Present 1965 31(1):39–61.
  6. David A. Graham, "The Wrong Side of 'the Right Side of History', The Atlantic, Dec 21, 2015
  7. Molly Ivins, "The Fun's in the Fight, Mother Jones, May 1993.