Sunday, August 24, 2008

Progress, I Wonder.

I'll stray from my typical policy/science posts to approach a very vague topic - progress.

This blog's goal is to drive debate and discussion around prescient issues and their solutions, such as those regarding science, ethics, the economy, and the like. The elementary idea being, that progress needs to be made in order to, among other reasons, move society forward, forge greater levels of peace, allow for increased prosperity, drive personal freedoms, and discover a better World for the present and future.

Therefore, is it justifiable to ask whether we are making progress? In what quantifiable manner? Are their hindrances? Is progress the correct method to measure society?

As I campaign with different candidates it is easy to note that there are voters that care, strive, and push for progress and those that don't. It may be one of the few topics that doesn't fall along political or cultural lines - so what dictates a persons need for progress? What jump starts or stops a person from wanting it?

In policy, progress is often made directly after a focusing event (i.e. Sept. 11). In science, progress is made post a scientific revolution (i.e. Einstein). Is progress ever made in ethics? Has there been any progress in economics? Philosophy? Taken within historical context, has society ever truly solved anything or just made the issue more narrow?

Too philosophical? Maybe.


Chris Crawford said...

I recall reading something about the history of the idea of progress. Before, oh, about the Enlightenment, the very notion of progress was uncommon. People just assumed that the present was no different from the past. The fact of change was first noticed with science and technology. Perhaps it was the reaction to Newton that set off the idea of progress.

And yet, starting in the twentieth century, people have started having reservations about the idea of progress. Remember all the classic movies from the 1930s in which a mad scientist transgressed the line of things "man was never meant to know", thereby unleashing havoc? Certainly the idea of progress took hard knocks in the 1960s, when progress became identified with atom bombs, mindless materialism, and environmental degradation.

We're now seeing a deeper sense of malaise about progress. Much of the appeal of fundamentalist religion is its rejection of progress for the solid, reliable, traditional morality. Modern times have proven unsettling for many people, and they are reacting negatively to the idea of progress. So they lash out at science and materialism as the manifestations of progress.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Prog: I think this is a great topic. First, though, maybe a definition is in order. How do you define progress?

Chris C: "Much of the appeal of fundamentalist religion is its rejection of progress for the solid, reliable, traditional morality."

Are you saying that progress and religion/morality are exclusive?

Progressive said...

Good question. I purposely left out a definition because I couldn't come up with a non-muddled form.

A standard dictionary definition consists of words like advancement, development, growth, movement towards a goal, reaching a better stage, and so forth.

An assumption in these definitions is that progress means that the advancement is to a "better" stage, where better is defined differently depending on the field.

This assumption brings about two main issues for me:

1) Something is deemed progress if enough people believe it to be a step forward for society. Is it a majority? What groups? All of society?

2) Is progress correctly defined as a forward advancement? How important is the historical context of this advancement? Can something be deemed progress at one point in history, then be rescinded later? Who chooses the positive goals of society?

Sue said...

What an interesting question, Prog.

As I think about your question, and its dimensions, the first thing that comes to mind is what does the word "progress" mean? Here's what my Merriam-Webster had to say: "noun a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or a goal); gradual betterment; especially the progressive development of mankind."
"intransitive verb to move forward, to develop to a higher, better or more advanced stage."

Based on that definition, I'd say that the whole problem with any conversation about "progress" is determining progress requires a baseline against which we make comparisons, and an agreed upon standard of measurement, which also involves issues of judgment of qualitative issues such as what is "better" (which should always bring to mind the question -- better for whom?).

I certainly don't agree with Jared Diamond's statement that the development of agriculture is the worst mistake humans ever made -- but then Diamond himself doesn't really agree with it, it was a rhetorical statement designed to generate thought. However, Diamond is able to marshall an enormous body of research on the living conditions, health and illness, life span, work day of ordinary (non-elite) humans in early agricultural societies and compare them to what we know about humans in foraging societies, all of which suggest, that life conditions went backwards for most people with agriculture. Of course the alternative was wholesale starvation of great masses of people, and a dropping back to much lower population levels that could be sustained by foraging. So the folks that made the transition to agriculture 7 or 8 thousand years ago didn't have much choice. The point? Most people simply assume that the movement from foraging to agriculture was a great upward, progressive movement, and are unaware that agriculture is what brought us most of the communicable diseases that create epidemics (like small pox, influenza, measles, etc.), and agriculture brought us arthritis and bursitis, a less diverse, less nourishing (though more filling) diet, shorter life spans, more infant mortality, and many other negatives.

Not only does any discussion of progress raise issues about what the baseline is to compare against, but also about the direction or goals toward which we are heading.

It seems to me that an awful lot of people in the world, especially in our own society, have goals (such as more quality time with their families), that are undermined by the very activities that are used in the media to measure personal progress (like work promotions, income, the accumulation of material stuff).

I think before there can be any talk of progress, there has to be talk about goals. Since there are probably a multiplicity of goals, nearly as many as there are individuals, it is likely that there are no general measures of progress that can be made for a society as diverse as ours is.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Prog: All of your points embody what I believe is a key issue when we look at progress. That issue is point-of-reference. There must be something (a higher standard) against which to measure in order to determine progress. If there is no common higher standard, how do we measure progress -- i.e. progressive realization of that goal or standard?

Chris C: Religion/morals -- i.e. a way to view man and his role in relationship to all other things -- is one way (probably the most common way) to establish a standard.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: I thought we were going to be in agreement there for a minute until I read:

"...agriculture is what brought us most of the communicable diseases that create epidemics (like small pox, influenza, measles, etc.), and agriculture brought us arthritis and bursitis, a less diverse, less nourishing (though more filling) diet, shorter life spans, more infant mortality, and many other negatives."

I think that section needs a bit of explaining. It is likely that none of us on this blog -- or the computer that we use to enter these comments -- would exist had it not been for agriculture. The next time you head for the grocery store be thankful you're not in the woods foraging for roots, insects, nuts and berries -- or competing for the extremely scarce scraps of meat that might be in your neighborhood.

Progressive said...

In summation to Sue, Chris, and Chris...exactly.

So where does that leave progress? What is a reasonable measurement of a baseline? What is a reasonable measurement of positive growth?

Is this just another case by case instances where progress is in the eye of the beholder and we hope that enough people agree so as to keep moving forward?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Prog: Only if they agree with me! :)

Progressive said...

I'll then add re: Sue's agriculture comment...

In this case, is progress measured as the summation of all positive and negatives effects of some cause?

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Let's think about the agriculture comment. Agriculture allowed us to live in cities. It enabled population growth. Concentrated populations allowed better exchange of ideas, the development of writing, etc. Ultimately, it led to our present society.

Without it, we would still be in the aboriginal state. Would that be progress?

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M, I wouldn't say that progress and religion are mutually exclusive -- only that in the last 50 years or so, the perception by many people that progress has deprived us of morals has led them to turn against progress. The real problem, though, is not progress but increased population densities and higher mobility. Greater mobility has pretty much blown to hell the old social mechanisms for enforcing mores. So people can get away with stuff that they couldn't get away with in simpler times.

On Sue's point about agriculture: yes, agriculture did lead to a lowering of living standards -- but it also led to a dramatic increase in population. And procreation is a human desire. Finally, it's safe to say that the lowering of living standards was temporary. Eventually, civilized life became much more pleasant than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

As to the standard by which we measure progress: I'd say that's a purely subjective matter. What northern Europeans call "The Protestant Reformation", southern Europeans call "The Protestant Revolt". In general, though, most people equate progress with improvement in the economic well-being of the population as a whole. If you apply that standard globally, then the last twenty years have seen the greatest progress in human history.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

I wonder why agriculture developed in the first place? Could it be that under the hunter-gatherer scenario, food supplies were unreliable? So, some enterprising individual said, Hmmm, I think I'll save a few of these seeds from this plant that I like to eat and plant them where I know they will be next year? Then, because that worked he thought, hmmm, lets try some others. Let's also keep competing plants away so they will grow better. Let's bring them water when it's dry so they won't die. Etc. So, how did all of that lower the living standard? In fact, it was developed to provide a reliable source of food.

Now, if you want to look at it from a Biblical perspective you could say that agriculture was punishment for sin in the Garden of Eden.

As to the difference between Protestant Reformation and Protestant Revolt -- those southern European Catholics were deep into coercive enforcement of their religion when the Protestants broke out and raised us out of the Dark Ages -- through scientific enquiry -- prompted by a desire to learn how God's world worked.

Now, I'm curious, what do you mean that there is a backlash against progress? The only backlash that I see is from Global Warming advocates who think we need to go back to the hunter-gatherer state and compete for our food with the other animals. Or, perhaps you're referring to the ethical issues over abortion, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, etc. These all are wrapped around the "sanctity of life issue" that has nothing to do with progress -- it has all to do with the value placed on human life. But that takes us back to the first argument. If man has no more value than an animal then perhaps he belongs in the hunter-gatherer state where he merely competes with the other animals for his daily sustenance and this conversation therefore becomes meaningless.

Sue said...

Chris M -- the best thing would be for you to read Diamond's Gun's Germs and Steel, which pulls together decades of archeological, anthropological, and epidemological research, something I can't do in a brief comment. As I said in my previous comment, of course agriculture was necessary - the alternative was mass starvation and major population crash, because foraging only supports very small population sizes. Agriculture was able to sustain much larger populations than foraging, however, it is well documented that the quality of life for the ordinary (peasant) person in early agricultural societies was shorter (life span), involved much longer work days compared to foragers, and agriculture introduced the world to all the diseases mentioned (because those diseases require intimate interaction with domesticated animals). This is not to mention that the world was introduced to extremes of inequality and the institution of slavery because of agriculture. Only a tiny proportion of agricultural populations lived in those cities, which were also frequently the site of epidemics due to sanitation and sewage issues. The point again -- agriculture brought some very bad things along with one very good thing - survival of larger populations. There's no such thing as universal "progress" that's good for everyone in all ways.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M, I can offer an explanation as to the development of agriculture. The first step was noticing that certain grasses whose seeds were edible grew in stands, enticing some bands to make certain to visit the stands during their regular movements.

The next step was to help the stands along by clearing and seeding adjacent areas. That strategy was so effective that these grasses became the primary source of nutrients for the bands -- and it became necessary to stay close to them all through harvest season to insure that nobody else grabbed them. It also created war in the modern sense: an easy strategy was to sneak into another band's territory and burn their fields just before harvest, depriving them of all their nutrients and triggering a famine.

After that, it was just one damn thing after another, and now we've got Wonder Bread building strong bodies 12 ways... or 6... I don't know...

In terms of lowering the living standard, agriculture eliminated the natural egalitarianism of the hunter-gatherer society. If you play the bully in a hunter-gatherer band, people just go somewhere else. And you can't accumulate any more wealth than you can carry. But once people move to a sedentary life style and are dependent upon their fields, you can bully them and they can't abandon you. You can accumulate wealth. You can force them to work long hours to generate excess wealth that you can use for yourself. Sue mentioned some of the other factors.

"what do you mean that there is a backlash against progress?"

The backlash manifests itself in a wide variety of ways: creationism; opposition to stem cell research; opposition to GM foods (not important here but a big factor in Europe); conspiracy theories; aggressive social conservatism; rejection of all things Western (in non-Western societies); more intense identification with one's church; and so on.

Chris Crawford said...

Oh, yes, and let's not forget global warming denial, another great example of anti-rational, anti-modern behavior.

E. R. Dunhill said...

A few thoughts: It seems that to many, progress is simply more, more, more of the same: more new devices, more money, more development, more connectivity, more stadiums, more convenience. I've increasingly wondered for the last few years what this is moving toward.
Also, I'm not sure that an increase in pararational thought (if there is indeed such an increase) is necessarily antithetical to progress. If our definition of progress deals in something beyond the aforementioned "more-ethos", then these are worthy pursuits. However, I feel that in many respects, ethics, community, and contemplative disciplines have degenerated in the last 50 years. Are we really progressing if we neglect these areas?
I feel that we need to move toward sustainable systems, removing the artificial divisions between economy, ecology, and community. This isn't going to happen so long as we treat ethics as an afterthought.

Sue said...

It disturbs me that in this discussion as in other discourses elsewhere that only the movement towards some goals is labeled "progress" and the movement towards other goals is not. I know quite a number of people whose view of the desirable society, the goal towards which they work and towards which they vote is to achieve an Evangelical Christian theocracy in this country. Now I don't happen to share that goal (being a non-Christian), but from a strict definitional stand point, movement towards that goal is "progress." Movement towards any goal is progress. I don't think its fair to say that some people involved in politics work towards "progress" and other do not. While I guess one could say that there are people who sit on their asses and work towards nothing, any one who works toward any goal, is working for progress.

The term "progress" in the general sense is therefore extremely vague, although people act as if the word "progress" implies certain unstated but agreed upon goals, it really does not. On the other hand, the term "progressive" as a political label has historical connections to working for a particular set of goals -- such as expanded political participation, political equality, etc.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: As an Evangelical Christian, I find the thought of an Evangelical Christian Theocracy anathema to my beliefs -- it just doesn't fit.

As to multiple definitions of progress -- I think that's where we agree. To some, erecting a new coal-fired power plant is progress -- to others it is not.

I think that all of the discussions that we have had on BIA have run into a similar issue with words. The words we use carry baggage with them. Many have different meanings depending on background, beliefs, political orientation, etc. I think we will continue to run into that issue. It is one of the great barriers to effective communication in our society -- and in the world in general. Just the differences between Canada and the U.S. are profound. In Canada one "takes" a decision whereas in the U.S. one "makes" a decision. Interesting.

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M. writes:

In Canada one "takes" a decision whereas in the U.S. one "makes" a decision. Interesting.

In the White House, one "fakes" a decision.

Sorry, couldn't resist it. ;-)

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Chris C. I agree with the sentiment but I would apply it to Congress. The Whitehouse seems to be able to make decisions -- albeit often unpopular ones. Congress can't even decide to bring bills up for a vote!

Chris Crawford said...

Chris M, you're absolutely right! Congress is the one faking decisions. The White House merely screws up decisions, and there's no good "-ake" verb for that.

E. R. Dunhill said...

If we're going to progress toward some sort of theocracy, I'd like to throw my name in to be some kind of czar or even a pharaoh. I think I'd make a fabulous benevolent despot.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: The airport locker in the movie "Men In Black" comes to mind....

"All hail King ERD!"