A Few Threads

Returning to a topic discussed previously:

The unexamined acceptance of the inevitability of Progress as an obvious unassailable fact is under discussion at Rotten Chestnuts. Starting with the Enlightenment, the notion that Change, in the form of Progress, is, so to speak, the only constant, took over polite society. So understood, Progress is not, in any rational sense, a conclusion. Progress can only be a framing devise, a filter, a way to pre-process information.

It might seem odd that an age that produced wave after wave of increasingly insane skepticism about just about everything would accept and vigorously promote as obvious the notion that Progress is a positive force governing Human Development through History. Descartes claims to doubt everything except his own existence; Hume claims to doubt cause and effect; Kant throws out the entire idea anyone can know anything about objective reality (although he says he doesn’t – he says a lot of contradictory things); Fichte simply states that all reality is subjective; Hegel denies the law of non-contradiction and all logic while claiming to be ‘scientific’.

John C. Wright speaks of how unserious philosophy became starting with the Enlightenment. A Socrates might die for his philosophy; a St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that it is in fact necessary to be willing to die for a correct philosophy. Hume famously decides to go shoot some billiards when it all becomes too much. How would anyone from Descartes on know that dying for one’s philosophy is a good thing? Severian has a page dedicated to the worst argument in the world, of which there are many variation sharing the same skeleton. This argument boils down to: we cannot know anything about things in themselves.

Yet we are to assume universal Progress, except insofar as reactionaries of one flavor or another have temporarily turned back the clock on the wrong side of History.

Here’s the thing: the only area where it can be confidently asserted that humanity has steadily progressed over the last, say, 1,000 years, is technology. Technology is undoubtedly better today than it was 10 years ago; it was better 10 years ago than it was 20 years ago; and so on, back to maybe 900 AD in the West.

Everything else? People can and have made arguments in favor of these following examples, but – clear? Beyond dispute?

  • Government “progressed” from a peak of some semblance of liberal democracy to – Pol Pot? Stalin? Mao? That’s progress?
  • Art “progressed” from Rafael to Pollock? Let alone a crucifix in a jar of urine?
  • Architecture “progressed” from Gothic to Brutalism?

And so on. Sure, there are reasonable people who will argue that Van Gogh is an improvement on Bouguereau, but they’re basically arguing on taste alone. On every technical and aesthetic basis, Bouguereau is the superior artist (and I love Van Gogh!). There are people- damaged, sad people, for the most part – who will and have argued that Brutalist architecture is superior to Gothic. There is no aesthetic of technical basis for such a claim. Rather, it seems that Progress, acting as filter, simply demands that the products of modern minds is definitionally better than the products of less progressive minds.

So, one might imagine the great Enlightenment philosophies start with technology as the basis for their claims. There is quite a bit of that early on, as where Francis Bacon says:

I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave. … [S]o may I succeed in my only earthly wish, namely to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds.

Francis Bacon, The Masculine Birth of Time, ch. 1. (from Mike Flynn’s essay on the Masque of Science, which you all would be better off reading instead of this post.)

Bacon wants to put science -materialist science as he understood it – in the driver’s seat for pretty much all human activities. The distinction we sometimes make between science and technology seems less clear here. Nature was something to be conquered and put to use by man. In this sense, science – the study of nature in order to understand it – and technology – using that scientific knowledge to conquer and control nature – are separate only in concept: for Bacon, it would be pointless to talk of one independent of the other.

So: Bacon saw himself and other natural philosophers (scientists) as clearly progressing from his (weird caricature?) of Aristotle to the starting line of modern science. Bacon saw his efforts as the beginning of the true program of science – understanding nature so as to control it – with nothing but Progress from there on out indefinitely.

And progress was made – eventually. Bacon lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. Life expectancy in England was around 35 (high infant and young people mortality) in 1600. As a result of the Bacon-lead scientific and technological revolution, life expectancy shot all the way up to around 40 – after a mere 200 years. (The population in England in 1600 is estimated to have been about 85% of what it had been during the high middle ages 250 years earlier, before plague, famine, and increasing political unrest cut in by around 60%. It nearly doubled from 1600 to 1800, to about 50% larger than it had been in 1290.)

Maybe this conquest of Nature thing and all the improvements to human life that would follow upon it wasn’t so obvious to the little people? Who seemed to be dying as readily as before, up until the late 1700s, at any rate? But it was very striking to the better off, who could not get over it. Still can’t. Of course, technological progress kicked in like crazy once the 19th century got going, and life expectancies began to rise, to around 50 by 1900 to around 80 by 2000. That’s progress anyone who prefers not to be dead can readily see.

Our self-appointed betters seemed to have extrapolated from technological improvements, and made the categorical error of thinking that the obvious progress in technology proved that other fields, such as politics and philosophy, must also have made similar progress. Hegel, who lived from 1770 to 1831, in what was at the time the most technologically advanced culture on earth, went to far as to write a book telling us that logic, as that term was understood by everyone else, had failed to progress and was therefore clearly insufficient. Logic had remained essentially unchanged since Aristotle, unlike all other fields (besides basic arithmetic and geometry, ethics, and writing – he doesn’t mention those, IIRC) and therefore, by that fact alone, was no longer valid.

Savor this: classic Aristotelian logic, the application of which was at the core of all the scientific and technological progress made since Bacon, needed to be rejected – OK, suspended in a dialectical synthesis, which, practically, means rejected – because, and solely because, it had not changed in 2500 years. The only unalloyed and inescapable support for the notion of Progress – technology – is to be rejected – in the name of Progress.

Hegel was aware that all technology and science depended on exactly the logic he had just discarded. He graciously allows that old-timey logic might be important and useful to the little people – mathematicians, scientists, technologists – but was certainly nothing a *real * philosopher need concern himself with. Law of non-contradiction? Out! Logical arguments? Beneath a real philosopher’s dignity. Only the calculated incoherence of Hegel and those wise and enlightened souls who, naturally, agreed with Hegel, need be considered.

From this it falls, naturally, that 2+2 can indeed equal 5, if such is required by *real* philosophers like Hegel. Motte and Baily. Progress is obvious to everyone! You doubt our latest developments in Critical Theory mark the inexorable march of Progress? What? You want to go back to living in the Dark Ages, you moron?

Thus, a priori, any information that might cast a shadow on the notion that we all live right now in the Best of All Possible Worlds, until dawn tomorrow reveals and even better best, is right out. Only a reactionary Luddite would dare mention how all this Progress has some downsides, how it might even lead to something undesirable. Even worse are those (me, I hope) who reject and mock the very idea that Progress stands athwart the modern world, no feet of clay anywhere to be seen!


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “A Few Threads”

  1. Some thoughts while reading:
    Advancement in technology and science chiefly means accumulation of matter (namely careful observations of natural phenomena): the more you have available, the more you can work with and build on.
    In most other fields, the ‘matter’ has remained more or less constant, and hence doesn’t really ‘progress’ in the same way. The matter of ethics, mathematics, logic, etc. are essentially the same today as they were 2000 years ago. Aesthetic principles in art do not much change, only the techniques for realizing them may advance.
    The core of science, its logical basis – that of feeding observations of natural phenomena into the logical system – is likewise exactly the same today as it was when Aristotle was doing it. But science has more material today than it did in the past because the observations that it is based on are something that most people at most times don’t have the opportunity or the inclination to make and hence are, for most of history, only accumulated in fits and starts over a long period of time.
    In other words, the reason science and technology advance so dramatically is simply because civilization started out with less of their ‘matter’ than it did with most other subjects. Science is not the exemplar of human knowledge: it’s the late-bloomer.

    The idea of ‘progress’ is akin to perpetually re-writing a program to get the result you want rather than changing the input.

    1. You make a good distinction and some good points. Some fields – basic logic and arithmetic – can’t really advance much in a rational world, since they are the basis of that very rationality. Science really is a newcomer to the world of knowledge. I mentioned today to my younger daughter that a person can know she is loved in a much deeper and true way than she can know 2+2=4. Science built on math is a step farther removed from the most profound knowledge.

      The sciences have long been divided between those that simplify – e.g., physics – and those that organize – e.g., biology. The first group is looking at phenomena where the variety is caused by accidents. When you control for everything except what you are trying to understand, the results are often gratifyingly simple: once air resistance is removed (or allowed for) objects tend to fall from reasonable heights at a constant acceleration regardless of mass. In biology, what might seem immaterial differences to the physicist make all the difference: a tiger is not a lion. In both cases, however, your observation about an increase in accumulated data makes the process more rewarding, if not easier.

      Sometimes I think philosophers are envious of this state of affairs, where there is no new data coming in to push them ‘forward’. Instead, Plato’s questions are just as important today as they were 2500 years ago.

  2. I took your advice and re-read both essays first. Well worth it, and thank you.

    Here is another odd datum, from the early 20th* century: The efficiency expert Mr. Frank Gilbreth had a high school education. Although Mrs. Gilbreth (who had a degree in Literature from Berkeley) is now credited with his discoveries, but was rather the one who wrote up his work for publication and acted as his lab assistant. After he died early she was able to pick up his work and continue it. Quite successfully – though no feminist will ever mention her name.

    Both were “doing” modern science quite thoroughly .

  3. In case you haven’t run across it before, “The unexamined acceptance of the inevitability of Progress” is very nearly the main topic over on John Michael Greer’s blog, Ecosophia. He veers out into the weird a lot (being Archdruid Emeritus of the AODA, this is expected) but I find it keeps the discussions lively. He holds that Progress is the religion of the industrial West, and the current craziness in the political scene is a direct result of material progress having peaked already, and started the downhill slide. It’s like when you build a cult around the apocalypse happening on a particular day, and then it doesn’t happen… the cult doesn’t just disappear: typically they set a new date and double down on whatever they were already doing.

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