Perspective and Progress : (calm essay-thoughts of the moment)

One moment of one day, I was listening to Josie; a beautiful and sincere friend who continually enriches the lives of others with her caring, patient ways , mixed with a good dose of general humour, punctuated with sharp and penetrating observations on the world and people around her. Intelligence without arrogance is a fantastic quality, and one of the many reasons I feel glad to have her in my life. Josie has studied english literature and history at university, so while I was busy reading about what happens if you poke this bit of brain right -here-, she was looking at the movements of cultures and words and the back-and-forth effects of masses of people impacting on each other.

As we walked down the steps of a neon-lit cinema stair, Josie said to me “you can always tell the people who have never read any history. Their perspective on the world is that much narrower… they don’t see outside problems and issues that surround and engulf us now, that such things have happened before in different forms, times and places.”

On another occasion, sitting on a sofa; “people always think the world is ending. People are always complaining about the state of affairs; and they have been doing so for centuries.”

I paused, and considered, and connected with some of my observations from reading into the history of medicine a little. “When penicillin was discovered; a fantastic and worthy thing, it set of a huge enthusiasm for progressively and definitively eradicating illness; visions of progress towards a golden age of disease free immortality. Now we are finding that truly, drugs do not cure everything; degenerative diseases of the mind and cancers of the body . Taking a step back people have also noticed that knocking out one sympton usually results in a different one somewhere else in the body.
Another consequence of pill-application, despite how amazing and life-saving these treatments were, was a tendency to step back from the ‘patient’ as a person, to see them as a concoction of diseases for which each had a deliverable antidote. (incidently rather similar to a herb for each disease, or a specific saint or angel to pray to for each illness… ) No longer did we need to stand by the bed of the person, desperatly applying any combination of soothing words, prayers, encouragement, and generally having to rely and work with whatever their own body could do for healing. Medicine became scientific. Survival rates went up, and yet somewhere down the line we seem to have forgotten that sometimes more is needed than a pill. Most obvious today in the dawning realisation that you can not treat depression with just prozac; there is a whole person and life tied up here. That human-human contact and self-healing play a big part in getting better.”

“so, I could look at our culture and see a similar thing. We fix each sympton and call it progress; choose to be blind to the fact there is damage accruing elsewhere. Side-effects are inevitable as part of the ‘cure’ we decide. Our rising technological growth has resulted in fantastic oppurtunities, longer life-times, faster, better, ways of working. And yet while we have sorted things out on a physical, and perhaps mental level, there is a huge spiritual vaccuum. I don’t mean just religion, I mean, the motivating spirit, liveliness, what inspires people to continue and wonder and take responsibility. What is all this ‘stress’ and ‘depression’ and ‘apathy’ and so forth?

Are we really progressing? Or just changing the symptons?”

More recently, Josie dropped another morsel of historical knowledge into my lap. Apparently, this obsession with a progressing movement is not a “given truth” but part of our culture and time. In the middle-ages (or thereabouts..) the obsession if anything was with the reverse. No progress at all but instead a decline or stagnation. Thinking about it, right now we seem to have a real mixture of optimisitc progress, whether in technological or spiritual movements, or a kind of gleeful ‘the world is ending, bring it on!” – all danky dark gloom, so self-destruct in drugs, lifestyle or any form of oblivion this ‘post-modern’ era offers as choice.

I wonder how much of it is to do with a kind of cultural/public misinterpretation of evolution. I heard on radio 4 how Darwin deliberatly tried to avoid any notion of a sense of *progress* up a ladder in his original work; though religious and contemporay thought at the time had fully cemented the notion that humans are superior to monkeys and therefore evolution is all part of the unfoldment of “God’s Great Plan”(tm). Later on god was taken out of the picture, and the power over evolution handed to scientists and maybe, one day, soul-less computers. But the underlying message is the same: Onwards and upwards and down from the trees!

Are we progressing? Why do we hold to this concept of seeing things as a linear line towards enlightenment and golden ages?

I feel that there has to be another way of looking at what is happening around us. A problem with a bloody-minded focus on progress is that it means everything that has come before must be seen as defunct and irrelevent – or somehow automatically subsumed into where we’re at now. How much wisdom, foresight, have we lost, doomed to ‘discover’ it again, over and over?

Personally, I feel that there is both the potential and possibility for some real progress[1] in today’s increasingly interconnected, information-rich world, but I feel it vitally important to that we look to history, to find some perspective; and look to people, to find some humanity – and mostly to listen to each other rather than see it as some sort of inexorable race.
A couple of Dune quotes:

“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”

“The concept of progress acts like a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.”
[1] edit – of course, progress with respect to who and what? that is another question to consider.

20 thoughts on “Perspective and Progress : (calm essay-thoughts of the moment)”

  1. The more I read the stuff you write, the more I like it :o)

    The world is too complex and the thoughts and deeds of humanity too temporary for such things as ‘progress’! It has been the great vision of our age: time as a highway stretching towards perfection, a horizontal vision speeding ahead into a golden-age Dan Dare future, in the same way that the Renaissance related perfection behind them in time, in a golden-age classical Greece, and the middle ages looked upwards , ‘now’ determined not by a place on a timeline but in a vertical relationship with heaven and the coming of the Heavenly Jerusalem, which at some moment in this indefinite, unchanging ‘now’ would descend like the Close Encounters mothership to wipe away time and “the stains and wounds of the world”.

    ‘Absolute improvement’ is a simplistic, idiot fallacy. While local improvement can be validated empirically, the animating concept of the notion of progress, a strange idea of a sweeping and inexorable global evolution towards perfection, can, as you said, be easily cast into doubt by looking at our own history, with its twists and turns, loop-the-loops, and cycles of triumph and disaster.

    Nice post.

    1. Whee. You said what I was thinking, but without all the waffley nonsense I was going to stick in my comment 🙂

      I can’t help but think that humans desperately need some kind of goal to aim for – whether that’s the Anglo-Saxon end of the world view, the Medieval and Renaissance beliefs you summed up so nicely, or the Age of Reason’s confidence in science, technology, commerce, human rights, progress, and the nation state – which even now clings to us to a certain extent, despite being given a pretty severe public flogging by the events of the twentieth century.

      In fact, you could argue that it is only confidence in commerce that has remained unscathed – while we once again seem to have a faith in science and technological progress, it’s not with that wonderful righteous Victorian zeal. Is this because technology is no longer spurred on by a fixed moral code, a sense of racial or national superiority, or even a desire to pick apart creation in order to understand how God put it together in the first place? What ARE we aiming for now, and does anybody really want to get there? I wonder if the idea of progress to the average person is now less about solving humanity’s woes and more to do with buying “gadgets” to make life more interesting or comfortable.

      If we’re now too cynical to believe in progress and the greatness of nations and humanity as ends in themselves, what will our end be? To further technology and commerce? Or just to exist? Is either enough?

      I can’t help but think that progress in a technological sense works best not as an end in itself, but alongside the other things that traditionally were given value – relationships, faith, God – and it’s at its best when it augments rather than tries to replace these things in which there perhaps is no clear way to “progress”.

      As you said, we’re fools if we fail to realise that whether we focus on the past, the present or the future, we’re often just distracting ourselves from the fact that each generation ends up learning the same lessons, over and over again.

  2. > so, I could look at our culture and see a similar thing.
    > We fix each sympton and call it progress; choose to be
    > blind to the fact there is damage accruing elsewhere.
    > Side-effects are inevitable as part of the ‘cure’ we
    > decide

    This reminds me of something my mother brought up. In the middle ages, people thought that tomatoes were poisonous on the perfectly reasonable grounds that those who ate lots got ill. Now we know that it wasn’t because the tomatoes themselves were poisonous, but because they were acidic, and the acid leached the lead out of their pewter plates as they ate. Without the tomato-acid, the lead still leaches out, but so slowly that nobody noticed (what with all the other problems affecting lifespan/quality back then).

    Are we identifying/curing diseases, or are we just looking at accelerants for diseases that are there anyway? If we were all immortal-but-not-invincible, and all diseases were cured, would we still ultimately experience the same medical conditions when we are 160+?


  3. Looking to History.

    There is a wonderful book which I commend to you – Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock. You can buy it in traditional dead-tree form or alternatively Download the text.

    In this work, apart from it being utterly hilarious in that it takes numeous satirical sideswipes at the fashions of the day – phrenology and landscape-gardening for example – there are three competing philosophical threads – deteriorationists, statu-quoites, and perfectibilians. The Deteriorationist view is that ‘everything gets worse with time, things used to be better’, the Perfectibilians take a progressive view that things can only get better, and the Statu-quoites don’t really care one way or another.

    2000-odd years ago, the Cynics had a worldview somewhat like that of the Deteriorationists.

    As to looking to history, history is a damned good way to see what didn’t work in the past – so we can learn not to try those things again. Sadly this doesn’t always apply: for example the horrors of Lysenkoism – in which one of Stalin’s pet henchmen starved millions of Russians to death by way of a crackpot theory of “Marxist Genetics” – seems to have been replayed only too recently in South Aftrica, where Thabo Mbeki [their president] for many years refused to accept that AIDS was caused by a virus and thereby denied his people access to HIV prevention/treatment programs and medications.

    “History”, some say, “is a thing of the past”. In some cases it can also be a thing of the future.

  4. My circuitous tangent

    Hmm. I agree with you about the treating the symptoms, but not ever seeing the disease itself. . . I think it is a reaction and philosophy of our culture, and our culture is one that 99.9% of the world lives by, regardless of the details, East, West, First or Third world. It is the philosophy of “the world was made for man to rule, and anything we do will not only be good, but supported by the world itself, the universe, and god.” It doesn’t matter what we destroy in the process, if we deem it good and then necessary, of course it was “meant to be”, and the world will do its part by processing all the poisons, washing away all our competitors, and generally providing us with whatever it is we want. (We did this to all the cultures we took over, either converting them to this philosophy, or outright wiping them out of existence.) Energy, oil, food, trees, whatever. It’s all there for the taking, ad infinatum. We’ve felt that way since the dawn of “history”, and all our religions, the Big Three (JCI), Hinduism, Taoism, New Age – it doesn’t matter. All are based on a linear progression of us steadily ruling the world, our individual lives, *saving ourselves*. . .

    grrr, I am making this go in a direction I don’t need it to. It’s basically that the way we all live and force everyone else on the planet to live, is based on us controling everything and seeing ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, progress, whatever — and deciding to cut out everyone and everything and every creature other than ourselves that might slow us down in our dramitic race to wherever it is we are going.

    We devote ourselves to making human-food, at the cost of all else. We kill our competitors in all-out war and genocide, sometimes worse. Any species on the food chain that eats what we want gets a bad rap and is destroyed, removed or erased from existence. Plants we can’t eat or don’t want, get cut down, burned, replaced with corn, wheat, fields of cows – thing we *do* want. . . and eventually we even turn on other people, because we want what they have. Looking at it that way makes me sad, but I think we can agree that it’s true. No other species wages war on its competitors, it just competes. There was a time when humanity itself did not wage war, but just competed to the best of its ability. We did OK for what, millions of years? There are even a few straggling cultures that still live that way, but we are trying to convert or forget them, or just trample them in our path. Only 200 years ago there were a thousand times the amount of cultures other than ours still alive and well, but we’ve done a great job of not noting them in our history.

    We see this propensity of ours to hurt, fight, and maim each other and all others, notice it, and then deem ourselves tainted; that there is something innately wrong with us, that we were *born* bad, that we need to be saved form our ugly, vicious nature. We turn to spirituality, an afterlife that doesn’t make us work so hard, where there is forever more places to live, things to eat, friends, animals, and all live in peace. . . a nirvana where we aren’t pitted against the rest of the planet and all life in this bitter controlling struggle. Our actions and wars, our crime, murder, deceit, currencies and theft. . . famine and mad houses, all of these are born from overcrowding.

    We made too much food, then too many people, and when the food fails, there are too many of us to live well. We starve, have to fight for money, shelter, space, food. . . so many of us that there is nowhere to go. But we did it ourselves, by devoting ourselves fully to this progress, this making ourselves the most important and only important thing in existance. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have started converting the world into a soley human-oriented manufacturing plant for food, clothes and shelters.


    1. Re: My circuitous tangent

      At any rate, we are in the throes of cultural disillusionment. We are waking up to the fact that it doesn’t work – that the world will NOT just magically take away all the dammage we do to it and everything else, and that we do have to pay a price for all that we do, and the price is high. The resources we once thought infinite have turned out to be limited and in fact dwindling. The world cannot support 6.5 billion humans forever, and definitely won’t support 12 billion, which is what the population probably will be in another 20 years or less at the current exponential rate of reproduction. China realized that decades ago, but since it didn’t ditch the “humans must rule the world” credo, it is still going to go through the same crash that the rest of us will when this whole thing goes to pieces — it is already falling apart.

      I think we just need to realize that we are a part of the world, not something above it, and that while we think the only interesting parts of history are the ones a few thousand years old, there are in reality millions of years of history in which humans did not take over the world, but were a part of it, and lived really well. We call that prehistory, because we think it’s so not worth noting. That worldview is not part of ours.

      But! We have been waking up to the idea that our fundamental worldview is not quite right and leaves us feeling empty. Our religions have been based on that sense of discontent, trying to sooth our souls and tell us we’re deep down wrong, but still can be saved. Our recycling rpograms, and education programs, and famine-relief programs try to stem the tide of our progress, to slow down our race to ultimately consuming everything on the planet and leaving it as waste. But we need more than programs. Right mtoivation, but it doesn’t ever part from the idea that we must take over everything. . . it only softens the blow and says we still can, we’ll just tidy it up a bit. Somethings got to give. I think the time for a new vision is getting ripe. So many of us are ready for it. But we feel lost and don’t know where to look for one, or how to implement it. (then again, if the time is right, the idea will just create momentum on its own – the industrial revolution needed no programs – it just kind of went with its bad self)

      I wish I could take credit for these ideas myself, but actually, I have been reading “The Story of B”, this week, and I am pretty much reitterating what I’ve heard so far and processing it to myself as I realte it to you. It just totally opened up a whole new world of ideas and history and how we percieve it. And I think the story is true, and it’s amazing how we just never bother to see all these things at once and take it to its logical conclusion – even though we feel its truth and are concerned for our livlihood and futures every day – it makes us uncomfortable and nervous.

      Anyway, sorry to have gone on such a tangent. But I hope I have given you more to think about!

      1. Re: My circuitous tangent

        You have three choices. You can blame

        a) medical and food science for saving too many lives.
        b) religious and cultural pressures to have as many children as possible.
        c) parents, particularly women, for insisting on having children without considereing the consequences.

        Sadly, people tend to blame (a). I blame (b) and particularly (c). ‘Cherishing life’ is part of the problem, but I’d rather change the rules than take harsh measures to get rid of it.

        1. Re: My circuitous tangent

          Actually, I pretty much blame all three, myself. . . they all have to change, or at least not be all consuming. I think more people ought to think about what it means to have kids, in particular, more than two, and especially when they can’t support those kids or even themselves. Culture ought not to encourage reproduction as much as it does. I don’t really mind having food and meds at my fingertips, but I do feel prolonging life (like breathing machines for weeks or even years) is often foolish and just selfish of us. Eh, we’ll either figure it out or die trying.

        2. Re: My circuitous tangent

          You and I don’t always agree, but I like giving credit where its due.

          a) medical and food science for saving too many lives.
          People like the idea of “If it helps me, Great!” You live longer, but its not limited to just you. It can help everyone (if for no other reason than because an item or service can be sold – i.e. commercialism)

          b) religious and cultural pressures to have as many children as possible.
          Cultural, yes, but this is rapidly decreasing in most 1st world, and 2nd world nations. Last I heard, Germany’s death vs. birth rate was negative! Religious? Only in that some major religions don’t like the idea of contraception or abortion.
          c) parents, particularly women, for insisting on having children without considereing the consequences.
          The only time I have a problem with this is when the parents don’t, or won’t take care of their children.
          Sadly, people tend to blame (a). I blame (b) and particularly (c). ‘Cherishing life’ is part of the problem, but I’d rather change the rules than take harsh measures to get rid of it.
          (a) is a cause, if not necessarily a problem.
          (b) is a problem, but people are allowed to make their own religious and personal choices.
          (c) is not to blame, since it could be argued that (b)’s culture does not properly prepare (or warn) (c) enough to make a better decision?

          I’d rather not ‘blame’, but I do agree with your causes.

      2. Re: My circuitous tangent

        Incidentally I’ve seen some fairly convincing scientific arguments for why the world can support a population of one trillion more or less indefinitely with current technology and without that much environmental damage, but that does require world peace and some fairly serious macro-engineering.

  5. The unbroken line of progress is an anthropic effect; you can see the same thing to a lesser extent in the depiction of scientific, cultural technological history. Evolution is actually a drunken walk pruned by extinction, but at the same time the laws of the universe do seem set up to support indefinite emergence of new organisational layers.

    It really amazes me that ‘everything is always the same, it’s all happened before’ people still seem credible in this day and age. The point about history is taken, but the size and interconnectedness of modern society makes old things new (sometimes in horrific ways). Frankly at this point I can’t really be bothered beating people around the head until they notice the trend of accelerating change, nor am I worried about my frustration with people afraid of seeing the truth looking like arrogance. The cool thing about accelerating change is that events tend to overtake even the most stubbornly ignorant within their lifetimes.

    The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.‘ – Harry Emerson Fosdick

    1. >the size and interconnectedness of modern society makes old things new >(sometimes in horrific ways)

      Okay, I can go with that, but that doesn’t mean that the old situation can’t provide a baseline, and a guide to help understand the new situation.

    2. I agree with you: our society is complexifying at a seemingly exponential rate! However, I don’t believe anyone was speaking about everything being ‘always the same’. Certainly the point I made was that the concept of ‘progress’ as an inexorable progression towards _betterment_ or perfection, is fallacious. Everyone accepts that change occurs, but I was mostly addressing and criticising the idea that the universe has a built-in tendency to improve. In fact, I don’t think you _can_ average out trillions of local events in one particular slice of time in order to grade that era on some mythical, impartial scale of ‘worth’. When looked at from a personal perspective, every event, in the end, remains a singular tragedy or triumph. If we choose to see things ‘improving in general’, then that’s also a matter of perspective – and illusory objectivity – and, well, a bit of a fudge. As many of the posts here have discussed, deciding whether even something as apparently clear-cut as modern medicine is an ‘improvement’ is not as simple as it appears.

      1. > Our society is complexifying at a seemingly exponential rate!

        You sound just like the Xchaggers (cute sentitent microbes) from the game ‘Star Control 3’.

        > In fact, I don’t think you _can_ average out trillions of local
        > events in one particular slice of time in order to grade that era
        > on some mythical, impartial scale of ‘worth’.

        The theory of utility, and local and global utility functions, are absolutely criticial to the design of safe Artificial Intelligence. Our utility functions are complex, fuzzy and implicit, but that’s just because we’re products of natural evolution. The question of whether there is actually an absolute utility function implied by the structure of the universe is an open one (‘the meaning of life’ – there have been a lot of suggestions) but still highly relevant to goal system convergence in self-modifying rational systems.

        > As many of the posts here have discussed, deciding whether even
        > something as apparently clear-cut as modern medicine is an
        > ‘improvement’ is not as simple as it appears.

        Absolutely, but you cannot leave this unspecified or avoid it with vauge handwaving when engineering goal systems. Sooner or later, someone somewhere has to make these decisions, and it is best that they make them as impartially as possible.

        1. But wasn’t that precisely the point? That ‘progress’ is an illusion – a human construct overlaid on top of an impossibly complex context to give sense and direction? But still, ultimately, illusory? Is that in any sense what you mean by a ‘goal system’? This seems to be taking a tangent into a technical vocabulary I’m unfamiliar with and I must admit I don’t really remember AI being the topic! Therefore we may be talking at cross-purposes. But hey ho.

          If by ‘goal systems’ you include ‘progress’ (I think that’s what you’re getting at … I think) then I’m not sure _why_ ‘someone somewhere has to make these decisions’, in the case of humanity. I’m also absolutely sure that the creation of the concept of progress wasn’t taken ‘as impartially as possible’! Ideas and systems evolve too and their origins are frequently obscure. I seriously doubt that a small committee somewhere sat down one day and made a rational decision to change mankind’s conception of time and destiny in order to spur mankind towards the chasing of a technological utopia :op

  6. The Pheonix Effect

    Just an interesting thought: What if everything cycles itself like the legendary Pheonix?

    History is forgotten, it repeats itself, we learn from it again, it is forgotten…

    The seaons also have this cycle: Birth (spring; Adolescence (summer); Old Age (Fall); Death & Ashes (Winter).
    And for that matter, a Day in itself also cycles.

    Recycling itself?

    Sorry, feeling a little dreary today. On to brighter thoughts:

    Even if the above is true, I believe we as humans can learn to do better each time something repeats itself. Progress, in a way, could be better defined as “doing it better next time”. Less errors, better safety precautions, plans of actions to better deal with catastrophies before & while they are happening.

    I once had a character for a role-playing game who lived by a simple philosphy SLAG: Survive-Learn-Adapt-Grow. You Survive, and therefore you will live to Learn another day. When there is time, Learn, so that you can better Adapt, and increase your chances of Survival. Personal Growth only comes from change (Adapting). This Growth should allow you to Learn and Adapt even more, allowing for greater chances of Survival, which in turn cycles back to more (potential) Growth.

    At a basic level, we are all surviving day by day. When there is time, we learn. This learning will help us to adapt (understand?) our environment and allow us to better interact. With greater understanding, comes (potentially) greater personal growth.

    Many people are stuck just surviving, they either don’t have time, or won’t allow the time to learn anything new. Recreation (tv, movies, video games, etc) of today takes the place of much of our downtime from ‘surviving’. Going to school, taking a class, reading books (not all, but there is room for arguement that most) forces you to set aside time for learning. Understanding only comes when you have learned enough to piece a greater puzzle together – not all of it, just several pieces that link together. Growth comes from when you see that several of those linked pieces actually combine to form a reconizable picture, or even just gives you a ‘scale’ to measure part of the larger puzzle.

    Off to another topic:
    Places/times like ‘Perfection’, ‘Paradise’, ‘Utopia’ – they might be nice places to visit, but if they are the perfect places, then when change them? If there is no change necessary, or even wanted, how dull might ‘Perfection’ be?

    Another thought: If humans became immortal thru science, would ‘progress’ end? Think about it: If progress is a procession of changes, but humans aren’t changing because all the same people are alive now as 50 or 100 years before, what in human society is likely to change? As humans grow thru adulthood, their points of view, opinions, self-consciousness, & understanding becomes more intractable. Think of it this way: take two people, one age 22, one age 55. On average, the 22 year old will have opinions, but they will be malleable, open to change, to listen to what you have to say. The 55 year old may listen, but their opinions probably haven’t changed in 10 years. If you extend this out: if everyone alive were over 200 years old, they everyone would have their own opinion, and it probably wouldn’t change, so everything would stay status quo and stagnate, because there was no fresh blood to add to the mix to stir it up (or even just add new life to old ideas).
    Its the changing generations that allow progress to occur. Each new generation learns what the one before it has done, and then the new generation will try (in their arrogance?) to improve upon it. If the faces don’t change, I believe even science would evetually hit a brick ceiling they can’t get thru.

    I hope that all made sense (even the quip about SLAG). Let me know what you think!

  7. I disagree with that. The evolution of intelligence has outrun the evolution of the human goal system, and the resultant cultural evolution (a phase change in the development of planet earth) has short-circuted the reproduction/survival imperative. As a result we do and want all kinds of stuff that is not adaptive, even when statistically averaged. Remember the EvPsych mantra; ‘organisms are better thought of as adaptation executors, not fitness optimisers’.

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