Landscape in Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA] Sistine Chapel #3 [courtesy Wikimedia]

What is the "idea of progress" and how does it relate to harmony between science and religion?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

Introduction

There is one fundamental sense in which science can be seen to be partners with religion: the "idea of progress." Robert Nisbet defines the idea of progress as the notion that mankind has advanced in the past, from barbarism and ignorance, is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future [Nisbet1980, pg. 4-5]. It is arguably the central motivating philosophy behind both modern science and Judeo-Christian religion. As a single example, Nisbet's definition is strikingly similar to the ninth article of the LDS faith: "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." The idea of progress stands in sharp contrast to the widely held view that modern society is in decline, a view that upon closer inspection proves to be highly questionable (see Decline).

The idea of progress in Judeo-Christian thought

The idea of progress is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian thought. Most other ancient religions believed in an endless course of recurrent cycles, similar to the day, month and year of the calendar, and the birth-youth-maturation-die cycle of ordinary life. In Babylonian cosmology, a Great Year was thought to 424,000 years, after which the universe repeats [Eliade1971, pg. 115]. Even Plato's cosmology was cyclic, with a periodic destruction and recreation of the world [Plato1952, pg. 451]. The Hebrew religion, in contrast, taught what is now termed "linear" or "progressive" history: the world had a starting point in the past, and we can look forward to a future epoch when the misfortunes, injustices and evil of this world will be set right. This can be seen in the Genesis account of the creation of the earth; in the promise to Abraham that his seed would prosper; in the account of Moses and the children of Israel migrating from Egypt to the promised land; and finally, in their anticipation of the Messiah who would reign in glory. Christianity further developed this tradition of progressive history by identifying Christ as the Messiah, by naming his advent as the "meridian of time," by teaching a higher law that superseded the Law of Moses, by predicting a future second coming of Christ, and by describing a heaven where the righteous dead will be resurrected [Eliade1971, pg. 102-130, 141-147]. Later Christian theologians such as St. Augustine correctly observed that this philosophy rules out the notion of eternal recurrence [Augustine1952, pg. 350].

Closely connected with this concept of linear, progressive history is the Judeo-Christian belief that God governs the world based on a system of rational laws. The biblical account of the creation, for example, can be read as the creation of order out of chaos [Barbour1997, pg. 199-204]. Faith in the rationality of God is also emphasized in books such as Job, which eloquently teaches that ultimately everything will be righted, in spite of the many tragedies and hardships in life [Haught1995, pg. 22-25].

The Judeo-Christian expectation of a progressively brighter and more rational future has had impact far beyond the world of religion. British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that modern science, as it developed in the West, was based on this faith in rationality [Whitehead1967, pg. 17-19, 27]:

Faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery. The faith in the order of nature which made possible the growth of science is a particular example of a deeper faith.

Along this line, British-American physicist Paul Davies wonders whether modern science would ever have evolved in the absence of Judeo-Christian monotheism [Davies2010, pg. 74-75]:

Without belief in a single omnipotent rational lawgiver, it is unlikely that anyone would have assumed that nature is intelligible in a systematic quantitative way, mirrored by eternal mathematical forms. ... Without minds prepared by the cultural antecedents of Greek philosophy and monotheism (or something similar) -- and in particular the abstract notion of a system of hidden mathematical laws -- science as we know it may never have emerged.

Similarly, British physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne has observed [Polkinghorne1998, pg. 104, 124]:

The first order experience of the scientific community strongly encourages the sense of discovery, the belief that we are given to know more about the universe than was the privilege of our predecessors. In fact, without that belief, a great many of us would not have undertaken the long apprenticeship and weary labour which are an indispensable part of scientific research. ...
The scientist and the theologian both work by faith, a realist trust in the rational reliability of our understanding of experience.

This faith in human progress and the rationality of the universe sustained scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton. Even though their revolutionary system was at odds with the Ptolemaic cosmology assumed in the Bible and taught since antiquity, they recognized that it constituted a more beautiful and rational framework for the physical world [Blackwell2002; Durant1975, vol. 6, pg. 855-863; vol. 7, pg. 600-612, vol. 8, pg. 531-547; Gingerich2002; Westfall2002].

The idea of progress in the 20th century

In the early twentieth century, French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued that human progress was inexorable, virtually mandated by the natural laws of the universe. He further saw the idea of progress as the one theme that could re-unify science and religion: "To incorporate the progress of the world in our picture of the kingdom of God ... would immediately and radically put an end to the internal conflict from which we are suffering." [Teilhard1975, pg. 96].

Similarly, scholar Robert Wright describes a vector of progress, consisting of ever-widening extensions of human cooperation, extending over several millennia [Wright2001, pg. 17, 332]:

[I]f ... we talk about the objectively observable features of social reality, the direction of history is unmistakable. When you look beneath the roiled surface of human events, beyond the comings and goings of particular regimes, beyond the lives and deaths of the "great men" who have strutted on the stage of history, you see an arrow beginning tens of thousands of years ago and continuing to the present. And, looking ahead, you see where it is pointing. ... Maybe history is ... not so much the product of divinity as the realization of divinity.

Albert Schweitzer, who during his years of service in Africa saw immense amounts of human suffering, and who witnessed only constant, horrifying warfare among the major European nations during much of his life, nonetheless remained optimistic for the future of mankind [Schweitzer1933, pg. 243]:

And yet I remain optimistic. One belief from my childhood I have preserved with a certainty I can never lose: belief in truth. I am confident that the spirit generated by truth is stronger than the force of circumstances. In my view no other destiny awaits mankind than that which, through its mental and spiritual disposition, it prepares for itself. Therefore I do not believe that it will have to tread the road to ruin right to the end.

Many religious leaders now recognize that scientific research and resulting technological progress is a great blessing to mankind, and that the idea of progress should be an essential component of modern religion. Pope John Paul II, although he saw potential for problems on several fronts, nonetheless emphasized that "Scientific and technological progress, which contemporary man is continually expanding in his dominion over nature, ... offers the hope of creating new and better humanity." [Bakalar2001, pg. 66]. In a similar vein, recent LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley observed [Hinckley1999]:

But in a larger sense [the 20th century] has been the best of all centuries. In the long history of the earth there has been nothing like it. The life expectancy of man has been extended by more than 25 years. Think of it. It is a miracle. The fruits of science have been manifest everywhere. By and large, we live longer, we live better. This is an age of greater understanding and knowledge. We live in a world of great diversity. As we learn more of one another, our appreciation grows. This has been an age of enlightenment. The miracles of modern medicine, of travel, of communication are almost beyond belief.

The principle of optimism

Closely connected with the idea of progress is what some have termed as the "principle of optimism." This notion was expressed by scientific philosopher Karl Popper, who declared that only is there a solid basis for optimism, but further that we have an obligation to human society to be optimistic [Popper1996, pg. xiii]:
The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say 'It is our duty to remain optimists,' this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.

More recently, British computer scientist David Deutsch (noted for his work in the theory of quantum computation) expanded on this principle in his monumental book The Beginning of Infinity. He formally defined a "principle of optimism" as the notion that "All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge." He goes on to explain that "there is no fundamental barrier, no law of nature or supernatural decree, preventing progress." [Deutsch2011, pg. 212]. What are the prospects for such an optimistic worldview continuing into the future? Deutsch declares [Deutsch2011, pg. 212]:

An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors. There may have been many short-lived enlightenments in history. Ours has been uniquely long-lived.

Summary

It is a sad commentary on our current society that we are so fascinated by bad news that we do not recognize modest but unmistakable signs of progress. In sharp contrast to public perception, crime rates in the United States have declined significantly in the past 10-20 years. Divorce rates have also declined. Fewer teens are sexually active than 1991. Fewer abortions are being performed. Drug use rates among teens and young adults have declined. Fewer people are dying in military conflicts worldwide. Basic religious beliefs are little changed from earlier decades, although young people today are less likely to align with traditional mainstream denominations. And life expectancy continues to advance worldwide, with even greater gains in the third world. These developments are not a license for complacency, since these improvements could reverse at any time, and many millions of human beings worldwide still struggle with war, disease, extreme poverty, marital strife and substance abuse. But there is a rational basis for cautious optimism. For additional discussion, see Decline and Violence.

At the same time, the engine of scientific and technological progress continues to press on unabated. Just since the start of the new millennium, scientists have discovered that the universe's expansion is accelerating, have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and have catalogued the entire human genome. The latter task cost roughly $500 million when it completed in 2000, yet dramatic improvements since then have reduced the cost to roughly $1,000. Computer and information technology continues its relentless advance with Moore's Law. This is perhaps most evident when we see the vast numbers of cell phones, smart phones and tablets now in use (roughly 5 billion, or roughly 70% of the entire world human population, now owns at least a cell phone). These remarkable devices pack full-fledged Internet facilities and computing power comparable to the world's most powerful supercomputers of just 15-20 years ago, and, in addition, include voice recognition and graphical capabilities not available in any system 15-20 years ago. And yet there is no sign that this torrid rate of progress is slowing down -- in 15-20 years hence we will look back to our own time with just as much disdain as we do today when we recall the world of 15-20 years ago.

So we have much to look forward to. The future is destined to be as exciting as any time in the past. It's a great time to be alive.

For additional discussion, see Decline, Morality and Violence.

References

[See Bibliography].