|Triplet Arp 274 [Courtesy NASA]
How has the idea of progress shaped modern society?
David H. Bailey
Updated 27 November 2022 (c) 2022
The idea of progress in Judeo-Christian thought
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. 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
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by identifying Christ as the Messiah, by naming his advent as the "meridian of time," by teaching a higher law that superseded the Law of Moses, by predicting a future second coming of Christ, and by describing a heaven where the righteous dead will be resurrected [Eliade1971, pg.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. 211-212]:
Optimism ... is the theory that all failures -- all evils -- are due to insufficient knowledge. ... Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. 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.
The idea of progress in the 21st century
The idea of progress certainly resonates with many contemporary scientists today. In his 2011 and 2018 books [Pinker2011b; Pinker2018], prominent Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker argues that the pervasive public view of seemingly hopeless decline is perversely in error, a most unfortunate byproduct of the predilection of the media (from both left and right) for reporting bad news. Progress is truly real. Here are just a few of the interesting statistics cited by Pinker and other sources:
For additional information and discussion, see Decline.
- Crime. It is widely believed that crime, from minor burglary to serious violent offenses, is spiraling out of control, much worse in comparison with the "good old days" say of 1970-2000. Yet the facts point in quite the opposite direction. According to the latest FBI report (dated October 2022, covering through 2000, the most recent year for which full statistics are available), the 2000 U.S. violent crime rate was 398.5 per 100,000, down 47% from 758.2 per 100,000 in 1991. Similarly, the U.S. property crime rate was down 68% from 1991 [FBI2022]. There has been an uptick in the rate of homicide in some U.S. cities (e.g., Chicago and Baltimore) in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and attacks on Blacks in the 2019-2021 period, but overall the U.S. homicide rate is still down by a third from 1991. And most other U.S. crime rates have not ticked up during 2019-2021; the property crime rate, for instance, actually declined further. These declines are not just an American phenomenon -- crime rates have dropped so much in Western Europe that the Economist asked "Where have all the burglars gone?" [Economist2013a].
- Life expectancy. Life expectancy in Europe and America hovered around 35 for over two centuries, before soaring, starting about 1880, to over 80 at the present time. Worldwide, life expectancy has soared from 29 in 1880 to 71 today. Along this line, infant mortality has plunged from 25% in much of Europe as recently as the late 1800s, to a fraction of a percent today. Similar precipitous declines have recently been seen in numerous other nations, including the poor regions in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa [Pinker2018, Chap. 5]. Healthy life expectancy in Africa increased by ten years from 2000 to 2019 [Boakye-Agyemang2022].
- Disease. As recently as the early 1900s, epidemics repeatedly ravaged populations around the world, striking down hundreds of millions, both rich and poor. But within the past century disease after disease has been either eradicated or enormously reduced, thanks to research, vaccines and better medical care. These include smallpox (eradicated in 1977), polio (only 37 cases remain) and Guinea worm (only 25 cases remain). Others likely to be eradicated in the next decade include elephantiasis, river blindness, blinding trachoma, measles, rubella, sleeping sickness and hookworm. Deaths by malaria have fallen 60% since 2000, and WHO workers hope to reduce this by another 90% by 2030 [Pinker2018, Chap. 6].
One notable exception to these encouraging trends is the Covid-19 pandemic of 2019-2021, which as of November 2022 has claimed the lives of over 1,000,000 Americans and 15 million worldwide [Achenbach2021; Adam2022; Schumaker2021]. In response, a union of academic researchers and pharmaceutical firms has produced a set of highly effective vaccines in record time -- roughly ten times faster than any previous pandemic. But there is still more to be done, as new, even-more-infectious variants (notably the delta and omicron variants) continue to wreak havoc, particularly in unvaccinated populations.
- Malnourishment. Throughout history, waves of famine have decimated societies worldwide, with hundreds of millions of victims, and hundreds of millions more have suffered from malnourishment. As recently as 1870, the number of worldwide famine deaths per 100,000 was 1400; today it is virtually zero. Similarly, in spite of widespread dire predictions by writers such as Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s that the world would soon face mass starvation, the percentage of people in the developing world who are undernourished has declined from 35% in 1970 to 15% today, and further reductions are all but certain in the decades ahead as scientific agriculture continues to advance [Pinker2018, Chap. 7].
- Poverty. China and India, each with over one billion persons, have now achieved the same per-capita income that Sweden had in the mid-20th century, thanks in part to the "great convergence," namely the phenomenon of poorer countries advancing faster than richer ones. More importantly, the number of persons worldwide living in extreme poverty ($1.90 income per person per day or less in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars) has dropped from 90% a century or two ago to just 10% today, and every day the number of persons in that category drops by a whopping 137,000 [Pinker2018, Chap. 8]. Just in India alone, more than 415,000,000 people have been lifted out of poverty since 2005 [Mondal2022, Chap. 8]
- Economic inequality. Inequality remains a major challenge, particularly in the U.S. and elsewhere where there has been a hollowing out of lower-skilled jobs. This certainly merits much more study and effort to deal with, particularly in light of looming advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (see below). But thanks to various social programs in nations worldwide (which are much more extensive than in prior decades and centuries), the impact of this income inequality has been greatly reduced. For example, in terms of consumption, the number of U.S. poor has declined 90% since 1960, from 30% of the population to just 3%. It is also important to note that on the worldwide stage, inequality has actually been decreasing -- poorer nations are rapidly catching up to their first-world peers [Pinker2018, Chap. 9].
- Environment. As mentioned above, at present there are some serious environmental challenges facing our society, including climate change and species extinction. How society deals with these issues will certainly be a defining judgement on our times. On the other hand, there are some brights spots that should be mentioned: the proportion of the world that drinks tainted water has fallen by 60% since the mid-20th century; five key atmospheric pollutants have been reduced by an average of 50%; and annual deforestation, which was soaring in the 20th century, has now fallen by nearly 70% [Pinker2018, Chap. 10].
- Peace. It is certainly true that World War I and World War II had the most wartime fatalities in history. But when normalized by world population at the time, they do not even make the top eight -- they are merely "blips" on a declining trajectory. According to Harvard scholar Steven Pinker, "violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. ... [I]t's a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals." [Pinker2011a]. Pinker documents this phenomenon in detail in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [Pinker2011b].
- Status of women. In 1964, only 9% of American women aged 25-29 had at least a bachelor's degree, but by 2013, 37% of women had at least a bachelor's degree, a significantly higher percentage than that of men (30%). Women are also more likely to continue education after the bachelor's degree. In 2012, American women earned 60% of all master's degrees (up from 46% in 1977), and earned 51% of all doctorates (up from 21% in 1977) [Pew2015b]. On the other hand, it is clear that much remains to be done. In 2012, median hourly earnings for women 16 and up were 84% of men. Even more importantly, in 2014 only 5.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women, and in 2013, only 16.9% of Fortune 500 board seats were held by women [Pew2015b]. And as recent news has made clear, millions of women suffer sexual harassment and discrimination in the work place: in 2017, 22% of employed American women report at least one incident of harassment, and 42% report at least some form of discrimination (earned less than someone doing the same job, treated as if they were not competent, received less support from management, passed over for important assignments, etc.) [Gramlich2017a].
- Race relations. The recent headlines of racial incidents, as deplorable as they may be, mask the broader trend downward over time. In 1940, 60% of American black women worked as domestic servants; by 1998 the figure was only 2.2%. In 1958, 44% of American whites said they would move if a black family became a next-door neighbor; by 1998 the figure was only 1%. In 1964, only 18% of American whites had at least one friend or colleague who was black; by 1998 the figure was 86% [Thernstrom1998]. On the other hand, there are indications that progress has stalled. In 1967, American black household income was only $24,700, compared with $44,700 for whites (i.e., only 55.3% of whites). In 2014, the figures were $43,300 for black households and $71,300 for whites (i.e., only 60.7%), only a minor improvement. The net worth of white households, as of 2014, was roughly 13 times that of black households. Recent revelations of violence against racial minorities by law enforcement officers have compounded these problems. Thus it is clear that there is much to be done here [Pew2016].
It must be kept in mind that some of these favorable trends may reverse at any time. What's more, some very serious challenges remain, such as climate change, converting to clean energy, nuclear weapon proliferation, terrorism, as well as dealing humanely with workers who are displaced due to relentless technological advances. But as Pinker notes, the best way to address such issues is not with pessimism, fatalism and name-calling, as is so characteristic of both the political left and right today, but instead to move forward with the same tools that have been at the root of the enormous progress that has already been achieved, namely science, humanism and and eye to the future; in short, the idea of progress.
The idea of progress in science and technology
In the 1970s, Thomas Kuhn's work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions analyzed numerous historical cases of scientific advancements, and then argued key paradigm shifts did not come easily [Kuhn1970]. Unfortunately, his work includes some very dubious and immoderate analysis, such as at one point where he denies that paradigm shifts carry scientists closer to fundamental truth [Kuhn1970, pg. 170], or when he argues that paradigm shifts often occur due to non-experimental factors [Kuhn1970, pg. 135]. More recent writings in the postmodern science studies field have greatly extended the scope and sharpness of these critiques, declaring that much of modern science, like literary and historical analysis, is "socially constructed," dependent on the social environment and privileged power structures of the researchers, with no claim whatsoever to fundamental truth or progress (see Postmodern for more details).
While philosophers and postmodern writers can debate whether science fundamentally progresses, what are the facts? Even after properly acknowledging the tentative, falsifiable nature of science as taught by writers such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, it is clear that modern science has produced a sizable body of broad-reaching theoretical structures that describe the universe and life on earth ever more accurately with each passing year. It is easy to be indifferent and dismissive of this progress, but consider for a moment a few of the remarkable developments of the past 120 years:
Similarly, it is very easy to take for granted our current technology, which is merely the endpoint of a tidal wave of scientific and technological advances in our modern era. But consider just for a moment what has been accomplished:
- Physics. In 1905, Albert Einstein published what is now known as the special theory of relativity, and then in 1917, Einstein's theory of general relativity further extended the theory to accelerating systems and gravitational fields. Today's GPS technology crucially relies on both Einstein's general relativity and special relativity [Global2019]. In the early 20th century, physicists such as Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger developed what is now known as quantum physics, which governs phenomena at the submicroscopic realm. Quantum physics is the basis for chemistry, semiconductor technology and materials science, and thus has far-reaching and absolutely indispensable applications in today's world. Then in the 1970s, quantum electrodynamics (QED) was extended to what is now known as quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and, together with relativity, constitute what is known as the "standard model" of modern physics, which was dramatically confirmed in 2012 by the discovery of what is know recognized as the Higgs boson [Overbye2012a].
- Structure of DNA. Surely the discovery of the structure and function of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson (with assistance from numerous others, notably Rosalind Franklin) must rank as one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century. The full impact of this discovery in medicine and biology is only now being realized, with the advent of inexpensive full-genome sequencing and gene editing (see below) [Watson1953; Pray2008].
- Astronomy. Astronomers and physicists were started when in 1998, two different observational teams found that the expansion of the universe, long assumed to be gradually slowing due to gravitation, was actually accelerating. This finding has enormous impact on cosmological models of the universe. Astronomers have also discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars, in a development that has significant implications for the existence of life outside the Earth. In 2016, a team of researchers operating the new Long Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) system announced that they had detected the "sound" in the fabric of the universe of two black holes colliding [Overbye2016].
Nor is this the end of the story. It is abundantly clear that many advances of both basic science and technology are still to come. Full genome sequencing has dramatically dropped in price, from $2.7 billion in 2000 to roughly $100 today [Coldewey2022]. Dramatic advances have been achieved in artificial intelligence [Bailey2018]. And it now appears very likely that within 25 years or so, human passengers (not just a handful of astronauts) will travel to the Moon and Mars.
- Medical technology. A vast array of medical technology has been developed, including vaccination and antibiotics, x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging, surgical procedures, effective painkillers and pharmaceuticals and dental procedures that have saved the teeth of billions.
- Transportation. Today's worldwide rail and highway networks serve a large fraction of humanity. Additionally, a whopping 3.5 billion airplane trips are taken each year, and although 80% of the world's population has never flown, each year 100 million fly for the first time [Gurdus2017].
- Computer technology. Moore's Law, namely the observation that beginning in 1965 the number of transistors that can be crammed onto a single integrated circuit roughly doubles every 18-24 months, has now continued unabated for over 50 years, and the end is not yet in sight [Transistor2022].
- Communication. Human society leaped forward with the printing press, the telegraph and telephone, facilitated the huge technological boom of the 19th and 20th century. Now the Internet brings the entire world's cumulative knowledge to one's computer or smartphone. Smartphones, another miracle of technology, quite literally connect nearly the entire world's population in a communications network, provide full access to Internet resources and include a GPS mapping facility that by itself would astound anyone of an earlier era. As of 2022, over 6.6 billion persons, or roughly 83% of the entire world population, own a smartphone [Smartphone2022].
For additional details on the remarkable progress in science and technology, see Progress-science.
It is a sad commentary on our current society that so many are so absorbed by day-to-day bad news that they do not recognize unmistakable evidence of longer-term progress, across a broad range of scientific, social, health and economic measures. Crime is down significantly from earlier decades (even given the uptick in 2021-2022); life expectancy is up worldwide; numerous diseases have been conquered; hundreds of millions fewer worldwide live in extreme poverty; many fewer are dying in military conflicts or in accidents; many more worldwide live in democratic societies where basic human rights are defended; and literacy is on the rise in every nation for which reliable data are available [Pinker2011b; Pinker2018].
At the same time, and in spite of continuing naysaying from both the socio-political right wing (the creationism, intelligent design and climate change denial movements) and the left wing (the postmodern science studies movement), the engine of scientific and technological progress charges on unabated. Just in the past 25 years, 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 $2.7 billion when it was completed in 2000, yet dramatic improvements since then have reduced the cost to just $100. Computer and information technologies continue their relentless advance with Moore's Law. More than 6.6 billion, or roughly 83% of the entire world human population, now own smartphones. And technologies such as genome sequencing, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and commercial space travel are just starting.
There is no sign that this torrid rate of progress is slowing down -- in 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 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 truly is a great time to be alive.