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What is the idea of progress?
David H. Bailey
Updated 2 January 2021 (c) 2021
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by identifying Christ as the Messiah, by naming his advent as the "meridian of time," by teaching a higher law that superseded the Law of Moses, by predicting a future second coming of Christ, and by describing a heaven where the righteous dead will be resurrected [Eliade1971, pg.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 and Violence.
- Crime. It is widely believed that crime, from minor burglary to serious violent offenses, is spiraling out of control. Yet the facts point in quite the opposite direction. In 2017, the U.S. violent crime rate was 382.9 per 100,000, which is down 50% from 1991; also in 2017, the U.S. robbery rate was 98.0 per 100,000, which is down 64% from 1991 [FBI2018]. In New York City, from 1991 to 2017, the homicide rate dropped by 88%, and the burglary rate and auto theft rate also dropped by similar percentages [Kirby2017; Southall2017]. In Los Angeles, homicides are down 76% from 1991 [Poston2015]. The homicide figures for both cities are the lowest since solid data began to be collected in the 1960s. There was an uptick in a few U.S. cities (e.g., Chicago and Baltimore) in 2015 and 2016, but crime continues to fall in most other cities. This is not just an American phenomenon -- crime has dropped so much in Western Europe that the Economist asked "Where have all the burglars gone?" [Economist2013a]. See also Decline and Violence.
- 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].
- 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].
- 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].
- 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. At the present time, many are focused on the daunting challenge of dealing with climate change, which surely deserves all the effort that society can muster. But progress is definitely being made, particularly in green energy technology. And by almost all other measures, the environment is getting cleaner, although much remains to be done: 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. As mentioned above, although WWI and WWII are the worst ever in terms of military deaths, when normalized by world population they are only blips in a declining trajectory. And we must not forget that since 1945 the number of military conflicts between the major Western European powers has been zero. Prior to 1945, at least one such war was ongoing for 400 years if not longer. Since 1945, the number of war deaths worldwide per year per world capita has declined by a factor of ten. [Pinker2018, Chap. 11]
- Safety. At the same time that wealth has been exponentially increasing and war deaths have been declining, the number of accidental deaths has also been declining. For example, the number of U.S. motor vehicle deaths per 100 million vehicle miles has declined from 25 in 1920 to only one today. Airplane crash deaths worldwide have declined from 6.5 per million passengers per year in 1970 to virtually zero today. There were no deaths whatsoever involving U.S.-registered passenger airlines from 2009 to 2018, when a single fatality occurred [Pinker2018, Chap. 12, 13].
- Democracy and equal rights. As recently as 1989, there were only 52 democracies worldwide; now the number is 103. The recent headlines of racial and sexual incidents mask the broader trend downward over time. In the U.S. in 1940, 44% of whites said they would move if a black family moved next door; today the figure is less than 1%. Sexist, racist and homophobic jokes are rapidly disappearing from respectable discourse. Rates of domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape are steadily declining, although from recent events it is clear we still have far to go [Pinker2018, Chap. 14, 15].
- Education, work and family life. Worldwide literacy has increased from 20% two centuries ago to 80% today, and the figure is rapidly rising. The same is true for basic education -- in every nation for which reliable data are available, the average years of child schooling has increased from 1980 to the present, dramatically in many cases. The average years of schooling in Cambodia today (four) is comparable to that of the U.S. in 1900. Average working hours are decreasing worldwide, and average leisure time is increasing. By and large, jobs available today are significantly more interesting and fulfilling than in years past. Many yearn for the "good old days" of the mid-20th century when parents spent more time with children, but this too is an illusion. In 1924, only 45% of American mothers spent two or more hours with their children every day; by 1999, 71% did. In 1924, only 60% of fathers spent one or more hours; by 1999, 83% did. Today, both single and working mothers spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in 1965. Along this line, out-of-wedlock births are a problem (and unfortunately not analyzed in detail by Pinker): in the U.S., over 40% of children are now born to single mothers, with similar rates in Western Europe. But these rates now appear to have topped out and are declining. In Japan, only 2% of children are now born out of wedlock [Pinker2018, Chap. 16, 17].
Pinker emphasizes several times that we cannot predict the future; some of these favorable trends may reverse at any time. What's more, some very serious challenges remain, among them climate change and converting to clean energy, nuclear weapon proliferation, terrorism, as well as dealing humanely with workers who are displaced due to relentless technological advances. But he passionately argues that the proper 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 and technology together with the values of humanism rooted in the Enlightenment; 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]. As a trained scientist, Kuhn was able to bring significant scientific insight into his analyses of historical scientific revolutions. 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 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 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 Popper and 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 blase 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 (see Cosmo constant for additional details). 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. For instance, 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. Astronomers may well detect signatures of life on other planets in the solar system and beyond, or even of other technological civilizations. New medical technology, such as new applications of DNA sequencing that we can only dimly foresee at the present time, are certain to come.
- 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 [Transistor2019].
- 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 2019, over five billion persons, or roughly 70% of the entire world population, own at least a cell phone, and 2.71 billion, or nearly half the world's population, own a smartphone [Smartphone2019].
- Genome sequencing. The first complete human genome sequence was completed in 2000, after a ten-year effort that cost approximately $2.7 billion [Genome2010]. But in the wake of several waves of new technology since then, genomes can now be sequenced for less than $1,000, and the cost is expected to drop to only $100 by 2020 or so [Vance2014; Fikes2017] (see DNA). In the latest application of DNA technology, researchers have discovered a technique for gene editing ("CRISPR"), a development that is certain to have far-reaching applications [Zimmer2015c].
- Artificial intelligence. In 2017, a computer program developed by Google's DeepMind defeated the world champion Go champion, an achievement that many had thought would not come for decades, if ever. This same AI-machine learning approach is now being applied in numerous commercial developments; indeed, 2018 appears to be the year that AI truly came of age. Closely related is the development of self-driving automobiles and trucks. Waymo has already launched a robot-ride taxi service in Arizona [Davies2018].
See Progress-science for more details and examples.
It is a sad commentary on our current society that a large fraction of the populace 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 social and economic indicators. Crime is down; life expectancy is up; numerous diseases have been conquered; hundreds of millions fewer worldwide live in 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 left wing (e.g., the postmodern science studies community) and the right wing (e.g., the creationism and intelligent design movements), the engine of scientific and technological progress continues 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. Computer and information technology continues its relentless advance with Moore's Law. More than 5 billion, or roughly 70% of the entire world human population, now owns at least a cell phone, and 2.7 billion own a smartphone. And technologies such as genome sequencing, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and commercial space travel are just getting started.
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's a great time to be alive.
For additional discussion, see