The Church of Progress

This is the first part of a series on the Purpose of Life.

A lot of liberals worship at the Church of Progress.  The tenants of this church are as follows:

  • Humanity is getting smarter.  As scientific and practical knowledge grows, so does human wisdom.
  • People will choose the truth over a falsehood.
  • Once debunked, a falsehood fades away.
  • As humanity gets wiser, so does the average person.
  • Therefore new and scientific things are better than old, unscientific things.
  • And all we must do to make the world better is to keep corruption and tradition from fouling the march of progress.

I have to admit that most of the time, I am a progressive.  But my faith has been shaken by the realization that things aren’t getting better on their own and, as I become wiser, I find that the world hasn’t learned the same lessons I have.  (Of course, it’s always possible that I’m getting misled, and the rest of the world is smarter than I think.)

For example, feminism.  When I was a computer science grad student in the 1990s, the department was mostly men. I assumed that there would be a gradual increase in the number of women over time.  Maybe someday, but it’s been 20 years, and if anything the numbers have gone in the opposite direction. (And don’t get me started on the number of African Americans.)

Another example.  Fifty years ago, the nation was able to do long-term planning.  Colleges and universities were affordable, or even free, due to government subsidies.  Because a well-educated populace is good for the economy and democracy.  That’s gotten slowly eroded over time.  Not to mention road maintenance and other basic government services.

Another example.  A hundred years ago people learned that solitary confinement causes permanent psychological damage.  A judge declared it cruel and unusual punishment.  But it’s been gradually on the rise, and now it’s scary just how commonplace it is.

Perhaps I’ve just cherry-picked examples where humanity (or at least the United States) is either not progressing or is backsliding. There are certainly examples of things that have improved over time.  And perhaps the progressive faith is correct, just over time frames of hundreds of years.

But some of these articles of faith are clearly wrong.  “Once debunked, a falsehood fades away” is one of them. Some bad ideas either never die or are re-invented on a regular basis.

Richard Dawkins invented the term “meme” to describe an idea that spreads like a gene.  That is, ideas spread and mutate through selective pressure, much like Darwinian evolution. It’s a rather fancy way of saying “catchy ideas spread, unmemorable ideas don’t.” I used to dismiss the notion of a meme as just a tautology.  Of course catchy ideas spread; otherwise they wouldn’t be catchy!  But in the absence of the tautological “meme” meme, other memes fill the void, such as “every lie contains a kernel of truth” and “truth wins over falsehoods.” Plus Dawkins introduced the idea at the end of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, after having described how genes spread, how they interact, and so on.  The idea of a meme implies that an idea may be catchy even if it has no basis in truth.  And it may spawn ever catchier variants.  A meme may be as small as a catchy tune or as big as a religion.

I still believe in progress, but I don’t see it as inevitable.  Even though a ball has a tendency to roll down a hill, there’s no guarantee it will make it to the bottom.  And if something throws it back up the hill, there’s no guarantee it will find a path back down.  Progress is a tendency, not an inevitability.

But what, exactly, is progress?  I’ll explore that question more.  This is the first entry in a series on The Purpose of Life.