Is Human Progress an illusion ?

This article attempts to pose (and answer?) the question of whether human progess exists or it is a mere illusion. This problem has puzzled many philosophers and a very tense debate is going on until our days for that matter.

“I do not wish to judge how far my efforts coincide with those of other philosophers. Indeed, what I have written here makes no claim to novelty in detail, and the reason why I give no sources is that it is a matter of indifference to me whether the thoughts that I have had have been anticipated by someone else.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

 

Introduction

Humankind changes. Noone can deny that. Over the thousand years we exist on Earth, we have developed many ideas, changed views on almost all issues, fought wars, discovered human rights, advocated even animal rights, explored space, tried to explain the existence of the universe, analyzed mathematical truths, changed our own human genome, increased our knowledge on almost every scientific field, recognized that disabled people must be treated with respect and not as outcasts, build up the idea of democracy. Despite all the above many people think that humans do not actually progress. They advocate that even though we seem to progress, we actually only change but still remain the same as species. For example, we may have improved technology, but the use of that technology hasn’t changed our life much. We still do the same things, just the tools have changed. We still use fire, but in the form of an electic oven. We still communicate, but with e-mail and not simple mail. The underlying reality – they claim – remains the same, just the surface changes. And that is not enough to claim that progess exists. On the other side, other people (including me) think that progress actually is there as a fact.

Progress as an illusion

The ones who believe that human progress is an illusion have some examples to support their opinion. The first example is that of technology progress. In that frame of thought, all things that appear as technological progress are mere a change in the appearance and not something truly real. The cases of ‘fire’ and ‘mail’ were already mentioned in the introduction above.

Many others exist. One may think that using cars, living in modern houses, having court justice system, using political parties as an expression means in a democratic system is something that differentiates us from the people in ancient times. That is simply not true. Ancient Greeks had all these – and in some cases they used it more wisely than we do now.

As far as moral laws are concerned, it can be claimed that people have not morally changed much in the years they exist. People continue to try to steal you, as they did in the old times. People still try to decieve you so as to earn money, as they did in the old days. People still cheat on their wifes / husbands. In a way, things have not changed much in the aspect.

All the above-mentioned observations have led some people to believe that we – as species – remain the same. We do not progress, just change in order to adapt to our environment as all other species do. That is also the reason why many darwinists are in favour of that idea – althrough not everyone who believes that human progress is an illusion is necessarily a darwinist. Many free thinking people who believe in the special traits of humans against the other animals debate on that.

Progress as a reality

There are some counter-arguments in favour of the idea that human progress is true and exists. Before saying anything we must define the word ‘progress’. It can be said that ‘progress’ is ‘changing in a positive way’. With that definition in mind, we will attempt to show that such a thing exists.

The first argument in favour of actual progress has to do with the increase of human knowledge on how the cosmos works. For many years now we have learned a great deal about physics, the nature of matter, how particles interact with each other, how the planets move, why various phenomena take place and so on. That vast increase in knowledge can only be considered as something ‘positive change’, as progress. The fact that we know why it rains, that we understand that lightning bolts are not an act of some god to punish us but a simple natural phenomenon, that we have discovered the underlying nature of numbers, that we know chemistry and that we can predict the weather for the next day (even though not with great accuracy sometimes) seems to be actual progress no matter how someone looks at it.

A second argument comes from the morality field. It is true that we have not been more moral in the modern days when compared with the people who lived in the old days. But one cannot deny that some progress has been made when it comes to human rights. Only in the last 50 years have we recognized as society the equality of all races, the respect for the different, the right of human dignity that applies for all people equally, the right to vote for women, the right to have an unpolluted environment to live in.

Ofcourse some could argue that these are mere products of our current society and not reall change of our selfs. But I will answer to them that we, humans, are social beings. Society should be considered a part of our nature, in the same way as living in groups is considered part of the nature of lions. And there is not reason why every accomplishment of human societies should not be attributed to humans but to some ‘entity’ called society which has nothing to do with us. We formulate society and we decide – via our own free will – how societies operate. Recognizing the freedom of speech as a human right is our progress, not the progress of an ‘alien’ entity.

Some other might argue that the progress in human rights is an accomplishment of western society only and that other societies remain unaware of things like the ‘freedom of speech’. That is true, but I do not think it nullifies the fact that in total, human race has progressed. Even if not everyone is aware of the notion of the freedom of speech, the fact that some people are clearly is an indication of progress.

Technology is not progress

During the last 50 years, the word “progress” is closely related to the word “technological progress”. I do not agree with that way of thinking. Technology is a way to make your life easier, but it has nothing to do with the progress of humankind. An animal can also make its life easier by using a tool. That doesn’t mean it “progresses”. The dominant materialistic way of thinking in the 21st century has distrorted the idea of “progress” and we need to go back to the true definition: progress concerns improvements in our soul and mind, not the use of a stick to get insects out of a hole. And it must be emphasized that the “progress” promised by the materialistic based science at the end of the 21st century is not delivered. In contrast to the recent past when scientists’ thought was more holistic, we cannot claim that today we have made substantial progress on many sectors. Science today only collects vast amount of data, without suggesting any essentially new theories for the cosmos. I certainly hope that will lead science to go back to more holistic ways of thinking, as it used to think back in the good “old” days of Aristotle or even Albert Einstein…Having CD-ROMs and DVDs is not progress…

Bibliography

This article is here to just present my thoughts on the matter and certainly I do not claim the novelty of any ideas written here. The purpose of the article is to stimulate thought on others.

Author: skakos

Spiros Kakos is a thinker located in Greece. He has been Chief Editor of Harmonia Philosophica since its inception. In the past he has worked as a senior technical advisor for many years. In his free time he develops software solutions and contributes to the open source community. He has also worked as a phD researcher in the Advanced Materials sector related to the PCB industry. He likes reading and writting, not only philosophy but also in general. He believes that science and religion are two sides of the same coin and is profoundly interested in Religion and Science philosophy. His philosophical work is mainly concentrated on an effort to free thinking of "logic" and reconcile all philosophical opinions under the umbrella of the "One" that Parmenides - one of the first thinkers - visualized. The "Harmonia Philosophica" articles program is the tool that will accomplish that. Life's purpose is to be defeated by greater things. And the most important things in life are illogical. We must fight the dogmatic belief in "logic" if we are to stay humans... Credo quia absurdum!

4 thoughts on “Is Human Progress an illusion ?”

  1. Very Interesting — I found this topic extremely interesting, however, I would love if you could link me to some articles regarding this topic in more detail, please. I have already begun developing my own opinion on the topic but I would like to read more before I begin putting my thoughts on the subject down on paper.Thank you.

    1. Untitled — Your arguments are great. And I agree that indeed all problems start with the problem we have in defining things. “Positive” is subjective and thus we cannot conclude decicively in favor or against the existence of progress. However I believe there are some things for which we can all agree upon: being more altruistic, more caring, is certainly “progress” for example. And yes, there is no way to persuade you that this is the case, or you to persuade me against that. But humanity shares a common denominator of understanding regarding cultural values which have not been changed since many thousands of years. And this denominator is becoming more and more “worse” as time passes. Or is it not?

    2. Untitled — Thanks Mr. Kakos, my interest in the arguments for/against human progress honestly came from this Knol. It is something I have thought about although not in a formally philosophical sense. I must say that in rereading this article and viewing your Blogspot that I feel that I have pinpointed my primary disagreement with the point you are making. I cannot say that the definition of “progress” that you provide is sufficient to carry the profundity of an argument for/against human progress. To say that progress is a “positive change” leaves far too much to be desired; this is primarily due to the absolute subjectivity of the word positive. What is positive for the Muslims and their society is detrimental to Western society and vice versa. Human Progress in this context should be defined as “a pervasive change in human social tendencies that propagates a significant decrease in humanity’s self-destructive nature”. So when you ask “Is Human Progress an Illusion” I would have to answer yes.The reason I would define Human Progress as such is that that the primary detriment facing humans is humans in that we cannot act cohesively act out of self-preservation. So when you mention the progress in human rights I would argue that those are nebulous because they are not pervasive and, moreover, in many cases they are contested in the hearts of many. For instance the difference in the amount of people who truly believe in racial equality compared to those who don’t throughout the world would be vast. Unfortunately, much of the minuscule progress made by humans has been largely overshadowed by our constant tendency to wallow in our own selfishness and act adversely toward other humans because of even the most basic of differences. Politics, particularly in the US, has become a warhorse for the perpetuation of human stagnation. The fact that an official in a government “for the people, by the people” can regularly and unflinchingly stand behind boldfaced lies is the perfect example of humanity’s tendency to act out of individual self-interest as opposed to human self-interest.To conclude my point I will just say that I personally don’t feel that humanity will ever progress in a manner that would satisfy my definition of progress. In order to say that humanity has progressed somehow then at very least they have to have done something in a majority. It is unfortunate that the progressive ideals that you mentioned above are only supported by a minimal percentage of the human race. The technological, social, economic and political “advances” and “progress” (eg. various types of equality, freedoms of speech & religion) can easily be considered an illusion because they are very often twisted from their pure altruistic intentions into perverse self-interest when politicians put on a front of supporting certain of these “progresses” only to find that he lied to gain favor with his constituency. In a similar vein and equally detrimental to the potential of human progress is dogmatism of any sort… I could truly write for days about the extensive damage dogmatic thinking does on any attempt toward social progress, but I am trying to conclude.I hope that you found my arguments compelling or at very least interesting– I am relatively new to philosophizing and would always love critiques. I didn’t want to drag on too long because I could go on for many more paragraphs but I feel that I have gotten my basic point across… truly I could write a book about the subject.Thanks.

    3. Untitled — Hi. Thanks for your comment. My research for the topic started with what I know about the ancient Greeks, who actually believed that we are inferior to the older ones. Unfortunately I do not have specific bibliography to offer. I read many books and constantly find things which support the idea of the “inexistence of progress”. I have some examples in the Harmonia Philosophica portal at http://harmonia-philosophica.blogspot.com/ (all you have to do is click on the “progress” tag at the bottom of the page). Tell me your comments. How did you really start thinking on the subject?

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