Friday, August 9, 2013

Credo of the Religion of Progress

This post is an attempt to summarize some ideas discussed in JMG's blog. He was probably not the first one to say these things. Wendell Berry and others may have said them before him.

The ROP is the most popular civil religion of our times. It is non theistic, although Progress has some characteristics usually attributable to gods. Both conservatives and liberals embrace this religion, conservatives focusing on the economic aspects and liberals on the technological and moral aspects. Liberals refer to those who are not believers as "regressive" or "backward", and to themselves as "progressive".

Here are the tenets of the ROP. These seem to be common to most practitioners, but there might be variant credos. It is good to become aware of unstated beliefs and it is even better to come up with alternatives. But if the alternatives are just opposites of the original tenets, it becomes an "anti-religion", which is still within the framework of the old religion. Examples are Satanism-Christianity, Communism-Objectivism, and ROP-Primitivism or Apocalypticism. I'll work on an alternative credo, which is not within the framework of the ROP soon.
1. Science keeps improving our knowledge of the world and all that came before science (or offered as an alternative way of knowledge) is inferior (superstitious, ignorant, etc). 
2. Industrial technology is an improvement over other technologies that preceded it because it is more efficient, and hence saves labor and increases comfort, health and creativity (other things don't really matter, and the creativity of the small scale farmer and artisan is quaint, but not of much significance). Manual labor is degrading and requires almost no intelligence. Energy and material availability needed to support industrial technology keep increasing. Finiteness of energy or material resources will be transcended because "they'll think of something", or they'll be a "singularity" (akin to the Christian Rapture).

3. Centralization is a good thing. To make it work we need hierarchies. 

Corolaries from 1, 2 and 3:
A The priests of ROP are scientists, engineers and doctors, aka experts. Experts know more than average people in their field of expertise, and should always be followed. If it doesn't ring true, it's because you aren't smart enough, not because the expert is wrong, or their model is wrong. Experts are required for every daily activity, even if you think you know how to do it. Eg, you should consult experts for childbirth, child-rearing advice, breastfeeding advice (unless you're really progressive and use formula), relationship advice, etc. (Please ignore the fact that humankind has been birthing, feeding, raising children for centuries without said experts)

B. Every "problem" has a technology solution. Eg, small boys fidgeting in school has nothing to do with being young and energetic, or lack of sufficient time at recess, or any problems in the home life. It can and should be easily solved with an attention-deficit pill.

C. The full force of gov't can and should be used to enforce progress to improve the world, and guided by experts, despite the protests of any group or individual.

4. Progress is not only good and inevitable but logical and rational.
D. The experts who are guiding progress are therefore logical and rational (like Spock), and devoid of any personal motivations like greed, envy, lust, cover-your-derierre defensiveness, etc. 
E. Anyone who opposes progress is irrational and emotional and cannot be trusted to make informed decisions. Any criticism of experts can be safely ignored.
5. We can't go back to either a religious worldview or a pre-industrial one because they are "regressive" (less leisure time, more disease, shorter lifespan, harder labor, and other demonizations), and there is nothing that will come after science and industrial technology unless it is barbarism.
6. Economic wealth keeps increasing and will continue to do so.
Corollary to 6:
F: The highest and best use of real property is that use which will generate the most profit.
7. We become morally better (freer, more loving, more altruistic) people as time progresses. Society keeps improving on the moral front. There is an inevitability about this just like in the case of technologies. This is a favorite of new agey types, who frame it in therms of evolution, whereas biological evolution has nothing to do with progress.

8. The opponents of progress will inevitably be defeated, as they have been in the past by the heroes of progress.
9. Things must always be improved. If things are not getting better (staying the same or "slipping back") then this is a failure and a problem. We need a permanent avant garde.

The ROP has apologists to assure its believers that everything is alright. They will tell you that lifespan has increased, that education, leisure time, medicine, economic welfare have all progressed. They ignore the relatively high lifespan of peasants who were not engaged in warfare or the effect of medieval city slums on sanitation and lifespan, or the effect of war on, say, Iraqui lifespan. They ignore the fact that most moderns only know a bit about their specialty and a few abstract things but not about how to live a sane, sustainable life. They ignore the fact that most moderns no longer have much leisure time, and those who do do not know what to do with it, feeling stress, alienation and meaninglessness, whereas most medieval peasants and hunter gatherers had plenty of leisure time. They ignore the fact that new diseases have cropped up as a direct result of the kind of life that industrial production/consumption promotes, and that a stupendous amount of non-renewable resources that will not be available to our descendants are used to prolong miserable lives in old age. They ignore the fact that economic wealth is mostly concentrated in the west, that it is mostly a result of a finite bubble of petroleum that has peaked, and that family, community, connection to nature and ability of small groups to produce their needs provides another kind of wealth that might be more valuable. They ignore these things even when presented with concrete evidence to the contrary, as in a living, existing village where people are much happier in a pre-industrial setting such as the Possibility Alliance. This is one reaction to cognitive dissonance, to just ignore, to not even see something that doesn't fit one's religious narrative.

I used to believe in the ROP. Most people still believe in it though they are not even aware of it as a religion (which besides having faith-based beliefs that motivate people, also has rituals, and an anti-religion where the good is inverted to be bad, and the bad is inverted to be good). I suppose I still believe in a modified form of #7: I'd like to think that individual humans can become more loving and increase in other virtues, and that during certain times there could be more humans who are virtuous than at other times. But I don't think that virtue has to increase, and that at certain times it might actually decrease. I don't believe in the perverted view of evolutionary theory that sees evolution as leading to more morally evolved humans.

The problem with the ROP is not that it isn't true. It is as true as any other religion, but it isn't adaptive at this point in history. It increased human misery. Of course there are scientific and technological developments and some of them help some people (e.g. anti-biotics). But every culture does some things better and some things worse. To believe that our western culture is at the pinnacle of evolution and that the goal of life is to control nature is not only hubris, but it prevents us from seeing better ways of living in this world.

Attempt at formulating an alternative (Luddite, or maybe just Iuval's) Credo:
1. The universe is not always deterministic. Free will exists.
2. Matter exists concomitant with Spirit. Spirit has qualities like information, love, creativity, spontaneity and fundamental unpredictability.
3. The equations of Physics and abstract math are spiritual, non-material.
4. Humans can live well on the earth with much less material goods, and much more spiritual ones: love, freedom, deep relationships, scholarship, music, art, play, dance, engineering of simple tools.
5. The material world is good to engage with when it doesn't take over our minds and hearts, but when it places us in relationship with nature and each other.
6. Sometimes mistakes can be made in the collective choices of a society, or the powerful elites of that society which then become the choices of most others in that society. For example the choice to adopt industrialization which placed efficiency and comfort above all else. Newer is not always better. Efficiency is not everything.
7. Local economics is better for the planet and most people's souls than global economics. The particular form (socialist, free market, gift or other) would naturally vary from place to place, from soul to soul.

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