Monday, December 20, 2010

My "Progress" Project Begins - final bit of backstory

Three years ago I found myself in a frustrating situation, career-wise.  I had started doing research for a dissertation on "reduction and emergence" -- the philosophical study of how complex things relate to simpler things.  Earlier, I described my debates in college with fellow physics majors about whether it would be possible to predict the future exactly using physics.  As it turned out, there were similar debates in the philosophy of science, and I saw my chance to make my point and perhaps publish it.

At the same time, my personal interests had already moved on to bigger, more human questions.  The more I thought about the idea of "modern progress" the more I started to think it was nonsense.  It seemed to me that, one, a utopian world would be pointless and uncreative, and, two, the world as it is today is no closer to utopia than it has ever been.  Of course, these are very imprecise issues, compared with the sort of thing analytic philosophers are supposed to think about.  And I found that most of the time, when I raised these questions around other grad students or professors, they were either dismissive or simply uninterested.

But here's why it struck me as important.  The main reason science is considered the most useful thing a person can do, is the belief that it gives rise to new technology that makes the world a better place.  But if technology hasn't made the world a better place, what reason do we have for thinking that it ever will?  And if it won't, then the whole reason we have for valuing science above all else dissolves, regardless of how well-established scientific facts might be.

These sorts of thoughts drove me with all the more passion into literature, poetry, and even religion and mysticism.  I needed to figure out what, if not science or traditional religion, human life is all about.  Sure, we can never know these things with certainty, but it seemed to me that something had to be found that could replace the religions that used to give life meaning, and that this missing thing was something other than science.

The void inside me continued to open wider, and I approached another point of crisis in my life.  Nothing my fellow philosophers were doing seemed worthwhile -- it all seemed like mere science-worship to me.  At the same time, I felt like I had nowhere else to turn.  It seemed that most religions were full of superstitious beliefs that I could not sincerely believe.

I spent dozens of hours a week trying to write these thoughts down.  I wrote dialogues, aphorisms, jokes, essays, and fragmentary notes of all kinds.  I shared these with only my closest friends, and I gradually started organizing them into a book.

At that point, three years ago, it still wasn't a very good book.  I wasn't completely sure where I was going with it -- it was all over the place.  But the one theme that kept emerging again and again was progress.  I wrote dozens of arguments for why progress had to be a myth.  Finally I decided that this was where I needed to begin -- I needed to develop in depth my argument for why progress is not possible.  And I believed I had found a scientific argument.  I just needed time to work on it.

So I took a two-year leave of absence from the department.  Not only was I going to work on my own book, but I was going to see if I could finally build a life for myself outside of academia, where I could have the freedom to read, think, and write about things that I found important -- as opposed to things that would get me a job.

The two years the followed (that is, from the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2010) have the been the best of my life, and I finally feel like I've found peace with my questions and something sacred to build my life around.  But it has also been the most difficult two years I've been through.

To tell this story entirely would be to tell everything I'd like to say in my book.  Instead, I'll simply summarize what I've been up to:

Summer of 2008, I lived with my parents and compiled all my notes on progress.  Fall 2009 and spring 2010 I lived as a hermit in a studio apartment, reading dozens of volumes of anthropology, history, archaeology, political science, economics, sociology, evolutionary theory, philosophy, and sacred texts.  I completed a first draft of my book.  Summer 2010 I taught nuclear science at a summer camp for gifted junior-high students (CTY).  Fall 2010 I went to see my close friend Claire in Santa Cruz and lived there among hippies and counter-cultural types for a few months. That November I experienced a religious conversion while reading about traditional lifestyles, the Bible, and the Koran.  I also completed a second draft of my book.  Spring 2010 I returned to Utah, met my lovely and talented future wife, Emily, completed a third draft of my book, learned to play the guitar, and began to plan for the coming collapse of our society.  Last summer I went back to CTY to teach logic, and this fall I've been back at grad school writing my prospectus for a dissertation on evolutionary theories of scientific change.

There's the superficial version of what's been going on.  So much for my backstory.  In the next post I'll start on the cosmic backstory -- the story of "progress" ...


  1. Hey Sam,
    Loving the blog. But I have kind a big questions for you about this particular post. You are kind of ragging on technology here. And just to play devil's advocate. How do you figure this isn't a bit hypocritical if the only reason I am reading this is because I of the Internet etc, etc. I mean that is a lot of technology that has gone into transmitting your ideas to me. I kind of think that the Internet makes people's lives better, though obviously very different.

    Just something to consider.


  2. Thanks -- I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.

    It's true that I am ragging on technology -- and there will be a lot more ragging to come. (You might want to see the most recent post: "My Case Against Progress.") I think we've already sacrificed too large a part of our souls to technology, and for very little gain.

    Your question about whether I'm being hypocritical by using the Internet is an interesting one. In fact, if technology were to disappear completely, I'd be in all kinds of trouble -- I rely on it for heating, electricity, transportation, and food. I would literally die if it suddenly disappeared.

    But this is precisely the reason I'm so worried about it. Fossils fuels are running low, arable land is disappearing, and pollution is rampant. Species have been going extinct faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out. We're on a crash course with a disaster and it seems to me that it's high time to get back to a pastoral existence.

    If I had the money, I'd move back to Utah where my family is, start a farm, and wean myself off the Internet and other techno-addictions. As it is, I've still got to earn the money to buy the farm, which means studying in Pittsburgh far away from my family and friends, using the Internet to stay in touch.

    I don't expect to have convinced you to pursue a pastoral life yourself so easily, but anyway there's my answer to your question.