Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Unscientific Preface to "Progress Debunked"

[This is from Draft 3.2 of my manuscript Progress Debunked. Comments, suggestions, and edits are welcome.]

An online science fiction magazine used to have a list of “Stories We've Seen Too Often.” One of them read:

The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good.

This has certainly become a cliché. But there is something eerily sweeping here, as if the editors had lost patience with questioning utopia. Isn’t it interesting that they receive so many stories of just this sort? Isn't it a little disturbing?

If it is true that utopian perfection—by which I mean the absence of all suffering—would be empty and lifeless, it would stand to reason that no step toward utopia would be progress. Our status as the pinnacle of history would be thrown into question. Automobiles, airplanes, modern medicine, computers, modern agriculture: none of these would be progress. They would rather be sources of spiritual stagnation.

In this book I will argue that progress, indeed, is an illusion.

Science-fiction writers and cultural critics have been exploring this idea for decades. But where they have used allegory and rhetoric, I will make the case using evidence and logic. The philosophical essence of what I’m getting at is the same: without suffering, uncertainty, and struggle, there can be no joy, novelty, or success.

People often claim or imply that human ingenuity will eventually solve all the world’s social problems. I don’t think it can. There are theoretical reasons to think that it’s impossible to permanently tip the world’s balance between joy and suffering. And explaining these reasons is the goal of this book.

Why bother writing a book attempting to disprove progress? What’s the point if you can’t make the world a better place? Indeed, what’s the point of anything on my view? To someone used to thinking in terms of progress, the non-progressive view sounds cynical. It sounds like the argument, “Nothing really matters in the end, because we know that in a few billion years the sun will expand into a red giant and swallow the earth.”

But world progress can’t be essential to our purpose as humans because it’s a very new idea. It’s been taken seriously for only two centuries, since the publication of the Marquis de Condorcet’s book on progress, Outlines of an Historical view of the Progress of the Human Mind. Around that time, global culture was basically non-existent, and most philosophers, religious leaders, and scientists assumed that world history was fairly static. They didn’t write books to improve the world, but for the humbler purpose of improving themselves and their readers as individuals. At their most ambitious, they hoped to improve their own community, nation, or belief system.

My goal with this book is an old-fashioned one, to help bring Western philosophy back to what matters. At the moment we’ve become obsessed with the notion of improving the entire world based on scientific advances. But this has led our greatest thinkers astray into materialistic calculations, away from the meditations on wisdom that originally made Greek, Roman, and Christian philosophy so profound.

Promises to improve the world focus on material goods. People are demoted from free, responsible, moral beings, to mere members of populations to be fed. Since individuals are diverse in ability, they can’t be trusted to provide for themselves, and centralized, industrial production must increase. New children are seen not as wondrous creations, but as new liabilities, dangerous to the stability of the system, which must be regulated from the top down. Ancient cultural traditions are not seen as the treasures they are, but as obstacles to development. Progress means social engineering, and social engineering means dehumanization.

I am often told that my skepticism of progress comes from cynicism. Quite the contrary—my skepticism of progress comes from idealism. The “perfect” society we are building is indeed “boring and stagnant and soul-deadening.” I write this book not out of despair, but out of resolute protest. I find it hard to believe that people would prefer a closed, controlled world without struggle, to an open world of wild adventure and freedom. My ideal is the ecology of nature, a system of manifold diversity and unpredictable novelty, filled to the brim with both horror and elation, each vitally intertwined with the other. The realities of nature are the fundamental moral realities. Traditional morality has its source in human evolution. Our oldest philosophical, literary, and religious traditions have been tested to their core through the successive growth and collapse of previous civilizations. It is in these traditions that our most vital principles and values live, not in the changeable fashions of social science. The idea of progress—that science, technology, or any other means can produce a better world than what we’ve had—is an illusion. The proper goals for a society are to survive and create, not mechanize and control. Modern ideas are untested in their long-term effects; we should have more confidence in the traditional ideals that have helped our ancestors thrive across centuries and millennia. We need to start valuing longstanding ideals again, not short-lived “progress.”


If you haven’t already gathered, this book is unusual. It is almost certainly not what you expect. It’s not a textbook. It’s not a popularization of an academic theory by an expert. It’s not a plea to policy-makers. It’s not a meandering journalistic meditation on the follies of our culture. It’s not a work of postmodernism. It’s not a series of literary essays.

What this is—and it took me some time to admit this even to myself—is a work of systematic philosophy in the traditional sense. Let me explain what I mean by this.

Philosophy is—or should be, regardless of what they presently teach at the universities—an attempt to understand humankind’s place in the world and to determine what ideals and principles to live by while we are here. It is concerned with the big picture, with the whys and what-fors of human existence. Historians investigate events—their order, causes, and effects. Scientists investigate laws—the ways that nature produces cause from effect. Philosophers investigate meaning—the significance of all these scientific facts and historical events. Is there such a thing as long-term, worldwide progress? This question has historical and scientific components, but it is essentially philosophical.

Systematic philosophy approaches such questions using reason. The first component of reason is logic, which is the connecting and deducing of facts and principles using still more basic facts and principles. Pure logic is simply mathematics. Logical reasoning is found throughout the sciences and in all systematic philosophy. There will be mathematics in this book, though where it gets complex I will put it in an appendix.

The second component of systematic reason is evidence, which is simply a term for observed facts. Evidence-gathering is the essential activity of science. It is an important part of any systematic investigation because it provides raw material to reason about. I will present a great deal of secondary evidence in this book. This book is not attempting to present new evidence, as a scientific or historical book does, but rather to present the evidence in such a way as to reveal the big picture of what it means. I am seeking to critique, promote, and unite extant, well-tested ideas into a panoramic collage that shows a more coherent picture than the progressive one that is currently the fashion. My argument may have its foundation in research done by others, but this is precisely what allows it to do the neglected job of synthesis.

When I call my philosophical style traditional, I mean to emphasize that I reject the modern notion that real philosophy is the critical dissection of language and argumentation that occurs in current academic books and articles. This leads to a collection of microscopic, over-specialized texts that do almost nothing to help anyone—especially non-philosophers—understand humankind’s place in the world.

Traditionally, synthesis was considered the essence of philosophy. It was the primary task of the most highly regarded classics, including Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Descartes’s The World, Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Darwin’s Origin of Species. Science itself used to be considered a branch of philosophy—“natural philosophy”—that focused less on human purpose and more on objective reality. In recent times, since we’ve enthroned technological progress and the technical science it depends on as the summits of human intellectual achievement, we’ve come to neglect the task of synthesis and demean it as inexact and unreliable. But this is to dismiss what is most essential simply because its investigation involves unique challenges.

In short, I attempt to develop an argument supported by science and logic for a new big picture of world history and our place in it. This picture necessarily has aesthetic, poetic, and moral components. But it is a view that is, as well as I can muster, also firmly grounded in the physical and material realities of the human condition. It’s an attempt at systematic philosophy, in the traditional sense of these terms.


What needs to change, in my view, is not a certain isolated collection of policies, theories, or practices. What needs to change is the entire modern picture of world history and social ecology. We need to abandon the notion that human history consists of an accelerating series of technological and political innovations that make our lives better. Instead, human history has been an evolutionary process involving both rapid changes and gradual adaptation. Disruptions brought on by technology have led to the growth of some societies and the decline of others. Prosperity has come in spurts and led to the flowering of civilizations, each of which eventually grows luxurious and corrupt, ending in decline and collapse.

This is not a new picture of history. Stories of growth and decline are what you find in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in the writings of the Greek philosophers, and in the Bible. Scholars had taken this view of history for granted until fairly recently. It’s the view Gibbon alludes to in 1776 when he begins a sentence with: “Notwithstanding the propensity of mankind to exalt the past, and deprecate the present ...” It’s only been over the last two centuries that our ideology has taken a radical twist, deprecating the past and exalting the present. But the resulting logical, physical, and aesthetic inconsistencies have led our philosophy widely astray of what is natural, ecological, beautiful, and good. And progress has made us blind to certain hard realities. Human beings are mortal and fallible. Sometimes they are evil and sometimes they are incompetent. The freedom and individual diversity that make humanity beautiful are essentially tied to the possibility of evil and incompetence. So far, the entire romantic “back to nature” philosophy has chosen to ignore these disturbing truths. One thing that separates this book from most others of its kind is that, rather than avoiding such facts, it will plunge right into their heart to gain a clearer view of the fundamental, unshakable principles of nature that are at work. In fact, the principles that eliminate the possibility of progress will turn out to be those of Malthus and Darwin.


What is really important lies on the other side of the veil of the illusion of progress. Ancient wisdom. A connection with the past. A connection with nature and the earth. Most of the issues I focus on in this book (population growth, DNA mutation, world government) should be forgotten, not tackled harder; this book is a long-winded critique of the pernicious and widespread idea that these issues are “problems” that must be solved. I don’t write it to fuel more discussion of how to curb population growth, feed the entire population of the world, and eliminate all violent struggle everywhere, but to ridicule our persistent obsession with these utopian goals, and to bring ideals of nature, romance, and adventure back into philosophy.

Those progressives who disagree with me have a tendency to listen to the end, skirt the veil, balk, and pull back because they see that one of the implications of what I'm saying is that our civilization will collapse and billions will die. This is indeed part of what I'm saying. It may take a couple of decades, maybe a couple of centuries. But it’s happened to ten thousand civilizations before ours and it will happen to ten thousand civilizations after. It won't be fatal to what matters. Human culture has always managed to renew itself. Whatever books and music and knowledge and belief systems survive the next 1000 years will truly be treasures, because they will be what got people through the most formidable of all adventures: an apocalypse. 

Introduction: The Argument All-Too-Briefly
excerpt from Chapter 1: Malthus's Principle, Explained and Expanded
excerpt from Chapter 2: Evolution versus Birth Control

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Can the Canon of Classics and Sacred Books Change, and How?


To be a classic a book’s got to be old. It needs to have been tested over the course of two generations—about 50 years—before we can say it is definitely worth reading. But if everyone were to read only old books, how could any new books ever take hold?

We should read the classics, but we need to read contemporary works too. The point is not to let one overshadow the other. Maybe in 1000 years when our tradition has reached a stable equilibrium we can stick to the classics alone. But our world is changing rapidly and new ideas are emerging to adapt to this change. We should be cautious in trying new, untested ideas; we also need the courage to stick to a new principle once we’ve adopted it, so that we can be living proof of its truth. Only then can we help make something a classic.

Above is a graph of the works I’ve listed in my (admittedly provisional) canon. I’d wager you’d see a similar pattern whatever canon you graph. There are two main groups of dots—one during the time of Greece and Rome, and one during the modern era. These are the two periods of the most rapid growth of literary culture in the West. Though more books were written in the 400s AD than at any time before, few managed to overshadow the brilliance of the original Greek philosophers.

The modern era, you’ll notice, has a lot more tiny dots. This is because we don’t yet know which books will be the true classics of the future. Even the big ones are relatively provisional, and are likely to shrink or even disappear with time as their relevance wanes. The weeding process will always be ongoing, as truly-outdated books are neglected and new cultural heroes trumpet their greatest influences.

You don’t hear much about the classics these days. How did they fall out favor, especially if they’re supposed to be so beneficial? Shouldn’t those who read them be the most successful and admired people still today? Shouldn’t we hear them recommended everywhere? The fact is, the last century has seen an extraordinary growth in technology and industry. So the most influential people are still largely scientists and other technocrats. As a result, university philosophy itself has become overly impressed with the power of science and has bowed to its apparent might. University culture as a whole has lost an appreciation for what it already had. The myth of progress has taken hold even there, a myth that favors mass media and mass government, a myth that now controls the airwaves and the mass consciousness of our nation. Progress culture has become viral, demeaning and suppressing what was most precious and ancient. It will take some time before the far richer traditions of the past can come back into their own, but they will be helped as our decline proceeds and our material wealth collapses.

Under the pressure of more extreme selective pressures to come, the classics will return, our canon will be refined, and new classics will be forged.


There’s an interesting article over on Maria Popova’s site about Hemingway’s advice to a novice writer. The first thing he did was hand him a list of classics “every writer should have read.”

Every great thinker and writer has a list of classics that made them what they are. I can’t think of any exception to this rule. How could there be? If you haven’t listened to the conversation so far, how can you possibly contribute? Reading classic works is the beginning and foundation of any good education. The only other essential thing is having a good mentor, and a good book can be a mentor too in a pinch.

If there is a secret to creating a classic, it’s to study classics.

Hemingway wrote, “Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good.”

Reading too many recent books is dangerous, because it gives a skewed historical perspective. It biases you toward the present. It makes you forget. It teaches you complacency with what our culture is losing.

I recently did a survey of my list of classics to see what story themes are most common. Out of 14 narratives whose main themes were “psychological” (for example Crime and Punishment, the climax of which is the inner repentance of the protagonist) 8 were written in the last 100 years, and none more than 250 years ago. By contrast, out of 16 classics with significant “political” themes (involving leaders or nations), 7 were written in the last 100 years, and 4 were written over 250 years ago. Four might not seem like many, but these particular four are the largest and most significant collections of old stories we have: Plutarch’s Lives, the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the plays of Shakespeare.

It looks like we moderns have gotten hung up on our own internal psychology. It’s no wonder that our civic traditions are foundering. We call Ulysses the greatest novel of our time, a story that seems to encourage us to lose ourselves in the meaningless intricacies of our own broken psyches. I’ll take Homer’s wide-ranging version of Ulysses over Joyce’s self-involuted one any day.


Ancient classics are also more likely to champion tradition-respecting, rural, close-to-nature living. They are far more ecological, far less urban-centric. It is a pernicious myth that romanticizing nature is a modern pastime. The best pastoral poetry ever written was penned by Virgil two millennia ago. The Bible itself has more ecological themes than you tend to find in modern literature—according to my rough count they are twice as common. These themes include man vs. nature, the follies of pursuing power, and the follies of urbanized life. Stories such as “The Tower of Babel” and “Sodom and Gomorrah” fall into this category, as do the prophecies of almost every biblical seer, prophecies that preach the eventual destruction of decadent, materialistic civilizations—and which, details aside, have invariably proven true. Rome and Babylon were, as surviving records indicate, crushed under the weight of their own material success and psychological decadence. The Bible is profound because it is the record of those few sages who saw it all coming.

When the Bible first took hold in Rome, it was against the grain of the times. Most philosophies were Aristotle-inspired variants on Stoicism, which taught inner quietude, skepticism, and the primacy of reason. The Stoics believed that suffering was unnecessary, that by detachment from the world one can find everlasting happiness. But this is essentially to teach self-involution, an extinguishing of the relation between the inner “psychological” world and the outer “political” one. Even as invasions and plagues swept in, the non-Christians of Rome generally assumed it would all pass, that their empire would be the center of civilization for eternity.

But the early Christians cultivated the opposite attitude. Instead of detachment the Bible taught attachment: “Love takes no pleasure in evil, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Christianity taught not indifference to good and evil, but the difference between good and evil. It taught that evil would sow the fruits of its own demise, that no worldly power could attain everlasting victory, and that on the other hand—“Love never fails.”

The Bible is against the grain of our time too. As a result we consider it “outdated.” I have a feeling that, quite to the contrary, its advice will prove as prescient as it was last time we got so full of ourselves.

Or perhaps a new body of sacred literature will begin to crystallize, still more against the grain and more profound, more prescient even than anything that has come before. If such a body of writing does emerge, most of us won’t realize which it is until it’s too late. I find this thought humbling, a needed antidote to a pernicious—and ungodly—pride of culture.