In Our Scientific Age, Progress is Inevitable even if not Permanent

I have a friend, we’ll call him Sam, who doesn’t care for the term “progress.” It’s odd when you think about it, but in his case it has a lot to do with politics. The term is too close to the term “progressive,” which in Sam’s mind, I suspect, is what describes all that he finds wrong in the world.

Obviously Sam is for progress (the core idea of a progressivism) if it means a better iPhone for him or medication he might need, or some other technological or medical advancement that improves personal utility or happiness. Airplanes are a nice way to travel fast, and vaccines keep Sam from losing half his family to outbreaks of small pox or some other deadly virus. Surely this is “progress” Sam can appreciate?

But this is complicated, I realize. It would be fair to say that those, like Sam, who are against, or uncomfortable with, the term (or idea) of progress are mostly referring to progress on the moral plane, not the technological…or the economical, i.e. getting rich. Because, naturally, we’re not against a concept or idea when it benefits us personally. My dad, a fine father and successful conservative businessman, once told me he was a conservative in every aspect except sex. For that personal policy position, he was “a raging liberal.” But’s it’s hard, if impossible, to separate the natural connection between scientific, economic, and technological progress from its connection to social progress. They go together. It’s a mindset. Something that seems lost on my friend Sam.

With the Age of Enlightenment came the scientific mind—along with an outbreak of the democratic spirit (American and French Revolutions for example) and the idea of human progress in the West. Keep this in mind. The scientific mind is the mind of learning, of analysis, of capturing nature’s power (physical and social) in order to harness it for socially useful ends. The natural state of a scientific mind is agnostic (Greek for “I don’t know”) when it comes to a proposition about understanding (or commenting on) something the scientific mind has not seen valid evidence for. While not perfect, we know that the best knowledge we can have, the most certain, is that derived from scientific experimentation and research. So naturally such a successful frame of mind becomes adopted by people and societies that wish to improve their lives. Because it works!

At the heart of education in Western society is a scientific view of the world. That doesn’t mean science will answer all questions of meaning, it can’t. It does mean, however, that people will feel more empowered by their own observation and experience to question authority in matters across the spectrum of human knowledge…and that naturally includes social matters. And so if you connect the dots, as our scientific knowledge has rapidly advanced in the West, so has social change….or the push for greater social “progress.” As scientific knowledge has advanced rapidly in the modern age, so has the push for social progress. In the West, these two ideas go together…along with our greater living standards, economic wealth, and way of life we cherish. It’s hard to have one, it seems, without encouraging the other.

This resistance to the march of time and the social—progressive—change it brings has much to do with the fear of change and a desire to hang on to the past—the love of old times and ways of doing things and ancestor worship in general. In some ways, those with stiffly conservative minds are certain that our fathers and our Founding Fathers knew better than we—and in some ways they did!

Being a man who knows you can learn a lot from studying history and biography, I can sympathize with this way of thinking. You do learn something very important from history: It’s called wisdom. If you read a lot of history and biography (but most people don’t) you notice general patterns in the march of societies and people’s lives that generally tend to repeat themselves, though not exactly, over and over throughout history and life. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Well, that nicely sum up what you learn from reading a lot of history: a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement.

So let me say that one of history’s great lessons, one of its central laws, is the inevitability of change. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice.” The river, with its steady flow, is changing constantly. And so it is with the flow of time and human social history. The concept of social progress is indeed a relatively new concept in human history, I’ll give critics of social progress that, but it’s an “inevitable” part of change given the endless flow of time and the yearnings of the human spirit.

I will conclude by saying that while change is inevitable, progress is not. I mean that while progress may come about—and naturally has in America—that doesn’t mean it will continue. History tells us that empires fall and societies collapse. Americans face a serious crisis because of massive levels of inequality and a declining middle-class. It’s not lost on the informed observer of history that the era in-which inequality was at its lowest and the greatest middle-class in the world was created and thriving in America was a period (1945 – 1975) that was largely the result of “progressive era” inspired policies. An era, I remind you, that conservatives are nostalgic about as the good ole days. Funny how short memories are.

Theodore Roosevelt on Americanism

Americanism means many things. It means equality of rights and, therefore, equality of duty and of obligation. It means service to our common country. It means loyalty to one flag, to our flag, the flag of all of us. It means on the part of each of us respect for the rights of the rest of us. It means that all of us guarantee the rights of each of us. It means free education, genuinely representative government, freedom of speech and thought, equality before the law for all men, genuine political and religious freedom and the democratizing of industry so as to give at least a measurable equality of opportunity for all, and so as to place before us as our ideal in all industries where this ideal is possible of attainment, the system of cooperative ownership and management, in order that the tool users may, so far as possible, become the tool owners. Everything is un-American that tends either to government by a plutocracy or government by a mob. To divide along the lines of section or caste or creed is un-American. All privileges based on wealth, and all enmity to honest men merely because they are wealthy, are un-American—both of them equally so. Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood—the virtues that made America. The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.

Preparedness must be of the soul no less than of the body. We must keep lofty ideals steadily before us, and must train ourselves in practical fashion so that we may realize these ideals. Throughout our whole land we must have fundamental common purposes, to be achieved through education, through intelligent organization and through the recognition of the great vital standards of life and living. We must make Americanism and Americanization mean the same thing to the native-born and to the foreign-born; to the man and to the woman; to the rich and to the poor; to the employer and to the wage-worker. If we believe in American standards, we shall insist that all privileges springing from them be extended to immigrants, and that they in return accept these standards with whole-hearted and entire loyalty. Either we must stand absolutely by our ideals and conceptions of duty, or else we are against them. There is no middle course, and if we attempt to find one, we insure for ourselves defeat and disaster.

— Theodore Roosevelt, Letter to Solomon Stanwood Menken, the head of the National Security League and the chairman of its Congress of Constructive Patriotism, January 10, 1917