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.

The Multiverse Theory

This is an good visualization of the theory. (The original video I posted got removed at the source, so I replaced it with this one. Not bad, but longer.)

The multiverse theory is fascinating. We have good reason to believe there are literally thousands of other universes besides our own, in-which the laws of nature, the physics of those worlds, may be very different from our own. Read The Case for Parallel Universes.

One of my favorite science writers, Alan Lightman, sees the multiverse theory as generating a crisis of faith in science. Why? Because the search for universal laws of nature, the idea that the universe can be reduced to a set of basic universal principles that apply in all instances, is the sine qua non of all the sciences. But if there are other universes, with different natural laws, then the dream of science, in some since, is a leap of faith. We can only know our own world and the one set of physical laws that govern it. And that’s it. Our search for ultimate scientific truths, in other words, that tie all of nature and reality together, our attempt to Knock on Heaven’s door, is a grand illusion.

A Winter’s Morning Walk

Walk in the Woods
Photo by Jeff Wills

One early winter’s morning, before anyone was awake, I went for a walk in the snow. For me, the wintery wonderland provides a unique chance to be alone with my thoughts and to do some deep reflecting and communing with nature. It’s a good time to just be. Henry David Thoreau would surely have approved.

I quietly put on my cold weather clothes, slipped on my snow boots, and gently opened the front door. My face was immediately flushed by the icy air and the prickly like chilly tingle of blowing snow. As I stepped off the porch into the snow, the sun was just starting to peer over the horizon. Its gentle caressing light pierced the air and shimmered the pale blue dawn with shades of soft amber. I could hear the wind gusts roaring through the tree tops. As I turned toward the woods, I could hear each of my footsteps as I tramped through the virgin white powdery snow. The air was sharp and crisp with the faint smell of wood from fireplaces.

I walked into the woods and made way toward the stream. The snow was deep enough to keep my pace slow and deliberate. It was at this time, along this path to the stream, that I slipped into a semi-meditative state. My mind cleared. I began paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the steady stream of impressions coming from all around me. It was calming and peaceful. I had drifted into a state of heightened self-awareness and total absorption in the present moment.

I briefly lingered at the stream and listened to the gentle flow of the water over the rocks. I then began walking toward the road. My mind was quiet, relaxed, and clear; yet focused and engaged. I began to think about life and the meaning of it all. A philosophical mind like mine can wander across a vast landscape of ideas trying to find some kind of coherent and satisfying answer. But sometimes the best answers come from just being in the moment, from just letting go. After reaching the unplowed road I stood and took a deep breath of the cool moist air and looked up at the morning sky through the mists of my exhale.

Thoughts and ideas flashed across my mind. The environment invoked awe and a sense of amazement and wonder. I thought of how many millions of other people over the centuries must have had similar thoughts while out on a quiet morning walk in the snow. Looking up at the millions of fading stars in the morning light made me think of just how mysterious it all is. I thought of just how impossible it seems that we (Man) will ever truly understand it all.

An old philosophical argument sprung into my mind. How can a finite mind understand the infinite? The very concept of something being infinite in nature, always existing, never having a beginning, whether you believe it’s God or the universe or just matter, is almost impossible to conceptualize or understand for a finite, limited being who resides on a tiny little planet, amongst a sea of planets, in one universe amongst thousands of other universes. Man’s presence on this planet has so far been a mere blip in time. Vast infinite time existed before us and vast infinite time lies ahead when we’re all gone. Are we, as Conrad Aiken said, “Cosmic Mariners, destination unknown?” Or is this short journey of ours somehow the plan of some divine providence?

Of course the simple truth is we don’t know with certainty either way. We know many small “t” truths about life and things. These can be answered mostly by science and reason. But we don’t have any sure answers for the big “T” truths about existence and the universe. Exactly how did conscious beings come to exist in a universe of lifeless atoms in the void? Having a scientific turn of mind, I can hypothesize and attempt to scientifically explain how this could have happened based on our current scientific understanding. But each possible answer I could give would only generate a number of philosophical and scientific questions that would cast some doubt on my scientific explanation.

And so it is with every big “T” truth in life, we live and believe by faith, religious or otherwise. The secular-materialist may shudder at the idea, but they’re as much a faith community as religious believers are when it comes to the big “T” truths about existence. The great question of existence asked by Gottfried Leibniz still remains unanswered: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Which brings me to an important understanding about faith. Genuine faith is always based on doubt. One commits oneself to an idea after having processed it, after having raised and analyzed doubts about it, after having applied it in the front trenches of life and found that the idea still lives and breaths. One rightfully has faith in such ideas. It has worked. It may not be “proven” true. More evidence may be needed to determine its truth. But despite these hesitations and doubts, one continues to live by the idea. That, my dear reader, is faith. “If doubt appears,” said Paul Tillich, “it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith.” In the general sense, faith is that courage that allows us to live by possibilities rather than certainties.

My thoughts were broken by the sound of a snowplow off in the distance. It was time to head back to the house. My wife and children would be getting up soon. I had enjoyed these brief moments of meditation and reflection and the chance to commune, Waldenesque like, with nature and the mystery. I cherish moments like these. We all need time to clear our heads and momentarily cast ourselves adrift in the flow of our thoughts.