The Speculist: Human Progress

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Human Progress

Via InstaPundit, check out this excerpt from the introduction to Chris Hedges' new book, I Don't Believe in Atheists. (The excerpt begins about a quarter of the way down the page.)

Hedges argues that the both secular and religious fundamentalists are a threat. Both groups have lost sight of the notion of sin -- the idea that human nature is at its core limited, flawed, fallible. Once people forget about sin, once they believe in human moral progress, all manner of trouble ensues:

Yet the belief persists that science and reason will save us; it persists because it makes it possible to ignore or minimize these catastrophes. We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf. We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.

"For every age," Joseph Conrad wrote, "is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end."

The belief that rational and quantifiable disciplines such as science can be used to perfect human society is no less absurd than a belief in magic, angels and divine intervention. Scientific methods, part of the process of changing the material world, are nearly useless in the nebulous world of politics, ideas, values and ethics. But the belief in collective moral progress is a seductive one. It is what has doomed populations in the past who have chased after impossible dreams, and it threatens to doom us again. It is, at its core, the enticing delusion that we can be more than human, that we can become gods.

The real problem, it seems to me, is not the belief that human moral progress is possible; the real problem is the idea that it's inevitable. It's not. And if, as we have suggested, humanity takes one step back for every two forward, even a fairly significant trend of moral progress would have to be marred by many horrible setbacks which, when added together, could make a strong case for a complete lack of moral progress or even for an observable trend of moral decay.

It's easy, for example, to look back over the past century of human history and see one example after another of technological advancement being put in the service of human exploitation and destruction. The examples are many. They are appalling, and they are unavoidable.

Even so, they don't tell the whole story. As we have noted before, research shows that human pre-history was significantly more violent than any period in recorded history -- including the 20th century. A modern human living in the 20th century was less likely to die from violence at the hands of a fellow human being than a hunter-gatherer living 50,000 years ago. In fact, in order for the 20th century to reach the carnage level of the hunter-gatherer era, we would have had to see a total death toll from wars of about 2 billion.

I can't find a good estimate of the total death toll of all wars in the 20th century, but let's take the high-end estimate for all World War II deaths as listed in Wikipedia, 75 million, and let's double that. And then, just for good measure, let's double it again. So that gives us an estimate of 300 million total war-related deaths in the 20th century.That means that the technologically powered depravity of that century managed to achieve a death rate of only about 1/7th of what our hunter-gatherer ancestors faced.

What if we go back just a couple thousand years. What percentage of the world's population lived in slavery at that time, or a condition we would find indistinguishable from slavery? Yes, it is horrifying to think that pockets of slavery and slave-like conditions still exist in our world today -- but how many billion would have to be slaves today to match the percentages of the era of Julius Caesar?

How many women voted (anywhere, for anything) 300 years ago? All around the world, how many vote now?

How many environmental groups existed 150 years ago? How many exist now?

How many animals benefited from prosthetic technology 25 years ago? How many benefit now?

Technological development doesn't make us better. It gives us more choices. And sometimes we choose to make things better with the increased capability we have been given. It's not inevitable that we will make things better, but it does seem built-in for us to try. Hedges is right that we shouldn't view ourselves as the culmination of a process of advancement. We aren't the culmination; we're just the latest step. Nor should we view human nature or the human condition as perfectible. Rather, we should see them for what we have demonstrated them to be time and time again throughout our history -- vastly improvable.

As for that "enticing delusion" that we can become more than human, I think I have to hang on to that one for a while. Even the idea that we will become "gods" isn't out of bounds, relatively speaking. I have at my fingertips capability that would make me seem vastly godlike to one of those hunter-gatherer ancestors we were just talking about. I believe that our descendants will surpass us even further than we have surpassed the hunter-gatherers. The thing to remember is that, when they reach that state, there will be nothing godlike about it.

Hedges is right to point out our limitations and the risks we face. But I think he is missing out on something important. The future is never the future. All you ever get is the present. The utopia we live in (relative to our ancestors) is not utopia at all, as we well know. And transcending what it means to be "human" does not make one a god or even put one into a transcendent state of humanity. Transcending limitations is the natural human state. To reject the human ability to advance may be the biggest delusion of them all.


Comments

very nice phil.
It is so terribly limited though, this tedious judeo-xian ethnocentrism.
1.5 billion muslims don't believe in the concept of original sin-- we believe instead that man is forgetful.
But I am hopeful.
After all, Steven Pinker says we are better than we were.....and a whole lot of us believe we can be more than human.

just not Leon Kass and the bioluddite council i guess.

/giggles

The future is never the future. All you ever get is the present.
The present is the form of all living phenomenon of the universe. This absolute present is the zenith of purity and simplicity. It means all things are, in the moment, simply and purely how they are. No matter what the form or aspect it may be, everything is simply now, as it is. In now, there is no past or future.
Lord Buddha

Great stuff, Phil, but I found this typo particularly amusing:

let's take the high-end estimate for all World War II deaths as listed in Wikipedia, 75 million, and let's double that. And then, just for food measure, let's double it again.

Soylent Green is people!

Phil:

Well put.

Matoko:

I suppose ethnocentrism is always tedious from the point of view of those outside looking in. The thing about "the other" is that they... (what gall!)... think that I'm "the other."

It seems that the best way out of this mutual trap is to practice the golden rule without reference to creed, religion, or ethnicity.

Matoko --

Well, the original Christian concept of sin (as distinct from the Christian concept of Original Sin) borrowed a Greek term from archery which means "missing the target." I think being forgetful and missing the target are compatible ideas. Hedges seems to be describing something akin to the Calvinist notion of total depravity, which says that we are too flawed by sin to get anything right. I agree with him that perfection is not a realistic target, but disagree with the idea that moral progress is impossible. Call it "partial depravity."

Thanks for the Pinker link, btw. I was looking for that.


Jay --

Thanks. We shoot for at least one good Chuck Heston reference per month around here and I think we were overdue.


Stephen --

In fact, one of the most telling examples of progress is how radically ideas about "the other" have changed and are changing today. One of the reasons I dislike our current political discourse is that, in a country that really has made tremendous progress in eliminating both fear of the other and institutional establishment of "otherness" (with a ways yet to go on both fronts), current political rhetoric makes the opposing side not only into the other, but the epitome of evil. These tendencies run very deep. Maye shutting them down in one area just allows them to show up someplace else.

That's the sort of thing Hedges worries about, I guess. And he is right to do so. Perhaps "one two steps forward, one step back" isn't the right analogy for moral progress. Maybe it's more like this.

Original sin is a judeo-xian doctrine, steven.
How very intellectually limited of Hedges.

"Atheists" is just another futile skirmish in one of the Oldest Wars, the war of religion vs science and technology.
A puerile anti-intellectual attempt to paint atheism as just another religion.

These meme wars always have the same outcome. We will call it the Galileo Result.

Phil is right--Transcending limitations is the natural human state. To reject the human ability to advance may be the biggest delusion of them all.
It seems like the religionists just want to hold the rest of us back.
;)

heres something else for you to consider Phil.
Card's old post Empire essay on the red blue meme wars.

Right now in America, even though the Left has control of all the institutions of cultural power and prestige -- universities, movies, literary publishing, mainstream journalism-- as well as the federal courts, they feel themselves oppressed and threatened by traditional religion and conservatism. And even though the Right controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, as well as having ample outlets for their views in nontraditional media and an ever-increasing dominance over American religious and economic life, they feel themselves oppressed and threatened by the cultural dominance of the Left.

The Right has now lost both houses, and McCain seems to me a deeply flawed candidate that will be simply unable to buck the historical tendency to throw the bastards out.

Is this what happens next?

Can it lead to war? Very simply, yes. The moment one group feels itself so aggrieved that it uses either its own weapons or the weapons of the state to "prevent" the other side from bringing about its supposed "evil" designs, then that other side will have no choice but to take up arms against them. Both sides will believe the other to be the instigator.

hehe, either war the Handmaid's Tale in 8 years.

Secession and/or imposed theocracy is a common scifi theme Phil. Have you read Richard Morgan's Thirteen? I highly recommend it.

You know I think scifi is the way we test drive the the paradigms of the future. Could a unilaterally dispossed Right actually go for secession?

And...isn't unilateral rejection of the Right basically an evo theory of culture judgement on the reactionariism, increasing judeo-xian religious bias and anti-libertarianism of the GOP?


haha, one last thing, and apolos for monopolizing your comments Phil.
How does the Right come back from this? Essentially all the important meme-propagators will belong to the Left after this election.
I think the Right will have to go subversive, and try to build some cultural guerillero chic among youth to make a come back.
Your thoughts?

and Phil, isn't this the core premise of both all transhumanists and the Turing Heresy?
"...we can be more than human, that we can become gods."
I deeply resent Hedges sayin that this is "a delusion", both as a transhumanist and as a Sufi.
lulz.

The far left believes it represents the future, progressive moral force for good.

matoko makes the interesting point several comments earlier that the middle and the right of american population is being steamrolled by the extreme left. This election should complete the process.

In the minds of the new moral overlords, the end justifies the means (fake but accurate etc).

We are in for some "moral wars" that will be just as bloody or bloodier as "war for oil" or "war for national interests."

The US military has been the first on the site for international relief, and has maintained the security of world trade routes for the rest of the world. But soon, it will become a great "moral force."

Beware.

Criminy, who threw the Matoko Switch? ;-) A few thoughts in return...

hehe, either war the Handmaid's Tale in 8 years....Could a unilaterally dispossed Right actually go for secession?

I seriously doubt it. I think that's a highly whackable mole. For one thing, there's the basic move away from violence. Maybe rhetoric has become so strident in the West because words are all we're really willing to throw at each other now.

And...isn't unilateral rejection of the Right basically an evo theory of culture judgement on the reactionariism, increasing judeo-xian religious bias and anti-libertarianism of the GOP?

It might be, if unilateral rejection of the right were to actually occur. I think the cyclical back-and-forth between our two political parties is something less than unilateral rejection.

Essentially all the important meme-propagators will belong to the Left after this election.

What about the meme-propagator you and I are using right now? The right has a robust presence on the web. And they still pretty much own talk radio. Meanwhile, mainstream media continues to diminish in importance. I think you're writing the right off a bit early.

I think the Right will have to go subversive, and try to build some cultural guerillero chic among youth to make a come back.

Personally, I think this kind of stuff is very hard to predict. We get regime-fatigue pretty fast in this country. Four or eight years of total left control might provide an opportunity for the right to come stumbling back into power without really changing anything.

Don't get me started. Politics is one of two things that can make me sound cynical. (The Colorado Rockies being the other.)

I deeply resent Hedges sayin that this is "a delusion", both as a transhumanist and as a Sufi.

Come on, Matoko. Resentment is not the Sufi way. Throw the guy some love.

And don't forget to breathe, baby. Breathe.

I will concede talk radio as nontraditional media for the Right.
but the jury is out on the blogverse....
I keep a couple of diaries at dKos. Have you seen what an "action diary" does?

"Throw the guy some love."
No way. He just told me faana is a delusion, and i can't possibly work thru the seven stages to attain it. He also seems to deny the Transhumanist Manifesto and the Turing Heresy.
Another twodigit godbotherer floggin a book on conservo websites is my judgement on Hedges.
Pithed by religion.

"Man cannot acquire what he cannot use."

"that the middle and the right of american population is being steamrolled by the extreme left."

no, legion, im making the point that cultural evolution is fuelling the rejection of the Right.
Survival of the fittest works for memetics as well as genetics.

Hedges is trying to propagate the false meme that atheism is a religion.
Profound Lie.
Like Orson Scott Card points out, there can be atheistic religions, like communism and naziism, which are actually religions without god.

Pure atheism is simply the rejection of the supernatural, and usually arrived at theough the process of secular education.

gee, Phil, whyever would i be slightly ticked off right now?
could it be stuff like this, this, this, and this?

Dont we have better things to do than fight off waves of zombie theocon bioethisists and maniac IDbots?

here's an oxymoron for you Phil.
evangelical intelligentsia

i doubt Dr. Collins would appreciate bein called an evangelical.
He's a self-described observant catholic.
IJS, maybe evangelicals could break out of the "stupid" cultural stereotype if they actually unnerstood ToE has nothing to dom with abiogenisis.

Dont we have better things to do than fight off waves of zombie theocon bioethisists and maniac IDbots?

I certainly do.

Btw, thanks for the link to that Card essay. Very interesting stuff.

je vous en prie.

Here is another pour boire for you Phil.

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