Progress, what progress?
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
Terry Martin, trustee of Southampton charity Caraway, which celebrates the wisdom and richness of old age has been musing on the nature of progress.
In a letter he wrote to Robert Hooke in 1675, Isaac Newton (1642–1727) made his famous statement:
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
In this statement, he was acknowledging the debt he owed to the work of others who had preceded him.
This statement is now often used to express the notion of scientific progress, and it is engraved on the edge of those two-pound coins which were minted between 1997 and 2015. (1)
That there has been in the ensuing three and a half centuries since Newton enormous progress in both the hard sciences and technology is beyond dispute, but what about other areas of human enquiry, such as the human (social) sciences, the arts and religion? More importantly, has there been progress in the quality of our lives? What evidence, if any, is there of progress in this area?
Steven Pinker from Harvard University provides his answer:
‘What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Wealth is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.’ (2)
His critics point out that for a more balanced view we also need to take into account that the 20th century was the bloodiest ever, with an estimated 100 million people killed in wars, the Holocaust and the deliberate starvations engineered by Stalin and Mao. The dystopian visions of Orwell and Huxley seem uncannily prescient.
Many older people will often hark back to the ‘Good old days’ when the standard of living might have been lower, with few of the modern comforts and conveniences, but when there were higher levels of trust and a much deeper sense of community.
From a Christian point of view, with a belief in the flawed nature of humanity, it is usually a case of both/and rather than either/or in such issues. We can celebrate and be grateful for the quality of life we are privileged to enjoy and at the same time strive to be more modest in our consumer expectations and lifestyle. We also ‘have heroes of the faith’, called saints, who have set an example of what faithful stewardship and sacrifice can mean.
2. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress (Viking Press, 2018).