We need a new philosophy of progress
post by jasoncrawford
This is a link post for https://rootsofprogress.org/a-new-philosophy-of-progress
We live in an age that has lost its optimism. Polls show that people think the world is getting worse, not better. Children fear dying from environmental catastrophe before they reach old age. Technologists are as likely to be told that they are ruining society as that they are bettering it.
But it was not always so. Just a few centuries ago, Western thinkers were caught up in a wave of optimism for technology, humanity and the future, based on the new philosophy of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was many things, but in large part, it was a philosophy of progress.
At the end of the 18th century, the Marquis de Condorcet gave expression to this philosophy and its optimism in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In it, he predicted unlimited progress, not only in science and technology, but in morality and society. He wrote of the equality of the races and the sexes, and of peace between nations.
His optimism was all the more remarkable given that he wrote this while hiding out from the French Revolution, which was hunting him down in order to execute him as an aristocrat. Unfortunately, he could not hide forever: he was captured, and soon died in prison. Evidently, the perfection of mankind was slow in coming.
Material progress, however, was rocketing ahead. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and then the Civil War in America, the path was clear for technological innovation and economic growth: the railroad, the telephone, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine.
By the end of the 19th century, it was obvious that the world had entered a new age, and progress was its watchword. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (best known for his work on evolution with Darwin) titled his book about the 1800s The Wonderful Century. In it, he attributed twenty-four “great inventions and discoveries” to the 19th century, as compared with only fifteen in all of human history preceding it. The boundless optimism of the early Enlightenment seemed to have been justified.
And if the material progress prophesied by Francis Bacon could be realized, perhaps the moral progress prophesied by Condorcet would come true as well. By the end of the 19th century, slavery had been ended in the West, and some hoped that the growth of industry and the expansion of trade would lead to and end to war and a new era of world peace.
They were wrong.
The 20th century violently shattered those naive illusions. The world wars were devastating proof that material progress does not inevitably lead to moral progress. Technology had not put an end to war—in fact, it had made war all the more terrible and deadly. In 1945, the nuclear bomb put a horrible exclamation point on this lesson: the most destructive weapon ever devised was the product of modern science, technology, and industry.
At the same time, other concerns were coming to the fore—including old ones, like poverty, and new ones, like the environment. By the mid-20th century, the philosophy of progress had been dealt a severe challenge. The optimism at its foundation had been shaken. In its place, we saw the rise of radical social movements based on a deep distrust of technology and industry. Today, progress and growth are called an “addiction”, a “fetish”, a “Ponzi scheme”, or a “fairy tale.” Some even advocate a new ideal of “degrowth”.
It’s no wonder, then, that the last fifty years have seen relative stagnation in technological and industrial progress. Nuclear power was stunted, the Apollo program was canceled, the Concorde was grounded.
But now, in the 21st century, some people are starting to call attention to the problem: Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison. There’s now a growing community that recognizes the threat of stagnation and the value of progress.
The 19th century philosophy of progress was naive. But the 20th century turn away from progress was no solution.
We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. One that teaches people not to take the modern world for granted. One that acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly, and offers solutions. And one that holds up a positive vision of the future.
To establish that new philosophy is the mission of The Roots of Progress.
Today The Roots of Progress is transforming from a blog to a new nonprofit organization. Read the announcement.
Comments sorted by top scores.
comment by romeostevensit ·
2021-08-24T19:35:47.940Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I expect the big breakthrough to come when we figure out why the paradoxes in things like VNM and Arrow's impossibility don't in fact preclude radically better preference aggregation and thus much better coordination tech. I expect it will have turned out that those results were an artifact of the representation chosen for preferences. I expect that we will move from a bit estimate at particular times (e.g. voting) to some more fluid and continuous representation. I expect the new representations won't just measure preferences over specific inputs and outputs (e.g. representatives and policy prescription) but something about the structures of the beliefs about how inputs map to outputs. This sounds complicated exactly because we haven't found the nice formalism yet. It will seem elegant and obvious in hindsight.
Replies from: mikkel-wilson, PhilGoetz
comment by matto ·
2021-08-24T17:28:42.414Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I've been trying to wrap my head around this ever since I read Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History", wherein he brings up "techno-pessimism" as something that exploded during the 20th century on account of both world wars. You could probably trace it back to Romanticism, but I haven't gotten that deep into the rabbit hole.
What captured my attention about anti-progess is how pervasive this meme is. Subjectively, it appears to span countries, cultures, political ideologies, and age brackets. I know people who flinch away progress because it destroys family traditions. I know people who flinch away from it because all it does is produce pollution, surveillance, drones, etc. The older people in my life complain about the speed of change and the destruction of values. The younger seem to focus mostly on the destruction of the environment.
I think the part the worries me specifically is that this feels like such a utopian view. That if we only "went back" to an earlier stage, all would be good. Or if we somehow got to keep our ipads, but switched to hunting wild game instead of eating processed meat. But all of these seem to ignore how complex and deeply rooted progress is and how reverting a few larger pieces may involve the premature ending of hundreds of millions of human lives.
I'll follow rootsofprogress as I'm curious about the broader pro-progress landscape.
Replies from: jasoncrawford
↑ comment by jasoncrawford ·
2021-08-24T23:21:46.517Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
That's very interesting, I didn't know that this was covered in Fukuyama or that he also identified the world wars as a turning point. Will have to bump that up in my reading list, thank you.
comment by PhilGoetz ·
2021-09-30T20:13:02.910Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The most-important thing is to explicitly repudiate these wrong and evil parts of the traditional meaning of "progress":
Replies from: TAG
- Plato's notion of "perfection", which included his belief that there is exactly one "perfect" society, and that our goal should be to do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING NO MATTER HOW HORRIBLE to construct it, and then do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING NO MATTER HOW HORRIBLE to make sure it STAYS THAT WAY FOREVER.
- Hegel's elaboration on Plato's concept, claiming that not only is there just one perfect end-state, but that there is one and only one path of progress, and that at any one moment, there is only one possible step forward to take.
- Hegel's corollary to the above, that taking that one next step is literally the only thing in the world that matters, and therefore individual human lives don't matter, and individual liberties such as freedom of speech are just obstructions to progress.
- Hegel's belief that movement along this path is predestined, and nothing can stop it.
- Hegel's belief that there is a God ("Weltgeist") watching over Progress and making sure that it happens, so the only thing progressives really need to do to take that One Next Step is to destroy whatever society they're in; and if they are indeed God's current chosen people, God will make sure that something farther along the One True Path rises from the ashes.
- The rationalist belief, implicit in Plato and Hegel but most prominent in Marx, that through dialectic we can achieve absolute certainty in our understanding of what the perfect society is, and how to get there; and at that point debate should be stopped and all opposition should be silenced.
↑ comment by TAG ·
2021-09-30T22:47:42.517Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Plato’s notion of “perfection”, which included his belief that there is exactly one “perfect” society, and that our goal should be to do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING NO MATTER HOW HORRIBLE to construct it, and then do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING NO MATTER HOW HORRIBLE to make sure it STAYS THAT WAY FOREVER.
Citation needed. I've read The Republic , and there's nothing remotely like that in it.
Replies from: PhilGoetz
↑ comment by PhilGoetz ·
2021-10-01T00:45:01.627Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Republic is the reference. I'm not going to take the hours it would take to give book-and-paragraph citations, because either you haven't read the the entire Republic, or else you've read it, but you want to argue that each of the many terrible things he wrote don't actually represent Plato's opinion or desire.
(You know it's a big book, right? 89,000 words in the Greek. If you read it in a collection or anthology, it wasn't the whole Republic.)
The task of arguing over what in /Republic/ Plato approves or disapproves of is arduous and, I think, unnecessary.
First, everybody agrees that the topic of Republic is "social justice", and Plato makes his position on that clear, in Republic and in his other works: Justice is when everybody accepts the job and the class they're born into, without any grumbling or backtalk, and Plato is king and tells everybody what to do. His conclusion, that justice is when everybody minds their own business (meaning they don't get involved in politics, which should be the business of philosophers), is clearly meant as a direct refutation of Pericles' summary of Athenian values in his famous funeral oration: "We do not say that a man who shows no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all."
When the topic of the book is social justice, and you get to the end and it says "Justice is when everyone does what I say and stays in their place", you should throw that book in the trash.
(This is a bit unfair to Plato, because the Greek word he used meant something more like "righteousness". "justice" is a lousy translation. But this doesn't matter to me, because I don't care what Plato meant as much as I care about how people use it; and the Western tradition is to say that Plato was talking about justice. And it's still a totalitarian conclusion, whether you call it "justice" or "righteousness".)
This view of justice (or righteousness) is consistent with his life and his writings. He seems to support slavery as natural and proper, though he never talks about it directly; see Vlastos 1941, Slavery in Plato's Thought. He literally /invented/ racism, in order to theorize that a stable, race-based state, in which the inferior races were completely conditioned and situated so as to be incapable of either having or acting on independent desires or thoughts, would have neither the unrest due to social mobility that democratic Athens had, nor the periodic slave revolts that Sparta had. He and his clan preferred Sparta to Athens; his uncle, a fellow student of Socrates, was the tyrant of Athens in 404 BC, appointed by Sparta; and murdered 1500 Athenian citizens, mostly for supporting democracy. Socrates was probably executed in 399 BC not for being a "gadfly", but because the Athenians believed that they'd lost the war with Sparta thanks to the collusion of Socrates' students with Sparta.
Plato had personal, up-close experience of the construction of a bloody totalitarian state, and far from ever expressing a word of disapproval of it, he mocked at least one of its victims in Republic, and continued to advocate totalitarian policies in his writings, such as /The Laws/. He was a wealthy aristocrat who wanted to destroy democracy and bring back the good old days when you couldn't be taken to court just for killing a slave, as evidenced by the scorn he heaps on working people and merchants in many of his dialogues, and also his jabs at Athens and democracy; and by the Euthyphro, a dialogue with a man who's a fool for taking his father to court for killing a slave.
One common defense of Plato is that his preferred State was the first state he described, the "true state", in which everyone gets just what they need to survive; he actually detested the second, "fevered state", in which people have luxuries (which, he says, can only ever be had by theft and war--property is theft!)
I find this implausible, or at best hypocritical, for several reasons.
- It's in line with the persona of Socrates, but not at all in line with Plato's actual life of luxury as a powerful and wealthy man.
- Plato spends a few paragraphs describing the "true state", and the rest of Republic describing the "fevered state" or defending or elaborating on its controversial aspects.
- He supports the totalitarian polices, such as banning all music, poetry, and art other than government propaganda, with arguments which are sometimes solid if you accept Plato's philosophy.
- Many of the controversial aspects of the "fevered state" are copied from Sparta, which Plato admired, and which his friends and family fought against; and direct opposites of Athens, which he hated.
The simplest reading of Republic, I think, is that the second state he described is one he liked to dream about, but knew wasn't plausible.
But my second reason for thinking this debate over Plato's intent is unimportant is that people don't usually read Republic for its brief description of the "true state". Either they just read the first 2 or 3 books and a few other extracts carefully chosen by professors to avoid all the nasty stuff and give the impression that Plato was legitimately trying to figure out what justice means like he claimed; or they read it to get off on the radical policies of the fevered state (which is the political equivalent of BDSM porn).
Some of the policies of that state include: breeding citizens like cattle into races that must be kept distinct, with philosophers telling everyone whom to have sex with, sometimes requiring brothers and sisters to have sex with each other (5.461e); allowing soldiers on campaign to rape any citizen they want to (5.468c); dictating jobs by race; abolishing all art, poetry, and music except government propaganda; banning independent philosophy; the death sentence for repeatedly questioning authority; forbidding doctors from wasting their time on people who are no longer useful to the State because they're old or permanently injured; forced abortions of all children conceived without the State's permission (including for all women over age 40 and all men over age 55); forbidding romantic love, marriage, or raising your own children; outlawing private property (5.464); allowing any citizen to violently assault any other citizen, in order to encourage citizens to stay physically fit (5.464e); and founding of the city by killing everyone over the age, IIRC, of 10. (He writes "exiling", but you would have to kill them to get them all to give up their children; see e.g. Cambodia).
The closest anybody ever came to implementing the ideas in /Republic/ (which was not a republic, and which Plato actually titled /Polis/, "The State") was Sparta (which it was obviously based on). The second-closest was Nazi Germany (also patterned partly on Sparta). /Brave New World/ is also similar, though much freer.Replies from: TAG, TAG
↑ comment by TAG ·
2021-10-01T18:47:16.505Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I read the Bloom translation all the way through. Maybe you could tell me which translation you read all the way through.
comment by JenniferRM ·
2021-08-26T00:22:48.693Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I love the idea. I'm in favor of ending death and I'm in favor of ending taxes, the hard part there though... is the details? Personally I suspect that taxes will be harder to end than death.
We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. One that teaches people not to take the modern world for granted. One that acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly...
...The world wars were devastating proof that material progress does not inevitably lead to moral progress. Technology had not put an end to war—in fact, it had made war all the more terrible and deadly.
So how do we cause enough of this "moral progress" stuff to make devastating wars impossible? Do you agree that war is the crux of it?Replies from: jasoncrawford
↑ comment by jasoncrawford ·
2021-08-26T19:54:27.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I think the starting point is to examine the moral progress that's been made so far in history, and try to figure out how it happens. The best stuff I've read on this so far is from Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature and parts of Enlightenment Now).Replies from: JenniferRM
↑ comment by JenniferRM ·
2021-08-27T18:35:53.456Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I haven't read Pinker's "Better Angels" but I've heard that it is both (1) hopeful and (2) potentially has some cherry-picked data? (The caveman stuff I think is very plausible. It is the post-1800 stuff that I think might be cherry-picked.)
Do you think I should read it directly and trust that the data and stats are clean, or should it be mixed somehow with other content. I'd love to get a "highlights and lowlights" summary by someone with epistemic rigor such that I could save time and avoid reading it myself <3
Before that book came out, my working theory was less optimistic, and more straightforward and grew out of the intellectual tradition of Lewis Richardson's pacificism-motivated war (or peace) studies work, where a stationary statistical distribution is assumed (thus we assume no moral progress?) unless it can be positively proven and attributed to something.
Here is a modern example of research on the causal structure of war which suggests that if an-event-plausibly-describable-as-WW3 does not occur until after roughly 2103-2163, then we could decisively say that the post-WW2-Long-Peace is a true deviation from historical trends based on some enduring change to the statistical distribution from which actual historical wars may have been sampled since the invention of muskets and cannons and so on.
Aaron Clauset's discussion section is interesting here:
The agreement between the historical record of interstate wars and Richardson’s simple model of their frequency and severity is truly remarkable, and it stands as a testament to Richardson’s lasting contribution to the study of violent political conflict.
There are, however, a number of caveats, insights, and questions that come out of our analysis. For instance, Richardson’s Law—a power-law distribution in conflict event sizes—appears to hold only for sufficiently large “deadly quarrels,” specifically those with 7061 or more battle deaths. The lower portion of the distribution is slightly more curved than expected for a simple power law, which suggests potential differences in the processes that generate wars above and below this threshold.
With only 95 conflicts and a heavy-tailed distribution of war sizes, there are relatively few large wars to consider. This modest sample size surely lowers the statistical power of any test and is likely partly to blame for needing nearly 100 more years to know whether the long peace pattern is more than a run of good luck under a stationary process. One could imagine increasing the sample size by including civil wars, which are about three times more numerous than interstate wars over 1823–2003. Including these, however, would confound the resulting interpretation, because civil wars have different underlying causes [10, 43, 48], and because the distribution of civil war sizes is shifted toward smaller conflicts and exhibits relatively fewer large ones .
My own tendency is just to treat nearly all violence as "just violence" and so if two guys get in a fight in a bar, and their buddies jump in and start fighting "anyone who isn't a buddy of mine" (no personal beefs, but rather treating others merely as members of an enemy group), and 3 people die in that bar fight, then I'd model that as a battle with 3 casualties.
If there's a shooting later that kills 7, inspired by that fight, that's another battle with 7 casualties, which is arguably a continuation of the "war"(?)... and so on. Most people don't agree with my coding preference here, possibly for good reasons that I just haven't learned yet? Turchin treats violent protests separately from wars (bigger) or crime (smaller), but this might be essentially data pragmatism?
Censoring the smaller events from the database of "wars" based on semantics and treating the lack of "wars so-defined" as a lack of "the bad violence that we're officially studying (not the other violence that we are NOT officially studying)" seems questionable to me.
For me, the small scale version generates vivid examples from common experience that illustrate my current best guess as to why "conflict sizes" have a distribution similar to "earthquake sizes"!
There is a potential in BOTH social-animal conflict AND geophysical avalanches for common small events and then also rare cascading amplification of released tension.
Maybe adding the little events in somehow would just recover Richardson's Law more strongly and/or it might show a clearer post-WW2-change? Maybe? A lot of sins can hide in data cleaning, data-gap imputing, and event coding choices.
Based on background knowledge and interest like this, I'm curious if Pinker looked at the literature and found evidence that the real story was quite clear, or if he just sort of... uh... wrote something that sounded good?
In my model, the first step is to have a clear theory of causation that is scientifically coherent, and then if the theory of causation is adequate you can "imagine an intervention and mentally turn the gears [LW · GW]" and then see if the results would be "less war" or what. Then the cheapest imaginable intervention that buys the most predicted goodness should perhaps be tried? And that would be "optimistic rational progress at work!" <3Replies from: jasoncrawford
↑ comment by jasoncrawford ·
2021-08-30T20:17:02.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't think the data is cherry-picked, but you could argue with some of his statistical analysis. He lays it all out pretty clearly though, so the book is valuable to read even if you disagree in the end.
He covers violent crime (which would include bar fights) as well.
comment by alexflint ·
2021-08-25T16:01:30.968Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Jason, wouldn't you say that what we need is an understanding of how to make progress, not optimism about progress?
I mean, we do have an understanding of how to make material progress, and we've made a great deal of material progress over the past few millennia, but surely material progress is not where the marginal action is at just now, right?
Replies from: jasoncrawford
↑ comment by jasoncrawford ·
2021-08-25T20:29:37.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
We need understanding, yes. As to whether we need optimism, that depends what kind of optimism you're talking about. I've distinguished between descriptive and prescriptive optimism: https://rootsofprogress.org/descriptive-vs-prescriptive-optimism
Descriptive optimism is contingent: it's an assessment about the world (or a part of it), and so it's only warranted when it's true. There are many aspects of the world that I am descriptively pessimistic about.
But prescriptive optimism is an attitude, a choice. It says that we're going to work hard to solve problems and make the world and our lives better, no matter what, whether the prospects seem rosy or bleak. And I think we need more prescriptive optimism.
comment by Semih__ ·
2021-08-30T11:39:53.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The main problem in this text is the term "progress" is assumed as something good from the very start. Progress or technology or "techne" in itself is neutral. If there is no underlying meta narrative that not only justifies the progress but also shapes it and shows it's direction, progress will cease to exist. Now I'm not a leftist or Marxist or anything but bourgeoise is a thing and Enlightment Era has been started by them not for the sake of progress but for the sake of themselves.
So a group/class/clique whatever essentially invests in preparing grounds for progress for their own benefit. And supports/finances group of people who does science for the science's sake because it is in their nature to do so (yeah im an essentialist.)
Bare in mind, progress is made by scientists but "progressivism" is not created by scientists.
My question is are you a naïve scientist or a person with an agenda?Replies from: jasoncrawford, ChristianKl
↑ comment by jasoncrawford ·
2021-08-30T20:10:20.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Sure, a crucial question is whether (and to what extent, and in what way) progress in science, technology, industry, and the economy leads to human well-being. That is at the core of what any philosophy of progress should address
↑ comment by ChristianKl ·
2021-08-31T08:40:02.856Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Plenty of progress isn't done by scientists who do science for science's sake but by engineers.
Now I'm not a leftist or Marxist or anything but bourgeoise is a thing and Enlightment Era has been started by them not for the sake of progress but for the sake of themselves.
Bourgeoise essentially means "middle-class" in today's terms. What's wrong with the middle-class from your perspective?Replies from: Semih__, Semih__
↑ comment by Semih__ ·
2021-08-31T12:03:07.416Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Capitalist success lies in its ability to utilize economical/technological progress for the sake of a very large group which, as the living conditions went better and better, included nearly all of the society.
Problem is we are not at that stage anymore.
↑ comment by Semih__ ·
2021-08-31T11:55:15.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I never claimed there is something wrong with bourgeoise....
Progress, aka moving forward from current state of art is done by inventing things which requires one to know the fundamental principles in his field. Scientist is not a job but engineer is. One can be scientist and engineer at the same time.
Bourgeoise is essentially, through leftist/marxist narrative, a group of people who held capital. And they used this capital to finance scientists of their time or they were those scientists, and through that they ensured economical progress.
The main argument here is that a group/class of people ensure progress for their own betterment. If we would like to have a philosophy for progressivism, we need to have an agenda. For whom this progress is for? And how to finance it? What is our moral foundation of operating this progress? And so on.Replies from: Richard_Kennaway, ChristianKl, ChristianKl
↑ comment by Richard_Kennaway ·
2021-08-31T13:56:02.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
If we would like to have a philosophy for progressivism, we need to have an agenda.
I don't agree with the necessity. To me it is more important that a glorious future arrive than how evenly distributed it is.
Replies from: Semih__
↑ comment by Semih__ ·
2021-08-31T14:00:56.635Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Just because I've used couple of terms people are automatically putting me into leftist category.
Anyway, agenda is not about how something is equally distributed. It is about a holistic perspective.
Possible effects of innovation and progress on arts, health, architecture, social disciplines, culture in general etc. must be planned properly to not only to ensure progress but create an actual civilization/culture of progress, innovation.
To plan that you need to have very firm values, be it economic and social to build that culture on it.
Thats what I am emphasizing on.
↑ comment by ChristianKl ·
2021-09-02T14:18:13.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Bourgeoisie is not a word that meant in Marx time everybody who makes the bulk of their money via rents from capital.
Middle class people who just own their own house and all professions (including groups like carpenters) were bourgeoisie. In the earlier part of the 19th century most of the capital wasn't held by the bourgeoisie but by aristocrats. By the time Marx writes The Capital businesses run dy the bourgeoisie amassed enough capital to make them more economically powerful then the aristocrats but the bourgeoisie was still a much larger group of people than just those who owned the new businesses of the industrial revolution. Middle class people were still bourgeoisie.
Patronage is in spirit not very bourgeoisie and if you look at the Wikipedia article it suggests nobel (which means aristocrat and not bourgeoise) and religious patronage as being important but doesn't say anything about bourgeois patronage existing in a significant manner before the 20th century.
Thomas Kuhn makes the point that academic fields where researchers don't follow external agenda but are driven by the scientific quest to understand their field better are more productive the fields where scientists follow external agenda like education research (Or even worse domestic science).
↑ comment by ChristianKl ·
2021-09-02T14:23:31.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Progress, aka moving forward from current state of art is done by inventing things which requires one to know the fundamental principles in his field.
If that would be true we wouldn't have so many young successful startup founders.
comment by Kamil Pabis (kamil-pabis) ·
2021-08-27T15:57:03.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Trying to organize my thoughts on progress a bit:
I do not think we lack a "philosophy of progress" as much as the OP. I would like to argue that progress is real and that there is decent literature on this topic that not enough people read. Moreover, the topic of progress is a good recruitment tool for EA and rationalism. I find it more exciting and powerful than the bleak nihilism offered by atheism, meek criticism of pseudoscience offered by “the skeptics” movements and the vague (but obviously not misguided) appeals to the noble human nature proffered by humanism.
The distinction between descriptive and prescriptive optimism raised in this thread is a very interesting one. Are these entirely distinct concepts, though? It would stand to reason that there is a virtuous circle where descriptive evidence of tangible progress promotes optimism and a desire to further improve the world – because it seems possible. Therefore, it would be great if the world were improving. If it isn’t, we shouldn’t lie about it, but still it better be improving given the industrial revolution and the internet and all the things we invented. If this has not improved the world, what else will? AI? Anarcho-primitivism and yoga?
Improvement and progress come in many forms and shapes. Progress will never be an entirely objective measure, but it also is not purely subjective. Human desires are hard coded in our DNA, as most animals we seek safety, health, freedom, stability, psychological fulfillment (think Maslow) etc. As also pointed out in this thread, Stephen Pinker has written several books about progress. He is perhaps the 20th century’s most prominent chronicler of progress. By and large, his books have made a good case that the world is improving and all the attacks on their contents I have seen were feeble at best. Homicides, press freedoms, democracy, armed conflict. No one can claim these aren’t markers of progress, nor that they haven’t improved markedly. Not yet mentioned, I do think the Oxford team around Our World In Data is continuing in a Pinkerian vein, but doing so live, around the clock.
Case in point, their current entry on Human Rights is a masterpiece of public education (1). Not only is it well presented, but it is also up to date referencing the work of Fariss (2019). This paper importantly argues that the democratic recession is an artifact of stricter human rights standards over time. Whether this is true or not is not even relevant. Temporary stagnation is entirely compatible with long term progress.
People tend to get way too caught up in one dimensional measures of progress. To some it is only ecology, so the world is dying. To some it is only press freedoms, so China is an evil empire, and the democratic recession is perhaps the biggest problem we face. Humans in practice, however, do not have such one-dimensional desires. And I mention China on purpose, because no discussion of progress in the 20th century would be complete without this country. Here, I highly recommend reading Joe Studwell. Briefly put, China exemplifies how and why the world is improving; also given its size recent shifts in China are major drivers of aggregate improvement in human welfare. (I am sorry to all the China haters). Roughly speaking, since reform and opening by Deng Xiaoping and his political allies, the country has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Civil liberties have not deteriorated since this major reform (again please read reference 1). There is ongoing concern that they may be deteriorating; and one would have hoped for more progress, but no one can claim it isn’t a net improvement.
If we want to instill optimism, a “philosophy of progress”, Pinker and Our World in Data must become mandatory reading in high school and university. Please, share other similar books and sources if you know them. Already mentioned was Joe Studwell. I can also think of Yuval Harari's Sapiens which is obviously Pinkerian but more accessible and shallow than “Better Angels of Our Nature”. Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History" was already mentioned and I hope to read it some day. Could someone comment if the books is just popular with libertarians or if it really does have a libertarian slant? (I have mixed feelings about libertarian support for progress. Personally, I do feel like hybrid models have been exceedingly successful in the 20th century if you look at Scandinavia, Germany’s “Soziale Marktwirtschaft” or Asia.)
If you ask me, reasonable controversy does not exist on the topic whether the world has improved or not. Cautious optimism is objectively warranted. On the other hand, there are important issues that are still contested. Does it continue to improve? Who was left behind? Is the democratic recession real? How much progress happened at the cost of environmental damage? Why is inequality still increasing? How much was due to chance and will we fall back? What is the importance of existential risks? It very well may be the case that existential risks have increased while the world became better and safer in aggregate on the “classical” measures. All these are important debates.
Yes, Human Rights Practices Are Improving Over Time. Farris (2019).
comment by Vanilla_cabs ·
2021-08-24T15:26:37.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
If you don't have any precise vision yet, how can you be sure that degrowth is not the best option, or at least a good enough one? I'm 100% behind "We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. [...] One that acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly, and offers solutions." But when you continue with "And one that holds up a positive vision of the future.", it seems to me that you've written the conclusion before starting the research.
Replies from: jasoncrawford, Vaniver, ESRogs
↑ comment by jasoncrawford ·
2021-08-25T04:00:59.768Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
First, I started the research back in ~2017. I'm not writing from a position of total ignorance here.
Look, there are some times where a tough situation means that the rational choice is to accept hardship in order to avoid a worse outcome. Covid is a good example: isolation/“lockdown” measures made sense at least in the early part of the pandemic, despite the hit to the economy and to people's lives.
But (to continue the analogy) the harm to human life from permanent lockdown would be so vast that it doesn't make sense to entertain until you've tried everything else. If in ~Q2 of 2020 someone had proposed a forever-lockdown as the new normal, what would your reaction be? Mine would be: wait, what about the vaccines that are in development? What about the possibility of finding a cure? If nothing else, could we develop cheap rapid testing? Etc. Perma-lockdown would essentially be giving up and admitting defeat—accepting a permanently reduced quality of life, because we just weren't smart or competent enough to come up with an actual solution to the problem and move forward.
That's how I see “degrowth.” Like, let's accept for the sake of argument that degrowth would provide temporary relief for certain problems. Maybe you could even make an argument that it's needed as some stopgap measure, analogous to lockdowns (although I'm skeptical). But the degrowth movement wants to end growth as a permanent measure in response to environmental problems. The missed opportunity to make life better for everyone is so mind-bogglingly vast that it requires extreme justification—there really has to be no other way. And the degrowth movement is extremely far from providing that justification.
↑ comment by Vaniver ·
2021-08-24T18:29:21.906Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
IMO there's a big difference between "obviously material progress is good" and "obviously some progress is good"--it could be that after a careful consideration of the evidence, it turns out that the thing we need to do is focus on spiritual progress and all become monks (or w/e) and then progress can be measured in how rapidly that transition happens.
[Like, in one era the accumulation of slaves would have been a sign of progress, and now we view it as a sign of regress.]
There's a second point that you might be making, that it's weird to have a 'theory of progress' if your forecasts show the world getting worse, even if we do our best. (For example, suppose there was a massive volcanic eruption and so we knew volcanic winter was coming.) But I think even then it's important to figure out what ways we can improve in and make those changes, even if the background is decay instead of progress.
↑ comment by ESRogs ·
2021-08-24T16:38:53.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
But when you continue with "And one that holds up a positive vision of the future.", it seems to me that you've written the conclusion before starting the research.
You want a negative vision of the future?Replies from: Vanilla_cabs
comment by ADifferentAnonymous ·
2021-08-30T18:53:39.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
It's very easy to read this as a call to mostly bring back the old philosophy of progress, despite what I recognize as attempts to avoid that reading.
My take is that a genuinely new philosophy of progress needs to transcend the old battle by positioning itself as heir to both sides. Increased understanding of the environmental and other costs of industrialization is no less a form of progress than new industrial technology. Environmentalists seeing industry as the enemy and industrialists seeing environmentalism as the enemy are both missing a larger picture.
In this vision, there would be Roots of Progress posts on topics like CFCs/ozone layer and acid rain, or maybe broader things like "how we stopped dumping so much stuff in rivers", without any sense that these posts are opposed to or in a different category from the rest. You could still discuss the disagreements around how to solve these issues, but even those judged completely wrong should not be cast as villains any more than proponents of "beating"-type threshing machines.
(I realize I'm sort of describing Mistake Theory. Mistake Theory being the philosophy of progress should be no surprise!)Replies from: jasoncrawford