I’ve been using the term “philosophy of progress” a lot lately (such as calling for a new one, or critiquing the old ones). What does this term mean?

I use the term analogously to philosophy of science, philosophy of law, or philosophy of education. There are certain foundational questions relevant to the study of progress that border on or overlap with philosophy.

In outline, here are some of the main questions that I see as making up the philosophy of progress, grouped into four top-level topic areas: definition, evaluation, causation, and prescription.

Definition

  • What is progress?
  • What kinds of progress are there? (Scientific, technological, economic, moral, political…) How do they relate?
  • What is “true progress” or “human progress?”
  • How can we measure any of the above?

Evaluation

  • What are the benefits of (each type of) progress? Are they real or apparent? Healthy, or an “addiction?”
  • Specifically, how does progress relate to human happiness and well-being?
  • What are the costs and risks of progress? (Safety, economic upheaval, war, environmental impacts, health impacts, etc.?) Do they outweigh the benefits?
  • How do we make these tradeoffs?
  • Bottom line: is progress good?

Causation

  • What causes progress?
  • Regarding material progress specifically, what is the role of science? of economic freedom? of government investment? of individual geniuses or great leaders? of political stability? of corruption or lack thereof? of financial institutions? of natural resources? of societal trust? of other social norms? etc.
  • Are there inherent limits to progress?
  • What caused progress historically—why did it happen when and where it did?
  • What explains the pace of progress over time? On the face of it, progress seems to have been very slow for most of human history, and much faster in the last few centuries—why?
  • What can we expect for the pace of progress in the future? Will it continue, grind to a halt, accelerate to a singularity, something else?
  • How much control or agency do we have over progress?

Prescription

  • In the end, how should we regard progress and what should be our stance towards it?
  • Specifically, how should we regard inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, social reformers, political activists, etc.? What social status should we grant them? Should we celebrate their achievements, and if so how?
  • How should we communicate about progress? How should it be taught in school? How should it be written about in the media? How should it be treated in movies and other pop culture? Etc.
  • What should everyone know about progress? What constitutes “industrial literacy”?
  • How should governments treat progress? How should the law keep up with an ever-changing, ever-progressing world?

In any “philosophy of X,” people pursuing X usually aren’t (explicitly) thinking about foundational questions. Biologists spend most of their time thinking about things like assays, not what fundamentally constitutes evidence or whether scientific facts are knowable; teachers spend most of their time thinking about curriculum or classroom size rather than about the purpose and social value of education; and engineers spend most of their time thinking about efficiencies and tolerances rather than why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain.

But in every case, a philosophy of X, implicit or explicit, affects the way that practitioners go about their pursuits. Whether progress is desirable, whether continued progress is possible, and what its main causal factors are will influence whether people attempt to make progress (or attempt to stop it), and what means they choose to do so. The answers to these questions will also affect the work of journalists, policymakers, educators, artists, etc.

Does a philosophy of progress really matter? You could take the position that the people who matter for progress mostly ignore all of this abstract talk and just respond to incentives, or even that technology has a will of its own which unfolds regardless of human choices. But those positions, too, are part of the philosophy of progress. So let’s get to figuring it out.

10

New Comment