The idea of progress fell out of favor in the course of the 20th century. But when exactly, and why?

In a recent essay I alluded to the pivotal role of the World Wars. Here’s a quote that adds weight to this—from Progress and Power, by historian Carl Becker, published in 1936:

For two centuries the Western world has been sustained by a profound belief in the doctrine of progress. Although God the Father had withdrawn into the places where Absolute Being dwells, it was still possible to maintain that the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. However formulated, with whatever apparatus of philosophic or scientific terminology defended, the doctrine was in essence an emotional conviction, a species of religion—a religion which, according to Professor [J. B.] Bury, served as a substitute for the declining faith in the Christian doctrine of salvation …

Since 1918 this hope has perceptibly faded. Standing within the deep shadow of the Great War, it is difficult to recover the nineteenth-century faith either in the fact or the doctrine of progress. The suggestion casually thrown out some years ago by Santayana, that “civilization is perhaps approaching one of those long winters which overtake it from time to time,” seems less perverse now than when it was made. Current events lend credit to the prophets of disaster who predict the collapse of a civilization that seemed but yesterday a permanent conquest of human reason …

At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves—the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law—will ever set it right. The present moment, therefore, when the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited, seems to me a proper time to raise the question: What, if anything, may be said on behalf of the human race? May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?

(Emphasis added.)

I find it fascinating to see that the downfall of the idea of progress began as early as this, after World War I. World War II perhaps simply reinforced an existing trend.

I also find fascinating Becker’s idea that humanity required some sort of safeguard, a “power not ourselves” to “set it right.”

There is no power outside of humanity. We are the masters of our fate, for better or for worse. If there is to be a 21st-century philosophy of progress, it needs to be based not on an Idea or a Dialectic, but on human agency.

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Francis Fukuyama also pointed out both World Wars as the moment when many people began to distrust progress and technology - something he labeled "techno-pessimism."

I believe I see traces of this type of pessimism deeply embedded in our culture. For example:

  • militant environmentalism, which advocates for reducing the human population to some low number, ie. 500 million. Often call humanity a scourge or virus.
  • many types of primitivists. For example, the character of Tyler Durden from Fight Club describes his vision of a humanity freed from modernity as hunter gatherers drying meat on the remnants of highways.
  • the recently trendy idea of "degrowth".
  • personifying the planet, eg. "Mother Earth", leading to a one-sided view that anything humans do causes suffering to the planet.

I sort of believe that all these ideas are tied together by the Christian roots of the US/EU culturespace. In that faith, Man and Nature are wholly separate with Nature existing wholly to delight and serve Man. And in the ideas listed above, humans are seen as apart from nature, even unnatural and wrong, and most of those ideas have a utopian feel to them in how they put forth a vision of a kind of garden of Eden on the condition of destroying technology.

The first few chapters of "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering" detail some optimism, then pessimism, of technocracy in the US at least. 

I think the basic story there was that after WW2, in the US, people were still pretty excited about tech. But in the 70s (I think), with environmental issues, military innovations, and general malaise, people because disheartened.

I'm sure I'm missing details, but I found the argument interesting. It is true that in the US at least, there seemed to be a lot of techno-optimism post-WW2. 

I really enjoy your analysis of historical inventions, trying to understand why they were invented at a particular time and not some other.

I understand that your work is partly advocacy. We want more growth, more progress, at the same time as we learn from the lessons of the 20th century about the accompanying risks.

What's not yet clear to me, and which I hope you'll illuminate in the future, is your view of the relationship between a "philosophy of progress" and concrete technological innovations or economic and social advancements.

As you note in your essay, "We need a new philosophy of progress," the philosophy of progress in the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution happened along with the development of lots of dramatic technological innovations. Antibiotics, flight, electricity, bulletproof vests, cars, dyes, a revolution in agriculture, the list goes on and on. These were innovations that were obviously marvelous, put on a spectacle, and directly change the way that many people live every day.

Isn't that technological innovation what causes the philosophy of progress, rather than the other way around?

Didn't the philosophy of progress fade when technological innovation started producing dangers and destructions that were more obvious and dramatic and story-friendly, and hit people where they live on a daily basis?

Can we really ignite a new philosophy of progress without a concomitant explosion in dramatic, everyday technical innovations that impact ordinary people's daily lives with the same force that the positive innovations of the 19th century produced?

And even if we can generate a widespread new philosophy of progress through advocacy, will that philosophy cause us to accelerate our positive technological and economic growth? Or will it mainly serve to attract more appreciation to the technological innovations that are already happening? Rather than increasing the rate at which we create innovations on par with AlphaFold, might a new philosophy of progress just cause more people to be excited about AlphaFold?

The reason I ask these questions is partly that I find your writing about the details of historical inventions are in a sweet spot where there's a combination of concreteness in terms of the construction and economics of the machine, and big-picture questions in terms of understanding the bottlenecks to their invention.

Ideology is a more ephemeral topic. It seems important to nail down some of these questions with the same level of rigor that you bring to your analysis of historical inventions. These are the main questions I'm hoping you'll explore in some depth in order to give us clarity on the direction of your nonprofit. I hope this doesn't seem like a criticism of your work, which is exciting and ongoing. Note also that I haven't read everything you've published under the Roots of Progress aegis. It's more just to give a sense of the main questions I find myself with when I zoom out from individual essays to consider the project as a whole.

I think the relationship between the philosophy of progress and actual progress is reciprocal. When people believe in progress, they do more of it; and when they see it working, they believe in it.

Note that the idea of progress arguably began around the time of Bacon, which was more than a century before the Industrial Revolution.

Didn't the philosophy of progress fade when technological innovation started producing dangers and destructions that were more obvious and dramatic and story-friendly, and hit people where they live on a daily basis?

Yes, but. Historical events like this pose a challenge to existing ideas—they don't determine how people will interpret them or what new ideas will come along to answer the challenge. Every challenge is a crossroads. I think we took the wrong fork in the mid-20th century, and I want us to get back on track.

Can we really ignite a new philosophy of progress without a concomitant explosion in dramatic, everyday technical innovations that impact ordinary people's daily lives with the same force that the positive innovations of the 19th century produced?

Again, I think this will be reciprocal. If the coming decades see Mars settlements and affordable supersonic passenger travel and CRISPR gene therapies and an mRNA cure for cancer and fusion energy and effective longevity treatments… that will help people believe in progress again. But also, helping spread the idea that progress is real and we can make it happen could help inspire people to build the future.

Rather than increasing the rate at which we create innovations on par with AlphaFold, might a new philosophy of progress just cause more people to be excited about AlphaFold?

Excitement about things translates into money and talent going into them, which causes more of them to happen.

This seems connected to the broader question of the relationship between ideologies and human actions or social structures more generally. What forces generate, develop, and spread an ideology? How do social forces and the physical environment in turn affect ideology? I'm sure there must be some substantial literature on this, though I wouldn't know how to judge its accuracy.

My guess, though, is that individual people have intuitions both about the general average level of ideological potency, and also about the relative level of potencies between ideologies.

I don't really know how this is viewed by scholars, and it seems likely to me that scholars and non-scholars alike will claim that ideologies are more or less potent as a persuasive tactic or affiliation signal.

Without being confident about this at all, my perception is that "progress" is not viewed as a default-favorable ideology amongst scholars. In my world (biomedical engineering), there's a deep-seated respect for progress, but it's never couched in such lofty terms. We use words like "cool," and "exciting," and "fascinating," but we usually are a bit sarcastic about the real-world impact of our research. It has a sexy end-goal (curing various diseases, creating novel bio-sensors, etc), but we're currently tinkering with lots of optimizations and mechanistic questions in mice, and need to primarily focus on next steps.

Every new person in the lab comes in excited to cure disease X, and we have to talk them into accepting that their role right now is to optimize the size of hydrogel beads.

So I also suspect that an unaddressed wrinkle is that the people who are professionally invested in creating "progress" have a nuanced opinion on it as a concept. It wasn't the word "progress" that got me into this field, but it was the spirit behind the word that served as a bridge from my former profession into this one. It might be useful to distinguish between "progress" as a way to motivate people to pursue a new direction in life or give their money to a cause, and "progress" as a practical professional goal. Understanding how it functions in both of those contexts, and how values shift as a person deepens into a field, seems useful.

I think this touches on an important aspect of the nature of progress. Thomas Kuhn wrote about how fields where the research is guided more intrinsincly by focusing on problems that a scientific community itself considers important (like theoretical physics) then fields that focus on solving real world projects (like domestic science).

It might be imporant for scientists to actually believe that their field can make progress in a notion that's independent of real world application. For Einstein believing in progress meant believing that he could completely revolutionize physics. Eric Weinstein believes that similar progress is still possible in physics while the mainstream theoretical physics community believes that there isn't foundamental progress to be found and what's left is just aligning parts of string theory.

Progress means expanding the collective knowledge on know-hows. Before you didn't know how to make something, now you know how to make something based on years of research that build on existing knowledge. In academia, there is a distinct separation of science and applied science. Progress is a combination of those two. Math is pure science; a lot of it isn't really directly applicable in the real world. As other fields expand similarly, those knowledge get borrowed in their applied science department. The applied science is always built on top of science. Without science we would have nothing, but without applied science, we wouldn't have any progress. Science can be verified to various degrees while applied science placing a confidence level on those verification. Consequences may vary and the applications can be good/bad/neutral depending on which context and aptitude you apply.

Plenty of advances in knowledge have nothing to do with science and applied science out of academia. The notion that "Without science we would have nothing" sounds like propaganda out of some academic departments that overrates their importance. 

OK I admit that's a bit too absolute. I wasn't using the word science to distinguish stuff that don't follow the scientific method. I'm not sure what to call those. Maybe just human knowledge? I was mainly trying to distinguish pure knowledge that isn't used to make something tangible vs the method of using those knowledge/science to achieve/make something.


I appreciate the work that you are doing – you are asking the question of why did the idea of progress fell out of favor and I would like to add my two cents, looking at it just through one particular lens: human nature. 

Let’s start with the progress itself – progress towards what telos? I assume most people mean utopia and folks over here at LW tend to envision in a similar way to Bostrom’s Letter from Utopia.

If that’s the case, maybe it did fell out of favour because technology hasn’t delivered on its utopian promise in a reasonable timeframe and progress by itself cannot ensure a good outcome for average folks - on the contrary, it makes them become cogs in the machine (hello Ted Kaczynski). Starting with Industrial Revolution, which promised to eliminate poverty and make everyone happy – these promises did not come to fruition even 200 years later, and especially for the folks living in the meantime. 

What does this tell us about progress then? It means that human-centered technological progress is not self-catalyzing at a societal level – there is no moral imperative there, because progress haven’t proven itself. Sure, we get progress stemming from fear or nationalism (as it is a great promoter of technology), but these tech trees lead to material advancements, not qualia advancements per se – nor advancements in human nature, AKA applied morality. As an example, should an average Joe look forward to the longevity escape velocity and immortality if at the same time he would remain a cog in the machine for longer? The answer seems clear to me.

Sure, there are some individuals that see it as a moral imperative (hello folks), but most people, in the “Mind-at-large sense” society does not view it as a desirable telos and individuals go on to play their individualistic games.  

Also, because I am sure it will lead to critique – many people will point out progress is happening, accelerating, etc. – sure, but progress towards what end? Will it lead to a median Joe having great time or rather a minority, or even machines?  It simply doesn’t seem that it is centered on humans, but rather it has bootstrapped itself using humans as energy source (hello Matrix).

I am not saying it is a lost cause – who knows, maybe human-centered technological progress could be positively viewed by the society if it’s rate of change, defined on the qualia level, was greater? That is however not the case, at least here in the West in 2021 – but it might have been the reason back in the days. 

What we have had for quite some time is a basically a system that promises utopia at some point in the future as only one of possible outcomes – and at the same time pretends that things are improving, going in the right direction which stands contrary to the feelings most people get. 

Many people know who Ted Kaczynski is and have a brief mental model of his point of view, but not so many people read his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, which I recommend to every technophile as well as technophobe.  Personally, I could not find a good, self-contained rebuttal of his work which would erase most doubts that he raises and I have searched hard as I would wish to be more optimistic – basically I haven’t found anything that would make me ‘structurally’ optimistic about technology and its future as a member of homo sapiens. Aforementioned Letter from Utopia doesn’t cut it – there is no framework there except for a glimmer of hope in one of the possible futures, without addressing fundamental questions about human nature, but simply treating it as a blob that can fit anywhere. Moreover, guess what – it is written by the same author that is worried about AGI (among other things) making humanity go extinct. Kurzweil, for instance, does not ground his work on anything related to human nature as he views technology as a value in itself.

Basically, I am looking forward to reading an anarcho-singularitarian manifesto that would make me look forward to it (anarcho in the sense that utopia addresses Kaczynski’s ‘power progress’, is not based on humans as a manufactured product, but rather it is aligned to the best of human nature).

Does Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative cut it though, published in the same year as Kaczynski’s manifesto, which I found as a remarkable coincidence? To me it feels as an engineered way to make us feel good about being part of the system, rather than being the center itself – basically an extreme form of today’s antidepressants, while not addressing Kaczynski’s need for ‘power process’.

These are just me brief thoughts on the subject and at the moment I am quite tired, but wanted to get it out there before the post disappears into the void – thus, apologies for any inconsistencies and lack of flow.

PS. I am looking forward to reading that manifesto from you. 😉 

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WWI also destroyed belief in beauty: the Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau, Romantic music, almost all my favorite beautiful things ended then. The US, being mostly untouched, carried the torch a little longer: Disney's Sleeping Beauty in 1959 was probably the peak. But today it's well into the shadow too, compare this image to this one.

I'm not sure what your images are supposed to demonstrate. The two movies have completely different aesthetics, yes, but the direct comparison is unfair — the first is a screencap from the movie, the second is an image specifically for publicity that afaik doesn't appear in the movie itself, so it's not particularly damning that it's more austere. The image below (a screencap from the first Frozen clip reel that appeared when I searched Google) seems like a more fair comparison... although again I don't really get what you were trying to point to. 

Movie screencap with woodland background + animal friends, like your Sleeping Beauty image

I think that the main thing I'm not getting is how "almost all my favorite beautiful things ended [at WWI]" implies "WWI destroyed belief in beauty". I don't find Frozen to be less 'beautiful' than Sleeping Beauty — but it's just so subjective! What is 'belief in beauty'? Was Vera Lynn's music (wildly popular in Europe during WWII) not beautiful? 

To be clear I think it's possible that you have a point — art is certainly different now than it was a few hundred years ago, and the world wars were an inflection point for all sorts of things — but I'm just not sure what that point is.

I mean, even with your image it seems to me that the earlier movie was more fond of the human form, while the later one has a more weird/grotesque view of it. You can say beauty is subjective, but that view itself feels to me like part of the decline. Gaudi thought beauty was a specific and analyzable aspect of nature (curved lines and so on), and his buildings are my favorite places in the world.


We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. [...] One that acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly, and offers solutions.

Can you expand on what you mean by "problems of progress"? My tentative interpretation is "social problems caused by technological progress", so for example climate change caused by fossil fuels, political polarization and misinformation spread by social media, and potential nuclear war made possible by nuclear weapons. But to the extent that these problems are solvable, it seems necessary to solve them on a case by case basis, using knowledge from the social sciences (e.g., evolutionary psychology, economics, game theory, international relations) and/or the physical sciences. It's not clear to me what role a "new philosophy of progress" could play in trying to solve these problems. Can you please elaborate?

Problems do have to be solved case-by-case, but your basic premises and values—philosophy—guides what kind of solutions you will seek, how you evaluate them, and what you will accept.

For instance, to address climate change, how do you feel about seeking abundant, cheap, clean energy via nuclear/solar/geothermal? Carbon capture? Geoengineering? Degrowth? Those are very different approaches.