Roger Parker


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Thanks for the reply Jason,

I would explain the distinction as such.  Progress requires greater problem solving capability. This is measured in Type 1. Improved outfomes/welfare (Type2) requires greater problem solving in a way which is coordinated so that we work together rather than at odds with each other. 

An obvious example is evolution/natural selection. Clearly, problem solving activity has seen long eras of improvement in ability to solve problems such as metabolism, locomotion, memory, and so forth. However, what we don’t see are comparable improvements in welfare or well being. Cheetahs got fast and so did antelope with no net gain in outcome despite clear gains in performance. What is missing in evolution is the ability to coordinate these improvements in a way which is positive sum — where cheetahs and antelope work together for the common good (due to obvious reasons). Four billion years of evolution led to amazing breakthroughs in capability, yet arguably little or no breakthroughs in average welfare. 

Thus one critical aspect of progress is Coordination. The ability to cooperate and use our technology and knowledge for mutual gain, as opposed to mutual destruction or dead end arms races. 

Thoughts and feedback appreciated….

Great writing, Jayson. This is my favorite piece of yours yet, as I think it gets to the heart of the issue. By the way this is the Roger you met in San Diego in December at the informal meeting. 

I agree completely with your comments on the naïveté of early writing on the philosophy, especially on the myth of inevitable progress. In his review of the great writers on the topic, —The Idea of Progress,—  J.B. Bury saw inevitability as fundamental to "The Idea." Other naive beliefs that were common included the belief that progress was the same as Natural Selection, that progress was utopian, and that progress is primarily a matter of rational, top down master planning.

Addressing your specific points…

  • Is material progress actually good for humanity? Does it promote human well-being? Or is it an unhealthy “addiction?”

I would suggest we first start with the question "What is progress?" Until it is properly framed and we agree on the definition, my experience is that people tend to talk past each other. The problem is that philosophical progress has at least two somewhat overlapping but sometimes contradictory definitions.

First, is that progress is "the cumulative advance over time of a population in capability and knowledge". This can be applied to science, technology, and even evolution. The second definition is "cumulative advance over time of a population in outcome or welfare. "  This applies to outcomes such as lifespan, education, freedom, equality and living a meaningful or fulfilling life. 

Let’s call these type 1 and type 2 progress. The problem is that advance on type 1 progress, though usually necessary for type 2 progress, is by no means sufficient, and can actually work contrary to type 2. (See World War II and Climate Change). In interviewing countless people about their views of progress they usually think of the term as the advance in technology leading to uncomfortable change, in other words, they often frame it in terms of advances in type 1 leading to a perceived regress according to type 2.

Once we clarify this, I think we start to answer these questions — progress in capability is necessary but not sufficient for progress in outcome. The focus needs to be more in type 2 than type 1.

  • Is progress “unsustainable?” How do we make it “sustainable?” And what exactly do we want to sustain?

Unsustainable progress isn’t progress by definition. It is short term progress leading to long term stagnation or disaster. At a broader level, I would suggest that whether it is sustainable or not is a subset of the question of whether it is inevitable. The answer is no, it is not inevitable, which leads to a huge topic of how to keep it sustainable, which really is the entire point of the philosophy of progress.

  • Does progress benefit everyone? Does it do so in a fair and just way?

Considering that there are countless potential qualitative dimensions to progress (either type), and everyone weights these differently, and not every dimension is likely to advance at the same time, I would suggest that expecting uniform or universal progress is itself an emasculatping view of the concept. Progress is more of a large scale, statistical property of multiple dimensions. We can make progress on education and still have someone drop out. The key is fewer drop outs proportionate to the population over time. 

As for justice, there are also countless paths to progress. I would suggest that fairness is one dimension to evaluate the paths we take, with the caveat that there are again multiple definitions of fairness and they often are contradictory (equal opportunity rarely leads to equal outcomes, and the absence of either can be called "unfair"). I guess I am saying we have a vast canvas ahead of us and we can try to influence what our final painting looks like, including weighing the priority of fairness (however defined) against other goals. 

  • How can we have both progress and safety? How do we avoid destroying ourselves?

This is addressed by separating progress into types 1 and 2. Progress without safety or that destroys us is clearly not progress of outcome. This is the dilemma of technology and science vs well-being.