Friday, 27 January 2017

What price progress?

Several of the blogs I follow, I follow because they frequently say things I disagree with, but say them reasonably enough that I don’t end up lying awake all night thinking of things to snap back at them. This is a delicate balance; I read things I disagree with because that’s what inspires me to write, but lying awake thinking of things to snap back at people on the internet vacuumed up a lot of valuable sleep hours in my 20s. Two of the blogs I’m talking about are David Brin’s Contrary Brin and the one which inspired this post, John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report.

Brin and Greer are both further right, politically, than I am, but neither one is so far right as to think that people on welfare just need to grow a work ethic, that being the point at which I stop listening for insights and start listening for gotcha points. Which just goes to prove that there’s more than one dimension to politics, because on today’s topic they are polar opposites, and I’m somewhere in the middle. Today, with Greer’s recent post “The Embarrassments of Chronocentrism” as my launch-pad, I’m going to be talking about progress.

Yes, “chronocentrism” is a word Greer coined to make his point. It’s modelled on “ethnocentrism”, which is when someone thinks that every other culture is to be judged by their own. (Usually, in fact, what they think is that there is a Right Way to do things and a whole lot of Wrong Ways, and they’ve never thought about it enough to realize that the only thing Right about the Right Way is that it’s how their own culture happens to do things.) Greer replaces the ethno- element, meaning “culture”, with chrono-, “time”, to criticize the attitude that every other period in history is to be judged by our own.

Now I would be tempted to use this word mostly when my generation do the exact same tutting and sighing over Kids These Days that we used to roll our eyes at when we were Kids These Days. Did you know that when some teenager has their head bent over a smart-phone, they’re almost always using it either to gain knowledge or to communicate with another person somewhere? Mind-boggling, I know, but true. The way some people go on about Kids And Their Phones reminds me of nothing so much as William James’ (I think it was) speculation on what dogs think about their masters’ reading: what strange compulsion could drive you to stare at bits of paper for hours on end, when you could be doing something worthwhile like playing fetch? But I’d better get back on track before this tangent gets any longer.

What Greer takes issue with is the idea that society has some kind of natural drive to get better and better; and, correspondingly, that past societies should be considered inferior because they don’t live up to the standards that we have achieved. Which, when you think about it, is a paradox in itself. If society naturally gets better and better, shouldn’t we be especially forgiving of the faults of past societies? They couldn’t help being bad, could they, since they didn’t have the good fortune to be born in our time? We don’t blame children for being childish, do we?

Having announced this as his topic, Greer then mostly talks about something else instead, namely that the Left in times past used to support a lot of causes which we now oppose and vice versa. That’s quite true, and I could add several more examples. Eugenics in its heyday was supported by many leftists of one stripe and another, among them George Bernard Shaw and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. The concept of objective reality has, during my adulthood, gone the other way; many leftist academics only fifteen years ago would have been proud to call themselves “post-truth”. That’s probably why the Left is, as we speak, abandoning alternative medicine (particularly the anti-vaccination cause), which back then was as central a plank of the progressive platform as stopping global warming. Now Donald Trump has assigned an “investigation” of vaccines to an anti-vaxxer.

Greer then reports that he is troubled by correspondents asking whether he thinks “that consciousness evolves”:

It rarely took long to find out that the questioner wasn’t thinking about the intriguing theory Julian Jaynes raised in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, the Jungian conception Erich Neumann proposed in The Origins and History of Consciousness, or anything of the same kind. Nor, it turned out, was the question usually based on the really rather weird reinterpretations of evolution common in today’s pop-spirituality scene. Rather, it was political.
...Among a good-sized fraction of American leftist circles these days, it turns out it’s become a standard credo that what drives the kind of social changes supported by the left – the abolition of slavery and segregation, the extension of equal (or more than equal) rights to an assortment of disadvantaged groups, and so on – is an ongoing evolution of consciousness, in which people wake up to the fact that things they’ve considered normal and harmless are actually intolerable injustices, and so decide to stop.

Personally, on questions of consciousness, I would turn not to Jaynes and Neumann but to someone like Daniel Dennett, Stanislas Dehaene, William Calvin, or Michael Graziano. I must admit I do share Greer’s annoyance with this kind of woolly language and the kind of woolly thinking that too often underlies it. I think it’s a hold-over from yet another myth that at one point was nearly synonymous with progressivism: that the human brain broadcasts a faint signal (sometimes called “vibrations” or “vibes”) that other brains tune in to when it’s strong enough, which usually requires a large number of people thinking the same thing at once. From this emerges a collective consciousness which prevents people from sliding into selfishness or prejudice; it is this “consciousness” which “evolves” through history.

Worse is the confusion over what “evolve” means. Not only is it taken to mean advancement in a predetermined direction, which eventually turns out to be Greer’s main criticism; equally confusedly, it is misunderstood to be a summation of individual advancements in that predetermined direction. That is to say, each person is “evolving” as an individual from ignorance to enlightenment, and the “evolution of consciousness” is what you get when you put all those evolving individuals together. Evolution doesn’t work like that, and there’s good theoretical reason to believe that it couldn’t possibly work like that. When a species evolves from one form to another, it’s because individuals of the old form consistently end up with fewer offspring than individuals of the new form, for whatever reason, with the result that over generations the old form disappears and the new form replaces it.

I think I’ve made it clear roughly how much time I have for both these ideas. Nevertheless it is a fact, and an interesting fact requiring an explanation, that segregation decades ago and slavery centuries ago were widely considered normal and harmless, and nowadays most people have indeed woken up to the fact that they are intolerable injustices. The fact that leftist political terminology around this phenomenon often retains a whiff of brain-radio thinking (for example “consciousness-raising” for what in other spheres is called “advertising” or “publicity”) doesn’t mean that such terminology refers to nothing real at all.

I imagine Greer is unaware of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature; I don’t know for a fact, but if he were aware of it he would surely have brought it up. Pinker spends nearly 500 pages demonstrating, with exhaustively annotated statistics, that people and societies have gotten less violent through history. It’s happened on all scales, from personal assault through judicial punishments to great-power war, and it’s been going on for too long and over too much of the globe to be explained by a single ideology or political movement. Like climate change, the trend-lines are jaggedy and rough with frequent reversals, not smooth curves; also like climate change, the general direction is nevertheless unmistakable.

This is at odds with Greer’s own political philosophy. Greer is a self-avowed follower of Edmund Burke:

Where the philosophes [of revolutionary France] insisted that history moves ever upward toward a golden age in the future, and the European conservatives who opposed them argued that history slides ever downward from a golden age in the past, Burke’s thesis – and the evidence of history – implies that history has no direction at all.

No direction at all? Does Greer expect slavery to become acceptable again one day? Or witch-burning, lethal gladiator contests, human sacrifice, or cannibalism? Or do these things have nothing in common except being unfashionable in the 21st century? Pinker is not, to put it mildly, a revolutionary philosophe; he largely shares Burke’s view of the French Revolution.

On the heels of the Enlightenment came the French Revolution: a brief promise of democracy followed by a train of regicides, putsches, fanatics, mobs, terrors, and pre-emptive wars, culminating in a megalomaniacal emperor and an insane war of conquest. More than a quarter of a million people were killed in the Revolution and its aftermath, and another 2 to 4 million were killed in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature p. 184

As Greer puts it, summarizing Burke’s view,

Instead of establishing an ideal republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the wholesale reforms pushed through by the National Assembly plunged France into chaos, handed the nation over to a pack of homicidal fanatics, and then dropped it into the waiting hands of an egomaniacal warlord named Napoleon Bonaparte.

Burke can be excused his pessimism; he lived through the time of the French Revolution and didn’t have access to the data Pinker draws upon. Pinker would stand with Greer in condemning the two bad ideas to which Burke attributed the collapse of the Revolution: first, that human nature is purely a product of social structures (a proposition which Pinker has devoted an entire book, The Blank Slate, to refuting), and second, that history moves inevitably towards liberty, equality, and fraternity. The Better Angels of Our Nature discusses in depth several major reversals of the general peacewards trend of history, particularly the boom in violent crime that began in the 1960s, plateaued in the 1990s, and is presently in remission. Pinker carefully disavows any belief in historical inevitability. Having explained why violence has in fact declined, he refuses to predict that it will continue to decline. On the contrary,

As a scientist, I must be sceptical of any mystical force or cosmic destiny that carries us ever upward. Declines of violence are a product of social, cultural, and material conditions. If the conditions persist, violence will remain low or decline even further; if they don’t, it won’t.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature p. 671

My view on progress used to be the same as Greer’s, because I got it from another Burkean conservative, namely C. S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters he has a devil claim responsibility for spreading the philosophy of progress amongst humankind:

Of a proposed course of action [God] wants men, as far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?” they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them make... We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain – not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters pp. 131–132

Of course it’s true that the future will be what we make of it. Of course it’s pointless to decide what to do based on whether it will get us to the future or not. But I can’t handwave Pinker’s data away. It’s not just violence, either; epidemic diseases are getting rarer, poverty is on the decline worldwide, and the last three centuries show a general drift towards economic equality, although that’s been in reverse these past thirty years. These are interesting facts, facts which need to be explained. And I don’t think “The winners write the history books” will do for an explanation. Not many people want to suffer violence, illness, poverty, or injustice.. Unlike (say) the spread of English or pop music or Western clothing, any unbiased observer would agree – before seeing the data – that peace, health, prosperity, and equality are generally good things.

Greer follows Burke in his scepticism of social reform. No human being is wise enough to redesign society from scratch, although many, such as the French revolutionaries, are foolish enough to try. Of all the possible ways social institutions could be arranged, vanishingly few of them constitute a working society – just as, of all the possible ways human organs could be arranged, vanishingly few of them constitute a living person. Therefore, any random leap away from the current actual state of society into the space of possible societies is almost certain to be a leap for the vastly worse. (Richard Dawkins fans should find this reasoning familiar.) Therefore, it’s usually best to leave things the way they are. You know society is currently at least kind of working. You don’t want it to stop working, do you? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Leave well enough alone.

So whence the historical trend towards improvement? Not from some “evolution of consciousness”, and not from any Hegelian nonsense about synthesis and antithesis. It comes from the fact of human intelligence. We humans may not be as bright as we think we are, but most of us are bright enough to tell the difference between something that works and something that doesn’t more often than if we decided it with a coin toss. Given the choice between a solution to a given problem and a non-solution to that same problem, we will pick the solution more often than not. Not always, not even nearly always, but more often than not.

It’s quite true, unfortunately, that every new idea creates new problems as well as solving old ones. Even the last technology we would do without – the flush toilet – diverts nutrients from the land, where we need them for our food, to the ocean, where they feed toxic algal blooms. The solution we’ve come up with is to reconnect the cycle by turning guano (seabird faeces) into fertilizer, but that has in turn created its own ecological problems. However, since human intelligence works better than random chance, new ideas mostly spread and become standard only if the problems they create are smaller than the problems they solve. Soil nutrient depletion and marine algal blooms are both non-negligible problems, but neither is anything like as severe as the cholera epidemics which ravage cities anywhere people live without flush toilets.

Now if we mostly solve bigger problems than we create, what you’ll see across historical time is a trend for things to improve, and that’s indeed what the data shows. Why are the trend-lines jaggedy? Because the logic above doesn’t always work. Sometimes the downside of a new technology doesn’t become apparent until it’s already widespread; asbestos is a familiar example. Sometimes political interests can tip the balance and squelch good ideas or prop up bad ones; this seems to happen more often when the idea is an institution than when it’s a technology (i.e., it’s a novel arrangement of people rather than of inanimate matter), the prime example being supply-side economics.

So there are no guarantees. Just because an idea is new doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, if we go around adopting new ideas because they’re new (or popular) rather than because they’re good, that short-circuits the logic I just explained and guarantees that we will not improve matters. The history of past civilizations shows that there is no backstop preventing a flourishing society from destroying itself. To that extent I side with Greer against Brin, who is an earnest devotee of what Greer scorns as “the religion of progress”.

More caveats follow. If progress is a consequence of human intelligence, then anything we do that reduces the effectiveness of human intelligence will also retard progress. And one thing Western societies in the last century or two have often done, in the name of modernizing and looking forward to the future and letting go of the past and all that sort of thing, is throw away old knowledge – destroy old buildings, pulp old books, defund the arts and education. That’s like chopping away the bottom of the ladder you’re trying to climb up because “we’re higher than that now”. Progress dies without tradition.

On the other hand, tradition isn’t worth much without progress either. Brin is right about this side of it. When traditionalists resist improvement because it would change the work of some revered founder figure in the past, you have to ask: would the revered founders themselves have wanted their descendants to stop where they did, or would they have wanted us to carry on their work? We keep the past alive so we can learn from it. If all we use it for is to restrict room for further improvement, it is useless to us. Tradition dies without progress.

One final caveat. I spoke casually above of “the space of possible societies”. We can picture it as a landscape, with hills and valleys, where improvement means going upward and deterioration means going downward. And with that image in mind, it becomes obvious that no hill goes up for ever and ever. Sooner or later any progressive trend will reach a limit, a point where any further efforts to go upward will exact costs somewhere else. In the economic sphere this is called “the law of diminishing returns”. Society will continue to change, but at some point it will cease to improve. At that point progress will be at an end; and there is no reason to think that things will be perfect by then.

But there is no reason to think we are anywhere near that point. The law of diminishing returns is marked by just that, diminishing returns. Progress will noticeably slow down before it stops. At present there’s no sign of that happening. There’s plenty of room for improvement. Slowly and unsurely, but persistently, the world is getting better.

1 comment:

  1. FYI: look up the work of Rick Nevin on lead poisoning.