Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Is Progress?

Are Christians opposed to progress? I know that I, for one, have no desire to trade my computer for a typewriter, let alone a quill pen, or my automobile for a horse drawn carriage, let alone going on foot. But let us look at this more closely. What exactly is progress?

Progress means change for the better. But this implies a fixed standard of good that we are progressing to. If there is no fixed standard, it is impossible to gauge progress, let alone accomplish it. Further, as G. K. Chesterton points out in his book Orthodoxy, a changing standard makes progress impossible. It is like running a race where the location of the finish line is constantly changing. If you happen to cross the finish line and win, it is because of sheer luck. Therefore, to have real progress, you need a fixed standard.

Also, it has been my observation that real progress is generally the result of deliberate effort. If we went from typewriters to computers, it was because individuals put thought and effort into finding better ways to do things. Even when useful things are stumbled upon by accident, it takes a thoughtful observer to realize they are useful. The general tendency of things left to themselves is to fall apart. Now there is a tendency in nature for things to run in cycles, birds to eggs to birds, or trees to nuts to trees. But observation of the world around us would confirm progress does not simply happen.

The chief example that is alleged against this is the theory of evolution. It is beyond the scope of this post to deal in detail with this theory, though it is my assessment there are holes in it you could drive a truck though. Also, the extension of this theory to areas outside biology is simply an assumption based on no evidence whatsoever. But even if one allows evolution as a theory in biology (which I do not), it does not proves the concept of unlimited improvement by sheer accident, but rather occasional improvements in one realm. Even if billions of chimps on word-processors working for billions of years could manage by accident to write Shakespeare (which seems preposterous), this does not seem like a good method to build a library. The existence of an occasional lucky fluke does not make such events the order of the day.

Are Christians then opposed to progress? If by progress, we mean the deliberate effort to produce that which is good, we are not. This is true not only in the realms of faith and morality, but, except for perhaps some extreme cases, science and the arts. There is, of course, a question of what is genuinely good, but not of progress in principle. What we are opposed to is the idea that the basic standard of good changes and that whatever happens is progress. In this case, no progress is possible because we cannot know what direction we are going.

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