Thursday, August 14, 2014

Are We Progressing?

Are we progressing? What does it mean to progress? How would we know? Progress, in the most basic sense, means to become better. And there is the rub. What do we mean by better? Now for something to get better, there needs to be a clearly defined standard of good. And if there is a clearly defined standard of good, then it is at least hypothetically possible to become worse. Then we have to ask, how can we be sure things are getting better? And the place to start is by affirming a clearly articulated standard of good. One thing that stands out immediately is that we, as a culture, are marked by strong, and often violent, disagreements over what good is. Further, the concept of what is good changes over time. And this is a problem. As G. K. Chesterton points out, the best way to prevent real progress is to be constantly moving the standard. For if the standard is stable, then any genuine movement toward it, no matter how feeble, is an advance. But if the standard is moved, then any movement in that direction, no matter how great, can become meaningless when the standard moves. Now someone could try to say what is good is whatever happens. But there is no real basis for this.And it reduces good to something that is totally undefinable.

Also, if good is something that is determinable, then it may be possible to progress in one area and degenerate in another. A person may progress in intellectual pursuits and neglect their physical fitness. Or excel in athletics and neglect their academic education. In fact, it is hard to make balanced and meaningful progress in all areas. It takes considerable effort. It is my opinion that our culture excels in the areas of basic science and technology and has degenerated in the moral and spiritual areas of life. Now I am not in favor of rejecting basic science and technology. I have no desire to go back to the horse-drawn carriage and the quill pen (or even that instrument of torture called a typewriter). But I also do not think that progress in these areas proves we are progressing in others or that progress is a universal principle. I am convinced that if we want real progress, we have to carefully evaluate what is good in any given case and pursue it. Otherwise, we are in danger of running as quickly as possible when we do not know where we are going. And becoming victims of whatever fad happens to come down the pike. For it is only by knowing what is good that we can promote it.  

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