The Fallacy of Progress

Implying in an argument that your opponent’s point of view is outdated is a great way to score a tactical victory. “Your view point is so medieval, reflective of 1800 century values, born of the 1960’s. This is 2013 for goodness sake.” The argument works in this culture because of we have an implicit trust in the idea of progress. Faith in progress is not just limited to “progressives.” Flip through the ads in a magazine and you will find that advertisers strive to reinforce this belief in the masses. Unless we are convinced that our current car or phone has been superseded by a newer, better model, we will remain satisfied with what he have. And satisfied people don’t make good consumers. So this belief in progress tends to spread to every area of lives, into our beliefs, ideas, and opinions. Yet progress has a curious way out progressing that which was once considered progressive.

Within the last century, highly processed foods were considered a sign of process. Through the power of science we had finally discovered how to make food that was more nutritious, longer lasting, and cheaper than anything that nature could produce on her own. Now, of course, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Natural food is the progressive thing these days.

We would like to assume that progress is always leading us in a straight line, ever soaring towards *something* better. Yet history shows that this is not always the case. Because we are human, we are just as likely to regress as we are to progress. We can even jump from one mediocre state to another, moving horizontally when we image we are moving vertically.

The writings of G.K. Chesterton are scattered with critiques on progress. Chesterton lived in an era when faith in progress was higher than it is now. In fact, he was one of the few public figures of his day to speak out against imperialism when it was considered progressive (e.g. “Africa”). Chesterton points out that for progress to be progress, it must have a timeless standard which it can be measured against. To make progress in a journey, one must have an ultimate destination in mind. If a person rejects standards that hold across all time and culture, then there is no way to say whether progress might not be moving in circles. Chesterton keenly observed that when people in his day used the word progress, they really meant fashionable. When leaders and intellectuals said that imperialism, foreign wars, and agnosticism were progressive, what they were really saying was that imperialism, foreign wars, and agnosticism were fashionable.

Gay rights is an area where progress is fast being made today. Bill Gates, commenting on why the Boy Scout should allow openly gay scouts, said, “Because its 2013.” Yet he might as well been talking about last decade’s hair styles. Any right based on the number of years since 0 A.D. is no right at all. Imagine two southern plantation owners discussing the harvest of tobacco. “Why use Negroes?,” says one to other, “Because its 1813.” For the changes in public attitude towards gay rights to be actual progress, they must be so against timeless standards for human rights and sexuality. Support for gay rights is obviously fashionable now; only time will tell if it is more. Let us not forget that public acceptance of multiple sexual orientations is nothing knew. Even the ancient Greeks accepted homosexuality as normal. As Solomon says, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy talks about the intellectual danger of an obsession with progress. As a young man he was prejudiced against old ideas and philosophies simply because they were old. He assumed that ideas follows the same pattern as technological innovation and scientific discovery. Old ideas became outdated and are replaced by more correct ones. Unfortunately, human beings are not so logical. A friend of Lewis finally broke through this bias in him. He encourage him to look at ideas on their own merit and to try to understand the reasons why a certain viewpoint was abandoned. Was it actually proved to be deficient or did it merely fall out of fashion? It was this willingness to encounter ideas on their own terms, not on their age, that helped give Lewis’ intellect such breathe and depth.

Before I conclude, I want to call brief attention to the opposite danger. The opposite of an unqualified belief in progress is uncritical nostalgia. Just as some people can become intoxicated by their quest for progress, so some people can view the past with a sort of golden haze. They long for a past that never was or cling to something that needs to be let go. Growth is the proper movement, organic growth towards wholeness and maturity.


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