Progress, man's distinctive mark alone,
Not God's, and not the beasts'; God is, they are;
Man partly is, and wholly hopes to be
Robert Browning's words from the 19th century speak to us today. The divine world exists and is perfect. The animal world exists, and is immune to progress -- even my dear brown Labrador, Tocker, does not read self-improvement books. The human world is poised between the animal world and the divine one. We are animals; but not just animals. We can change ourselves and the world.
As we have done. The idea of progress developed most strongly under the influence of French, British, and American "Enlightenment" thinkers in the 18th century, including the people who founded the United States. The Enlightenment shared a belief in the civilizing mission of humans, in equality and human dignity, with an increasing penchant for liberal reforms, the abolition of slavery and cruel punishments, the extension of democracy, the removal of aristocratic privileges and the reduction of suffering, the liberation of trade and industry from arbitrary restrictions and taxes, and the spread of peace and prosperity throughout the globe.
Such philosophers and statesmen ushered in a century of progress. The 19th century saw an unprecedented surge in human well-being, population, wealth, and dignity. It was also as little marred by war or persecution as any previous time.
The idea of progress also became a German idea in the 19th century, spurred on by the invention of biology, which was originally as much philosophical as scientific. For the German "natural philosophy" biologists, the material world reflected the deeper workings of the cosmos, reflecting the mind of the Creator. This way of thinking deeply influenced Charles Darwin, who added the empirical evidence that species moved forward through evolution by selection and divergence.
The train of progress was derailed in the 20th century, as the horrors of two world wars, the Nazi holocaust, and the Soviet and Red Chinese gulags were paralleled by apparently scientific views that explored the unconscious and bumped humankind from its pedestal. It may seem hard to argue against Freud or the biologists who claim that evolution is the product of sheer chance.
But actually, Freud's work has been shown to be deeply unscientific; and the unconscious may well be the gateway to heaven rather than the trapdoor to hell. And, as Stephen Pinker has shown in his marvelous -- if rather too long -- book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the 20th century, particularly its second half, was the most peaceful period in human history and the one where we made even greater economic, social and scientific progress lines than ever before.
Of course, progress can always go into reverse. But if we take a longer time perspective, we can see why progress is the best hypothesis we have, and how it is uniquely driven by human beings.
Raising Ourselves Above Nature
We tend to view Nature as a wonderful thing -- every new product wants to claim that it is more "natural" than before. And nature, indeed, is marvelous to see and experience.
But not to live in. The animal world is "red in tooth and claw", full of suffering, disease and oppression, a constant struggle for food and space, and utterly devoid of any progress.
In the Stone Age, there was no security, no freedom, and no hope of bettering one's lot; life was "nasty, brutish, and short". Our most distant ancestors were prey to wild beasts, at the mercy of the weather, disease, and sudden death; they were essentially animals, objects rather than subjects, creatures more done to than doing.
As technology improved -- including inventions such as language, fire, the city, and trade -- it became possible for humans to develop intellectually and socially. As security and wealth slowly increased, driven by human imagination, men and women become less like the rest of nature and more like angels. Once we stopped torturing, abolished slavery, and introduced greater freedom and wealth for ordinary people, we raised the number and the ability of everyone in society to improve life, through better ideas, new inventions and technology, and better behavior. It became possible to overcome the tyranny of nature and to overthrow our own tyrants.
As Kenan Malik puts it in his terrific book Man, Beast and Zombie, "no people enslaved to nature can achieve freedom; and the less enslaved they are, the more potential they possess to free themselves politically." Freed from the necessity to work hand-to-mouth, it became possible to nurture creativity and expand the imagination.
Although progress is not inevitable, therefore, there is the possibility of a virtuous circle, of increasing liberation from nature, increasing knowledge and wealth, increasing freedom, and increasingly high standards of private and public mores.
Two Intellectual Fashions Retarding Progress
Ideas, of course, can be bad as well as good. A bad idea is untrue, or retards human progress, or both. There are many bad but popular ideas; I will highlight just two.
One is the victim mentality. According to this, large numbers of us are victims of something-or-other, either external or bequeathed by our genes -- victims of bad parenting, alcoholism, eating disorders, racism, sexism, gambling, drugs ... the list goes on and on. Perhaps, rather, we are victims of the therapy industry and populist politicians. Kenan Malik quotes a clinical psychologist, Yvonne McEwan, who argues eloquently that:
It is disturbing, if not tragic and offensive, that we take with us no message from the countless testimonies of survivors who have coped with great tragedies ... We should learn from them that there is something deep within all of us that no psychologist, therapist or counsellor can ever match -- the indomitable human spirit and its passion for survival.
The other bad idea is the tendency of contemporary science to exclude the idea of purpose from the cosmos. We have purposive people, so why not a purposive universe of which the people are part? I am not arguing that the universe is purposive -- I don't know. But in the absence of conclusive evidence either way, the most constructive hypothesis is that the universe does have purpose. Just as personal optimism works better than pessimism, so with the universe.
We can easily trace the forces of love and hate, goodness and evil, and ignorance and knowledge in human history. Why insist that they are exclusively human? Those who experience and generate the most love say it comes from outside them. Maybe they are wrong, but the technology of love works. It seems to be helped along by a view that there is an external force of love in the universe.
What if We Really Are Angels?
The view that we came from "heaven" and our spirit is destined to return there, makes for a better world than the views that we are merely material, or fundamentally evil. Optimism about human potential has driven progress. It can drive a great deal more progress if it becomes more widely and more deeply felt. Hope produces its own evidence, its own validation.
This is not a matter of science versus religion. Scientific fashions -- more usefully described as "paradigms" in the sense of a world-view that is broadly consistent with the evidence, but not wholly so - come and go. As Thomas Kuhn realized, science is not a matter of totting up "facts", but of finding facts that fit into a framework. "You don't see something," he wrote, "until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it." Any scientific framework has to be consistent with the known facts, but it is only ever approximately so. As new facts emerge, or old views are disproven, new frameworks become necessary and possible.
There is a space that exists between science and religion -- the sphere of philosophy -- that should inform both. The natural philosophy of the nineteenth century biologists may not be right, but all science relies upon philosophy, implicit or explicit. Any scientist who believes she is immune to philosophy is fooling herself.
It so happens that there is a school of philosophy which fits the facts of human progress rather better than either the current scientific paradigm or any mainstream religion. The Gnostic Christians of the first and second centuries held that we are part animal, and part spirit. Humans contained sparks of divine material, which could be expanded by connecting with the divine forces of love and knowledge. During the second and third centuries the Gnostics were probably the largest and fastest growing school of Christianity.
On 28 October 312 AD, the Emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius near the Milvian Bridge in Rome. Believing that Christ gave him the victory, Constantine made Christianity the new state religion. He called the Christian bishops -- all men -- together under the protection of his troops at Nicea, and made them define Christian doctrine. They declared Gnosticism a heresy. From then on, the Gnostics were driven out of the Church by force of arms. The Church reinstated the old Jewish dogma that we are all "miserable sinners; there is no health in us."
It was a tragedy of immense proportions. Learning, the discovery of the self, and the interior divine life were driven underground, yet survived in places, protected by the heirs to the Gnostics - the monks in monasteries and later in universities. Eventually, knowledge and revived faith in human potential burst out gloriously in the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. The march of progress reasserted itself and became unstoppable.
If we believe we are angels, we can soar and lift humanity to new heights, while scarcely flapping our wings.
1. Believe you are an angel.
2. Refuse to be a victim. Be a subject, not an object.
3. Advance your knowledge, creativity, imagination, and the better side of your nature, every day.
4. Help create towards a better world for everyone, by doing what you do best to propel progress.