Is Progress Inevitable?

For most of my life I have been trying to relate my personal experiences to ideas I have absorbed from others–both during my formal education, and later on. It was like assembling a whole series of massively complicated jigsaw puzzles, and then taking the puzzles themselves and fitting them together into new and larger sets of patterns. Pattern recognition, the ability to perceive relationships, the quest for the missing piece or the missing principle, and the thrill when I found it–that has been the name of the great game of my life.

By the time I retired, nearly ten years ago, I had assembled enough of the pieces so that I was ready to move to the next stage, writing essays. The first essays were the easiest, and they came rapidly, sometimes two or three a day. As the subject matter got more complex, their rate of production diminished, and now months sometimes go by with nothing to show. By now I am finally getting to the point where I can rationally perceive at least the outlines of what I have subconsciously been seeking all along. And that is nothing less than a definition of what a modern, educated, informed, and rational person can have faith in.

I have pulled enough pieces together into patterns that fit to be certain that the faith of our fathers (and mothers) needs to be consigned to an honorable pasture. As I put it in one essay, it is time “to give God the boot”. Either God invented humankind, as we have been taught for ages, or humans invented God, (or the gods, depending on which particular group of humans you are talking about.)

By now we know enough about the human condition, and how we evolved through time and space and became what we have become, so that there is only one rational answer to this question. Humanity has come a long way and evolved through many stages and forms of social organizations. Throughout prehistory as well as history, every tribe, every cult, every nation has developed its particular version of Godhead that it can worship. Each definition is tailor-made to the needs of the particular group that subscribes to it. And religious faith as a phenomenon has proven almost everywhere to be a powerful engine of human social evolution. So much so that we can now look back on where we came from and state with some assurance that if it had not been for the quintessentially human capacity to create our creators, we would not have arrived where we are at all. How then, looking at ourselves as we have only recently been empowered to do, can we cling to the notion that God invented man? Was it to invent himself? Or to put it differently, can you accept the argument that maybe the old tribal gods were human inventions, but not our God. Which God then is the Real God, right now, here in America, Anno Domini 1997? Is he Episcopalian, or Baptist, or Muslim, or what? Come on, now…

I am sure any reasonably competent Jesuit could whip up a detailed response to the foregoing argument, and I am personally ill-equipped by training and background to joust with professional students of philosophy on their own turf. Let me therefore fall back on external authority, namely Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism. This eloquent definition of the humanist philosophy is in fact much more compelling as a philosophical proof of my central point than anything I could assemble, and it certainly supports my central thesis. Take just Lamont’s concluding paragraph: “In the meaningful perspectives of the Humanist philosophy man, although no longer the darling of the universe or even of this earth, stands out as a far more heroic figure than in any of the supernaturalist creeds, old or new. He has become truly a Prometheus Unbound with almost infinite powers and potentialities. For his great achievements man, utilizing the resources and the laws of Nature, yet without Divine aid, can take full credit. Similarly, for his shortcomings he must take full responsibility. Humanism assigns to man nothing less than the task of being his own savior and redeemer.” Bravo!

It has gradually become clear to me, however, that without some new kind of faith, more relevant to contemporary times than the old gods, we are nothing. The condition of faithlessness boils down in its essence to nihilism and utter cynicism; and it does not sit well with most people. A kind of malaise descends on any society that loses its faith in its old gods, and remains until it introduces new ones. People like to have anchors, points of belief they accept without question, and therefore by definition refuse to question. When ambiguous situations or issues arise, these elements of faith provide answers. When tragedy strikes they provide solace. Faith, and faith alone, can provide an individual with a sense of direction and purpose that allows him to regard his own existence as something more than a meaningless ripple on the vast turbulent river of humanity. Faith empowers an individual to face up to his own mortality.

What I hope to accomplish in this and future essays is to provide statements about the human condition that may not be provable through the scientific method, but that a serious humanist can take aboard as matters of faith without the sort of chronic cognitive dissonance that a modern and informed person experiences when he has to swallow the articles of faith that the old gods require–including first and foremost the requirement to believe without question that that old God exists.

If man is his own savior and redeemer, what are the prospects, what are the odds, that he will in fact, over time, save himself and redeem himself? I would say, first, look at where we have come from and look at where we are now. Look at what processes we used to get here. Try in particular to identify certain basic human qualities that made this progression not only possible but indeed inevitable.

In another essay, “The Guinness Principle”, I described a basic reason for human progress: man’s habit of recording records, which then become a standard of achievement for future generations of people with aspirations in that field. The record is what is remembered collectively. And it is being exceeded, time after time. New records push the envelope of human achievement ever outward. This principle, then, constitutes a kind of shaped charge penetrating the forces of entropy.

And then there is what I might refer to as “The Brightness Principle”. Bright people increasingly mate with bright people, and their children are bright for the most part, sometimes even brighter, and the bright parents usually see to it that the bright children get full opportunities to develop their native talents. It is, of course, central to our whole argument that it is human intelligence, not some act of God or mere historical circumstance, that accounts for human progress. In the annals of human history and prehistory, brightness is what has paid off in an evolutionary sense, not biceps or canines. It is entirely possible that 0.01 percent of all the people now living, and those who have preceded us, are more responsible for progress to date than the other 99.99%. There is every reason to believe that future progress will be similarly inspired by a small and especially gifted minority of creative thinkers. So keep your eye on the creative geniuses growing up around us, and don’t worry too much about what Heinlein once referred to as “the marching morons”; they may be a nuisance in various ways, but they are part of us too.

Progress was slow in prehistoric times compared to the present and it is instructive to ponder about why. The Guinness principle? There was no means of writing down and recording for posterity what the records were, except for oral tradition. Now we have the information explosion… The brightness principle? As long as society was organized essentially in small and largely endogamous tribal groups, the pool from which the individual selected his mate was restricted. Now of course most people have so many choices that he or she cannot possibly explore them all (though formal and informal screening processes are available and widely used).

There are probably other principles that contribute to the ultimate inevitability of human progress. If any of you think of any, let me know and I’ll insert them here. But it is entirely possible that some of the underlying principles are not yet reachable by the likes of us, but remain to be discovered in another generation or two, like the interior of the African continent was a century and a half ago.

Perhaps that is after all the answer to the question of faith for my generation and for a couple more that follow. We know enough to know that there is something pretty damned special about our species, something that has upset the Darwinian applecart that governed all the other animals and plants on our beloved planet, and sent us on our own special course. What we know now gives us some confidence that as we achieve still further progress in understanding ourselves and the world around us, we shall discover yet other factors, or processes, or principles, that have operated and are still operating to enable us ultimately to overcome the major obstacles of our particular day and age. Is this not sufficient grounds to command faith from an intelligent, informed, modern person, faith that man is indeed his own savior and redeemer, and that we shall indeed overcome?

CSCoon – 1995 (rev. 3/97)

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3 Responses to Is Progress Inevitable?

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  3. Jeff says:

    It is interesting that you note “When ambiguous situations or issues arise, these elements of faith provide answers. When tragedy strikes they provide solace. Faith, and faith alone, can provide an individual with a sense of direction and purpose that allows him to regard his own existence as something more than a meaningless ripple on the vast turbulent river of humanity. Faith empowers an individual to face up to his own mortality.”

    Why do you think faith does this? If there was no God, wouldn’t faith be useless? Why is it we have a distinct desire within ourselves to have faith in something bigger than ourselves? Could it be that it was placed there by the God that created us?

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