“I believe there is no philosophical high-road in science, with epistemological signposts. No, we are in a jungle and find our way by trial and error, building our road behind us as we proceed”.
(Max Born (1882-1970), a German physicist and one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics.)
When I interpret Mr. Born’s text above in a more general meaning, he is telling us that progress is a set of accidentally often aimless efforts of which the consequences afterward may be recognized and completed. Whatever comes up in clever people’s heads can be invented or improved, and thereafter the process of making it useful, attractive, and marketable begins.
Progress is beneficiary, religiously cherished, and the motor of the superiority and success of societies. That’s the general idea. People who don’t always believe in progress are considered conservative, old-fashioned, outdated, even retarded. Is that justified? I don’t think so, but there is a lot to say about it.
The first question that pops up is that progress, or the inclination to give in to progress, is an innate characteristic of all humans, which distinguishes them from other primates. More to the point: is it a genetic human trait or a cultural phenomenon? It calls for the last option given the fact that many nations didn’t show much advancement in the past. Moreover, the progress they did and do show is more an imitation of existing achievements in other cultures than their own progressive productivity.
One of the conditions for progress is freedom: the freedom to think and act on original ideas. Such freedom has not always been obvious. Opposing forces came and come from religious leaders, from authoritarian rulers, and the older generation. Examples are the radical wings of Islam and most African governments. Usually, the conservation of power is the driving force behind the oppression of new ideas.
Then there are those, who are naturally skeptical towards changes and innovations for pragmatic reasons. They consider the drawbacks, such as costs, future consequences, and the necessity of the novelty. Moreover, many older people want to keep living with their trusted belongings and customs in their familiar environment, however useful the new invention might be.
During the last century, especially after WW2, progressiveness became a pillar of the so-called left-wing parties, while right-wing parties served as a conservative counterbalance. Progressive became synonym with social security, tolerance, embracing diversity, and innovation. With these concerns, the target group gradually changed from the working class to the more intellectual part of the population. The conservative Right, on the other hand, attracts those who want to consolidate the present or previous situation. Personal accountability, entrepreneurship, national interest, and limited government intervention are the most important guidelines of this type of liberalism.
Logically, these two political forces include conflicting world views and interests. In the USA the two are politically strictly separated in a Democrats and Republicans. Every term one of the two governs. In Europe, with its multi-party system, coalitions make it possible that Left and Right govern together, though such combinations often fail. Other than that, progress is such a strong social force that politics is hardly able to control its directions.
I think most of us will agree that much of our progress resulted in ideas and things that are redundant and sometimes even harmful. To give some examples: guns, combustion engines, fashions, electronic gadgets, herbicides, and all kinds of devices to make us more complacent contribute to premature death, health problems, overspending and debt issues, addictions, and luxury problems.
To cope with the accelerating speed of innovations, entertainment has become a major distraction from the ever-changing world around us. We may enjoy sports, films, music, and games without having to worry about anything. With the upcoming artificial intelligence, a major distraction will be created that soon will control our lives.