Ecological sustainability is the core issue for survival. Sometimes I think the death instinct is more powerful than the survival instinct with regard to the human social animal in aggregate. There is a preponderance of insane, narcissistic (anthropocentric and anthropotheistic), psychopathic behavior as evidenced by anthropogenic climate disruption on the environmental sphere, inverted totalitarianism on the political sphere and growth for growth’s sake (the genetic instructions for cancer) in the economic sphere. As much as I would like to have confidence (trust, belief, faith) and hope in the transformation of society, I think that the hard truth and the painful reality (as opposed to comforting and assuring illusion and satisfying self delusion/cognitive dissonance) is that Art is the last refuge for the chronically depressed pessimist. Art and Myth.
OK. You asked me to define “social progress” and I have way too much inter-related stuff going on – like how progress is a lot like morality and can develop naturally even though Nature is not goal oriented and is amoral. Sometimes I think that these ideas are just too much – that I ought to break things down and deal with them one by one instead of trying to synthesize. But I press on.
Specifically sustainability. I was commenting with CB about this mass extinction event meaning not only the end of the Holocene, but perhaps the end of the Cenozoic. We concluded that greenhouse warming and radioactive ionization poisoning could end the Phanerozoic and begin the Eremozoic Eras. So yeah, sustainability is integral to the idea of social progress. Sustainability starts with community efforts. Boycotting fossil fuel companies along the lines of the boycott of South African apartheid (where and when I served a Mormon mission as an aside) might be a decent community effort. Social progress might be able to be measured scientifically. The article on Common Dreams about oligarchy and democracy reminds me about how climate change was just starting to be studied when I was an undergrad. After decades of continued study, the studies that were true have been confirmed; alternative theories invalidated and eliminated. I think the same will be for political science re oligarchy. Maybe democratic republicanism will be as useless a political theory as the theory that Milankovitch cycles alone explain climate change.
Pathological conceit has to do with corrupting the truth, imo. There is normal conceit (like lying) and then there is the pathological kind. Pathological conceit is to turn a newly discovered truth on its head to entrench a lie. Darwin’s application of naturalism to the human animal might be corrupted by traditional humanism. One anti-humanist truth claim is “Darwinism is now the central prop of the humanist faith than [humans] can transcend our animal natures and rule the Earth.” To use the science of Darwin to enforce our dominion over the biosphere seems like the worse disease of self importance. Real bad examples come to mind.
The real fundamental and basic issue is “progress” — and in terms of natural laws and forces, just how useful is it to make a distinction between biology and culture when it comes to human ethology? Maybe this is where holistic science might achieve success too. Meliorism is for pragmatic, utilitarian and moral purposes just another word for progress. Is progress a natural law? Probably. It has not been discovered yet. One of those predictable and probable unknowns – like the “theoretical” neutrino before it was discovered experimentally. How would Nature allow us to see progress operating in the world? Only in human behavior? If we can forestall our own extinction for long enough. How is human ethology progressive? How is it regressive? Neutral? Anthropogenic climate disruption makes a powerful case for regressive. But it will depend on the severity. Whether methane does a PETM modest die off, or a Permian great dying ELE. Time will tell. And heuristics. How does human ethology incorporate conceit, hubris, insanity? Again anthropogenic climate disruption makes a great case for deadly flaws in human ethology, even as we believe ourselves to be progressive. Does emergent complexity make a case for progressive evolution? Not according to this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E… Is progress (like morality) consistent with natural laws and forces? Maybe. How is there a scientific distinction between cultural evolution and biological evolution? The distinction between science and the humanities, perhaps. Does contingency allow for social progress? Sure, why not.
I also look at an anti-humanist claim “In the world shown us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress. To anyone reared on humanist hopes this is intolerable.” Now we enter into the realm of the mythical and the quasi-trans-natural — the realm of hopes and credulity. What is anti-humanism? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A… But mythical thinking relates to the human condition which again relates to both contingency and historical cause and effect. Nature made us this way, although Nature is not mythical. Nature is the only real thing. So the question can be restated are naturalism and humanism irreconcilable, mutually exclusive. Is humanism a religious faith based on illusion, untruths from which are very challenging to detach (like free will)?
I conjecture (guess, hypothesize) that the idea of progress is a synthesizing concept. Even naturalists can believe (given enough empirical evidence) that elements of progress are real. Maybe. There are elements of cultural evolution that are probably progressive, such as the evolution of theoretical democracy over fascism, the evolution of civilization over barbarism, hunter-gatherers killing a cave-bear/appropriating the cave for shelter/heating the shelter with fire evolving towards a human mortgaging 30 years of future earnings to purchase a modest mansion heated by methane and electrified with nuclear power. But is this more in the realm of myth than science. I don’t know. And I don’t know how to get this knowledge. A synthesis of science with myth perhaps.
I googled progressive evolution and went to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O… I have a difficult time with progressive evolution (even without the telos) from that article. Although this was interesting. “Though linear, progressive evolution has been refuted, it is not true that evolution never proceeds in a linear way, reinforcing characteristics, in certain lineages at times, for example, during a period of slow, sustained environmental change, but such examples are entirely consistent with the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.” It stated that progressive evolution has been effectively refuted by modern evolutionary synthesis. How do you see evolution as still being progressive? Only culturally?
My confusion arises over humans as both part of the natural world (of course) and also elements of the human condition which make it seem that humans are fundamentally different from all other animals. It seems like this is how we see ourselves (1) we are able to socially progress, better our creature comforts, improve our lives individually and as a group, incrementally grow in knowledge and applied knowledge far into the foreseeable future (2) we have obtained consciousness, free will, person-hood, moral autonomy (3) we are in possession of cognitive tools which transcend the natural bounds set upon other animals (4) by putting our faith in heuristics and in cooperative enterprises, all the problems of our making are able to be resolved (5) we don’t put much value on the precautionary principle or prescience (withheld in Pandora’s container) because we are addicted to progressive hope. We cognitively value these “things” as observable and evidence that humans are more fundamentally different from chimpanzees than a blue whale is from a coral polyp. On the other hand if all these distinctions are based on illusion and absurdity, human life has no more value than the life of a slime mold. The value of human life is integral to humanism.
Also integral to humanism, perhaps, is Promethean madness. What turned me on to this idea was this from Bertrand Russell. My anti-humanist source defines “the authority of science” as originating in the power it gives humans over their environment. He calls Russell ” a defender of science wiser than its ideologues today.”
When I speak of the importance of scientific method in regard to the conduct of human life [Gary adds-ethology], I am thinking of the scientific method in its mundane forms. Not that I would undervalue science as metaphysic, but the value of science as metaphysic belongs in another sphere. It belongs with religion and art and love, with the pursuit of the beatific vision, with the Promethean madness that leads the greatest of men to strive to become gods. Perhaps the only ultimate value of human life is to be found in this Promethean madness. But it is a value that is religious, not political, or even moral.
I don’t know if that quote has any value to you. For me it relates to the “cure” for nihilism. It also relates to our discussion about me being skeptical of (freely inquiring into the nature of) the value of science as a metaphysic. For me, to “understand” Promethean madness is to enter into the world of pure myth. That world is unknowable and the observer only imagines she knows it. All the observables, the observations and the observers are maya — dreamlike constructions with no basis in reality. The collective personal unconscious creates/constructs reality. Myth is the antithesis to science, but that doesn’t mean myth is invalid. As an undergrad I learned that a pure myth reveals a scientific or religious truth. I don’t call it that anymore; I just call it a metaphysical or psychological truth. An opaque truth. In that area of quantitative analysis where the unpredictable to any degree of probability or improbability is unknown. “We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” — Akira Kurosawa. Prometheus created men from clay and stole fire from heaven for man, for which he was justly punished in the world of myth. But Prometheus is a heroic character in this insane world. Why? Because the act of stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man enabled progress and civilization. He is the god of knowledge, the only unmixed good. What is the end result of progress and civilization? Utopia? Dysopia? More likely suicidal mass extinction and taking the rest of the biosphere down with us. Gods of destruction. Now, of course this might not happen. How might it not happen? A supernatural intervention? Hmmm. A dubious possibility at best. We can save ourselves from ourselves? Our hope and faith in a cooperative effort? Sheesh — salvation, faith, hope. Sure sounds like the stuff of myth to me.