The Idea of Progress

Today, it might be recognised that progress is still accelerating, especially as humanity can now extend its cognitive ability via the invention of ever-faster computer processors. We might also reasonably speculate that progress down this path might one-day attain a level of artificial intelligence that may come to challenge the superiority of homo-sapiens on the evolutionary ladder of cognitive life. For while the idea of a ‘cognitive evolution’ has been used to infer progress in human thinking, we also need to recognise that much of this progress is predicated on an ever-growing ‘database’ of knowledge that exists outside the human brain. Therefore, while an initial definition of cognition might be seen in terms of the human brain to think both logically and rationally, accessing and efficiently retrieving information from such a huge database of knowledge already extends beyond the ability of humanity without a degree of external cognitive reasoning, which is ‘evolving’ towards AI.

Note: However, before rushing further into AI speculation, we still need to better understand how the cognitive evolution has helped transform the human ecosystem over the last 500 years, which includes the suggestion that present-day humanity has already evolved beyond the classification of ‘homo-sapiens’.

While possibly a strange idea in the present era, prior to the European Renaissance, the concept of ‘progress’ was often limited by the idea that more knowledge lay in the past, not the future, because ‘true knowledge’ resided in the antiquity of religious teachings and scriptures. Of course, even today, many still believe that these scriptures contain knowledge imparted by God, usually via a prophet, such that this perceived knowledge is beyond the authority of humanity to challenge, let alone refute. While the European Renaissance did not immediately break the stranglehold that religious belief had on the acquisition of scientific knowledge, its grip in Europe was sufficiently loosen that scientific progress started to accelerate. However, this is a somewhat limited idea of progress confined to scientific knowledge, which makes no reference to how all sources of perceived knowledge are first interpreted and then used within the wider scope of the human ecosystem, which includes social, economic and political change. For, in this wider context, progress is often dependent on a ‘state of mind’ predicated on a belief in the future not the past.

So how might we judge progress?

In some respects, the idea of progress is a somewhat subjective and retrospective assessment. For example, we might reflect on how some communist ideologies have pursued progress based on the assumptions underpinning the economic and political works of Karl Marx. However, retrospectively, history might not judge this form of ‘progress’ as a positive thing as it invariably led to political and social repression and caused the starvation of millions due to economic mismanagement. As a more extreme example, we might consider the attempt to pursue progress within the Nazism ideology of racial superiority, which was claimed to rest on new biological knowledge of that time. Again, history has judged the Nazi ideology as a regression rather than progress, which led to the death of yet more millions. As such, it would seem that the idea of progress is always judged from a later perspective. Pursuing this idea, we might consider another perspective linked to a phrase taken from the US Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, centred around the idea of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, which were declared to be unalienable rights of all citizens, but not necessarily all human beings at that time. However, the scope of a citizen was then subject to qualification in the 14th amendment of 1868.

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This amendment was added after the Civil War (1861-1865) to extend the scope of the 1776 declaration to all freed slaves in order to secure their rights as citizens. In this context, we might see both the original declaration and the subsequent 14th amendment as progress in terms of human morality and justice, which was essentially independent of any specific technical progress at that time. In a sense, we might return to the idea of a cognitive evolution in human thinking, which facilitated progress in all fields of human development. For example, we might see a parallel in the economic progress outlined within the ideological foundations of capitalism, if said to be predicated on the ‘life’ of free-market competition, the ‘liberty’ of private ownership of property and the freedom to ‘happily’ pursue profit in one’s self-interest. While this may appear to be a rather strange parallel of words, it might be less so when highlighting that corporations now enjoy similar legal rights as humans under the concept of ‘corporate personhood’ .

The scope of corporate personhood is still much debated, especially in the US, in which a subset of human rights in law are extended to corporations, such that they assume the status of a person. One aspect of these rights now allows corporations to have the right to free speech and to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of political parties. However, opponents of this idea argue that there is a clear distinction in terms of the power and influence of corporations in comparison to an individual that needs to be constrained.

Again, the judgement of progress in terms of corporate capitalism may depend on whether you are a net beneficiary of this system or not. However, we might also judge progress in terms of the Darwinian idea of natural selection, which does not assume that progress is predicated on being the best, only a recognition of an ability to survive and compete within some given environment. However, as now being discussed, the environment in question is now increasingly being defined by the human ecosystem rather than the natural world in isolation.