Human life seems to be getting better in every way yet nobody seems to have noticed. That is the argument Harvard Psychology Professor and popular philosopher Steven Pinker makes in his latest book.
Pinker has uncovered a fascinating and disturbing paradox; human beings are always willing to enjoy the fruit of progress, yet they refuse to believe in progress itself. Pinker easily demonstrates that science and technology have greatly improved the lives of the vast majority of human beings, and presents a mountain of data to back up his argument.
His data also shows that most people are pessimistic about the future, and believe things are getting worse when they are not. Beyond that Pinker exposes widespread hostility to the whole concept of progress; and the forces behind it in the media, academia, popular culture, and politics.
Most bothersome is the hostility to progress among groups like intellectuals, academics, and college professors, Pinker ably documents. Particularly chilling are college faculty members that are trying to edit science out of history in the name of political correctness.
“Pinker’s Paradox;” as we might call it, raises the disturbing possibility that human beings are naturally resistant or hostile to progress. It also shows that progress is a far harder sell than it should be.
Even though the world is safer, more peaceful, cleaner, freer, healthier, and more prosperous than ever before a lot of people cannot accept that reality. The better things get; the more some people refuse to notice, and the harder they resist progress and the thinking behind it.
Why Are People so Hostile to Progress?
There are several potential explanations for the hostility to progress and the failure to accept it. These explanations include:
- Plain old fashioned arrogance. Accepting progress means that one accepts the idea that future generations might be smarter than we are and know better ways of doing things. Nobody likes to be wrong, and lot of people would rather keep doing things their way – even if it is wrong – than admit somebody else might be right.
- Progress is hard. Progress is more like trench warfare than a great leap forward. Progress is often a long, slow, and bloody slog that involves a lot of hard work, a lot of struggle, and many disappointments. Many people simply cannot take that. They would rather believe in instant magical solutions than accept slow and steady progress.
- Many people’s expectations of progress are too high. They expect quick and painless solutions; when all progress can offer is “blood, sweat, and tears.”
- People are afraid they will be left out. Behind almost every argument against progress there will be a person fearing for his or her livelihood. Much of the opposition to progress among intellectuals comes from a fear that they will have no place; and no jobs, in a world where many of the problems have been solved. Many intellectuals seem to fear that lack of political argument; arising from the solving of problems, will end debates and their roles as pundits.
- Progress is not entertaining or romantic. When peace, progress, and freedom are the status quo there is little conflict. That gives novelists scriptwriters, and poets little to write about. There is no blood, no guts, and no intrigue. This is why the shelves are full of dystopias instead utopias, dystopias are more entertaining. It is also why movie and TV producers show the future as they show the past a world of unending violent conflict, that makes for great entertainment but lousy history.
- Doom and gloom sell. Movie producers, authors, commentators, pundits, politicians, clerics, and artists have long understood that doom and gloom sells. The cartoonish Left Behind novels made third-rate Christian writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins into millionaires for example. This is why the commentators focus on the crisis of the week or the fear of the month, science fiction writers churn out unending numbers of dystopias and Hollywood never tires of apocalyptic tales and post-Armageddon stories. Hysteria about the end of the world and a dark future sells books, philosophies, movies, and television.
- Progress makes for lousy storytelling. For example, there are hundreds of science fiction franchises out there, yet only Star Trek seems to show a better future for humanity. Even Trek concentrates on the dark aspects of its universe in an effort to create entertaining situations. This occurs because progress usually makes for lousy storytelling.
- Progress threatens many people’s worldviews. Much of the rejection of progress comes from the threat it poses to worldviews. At the end of the day; nationalists, fundamentalist Christians and Moslems, Marxists, Communists, transcendentalists, libertarians, romantics, new agers, Nietzscheans, racists, fascists, and traditionalists oppose progress for the same reason: it threatens their worldviews. When the threat to the worldview is combined with a threat to somebody’s livelihood, the reason for opposing progress is doubled.
Pinker has done important work; the sorry truth is that a large percentage of the human race will never accept progress and many will oppose it. We need to understand that fact and adapt to it if we want to progress.
To see how much better the world is getting please read Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. The data Pinker provides and the argument he makes are real eye openers and need to be considered by every thinking person. To achieve progress and enjoy its fruits the world will need to solve Pinker’s Paradox.