Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Idea of Progress

What is progress and how do we know? Just so we have some place to start I'll offer a definition that, I think, most people can accept: Progress is an increase in a society's capacity to create goods and services, cope with the natural world, and act more effectively to support widely held human values. So, I think that covers progress in science, technology, economy, and morals.

The idea of progress is one of the most important ideas in the history of (modern) Western civilization. It is not an obvious fact of human life and it is not common sense that societies will progress in science, technology, or morals (especially the latter!). Economic growth has been slow for most of human history, but it does occur in most societies.

Obviously, many modern societies are reversing that historical pattern in economics, science, and technology. Moral progress is a really sticky issue, so I'll stick with progress in science and technology for this blog.

Tomorrow I'll make some comments on the nature of scientific progress and of technological progress too. There are some hard questions about the social impacts of scientific and technological progress. For instance: In what specific areas will scientific progress really serve society? How do we know?


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