Progress or Infinite Change?

H.G. Wells

I have recently been spending a fair amount of my time during my sabbatical year at Princeton as a Madison Fellow reading and thinking about H.G. Wells, in preparation for an upcoming Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good conference. Wells was tremendously influential in the first half of the twentieth century and, as it seems to me anyway, he was crucial in popularizing “progress” as a kind of moral imperative, an idea whose strengths and weaknesses are still with us today.

Wells, along with Winwood Reade (whom I discuss in my new book Eclipse of Man), was a pioneer of trying to tell the human story in connection with “deep history.” But so far as I know he never argued, nor would he have been so foolish as to argue, that there was any kind of steady, incremental progress in human affairs that could be traced all the way back to prehistory. While as a progressive he may have been second to none, his view was far more careful and nuanced.

First of all, he knew at some level, along with his friend G.K. Chesterton, that any talk of progress requires a goal, and he wrote in The Outline of History that the foundations for the human project that would become progress were only laid in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. As Wells put it,

The rest of history for three and twenty centuries is threaded with the spreading out and development and interaction and the clearer and more effective statement of these main leading ideas. Slowly more and more men apprehend the reality of human brotherhood, the needlessness of wars and cruelties and oppression, the possibilities of a common purpose for the whole of our kind.

Yet even at that, our power to actually achieve such goals is, in Wells’s account, severely limited until Renaissance thinkers open the door to the scientific and technical revolutions that, by the nineteenth century, have given humankind unprecedented power over nature, with far more promised to come in the future.

Indeed, real progress for Wells was something that was still to come. That is because it would not have occurred to him to think that at any given moment the positive changes in human affairs necessarily outweighed the negative. Each generation may not even be better off than the one that came before:

Blunder follows blunder; promising beginnings end in grotesque disappointments; streams of living water are poisoned by the cup that conveys them to the thirsty lips of mankind. But the hope of men rises again at last after every disaster…. [Ellipses in original]

Progress was not a sure thing, an obvious fact of history, but the hope that a golden thread running into the relatively recent past would not be broken. Such a hope may or may not be realistic, but it is refreshing to see Wells identify it for what it is, rather than trying to adduce some sort of necessary laws of historical development or to find all the silver linings in very cloudy weather.

Now, Wells gets himself into trouble when he tries to reconcile this view of progress as the achievement of old goals with an evolutionary, competitive imperative that forbids him to imagine the future as any kind of stable end state. While in numerous books, at often tedious length, he lays out various relatively near-term futures that represent his view of how human brotherhood and peaceableness could be realized by an elite’s proper deployment of science and technology, they often include a certain amount of hand-waving about these utopias just paving the way for even more extraordinary possibilities as yet unenvisioned because perhaps unenvisionable by us, with our narrow views. In principle, at least, this means that in the end Wells can defend change, but not, past a certain point, progress.

This difficulty reconciling progress with mere change is still alive in our own day. Our tech industry sometimes tells us the ways that it will make our lives better, but sometimes adopts more neutral terminology — we routinely hear of “change agents” and “disruptors” — no longer even promising progress except understood as change itself. “The Singularity,” strictly speaking, is just the extreme expression of the same idea. But it is not really “progress” any more if perpetual competition means that all that is solid perpetually melts into thin air. The changes that come along may be wonderful or not, each in its own way. They may aggregate into circumstances that are better or worse, each in its own way. Our non-prescriptive, libertarian postmodern transhumanists are in the same position; to call “anything is permitted” progress is only possible if progress is defined as “anything is permitted.”

When the way we understand future history thus dissolves into particularity, it is hard to see how the future — let alone the bloody and oppressive past — could be a positive sum game, as we expect that one generation will have only a severely limited common measure of “positive” with the next. We see signs already. Is the present generation a little better off than the previous one, because they are being raised with cellphones in hand? Surely the passing generations, with their old-fashioned ideas of friendship and social interaction, are entitled to doubt it, while the generations yet to come will wonder at the bulky and clumsy interface that their progenitors had to contend with. How did they walk along and look down at the screen at the same time? What a toll it must have taken! Perhaps people just had to be much tougher back then, poor saps….

Human Flourishing or Human Rejection?

Sometimes, when we criticize transhumanism here on Futurisms, we are accused of being Luddites, of being anti-technology, of being anti-progress. Our colleague Charles Rubin ably responded to such criticisms five years ago in a little post he called “The ‘Anti-Progress’ Slur.”

In his new book Eclipse of Man, Professor Rubin explores the moral and political dimensions of transhumanism. And again the question arises, if you are opposed to transhumanism, are you therefore opposed to progress? Here, in a passage from the book’s introduction, Rubin talks about the distinctly modern idea that humanity can better its lot and asks whether that goal is in tension with the transhumanist goal of transcending humanity:

Even if the sources of our misery have not changed over time, the way we think about them has certainly changed between the ancient world and ours. What was once simply a fact of life to which we could only resign ourselves has become for us a problem to be solved. When and why the ancient outlook began to go into eclipse in the West is something scholars love to discuss, but that a fundamental change has occurred seems undeniable. Somewhere along the line, with thinkers like Francis Bacon and René Descartes playing a major role, people began to believe that misery, poverty, illness, and even death itself were not permanent facts of life that link us to the transcendent but rather challenges to our ingenuity in the here and now. And that outlook has had marvelous success where it has taken hold, allowing more people to live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before.

So the transhumanists are correct to point out that the desire to alter the human condition runs deep in us, and that attempts to alter it have a long history. But even starting from our perennial dissatisfaction, and from our ever-growing power to do something about the causes of our dissatisfaction, it is not obvious how we get from seeking to improve the prospects for human flourishing to rejecting our humanity altogether. If the former impulse is philanthropic, is the latter not obviously misanthropic? Do we want to look forward to a future where man is absent, to make that goal our normative vision of how we would like the world to be?

Francis Bacon famously wrote about “the relief of man’s estate,” which is to say, the improvement of the conditions of human life. But the transhumanists reject human life as such. Certain things that may be good in certain human contexts — intelligence, pleasure, power — can become meaningless, perverse, or destructive when stripped of that context. By pursuing these goods in abstraction from their human context, transhumanism offers not an improvement in the human condition but a rejection of humanity.

For much more of Charlie Rubin’s thoughtful critique of transhumanism, pick up a copy of Eclipse of Man today.

An Ambiguous Utopia

Following up on my last post about artistic depictions of human life post-progress, the gentle reader is directed for his edification to our colleague Alan Jacobs’s New Atlantis essay on the “Culture” novels of Iain M. Banks. The novels are plainly meant first and foremost to be compelling science fiction, and Banks openly describes their universe as a sort of utopia in which he would gladly live (“Good grief yes, heck, yeah, oh it’s my secular heaven”) — but even so, Jacobs indicates that the problems of utopian alienation still crop up in characters “who try to restore unpredictability and drama to their lives”:
What I find fascinating about the anatomy of the Culture novels is the dissonance between Banks’s straightforward statements about the Culture and certain recurrent features of the stories he writes. Banks talks about how “nice” the Culture is, and yet we see hidden cruelties and open desires for universal domination. He clearly envisions the overcoming of scarcity as the signal achievement of the civilization made by the Minds, and yet he focuses time and again on objects of unfulfilled desire. He is aware that the very language of the Culture is a subtle but immensely powerful training in “correct” ideology.
To some extent these oddities are … the inevitable consequence of the decision to write novels about the Culture. It is not possible to come up with stories as such about people who are perfectly nice and can have everything they want instantly. But one might also say that people of whom no stories can be told are not really people in any sense recognizable to us; and the lives that they experience are not lives in any sense recognizable to us.

Why Hope?: Transhumanism and the Arts (Another Response to James Hughes)

In another of the series of posts to which Professor Rubin recently responded, James Hughes argues that transhumanism has been marked by a tension between “fatalistic” beliefs in both technological progress and doom. Hughes’s intention is to establish a middle ground that acknowledges both promise and peril without assuming the inevitability of either. This is a welcome antidote to the willful blindness of libertarian transhumanism.
But conspicuously absent from Prof. Hughes’s post is any account of why techno-fatalism is so prominent among transhumanists — and so of why his alternative provides a viable and enduring resolution to the tension between its utopian and dystopian poles.

I would suggest that the prominence of techno-fatalism among transhumanists is closely linked to how they construe progress itself. Consider Max More’s description of progress, which is pretty well representative of the standard transhumanist vision:

Seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an indefinite lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities.

What is striking about this and just about any other transhumanist description of progress is that it is defined in almost entirely negative terms, as the shedding of various limits to secure a realm of pure possibility. (Even the initial positive goods seem, in the subsequent quote in Hughes’s post, to be of interest to More primarily as means to avoiding risk on the path to achieving pure possibility.) The essential disagreement Hughes outlines is only over the extent to which technological growth will secure the removal of these limits.
Transhumanists, following their early-modern and Enlightenment predecessors, focus on removing barriers to the individual pursuit of the good, but offer no vision of its content, of what the good is or even why we should want longer lives in which to pursue it — no vision of what we should progress towards other than more progress. Hughes seems to acknowledge this lacuna — witness his call to “rediscover our capacity for vision and hope” and to “stir men’s souls.” But in his post he offers this recently updated Transhumanist Declaration as an example of such “vision and hope,” even though it turns back to the well that left him so thirsty in the first place:

We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.

This, along with much of the rest of the Declaration, reads as a remarkably generic account of the duties of any society — putting the transhumanists decisively back at square one in describing both social and individual good.

For transhumanists — or anyone — to articulate the content of the good would require an embrace of the discipline devoted to studying precisely that question: the humanities, particularly literature and the arts. Hughes is right when he suggests elsewhere the postmodern character of transhumanist morality. The triumphant postmodernist is a cosmopolitan of narratives and aesthetics, a connoisseur who samples many modes of being free of the binding power of any. Because the postmodernist redefines the good as the goods, he is compelled even more than his predecessors to be a voracious consumer of culture and cultures, particularly of narratives and aesthetics.
The transhumanist vision of progress begins from this postmodern freedom to function in any mode of being. But, seemingly paradoxically, transhumanists tend to be indifferent to the study of literature and the arts as a means of knowing the good(s) (with the notable exception of science fiction). If they were not indifferent, then they might be aware of the now-lengthy tradition in the arts dealing with precisely the postmodern problem of maintaining “vision and hope.” Near the middle of the last century, the novelist Walker Percy wrote of the subject of postmodern novel:

How very odd it is … that the very moment he arrives at the threshold of his new city, with all its hard-won relief from the sufferings of the past, happens to be the same moment that he runs out of meaning!… The American novel in past years has treated such themes as persons whose lives are blighted by social evils, or reformers who attack these evils…. But the hero of the postmodern novel is a man who has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and who finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.

Postmodern art moves from abstract theories to realized depictions of how the heroically actualized self lives. Inevitably in such depictions the triumphant victory of theory gives way to the unsustainable alienation of postmodern life, and the problem theory has shirked becomes pressing: Why hope? How to keep from blowing your brains out?
For the likes of the Beats, the solution could be found in a frantically earnest embrace of the postmodern imperative to move from one mode of being to the next. For Percy’s protagonists, the solution lies partly in embracing the same imperative, but ironically. For the readers of The Catcher in the Rye, the viewers of American Beauty, and the listeners of Radiohead, there is a consoling beauty to be found in the artistic depiction of alienation itself. For the French existentialists, the solution might just be to go ahead and blow your brains out.
That transhumanists have not grappled with the hollow and alienating character of their vision of progress could be taken as evidence of their historical and philosophical myopia. But of course their uninterest in depictions of the good(s) is not simply an oversight but an underlying principle. Whereas the postmodernist’s freedom from all modes of being is constitutionally ironic, the transhumanist is gravely serious about his freedom. His primary attitude towards discussions about the relative merits of different value systems or ways of life is not playfulness but wariness — or sometimes, as we have seen in the comments on this blog, outright hostility and paranoia.
Whereas the postmodernist takes the freedom from and to choose any mode of being as inherent, the transhumanist believes that it must be fought for — else there would be no gap between here and transcendence. Indeed, it is the effort to bridge this gap that constitutes transhuman teleology; the feat of the earning itself is the central end of transhuman progress. Transhumanism takes the lemons of postmodern alienation and makes the will to lemonade.
Hence the essential insatiability of the transhumanist project. It has as its goal not some fulfilled form, but a constant seeking after transgressive will and power which, once secured in some measure, surrenders its transgressiveness to the quotidian and so must be sought in still greater measure. The transhumanist, unlike even the theoretical postmodernist, can never fully actualize.
And hence the unsexiness Prof. Hughes bemoans in his project to split the difference between fatalisms, for his “pessimism of the intellect” appears only as a dreary accidental impediment to transcendence. A transhumanist project versed in the arts might be able to provide a more unified and compelling vision of its quest for progress — but it would also have to confront the everyday despair that lies at its heart.
[Images: “Transhuman DNA”, courtesy Biopolitical Times; Walker Percy; Radiohead.]

The “Anti-Progress” Slur

Adam already noted my brief response to a charge frequently made against “bioconservatives”: that we are against progress and for suffering. I’d like to say a little more in the hope of putting this tired rhetorical trope to rest. So let me just list, in no particular order and without any effort to be comprehensive or predictive, a dozen areas in which I personally think science and technology are contributing to genuine incremental improvements in the material conditions of human life — i.e., progress:

1. Agriculture: decreased/more focused inputs, increased crop yields, quality, diversity, and reliability
2. Water: increased quality of water supply and more reliable and efficient distribution
3. Energy: more efficient energy production, transport and consumption, greater diversity of energy supplies
4. Transportation: increased speed and safety, greater energy efficiency
5. Food supply: improved quality and diversity along with increased safety and storage time
6. Space travel: reduced cost of routine manned space operations, increased capacity in exploratory efforts
7. Construction: more durable materials, increased simplicity and speed of commercial, residential and infrastructure construction
8. Military: increased ability to detect explosives and weapons of mass destruction, and to preempt their use or contain their consequences; increased reliability and precision of munitions
9. Medicine: increased safety, scope and availability of vaccination; less invasive and more precise surgery; personalized and/or narrowly targeted medical treatments; simplified diagnostics and treatments; better prosthetic devices for physical and neurological disabilities (and yes, I know about the thin line between therapy and enhancement, but we’ll deal with that another time).
10. Nature: improved ability to predict extreme weather and geological events
11. Waste: treating waste products as resources
12. Communication: continued increases in speed, bandwidth and information connectivity

I’m not trying to be controversial or surprising here, nor to suggest that transhumanists are against any of these developments. But I am pointing out that progress is not the same as “the latest thing” or the most outré imaginings. Progress is not about being at the bleeding edge for its own sake, or having an idea that only a few people believe in, or being attracted to what is strange and unique. Let’s try not to confuse being for some less-than-controversial kinds of progress with being against progress simply. Any and all change is not progress, and somebody’s claim that a given change is “progress” should be taken as an invitation to critical thinking about what would make human life better — and not as the last word.