On progress and other modern myths as good enough guiding lights.
Last week, I began writing to you about the book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths by John Gray. In the book, Gray argues that cumulative human/civilizational progress (particularly when pursued via an emphasis on human rationality) is effectively a myth and practicably unachievable. He qualifies this by divorcing civilizational progress from both scientific and technological progress, which he acknowledges are cumulative by virtue of the fact that advancements in both render older models redundant.
Gray also holds the modern story of progress up against religious myth and argues that the latter offers greater utility, as the former is really just its lesser substitute. It's probably worth noting that Gray's an atheist (and that I am basically one, too). It's probably also worth noting that he's a vocal critic of much of modern atheism, which he views as yet another religion, one replete with evangelists and fictions that parallel those found in other religions but lack the spiritually nutritive bits.
The main thrust of the piece I'd started writing was (a) I agree with many specific points in the book, but I still ultimately disagree with Gray's premise that cumulative progress is unachievable and requires a greater leap in logic and faith than does religious myth, and (b) whether I agree or disagree, the book is engrossing and rewarding because it's challenging in the same way that any strenuous exercise (physical or mental) is engrossing and rewarding because it's challenging.
But then something happened. The more I wrote, the more unsettled my dissents became, and the more uncertain I grew about what has for much of my life been a kind of lodestar. I stopped writing shortly after I quoted Obama ("History doesn't always go in a straight line") and Chomsky ("History doesn't go in a straight line") and started actually visualizing those lines on a graph, thinking about where progress might be positioned, and wondering if the meandering lines I saw were moving toward it, or just stuck in an unconditional loop, a never-advancing system that just goes round and round, back and forth, and that we assign fictive meaning to so that we might also make meaning within.
I pictured the line darting through several U.S. presidencies and realized there would actually need to be at least two of them. Because what was political progress to me was its opposite to someone else, and vice versa. That being the case, the lines could neither ultimately rise nor fall but merely denote a circle.
Likewise, I started thinking differently about another heavily shared quote, this one often attributed to Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." Yet another way to say this is that it resumes and returns, and resumes and returns, and travels infinitely in this orbit. But why? Is it because of some fundamental flaw in our code? Where might such an answer be found? Might it originate from the carriers of this fundamental flaw? Would any choice between faith in religion and faith in progress change anything, when both faiths reach us today via the stories and imaginations of other equally bounded humans? Suppose that both sets of stories are made of myths, and that we might never know, and that we probably won’t ever know. But suppose too that there is also utility in both story forms. Then why must anyone adhere or choose? And why would anyone adhere or choose? Why not just take what is useful from both, and leave behind what is useless, and advance to the next round? Would that not in itself be progress? Could it at least maybe not be?
We are not nothing or purposeless or meaningless unless we decide to be, or rather, unless we fail to decide not to be. On the whole, we are, in my mind, a stunning creature. And we are so, in part, because we have (as Gray also explores) invented symbols for describing and categorizing the vast phenomena of our existences. And they might be good symbols, and they might even be the best possible symbols, but they are still only symbols, because we are still only humans, and we are capable of furthering our understanding of our condition only through our current understanding of it, which is inadequate and full of gaps and holes, and thus symbols, and thus we form another unconditional loop.
Still, just because we can't now understand something doesn't mean we never will be able to. Or so my wounded faith in progress is now telling me. Things do change. And dare I say I have lived long enough to see them change significantly. Some changes were regressive, others were progressive, and each determination was made by each mere mortal. It's not that we don't/can't make progress but that we don't/can't seem to make it for long. But we are all looking through tiny windows from our duct-taped spaceships of nominal time and place. Progress, if real, is slow. Because progress is evolution. And evolution is slow. But we're not. We're fast. We're transient and poetic and kind of stupid. But we're also as smart as it gets, or at least as smart as we're able to understand that it gets. We're not infallible or supreme. But we're still here. So what do we do with that? What are we supposed to believe? And I think the answer to that might be nothing. And by that I mean maybe nothing has been left for us to believe. Maybe it's just up to us. And so maybe we should all just believe whatever we derive genuine value from believing. Whatever best illuminates those stunning creatures we carry beneath our skins. But just don't believe it too much. Leave a door open. Let things through. Let them grow or set them free. Resume and return as needed.