The Myth of Progress
I wrote this essay for my Mormon Times column of 23 December, but woke in the morning dissatisfied, and wrote another. But this one, abstract and distant as it might be, still says true things. I offer it here for what it might be worth:
The Myth of Progress is the idea that all of history is a long series of improvements leading to us, the Best So Far.
Technology certainly gives support to this idea. No one can dispute the idea that transportation is now faster and more comfortable, communication simpler and farther-reaching than in previous generations.
Photography led to the moving picture, followed by talking pictures and then color. Home movies gave way to VCRs, then DVD players.
Galleys, sailing ships, steamships. Balloons, propellor planes, jet planes, spaceships. Semaphores, telegraphs, telephones, cellphones. The printing press, the linotype, offset, photocopy, laserjet, inkjet, and now the internet and the paperless office.
It's an illusion that all change was progress, however. Plenty of new ideas were awful and failed completely. Marxism was once new -- and was considered scientific by many. Eugenics led to atrocities -- but it was once the great new "scientific" idea.
We tend to ignore the failures and remember only the successes. So we are likely to greet each new development as the Next Great Thing. If it turns out not to be so good, we quickly forget it, so the Myth of Progress can sweep on.
Scientists should be immune to the idea that new theories will eventually overcome all obstacles. They should recognize that most hypotheses turn out to be false.
Instead, we keep hearing, over and over, the same refrain. "In fifteen years, we will be able to ..." "In ten years, science will find the answer to ..." "We are five years away from a breakthrough in medical...."
What they're really saying is, "I have so much faith in the ability of science to solve all problems that I believe this particular one will become clear to us in ten years," or five, or thirty, or two.
There is no scientific was to know or even estimate such things. Anyone who talks that way has left science behind and entered the realm of soothsaying and fortune-telling.
Even historians, who should know better, sometimes fall prey to the Myth of Progress, teaching history as if it were a steady upward march from barbarism to our particular civilization, as if because of our superior technology, all our other beliefs and practices must be superior as well.
There is an alternative, however: the Myth of the Golden Age, which says that things used to be better in the idyllic past, and we are but a decadent remnant. "Why, I remember when I was a kid we used to...." The idea is that man has decayed from a higher state.
I In reality, no matter how much technology changes, it does not change human nature. We have more effective tools and weapons, faster transportation and communication. We live longer. But we individual humans using the tools and weapons -- we have not improved and we have not decayed.
Scriptures see both possibilities. In Nebuchadnezzar's dream, for instance, Daniel tells the King that his kingdom is gold, but the kingdoms that come after will be of less precious metals, following the "decaying man" model. Yet here comes the never-before-seen stone cut from the mountain without hands, and it sweeps away the old and replaces it with something better and finer.
The Book of Mormon shows us the endless ups and downs of history. The Doctrine and Covenants gives us Zion and the law of Consecration, so we can learn to live in such a way as to be ready to welcome Christ at his coming.
God is unchanging, yet he progresses. Humankind fell from the idyllic garden, yet we look forward to a glorious resurrection. A golden age in the past; a golden age in the future.
We Mormons believe in Eternal Progression, for ourselves as well as for God. The course of heaven is ever to expand the light outward into the darkness.
But here on Earth, all is hidden behind a veil. We see only this heaven and this earth, and through a glass darkly.
Nations rise and fall. Some nations rise to such greatness that they see themselves as the pinnacle toward which all history points in an upward course -- but, like Nebuchadnezzar's golden kingdom, those nations are knocked down in a day, a week, a year by something as common as a stone.
For generations, people have been saying, "You can't stop progress," and using this as an excuse for allowing some pretty awful things to happen.
But you can stop progress. People and communities do it all the time.
More to the point, we aren't even good at recognizing the difference between progress and disaster. Assyria reached its highest peak just before it collapsed. So did Chaldean Babylon; so did the Persian Empire; so did the Soviet Union.
Maybe I know too much history. I felt a shudder go through me back in the early 1990s, when people kept talking about America as the "World's Only Superpower." They believed in the Myth of Progress, you see. They didn't understand the ability of us human beings to throw away gold so we can run and play in the mud.
The early Christian Church survived persecution to become a neo-Platonic religion with a veneer of Christian faith -- which was and is hailed by many as a "higher" religion than the one that Jesus taught.
As long as we insist on calling all change progress, then the Myth of Progress will seem to be proven, because the passage of time brings change.
But at the core, nothing changes. We neither fall nor rise. Instead all of us children of God press forward into the future at the rate of one day per day, making the world better or worse for the people around us without changing human nature in the slightest.
Let us not imagine that we are better than those who went before us, or that we are immune to any of the dangers and temptations that beset them. Nor let us imagine that we have fallen from their noble condition to a lowly one, for we have in us the same seeds of life and hope that they had.
In every generation we are humans caught up in the middle of God's great plan of happiness. We freely shape our lives according to our own deepest desires. We muddle through.
Thus in every time and place, the world is what we make of it; and we are what we make of ourselves, whether or not we accept the grace that God so freely offers to us.
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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