John Gray: Progress is a Myth

John Gray is interviewed at vice.com:

I define “progress” in my new book as any kind of advance that’s cumulative, so that what’s achieved at one period is the basis for later achievement that then, over time, becomes more and more irreversible. In science and technology, progress isn’t a myth. However, the myth is that the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics or, more simply, civilisation. The myth is that the advances made in civilisation can be the basis for a continuing, cumulative improvement.

According to Gray, the “myth” is not that there has been improvement (progress) but that it will continue forever because it is irreversible. I think he is confused. He is confusing the idea of progress (not a myth) with the idea of irreversible eternal progress (a myth). You do not have to think improvements are irreversible to think that they are indeed improvements.

I think he may be right to suppose that things can slide back. But it takes a certain type of self-promoter to declare that they have thereby unmasked a huge myth.

My observation of history is that … advances in civilisation, like the emancipation of women and homosexuals and the abolition of torture … can be easily swept away again.

Indeed, some things oscillate. But some things also do not. How permanent do improvements need to be before he’ll allow them as progress. A century? A millennium? More? Anyone could simply say that x is not permanent and so it is a “myth.” Homo sapiens is not permanent, but it certainly is not a myth. We need a better concept of progress, one that acknowledges some things are enduring, some have changed for the better, and some things oscillate.

A better theory of directionality needs to be recognize and explain the many overlapping patterns of constancy, improvement, oscillation, and so on.

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