Concepts of Progress

This is a longer version of a lecture I presented to the Philosophy Forum in Melbourne, Australia, in June 2019

There has been a lot of discussion about the concept of progress for many years, and the topic is still controversial.

There are lists of the benefits from the progress we have made over the past few centuries, and there is a lot of dissent about them. The idea of progress might seem to be straightforward, but it has its subtleties and its contradictions.

What is Progress

In every context that it applies to, the word progress implies a systematic series of changes, such as getting closer to some goal, or to some kind of advantage or improvement, or to a routine process.

The changes may be the steps of physically moving towards a destination, or the process of learning a skill, or mastering a foreign language. They may take a period of hours, or days or years, or have no foreseeable ending.

Not all continual changes are advantageous. It might be a cancer that is progressing, or an enemy may be in progress towards us, or the process of decaying. And there is another process of sequential changes, fashion. Fashion is the temporary public acceptance of some aesthetic pattern. After a time a new pattern arises and replaces it. This is not progress: a new fashion usually has no element of advance: its purpose is to be attractively different from the present situation. It may initially be regarded as bizarre until it “catches on”.

Progress can be inevitable, it can be incidental, and it can be intentional.

There are kinds of progress that just happen, such as growth from infancy to maturity, and the evolution of increasingly complex and capable organisms. There can be progress when things come together by chance. And there is progress that is purposefully brought about to improve some situation. There have always been people who are continually acting to produce progress in a wide range of areas, such as scientific, technical, social and personal, which I will now discuss.

Scientific progress

In scientific progress, the goal is to discover new things and then to understand and describe all that has been discovered. Progress is achieved by designed experimentation and observation, accompanied by rigorous reasoning, and by curiosity about what might be hidden in what is already known, and by thinking about what else there might be. Scientific progress is often a matter of luck, that is, prompted or helped by chance events.

The outcomes of scientific progress are often unexpected, and often lead to other kinds of progress. While scientific endeavour may be carefully planned, it may not be known whether some piece of science actually is progress until some success has been achieved or the project is abandoned.

Humanity has been discovering and collecting information about itself and the environment for thousands of years. Much of this information has included assumptions and surmisals. And science was once a part of religion. (For some people it still is.) Since long before it was known as science, it has helped the development of technologies, enabling many things to be done better, and enabling humanity to do new kinds of things that previously had not seemed possible.

Science has continually progressed, gaining more information about more kinds of things, with greater precision, and keeping comprehensive records of the information it has discovered and of its procedures. It has progressed also in its management, its philosophy, and its verification of what it thinks it has discovered.

The criteria for assessing scientific progress are the amount and scope of new knowledge, and the increases in the reliability of its observations and logic.

Technological progress

Technological progress has the objective of doing things more efficiently, more economically, more conveniently, and/or, more safely, and also of doing new kinds of things. It is often dependent on scientific progress. And technological progress gives great help to scientific progress. Both use formal procedures and also trial and error. The criterion of technical progress is the number and effectiveness of its innovations.

Social progress

The idea behind social progress is that the social condition of humanity has never been ideal, but it is better than that of previous periods, and that the future will turn out to be even better.

Social progress is the consequence of the continual adoption of new ways of doing things that will make life better. It is dependent on other kinds of progress, which need to be coordinated. In addition to scientific and technological progress, it needs progress in such matters as systems of governance, trade, welfare and morality.

These may not always be in harmony, and there is often argument about whether a particular innovation is socially progressive or harmful or futile.

Typical criteria for social progress are:

These are considered to produce a more satisfactory state of mind for each person.

They are usually thought to be brought about by:

Each of these is itself a kind of progress.

Different societies have different cultures, influenced by their history and environment. This affects the way people live their lives, and their assessments of progress.

Personal progress

The kinds of progress that I have just described are large scale over long periods of time, and they can affect entire countries and most of the world. Personal progress lasts one lifetime and varies from person to person.

Starting form birth, people progress in their individual physical development, their skill, personality and lifetime achievements. As we progress towards maturity we continually add to our knowledge and understanding of things. As we age, we start forgetting some of the things we once knew. The things we remember are usually the important ones. There is an old saying that “age and experience beats youth and intelligence”. But the time comes when most of us proceed towards lesser physical and mental ability. And then comes death.

In addition to their physiological progress, different people have differing personalities and external circumstances, which are changing from birth to death. These factors are all complex, they all affect each other, their combinations are unique to each person, and they all affect how people feel about their lives.

The arts

One important aspect of life is the body of the arts –  music and song, dance, the visual arts, theatre, literature and combinations of these. These all began very early in the history of humanity. They are produced by humans specifically for their own and others’ enjoyment, and as a means of socially uniting people. Most forms of the arts are important in  civil and religious ceremonies.

Over the years, the arts have made use of various kinds of progress, for example, the production of new kinds of instruments and other devices, and materials.

There has been continual development of new and more complex kinds of artistic subjects and styles. Social progress has provided more and more sophisticated, performers, patrons and critiques. Traditions have developed, and there have been fashions and changes about what is aesthetic and what ideas should be addressed. This might seem like a kind of progress.

Most people like tradition, but they also like novelty, and some like surprises, and these things apply particularly to the arts. Up to about the turn of the twentieth century, there always seemed to be scope for artistic innovation. But with increasing populations, increasing wealth and free time, there were many more people creating new art. Innovations of the various arts had to become more and more different, often becoming bizarre ephemeral fashions This is most easily seen in painting, but it has been evident across all arts.

Photography, and later digital technology, have enlarged the range of the kinds of visual arts, the most recent being stereoscopic virtual reality video. It’s hard to see what could come next.

With music and song, which are the sounds of human voices and of inanimate objects, progress has occurred in the range and quality of the instruments, the structure of the sound patterns, and the training of the performers. There has also  been a developing range of complexity. Consistency and precision of tone and pitch have improved in accordance with the technology of materials. And every culture has developed its own set of instruments and musical styles.

Most music accepts specific sets of allowable notes, that is of relationships between the frequencies of sounds. Most sets are based on octaves, that is on two key frequencies, one at twice the frequency of the other. The interval between them is then divided into smaller intervals, eight in most western societies, and fewer in some others. Combinations of two or more notes being played simultaneously are called chords. At first chords were all regarded to be unpleasant, but slowly more and more combinations were progressively accepted.

Early in the twentieth century there was a movement to introduce “atonal” music, that is, there were no restrictions on the intervals between notes. There was also a movement to create music using the sounds of the outside environment. At the later part of the twentieth century guitarists could buy distortion devices to distort the sounds of their music. These trends have not caught on to any great degree.

The history of progress

We are the result of a particular kind of progress, the evolution of humanity from pre-human to human. This could be extended back to the first organism, signifying about 3.8 billion years of progress.

Some people might want to start at the big bang, regarding the creation of galaxies, stars and planets as progress. During all this period of time, the universe has been running its course towards uniformity and stagnation, as described by the second law of thermodynamics. This might suggest that, ultimately, progress delivers an inevitable penalty.

Historians classify the stages of development of humanity, from the distant past to the present, in various aspects. Typical aspects are:

They are all still advancing in their scope and capability. They all influence each other.

This long historical progress was not smooth, and it was very different in different places around the world. Civilisations and empires rose and collapsed. The collapse was sometimes the result of complacency, often combined with changes in the local climate. Sometimes it was caused by the depredations of warlike groups, such as those of Alexander the Great, various invaders of the decadent Roman empire, the Mongols and the Aztecs. We might add to this list the colonisations, by western Europeans, of Africa, the Americas, South East Asia, China and Australia.

These invasions were enabled, at least in part, by the differences in the degrees and kinds of progress in different places. Differences remain, but to a lesser extent than previously.

A prominent social commentator and professor of psychology, Steven Pinker, has looked at the history of progress over a wide range of innovations. His assessment of their impacts on societies are set out in his book Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. He describes many kinds of continuing improvements, both material and social, that have made life more convenient and comfortable in so many ways. He backs up all his claims with statistical evidence from many countries over long periods of time. He regards education to be the driver of most kinds of progress.

Pinker strongly implies that continued human progress is inevitable.

But have these diverse and multitudinous developments really brought greater enjoyment or happiness?

Advantages, disadvantages and balances

Some changes, that we think are good, turn out to also have consequences that are not good. The downsides may depend on how widely particular changes are adopted. Some progress may be “too successful”.

Sometimes the bad consequences are great enough to require the restriction, or the discontinuation, of the relevant innovation. One massively successful example is the burning of fossil fuels to provide heat and mechanical energy, which our civilisation now depends on. It is now causing excess global warming and health problems from the emission of carbon dioxide and microscopic particles.

The introduction and subsequent developments of antibiotics is an example of a significant medicinal progress. But the unrestrained use of antibiotics induced an evolution that made the target organisms resistant to these same antibiotics, with the consequence that we will now have to find alternative antibiotics and/or invent something else.

Some agricultural practices that have significantly improved the yield of crops, have also caused the contamination of rivers and oceans with synthetic chemicals and soil. This has put great strain on riparian and oceanic organisms, from microorganisms to mammals. Traditional agriculture has always contributed to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

These and other potential and actual dangers complicate the concept of progress.

And the proper management of innovations and their consequences, can be hard to develop, and often hard for people to accept.

The various aspects of progress are assessed and interpreted differently by different people. They judge it in accordance with personal likes and dislikes, and with beliefs, and with occupational, social and economic conditions, and access to resources, and the geographical, environmental and weather conditions where they live.

In assessing the overall value of significant changes, and to determine which are progress, which are retrogression and which are neither, there has to be a lot of statistical averaging across populations. And averaging means that there will be people who are happy and people who are unhappy.

Progress of many kinds can impinge on our personal progress, and the effects may depend on our age. As young children, everything is a novelty as we learn about life. During our youth, we learn how to fit into the world around us and accommodate the social norms. We take for granted the various aspects of life that are a bit inconvenient or onerous but are manageable. As we get a bit older, new technology allows us to do new things and remove some of the old inconveniences.

As we get more than a bit older, some of the innovations are likely to be difficult to manipulate or to learn, but our children and grandchildren quickly embrace them. Some people feel uneasy about changes in social and moral attitudes.

As we continue getting older, we get a bit tired of having to learn how to use more new generations of technologies, and would prefer to stay with the ways we are comfortable with. While acknowledging the way recent changes may have made life easier, we look back nostalgically to the “good old days” when we knew how to cope. Our decline in physical capabilities, skills and memory reinforces our nostalgia.

Would we really want to go back to the past? Which period of the past would you want to go back to? Would our children and grandchildren want to live under those conditions? Would any of us want to live under the conditions of 100 years ago? How about 1000 years? People who look back nostalgically at the good old days when life was simpler, don’t want to lose the facilities they have acquired since then.

So has the impressive progress in so many fields of activity made us any happier? Do we actually experience a more comfortable state of mind than previous generations did? Steven Pinker has no doubts about this. He thinks it has greatly increased our enjoyment of being alive.

Can we agree with Pinker  that, all things considered, social conditions actually have progressed and will? Or did progress peak during the good old days, and then decline?

There have been surveys about this in many countries. In Australia, a recent survey revealed that a large proportion of people feel that their quality of life is worse than that of their parents, and nearly two-thirds believe things will be worse for the next generation. Other developed countries produced similar results.

Such surveys may be unreliable.  Present annoyances are a bigger worry than the ones we have half forgotten. We are often wary of expected changes. “The devil you know is better than the one you don’t.” When responding to surveys, we seldom analyse all our good and bad experiences, past and present. And these surveys were in developed countries. Developing countries might present a different view. Also, there are other issues concerning the possible ambiguity of the questions asked in the surveys, and the validity of the statistical methods used in interpreting the answers. (These polls are not the same as Satisfaction With Life surveys, which analyse a range of aspects of different categories of people.)

When living becomes more comfortable and safe, as it has, people tend to become more sensitive to risks, and to danger. And they often see threats or personal denigration where none was intended.

Also, as people get accustomed to the benefits of recent progress, they are inclined to object to minor things that they previously would have ignored. No matter how good a situation or organisation is, some people will not be satisfied. This, plus the increasing complexity of living has its consequences. The per capita rate of suicides and depression have been increasing in most of the developed societies. Has there been too much progress?

Technological progress has affected the work structures and the social structures of societies for thousands of years. But now the rapidity of innovation has been continually increasing, and many of the changes have been unexpected. Information technology, including the internet, is making the most changes, and is also speeding up the changes of many other technologies. The new social media, such as Facebook, Utube, Google,  etc., have advantages and disadvantages in their effects on the exchange of information and on interpersonal relationships.

All these things have generated a wide range of worries about the future, relating to jobs, surveillance and security, fraud, economic and political disruption, and machines supplanting humanity.

The processes of artificial intelligence are becoming more abstruse. With more decisions being made by machines, it is getting harder to know whether the results are correct or appropriate, and harder to know how to make them more reliable when found to be faulty.

With increasing discoveries in all aspects of science and technology, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to catch up with new things that may be crucial for their future. This applies particularly to concepts that may seem improbable or impossible. The cognitive overload is already leading to widespread disbelief and to the increasing creation of false ideas. Those who know and those who don’t know regard each other to be wrong. This is happening among the laity, scientists and the politicians.

Despite all this, many people look forward to all the conjectured wonderful things that science will deliver in the near future. Others are glad these things haven’t happened yet. In the 1970s, Herman Kahn, an American futurologist, said that we would not like to live under the conditions that would occur in the 21st century, but the people of that century would just regard them as normal and enjoy them. Do we?

The future

The ideal goal of progress would be for everyone to have a truly satisfactory state of mind. This would mean equality of status for everyone, with due respect for differences in capability and preferences. There would be equal rights for people of all kinds of gender orientation, skin colour, ethnicity and health. This would not necessarily mean everyone having the same wealth or income.

There would still need to be hierarchies for the administration of societies and organisations, but with no privileges beyond those required for managerial and similar purposes.

And we should not forget other sentient organisms

This, of course, is eutopia. But any step towards it would be real progress, provided it did not result in the degradation of living conditions. Most steps would be very difficult to achieve. Many would require changing our innate emotional attitudes. I have no idea how any step could be managed. There is no guarantee that we could reach it. If we did reach it, not everyone would be completely happy and contented. It could even be boring.

I have just presented an ambivalent picture of progress as we see it today. Will progress have a future? It has had a long past, which might help our forecasting.

In a tiny corner of the universe, myriad kinds of organisms have evolved through a process of adaptation. We take it for granted that Homo sapiens is the culmination of this process. Over billions of years, other species have brought about the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, the chalk, limestone and marble in the ground, and have made changes to the climate by removing or adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. They have clothed most of Earth’s land surface with ecosystems of plants, animals and fungi.

I think it is becoming harder to guess what will happen in the near future, and more so beyond that, but it looks as if we will need to make some critical decisions and actions.

There are optimists and pessimists, and there are those who try to look at all the facts and to put them into context.

The optimists say that there have always been doomsayers, and we have always survived and progressed. They also say that we are intelligent enough to solve all our present and future problems. Increasing knowledge and education have continually improved all aspects of life over thousands of years. Despite all the present atrocities, there is evidence that we have, on average, been becoming increasingly more civil and peaceful.

Many futurists are expecting a range of improvements, such as becoming able to cure presently incurable health conditions, and being able to enjoy many new and interesting experiences. Our bodies and brains will be enhanced by mechanical, electrical and chemical means, and we will live longer.

They say we will also have highly intelligent machines to do the boring things, and to help us with the interesting things. We will, by necessity, have worked out how to improve political and international relations to a point where governments stop doing silly things and countries avoid conflict with each other.

There are several suggested ways of tackling global warming. Some are good, some are not. The prospects for storing the energy derived from solar and wind are beginning to look better. And  more efficient technologies are being developed.

Integrated automated farming of fruit, vegetables and fish in large enclosures, is increasing. This process recycles much of its water. It is largely independent of weather conditions, and it produces quality foods throughout the year at lower cost. Its extended replacement of traditional farming could reduce much of the agricultural CO2 and methane emissions, and restore our ability to sustainably provide enough food. This would assist the programs for reforestation, and restore habitats for other species. Per capita consumption of meat eating is declining in many developed communities, and protein from insects and other sources would reduce carbon emissions and also help the recovery of the environment.

There are other potential solutions for the other problems. Notionally, we should have the means to make enough progress to “save the planet”.Andt we should remember that we have usually seemed to accommodate the downsides of earlier progress.

Unfortunately, I don’t expect to be long enough to enjoy such a situation.

What do the pessimists say?

Some say that progress is an illusion. There are lies, damned lies and statistics. People are not angels. There have always been opportunists and fraudsters who use technology and legal loopholes to improve their own wealth and their positions of power and privilege, at the expense of others. New technologies just provide new opportunities for them.

Other pessimists think there are enough terrible things happening now to wipe out humanity. The eminent physicist Stephen Hawking thought we should be preparing to go to live on the planet Mars, in order to save our species. He expected that intelligent machines would eliminate or enslave us.

But what is actually happening?

Despite all our progress, or because of it, there are conditions that may well become catastrophic. We are seeing effects of progressive global warming. We are already having trouble trying to manage it.Garbage of all kinds is accumulating on land and in the oceans. These things disrupt habitats and ecosystems that we rely on.

The food resources of the planet are declining. We are consuming them more quickly than they can sustainably reproduce themselves. This means that we are depleting our ability to produce food.Increasing population and wealth well exacerbate this. It is so easy to forget how much we rely on the environment.

The substances that we take into our bodies, deliberately and inadvertently, are doing such things as shrinking the diversity of human gut biota and reducing sperm count and sperm virility. A change of diet and lifestyle might provide some improvement.

One stupendous item of technological progress occurs in outer space. It has allowed us to send satellites into orbit around the earth at elevations ranging from about 160km to about 38,000km, and space missions to all of Earth’s other planets and to some of their moons. At mid-2019 there were about 960 satellites providing services such as communications, surveillance, navigation and science. There were also more than 130 million items of junk in orbit around the earth, some fairly large but most less than one millimetre in size. These consist of fragments from collisions, inoperative spacecraft, upper-stage rockets from interplanetary missions, and other objects. These are beginning to be obstructions to Earth-based and low-orbit telescopes, and are potential hazards for present and future satellites and space missions, and for the associated services that we now rely on. The numbers of satellites and space missions being launched are rapidly increasing. Several organisations are considering using fleets of a few thousand satellites for such purposes as replacing the present internet.

The progress of digital technologies continues at an ever-increasing rate. We will become more reliant on it for our decision-making. Intellectual thinking is increasingly being done by machines.

More people are becoming suspicious of human experts. “Fake news” will probably increase, making people to be more easily persuaded by “strong” leaders who will become autocratic. New technologies have already concentrated the power of corporations, and such concentration may well increase. Gross inequality could increasingly affect the social power structure, including the independence of politicians, and also cause unrest across the rest of he population.

Many countries are moving towards electronic surveillance of all human activities. This would make us safer in some ways, but not from the whims of those holding the power and the information. This could stultify any actions to reverse global warming and  address other problems. It already has in some countries.

More nations may develop nuclear and other kinds of weapons, which might be used by reckless dictators.

So we need to make large radical changes.

We will need new kinds of foods, produced by new kinds of processes. We will need to stop the extinctions of organisms, including insects and other small invertebrates and also microorganisms, in order to restore our ecosystems. And we need to reverse global warming.

Our recent progress has committed us to ways of life that now threaten our future. It will be extremely difficult for us to change how we live.

Our progress in several technologies has resulted in actions that have damaged the environment and its biota, increased our population to a degree that we are further disrupting the environment further in order to provide food, and has made us rely on facilities that increase global warming.

We must now be willing to actually do what is needed to avoid disaster.

Our present reaction to global warming is not very reassuring. I don’t think global warming will start reversing for many decades.

If we actually get round to doing what is necessary for all of the problems, the road ahead will still be rocky.

But if we were to achieve all these things, would we have reached a more comfortable state of mind than we have now? There would inevitably be downsides, and we all have differing preferences.


I hope I have covered most of the ground of this subject.

I started this talk by describing progress as a series of changes. Change is occurring all the time, from the microscopic scale to the entire universe. All change occurs in accordance with the processes that govern the universe, some of which we know about as the laws of science.

On Earth, our actions, brought about by our desires and aspirations, are a part of this change. When we like the changes that we have made we call them progress. And we aspire for future progress, usually ignoring the requirements and the consequences.

People who want to innovate regard themselves to be progressive. People who oppose innovation are regarded to be conservative. Most people both accept and oppose innovation according to the perceived advantages and disadvantages.

I think the word progress, which is indirectly derived from the Latin words pro, meaning towards, and gradus, meaning a step, is appropriate for such things as learning new skills, following set programs, or going somewhere. But I think I have demonstrated that the concept that we call progress has too many other aspects to be described by the same word.

However, until we find a more suitable word, we are stuck with progress.