The Roots of Progress

Progress: Fluke or trend?

A foundational conviction of this project is that progress is a trend with definite, substantive causes, and that it can continue far, far into the future. Progress is not automatic or inevitable: it can slow, stop, even reverse. But the history of progress over the last 200+ years convinces me that much more is possible.

Not everyone agrees, however. To learn more about how people think about this, I posed a question on Twitter:

Do you think the last 200+ years of technological/industrial progress were…

… a trend with substantive causes, that we can expect to continue?

… a fluke, a stroke of luck, not to be repeated?

And why?

(Not a poll because I'm more interested in your reasons than your votes)

— Jason Crawford (@jasoncrawford) September 10, 2020

After discussing it with people all day, most of the “fluke” arguments were:

  1. Argument from failure of imagination: “I can’t see or imagine any big breakthroughs, therefore I don’t expect any.”
  2. Materialism: Progress is primarily driven by material resources (such as fossil fuels); therefore it will slow when those inevitably run out.

Failure of imagination is not a compelling argument to me, for both logical and historical reasons. The logical reason should be obvious. The historical reason is that the big breakthroughs of the past were not easy to imagine or predict before they happened. In a different context, Eliezer Yudkowsky points out that even the creators of inventions such as the airplane or the nuclear reactor felt that their breakthroughs were fifty years out, or even impossible, shortly before they happened. Now is no different. (This point seems exceedingly difficult to get through to people; no matter how much you point out the logical fallacy, or the historical precedent, they continue to repeat the same points. I don’t know if this is because the logical fallacy itself is unclear, or if it’s just a form of mood affiliation, or what.)

There’s a variation of this argument which goes: The universe is finite, so there’s a finite number of breakthroughs to make, so they have to run out eventually. But even granting this, why assume we have found even 1% of the big breakthroughs so far? Or 0.01%? If there are many more to be had, then progress can continue for a long time.

As for materialism, I disagree with the premise. I don’t think progress is primarily driven by material resources. When we think of the Industrial Revolution, we often think of steam engines, iron foundries, and locomotives, all run on coal. But there were equally important inventions, such as textile automation, that didn’t require any fuel at all. And the coal was sitting in the ground for all of human history, without any industrial revolutions happening for a very long time. So “natural” resources seem neither necessary nor sufficient for progress. (Indeed, there are no “natural” resources.) For more on this point, see Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity, especially chapters 20–21.

There were also people arguing an option I didn’t suggest, which is “a trend with substantive causes, that will not continue”—typically because of social reasons: we are abandoning the causes of the trend, or putting up blockers. This is more plausible to me. Progress isn’t natural; we make it happen through choice and effort, and we only do so when we believe it is possible and desirable. It depends on certain legal institutions, and it requires time, talent and treasure. If any of those are lost—say, if we stop celebrating progress, or turn against growth—progress may not continue.

But in order to care about progress studies, we have to believe that the last few centuries of unprecedented progress didn’t just randomly happen because of a lucky break, and they weren’t a short-term acceleration of growth that will soon inexorably return to pre-industrial levels. There has to be a goal: namely, the next 200 years of progress. This whole endeavor is premised on that.

Comment on Reddit or debate me on Letter.

Social media link image credit: Wikimedia / Sankar 1995, CC-BY-SA 3.0

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