I was reading CS Lewis's ideas on Chronological snobbery. What stuck to me is the question of whether in a century's time we are all going to bemoan how ignorant humanity was in the 21'st century. Some may think the age of enlightenment was the escape of our ignorance. Some may think theories of relativity is what made us escape.

Do we all not think our age as the height of civilised world in the same that every parent thinks his or her child as the most beautiful in the world?

How do we define progress? Have we really progressed at all or are we in a constant state of ignorance that we will never be able to escape?

  • Until we learn to stop fighting petty wars over land, power, riches, glory, religion, etc., we will not be civilized nor enlightened. As a species we're still in the 3rd grade. Whether we fight with sticks and stones or nuclear weapons, it doesn't make any difference; we are still equally primitive. We are less enlightened or evolved than humpback whales, who have learned to live in peace with one another. They don't fight petty wars. They just get along. Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 16:45

5 Answers 5


Snobbery and present-chauvenism could be good explanations of why people make claims about scientific progress if those who argue for scientific progress being a real phenomenon were to defend progress by appealing to our superiority. For example, they might argue that we're superior, intelligent, evolved people, so we know best. They might say that claims about nature at other times and places have been less smart, reasonable, enlightened, and generally awesome than ours are, because those people were less enlightened and awesome than we are.

However, (typical, thoughtful) defenders of scientific progress don't defend it that way. Instead, they analyze why some changes in beliefs might be progressive, and other changes might not be. Progress simply means that there has been an improvement, rather than merely a change, along some dimension. But philosophers disagree about what that dimension is, or what it is that improves along it. Two major camps in philosophy of science are:

  • Realists: Scientific Realists argue that scientific progress is a matter of gradually revealing entities and structures that actually exist in the universe and their properties.
  • Instrumentalists: Scientific Instrumentalists argue that scientific progress is a matter of improving the accuracy of our predictions about what we observe and will observe.

And there are some other views. But importantly, one can make good cases for progress on both of those dimensions by looking carefully at episodes in the history of science.

The view that we are to some degree ignorant — maybe even very ignorant — about the universe is held by nearly all philosophers and scientists. How ignorant we are depends on what could possibly be known. And that itself is hard to know! Still, every degree of ignorance except 100% complete ignorance is consistent with science having made progress. There is a nice discussion of views about scientific progress here at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • The realists versus instrumentalists sounds very much like people who think only facts are important, versus people who think only theories (models) are important. In science both facts and theories are needed. So the description of these camps as philosophical camps is a strong statement about the current practitioners of philosophy, a statement that might be right or wrong or something in between (I would hope for wrong, but I fear that it's right!). Commented May 11, 2015 at 10:37
  • No, @Alf fortunately, the discussion between realists and instrumentalists has nothing to do with the relative importance of facts and theories. Both positions concern the conditions of success for theories (including models). Commented May 14, 2015 at 17:22

Science is subject to its own kind of evolution. As old theories are weakened by new observations, new theories arise to account for the new observations and supersede the old theories. The new theories enable new technology, which in turn enables new observations.

The progress is unmistakable in at least one sense: the new theories simply work (explain and predict) better than the old ones. We can put alternatives side by side and confidently say a heliocentric view is much more useful than a geocentric view (but a geocentric view might be good enough for some purposes).

But we can't assume constant progress, history is full of scientific backslides, like when the heliocentric model was lost to Rome/Europe in the middle ages. It might even be a little arrogant to assume we're at some localized peak in the big chart of progress, but we do know we're ahead of the recent past.


How do we define progress?

By the quality of life, where quality is subjective and people judge their own life quality. With this I mean the value that people assign to being alive. This is not in the encyclopedia that @ChristopherE links (very interesting, BTW) but probably we could classify it as a pragmatic (and possibly utilitarian) approach, there are probably authors that have elaborated on this better and more extensively that I would be able in a dozen of lifetimes, but if you are interested I could elaborate more.

Before you ask, no matter if you measure the global quality as the average or the absolute values, in both cases basically we are going to see that people think there has been some progress.

This could be an illusion, so this doesn't really answer the question, but it helps, as we will see.

Have we really progressing at all or are we in a constant state of ignorance that we will never be able to escape?

According to previous definition, the beginning of the escape would be reaching immortality. A constant quality during more time makes a greater integral.

Therefore, in the creation of the previous perception (subjective and therefore possibly an illusion), we have objective factors that influence it, for instance life expectancy, health, leisure options, freedom of speech and all kinds of freedom, etc.

The point is that we have a perception of progress, but that perception is falsifiable because it has implications on objective data, and it hasn't been falsified yet, so it looks like a somewhat reliable hypothesis.

Moreover, we can falsify your assertion:

Do we all not think our age as the height of civilised world?

Not really, many of us think that our age is good when compared with the past, but the future should be better and that we should make it better. Also we have expectations, and we are disappointed by some of the outcomes, therefore (in short) the present is not perfect. I don't know about you, but I don't like people dying, I don't like that at all, and I think that could be solved in a few centuries (from 2 to 5), depending on interest and investment.

Basically we have an hypothesis that seems quite plausible. But we can go even further. This progress, real or not, looks good and feels good, therefore it should continue. This progress, real or not, is also consistent with the objective observations that are related.

Therefore, from the pragmatic point of view (and in a functionalist fashion) we can say, "does it matter?". If we have an A, and another A that is completely and absolutely indistinguishable from the former A, can't we just say they are the same thing? I'd say yes, but this takes us to different philosophical problems.

To sum up, if it looks like progress, feels like progress, has the same effects that we would expect from progress and relates with observable phenomena as progress then we should be able to call it a duck, I mean, progress.


How do we define progress? Have we really progressed at all or are we in a constant state of ignorance that we will never be able to escape?

We are in a constant state of ignorance and we have made a lot of progress.

The state of ignorance can be understood by looking at lots of controversies about just about subject you care to mention. People disagree about it, so even if one of the positions on each issue is correct, there is ignorance about how to explain it so new people can understand it.

The progress can be understood by looking at almost any issue you care to mention. Computers are getting faster and cheaper. Medicine can treat more diseases than in former times, usually more cheaply. People have access to more information and entertainment than in previous times. And there are many similar examples. Perhaps you don't like the fact that more children live to adulthood rather than dying in agony at an early age, but the option to keep the child alive exists now when it didn't before. That is an objective improvement in our knowledge, it is objective progress.


Yes, it is!

Human civilizations move up and down like a pendulum in cycles of birth, progress, stagnation, decline and death.

As we speak, Western civilization is rapidly accelerating towards collapse, a process which has been described in great detail as early as the 19th century in eg. Max Nordau's Degeneration (1892), Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918-1922) and Lothrop Stoddard's The Revolt against Civilization (1922).

Unfortunately, the decline of the West has largely been ignored during the last couple of decades, mostly because it didn't suit the political agendas of the leaders of the West, which is precisely what allowed the process to accelerate to an almost nauseating pace since especially the second half of the 20th century.

Historically, Western philosophy and science never managed to surpass Vedic literature in any meaningful way. And whereas it does appear that we are the first in history to develop electricity (at least at a non-trivial scale) and electric devices, that is about the only major technological advancement the West has made since the Greco-Roman era.

It appears that each cycle of civilizations comes with thresholds of progress we are unable to breach due to the strong dysgenic effects that come with advanced technology. See also Theodore Kaczynski's Industrial Society and its Future (1995).

University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor Louis Mackey points out that major technological advancements typically stem from extremely rare genius savants and suggests that both fear and laziness might be the key barriers that prevent any real progression of the human condition at large:

There are two kinds of sufferers in this world: those who suffer from a lack of life and those who suffer from an overabundance of life. I've always found myself in the second category. When you come to think of it, almost all human behavior and activity is not essentially any different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved.

Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress but rather this endless and futile addition of zeroes. No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3,000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question, and that's this: Which is the most universal human characteristic - fear or laziness?

-- Louis Mackey

  • 1
    The fact this was said by a philosophy professor does not make it philosophy. Where is the argument? What is the logic? Does this man believe what he is saying applies to this question -- that these zeroes apply to our understanding of, say, physics, and that we are no better at engineering than the Greeks 3000 years ago? Or are you taking him out of context?
    – user9166
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 1:22
  • I think this statement is mostly unrelated to scientific progress, except that it dismisses scientific progress as largely irrelevant to the progress of culture and personal fulfillment (or whatever, philosopher Lous Mackey evidently seems to think the perfect being is a philosopher, while mathematician Roger Penrose seems to think it's a mathematician, to the degree that maybe only they are really conscious, and so it goes). By the way I didn't downvote. But it does rather shoot off perpendicular to the question as posed. Commented May 11, 2015 at 10:45
  • @jobermark : I improved my answer in various ways. I hope it makes more sense to you now. Commented May 11, 2015 at 12:21
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf : I prefer brief gems of insights to long convoluted texts. As few seem to share that preference in this community, I added some more source material and background which hopefully will add greater clarity to my position and the arguments for it. Commented May 11, 2015 at 12:33
  • You seem to be confusing cultural issues with science. As others said, Western civilization =/= science. Mathematics was largely pioneered by the Arabian empire (hence Al'gebra), but Babylon falling didn't mean Math was useless. Commented May 11, 2015 at 14:38

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .