In an essay entitled ‘The Idea of Progress’ (published in 1979) Robert Nisbet, an American sociologist, suggested:
‘Disillusionment with science and technology is very much a part of the intellectual landscape, and it would be a rash soul indeed who declared it a purely peripheral and transitory thing’.
It would probably be fair to say that disillusionment with science and technology is now fairly common among the general populace of high income countries. Data from World Values Surveys conducted in 2005-08 show that the percentages who completely agree with the proposition that science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable are only around 14% in Australia, 11% in the US and 6% in Japan. The corresponding percentages are much higher for countries with lower incomes: 31% for Mexico and China and 40% for Indonesia.
Nisbet argued that the idea of progress was born of Greek imagery and is central to Christianity with its emphasis on hope - to be given gratification in this world as well as the next. He observes that rationalist-secular confidence, once so great in Western society, has been fast-diminishing as a result of boredom with the goods, material and psychic, provided by modernity as well as disillusionment with science and technology. In his concluding paragraph he speculates that a renascence of religion might ‘fill the vacuum brought on by those elements of modernity … and with this, a shoring-up of the idea of progress from past to future’.
Nisbet seems to be suggesting that belief in progress involves faith. It arose from religious faith and may return to those roots as enthusiasm for science and technology wanes.
Does belief in progress have to involve faith? For a couple of centuries in western countries enthusiasm for technological progress did involve faith. It was akin to religious faith, with doctrines about the inevitability of progress – in some accounts even according to laws of evolution or laws of history. It is possible, however, to believe that, on balance technological advances are beneficial, without having much confidence that they will necessarily make our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable.
Data in the World Values surveys on whether it would be a good or bad thing if there was more emphasis on technology in future may reflect a widespread belief that, on balance, technological advances are beneficial. Despite their reluctance to agree completely that technology is making their lives better, only a small percentage of people in high income countries say that more emphasis on technology would be a bad thing – and the percentages don’t differ in any obvious way from those for low income countries. (The relevant percentages for Australia, US, Japan, Mexico, China and Indonesia are 6%, 7%, 5%, 7%,1% and 14% respectively.)
It seems to me that Karl Popper’s institutional theory of scientific and technological progress provides an appropriate framework in which to consider the possibility of progress. The basis of Popper’s theory is that there are ‘conditions for progress’ and hence conditions under which progress may be arrested. Popper emphasized that science is based on free competition and thought:
‘If the growth of reason is to continue, and human rationality to survive, then the diversity of individuals and their opinions, aims, and purposes must never be interfered with (except in extreme cases where political freedom is endangered). Even the emotionally satisfying appeal for a common purpose, however excellent, is an appeal to abandon all rival moral opinions and the cross-criticisms and arguments to which they give rise. It is an appeal to abandon rational thought’.
‘The mainspring of evolution and progress is the variety of the material which may become subject to selection. So far as human evolution is concerned it is the 'freedom to be odd and unlike one's neighbour'--'to disagree with the majority, and go one's own way'. Holistic control, which must lead to the equalization not of human rights but of human minds, would mean the end of progress’ (‘The Poverty of Historicism’, 1957, Chapter IV).