A contradiction lies at the heart of typical thought about progress. An observation of CS Lewis’ quoted in Inklings set me to thinking about this matter, and I realized that his observation is true: we think of progress as a monodirectional activity, always advancing. There is reason for this, and it is supported by much of our experience of the world, but it misses half of the progress puzzle, and it fails to account for progress’s contradiction: for every advance, there must be a corresponding increase in entropy.
Progress can just refer to forward motion, but even the dictionary definition refers to ‘betterment’ and ‘advance’, so ingrained is the idea that progress is always taking us towards a brighter and more advanced future. Our experience of life and history since the European Renaissance, and especially the past two centuries, bears out this idea. We see it in history, we see it in evolutionary theory, we see it in biographies and in our own lives: progress is a gradual improvement on the original. We don’t have, as Xenophon did when he traveled the world with the ten thousand, the ruins of ancient civilizations that surpassed our own scattered about to give the lie to a monodirectional, inevitable narrative of progress. Yes, we can argue about what we mean by progress, and in what senses, and whether technological and industrial progress should be the dominant factors, or matters of standards of living, and so on and so forth, but a) that’s a whole separate post, and b) I never said anything about progress having to be good.
I think the quote from the Inklings expresses the sentiment perfectly. This is from CS Lewis discussing the flaw in the idea of universal progress: “Quite simply the belief that the very formula of universal progress is from imperfect to perfect, from small beginnings to great endings. It’s probably the deepest-ingrained habit of mind in the contemporary world. It’s behind the idea that our morality springs from savage taboos, adult sentiment from infantile sexual maladjustment, thought from instinct, mind from matter, organic from inorganic, cosmos from chaos. It always seems to me immensely implausible, because it makes the general course of nature so very unlike those parts of it we can observe. You remember the old puzzle as to whether the first owl came from the first egg from the first owl? Well, the modern belief in universal evolution is produced by attending exclusively to the owl’s emergence from the egg. From childhood we’re taught to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn; we aren’t so often reminded that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We’re always remarking that the express engine of today is the descendent of the Rocket, but we don’t equally remember that the Rocket didn’t come from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself – a man of genius.”
No, I am not just partial to this quote because it appears to refer to rocket scientists as men of genius (and I believe he is referring to a specific type of train engine that was called a “Rocket,” and not to the space launch vehicles to which we apply that appellation today). In fact, it is the line “from childhood we’re taught to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn; we aren’t so often reminded that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak” that strikes me as the most insightful, and it thoroughly encapsulates the entire concept of this post. Why don’t we think more often that the acorn came from an oak as surely as the oak came from an acorn? Why do astrophysicists, who understand that entropy must always increase (see Einstein’s Fridge for a detailed discussion of entropy), describe the evolution of the cosmos as from a state of high to low entropy? The morass of energy supposed to follow the universe’s beginning clumping into matter and then definable forms like stars, galaxies, planets, and people is absolutely a reduction in entropy, a movement from more to less uniform.
The same critique can be (and has been) applied to evolution, or more specifically to the spontaneous arising of life from the ‘primordial soup.’ Now, I’m not making some crackpot argument against evolution as a theory to describe how lifeforms change from one to another over eons, but complex life is absolutely a lower entropy system than a random soup of swirling chemicals. We don’t violate the laws of physics because the energy we require to sustain ourselves is such that we end up increasing entropy overall, but the explanation that life arose as a matter of statistical inevitability in order to more effectively increase entropy – that we are, in fact, the universe’s entropy-accelerating devices – is lacking.
I don’t bring this us to get into a detailed discussion of entropy, time’s arrow, evolution, or inflationary cosmology. Instead, I bring these concepts up as illustrations of the idea with which we are wrestling in this post, this question of why we only pay attention to the acorn, why we fundamentally assume, without question, that “the very formula of universal progress is from imperfect to perfect, from small beginnings to great endings.” We could go into all kinds of tangents questioning if this can explain things about the modern world – lack of insight on history, lack of respect for elders, erosion of traditional values, devaluing of a classical education, et cetera – but you know that I don’t hold with such monolithic attribution (turns out there’s a word for that: monocausationalism. Please do not fall victim to monocausationalism. I should do a post on monocausationalism and its pitfalls). The point is that our world view is missing half of the picture when we think about progress.
When Xenophon marched through the Achaemenid-Persian Empire, he could stop and see by the side of the road the ruins of civilizations that reached heights his own could only imagine, lying dusty and abandoned in the sands. When the feudal lords of Western Europe marched off on their wars and crusades, they did it on roads they could not replicate built long before them by a civilization long past its prime. Byzantines could look at history and know that their empire was but a fraction of Rome’s former greatness. Where can we look today for such sources of humility? Maybe that’s the key to this conversation: humility. It is easy to look around and see examples of the “formula of universal progress.” It is taught to us in schools, repeated in the narratives we tell ourselves, and emphasized in the myths we invent. Only with conscious effort and thought can we keep in mind that the acorn arose from the mighty oak as surely as the mighty oak arose from the acorn.