Why our ideas of human progress could destroy us.
In the modern world, our civilization has a story. It conveys our vision of who we are, the expression of our self-image. There are many versions of the story, but they all have a similar theme of progress. Our stories of progress permeate our culture.
The story goes something like this….
Millions of years ago at the dawn of the human race, our ancestors were ignorant savages. As their intelligence evolved, they constructed myths to explain natural phenomena. They believed the gods caused the rain and the thunder. They tried to appease those supernatural beings with sacrifices and superstitions. Their mythology was full of gods, they believed the world was inhabited by spirits and invisible sentient forces.
But as our knowledge progressed, humans discovered science and rationality. This period in our history is known as The Enlightenment. Science and rationality liberated us from myth and superstition. We discovered there were no gods and the world was an insentient machine. Because the world is a machine we can predict its behavior and manipulate it for our own purposes.
This process of evolution is an inviolable natural law and humans will continue to develop, to become more civilized and knowledgeable. Their knowledge will produce advanced technologies. This progress will continue and in the future we’ll discover the Theory of Everything. A mathematical equation that unlocks the secrets of the universe.
Our standard of living will increase. Our education and intelligence will increase. Our lifespans will increase. Our technological prowess will increase. In the future we’ll colonize the stars, download our consciousness onto silicon and live forever.
This is our secular story of salvation. It tells us who humans are and their potential. It expresses our vision of an unfolding utopia.
This story has become dangerous to believe.
Our story is what anthropologists call a pathological ideology. It’s a story that will probably destroy our civilization. The problem isn’t the story itself, or the theme of progress. The dangerous thing about our story is we think it’s true.
We don’t think it’s one story, among many possible stories that could be told. We don’t think it’s one interpretation of the facts, among many possible interpretations of the facts.
We think our story is the facts.
But the truth is, this story is our modern mythology. In our story the word myth has become synonymous with fiction. Myth is a primitive attempt at explaining the world, a proto-scientific theory filled with superstitions and magical beings.
Myths are the stories of our uncivilized ancestors. They are based on things humans believed before they discovered science and the power of rationality. Instead of myths, now we have scientific facts.
Our mythology has become invisible to us.
We don’t think there is any other true story that can be told about the world and humanity’s place within it. Stories can change, interpretations of the facts can change, but no one can change the facts themselves.
The political philosopher John Gray argues that the idea Western civilization has used rationality to break free of the comforting deception of myth, is itself a myth.
“Modern myths are myths of salvation stated in secular terms. What both kinds of myths have in common is that they answer to a need for meaning that cannot be denied.”
Gray suggests that the truth of a myth is irrelevant, it only needs to provide a believable model on which reality can be organized.
A myth isn’t a story that is false. Myths are based on truth. They’re powerful stories that reinforce our most important values and aspirations. They’re imaginative visions that contain particular ways of interpreting the world. They interpret what significance the facts have in our lives.
The themes and patterns of our myths are our mental maps. They help us make sense of the world and guide the way we adapt our values and actions to changing circumstances. But if these maps don’t align with our experience of the world they become useless. They are like a signpost to nowhere.
Our story is developing cracks
Like the mythology of societies before us, when the story is no longer true of our experience in the world, we can’t continue to believe it. Not all of humanity is increasing in wealth and prosperity. Wealth inequality within, and between countries is widening.
And the most confronting harbinger of doom — climate change — is becoming more noticeable every year. We can’t ignore it or deny it for much longer. Soon we’ll soon be forced to confront the fact our technological progress has become the cause of our destruction. Not only is our civilization in jeopardy, humanity itself is in danger of extinction.
And no matter how creative you are trying to reinterpret those facts, it doesn’t fit the progress theme. Increased extreme heat waves, increased wildfires, increased extreme floods, increased droughts. These extreme weather events will reinforce the dissonance between our myth and our experience of the world.
When the facts of our experience contradict our story, either the facts or the story has to change. And everyone knows you can’t change the facts. The world doesn’t change to accommodate our beliefs, the opposite is true.
This is as true for modern man as it has been for the entire history of humanity. Those who adapt to the world will survive. Those who are blind to their own mistaken assumptions perish.
The assumption that could destroy us is that progress means always having more. More economic growth, more consumption, more technology, more wealth. The resources of the world are finite. The world cannot accommodate that assumption.
We need to edit our story. Progress means moving toward a goal. The goal for us, as it has been for every human civilization, is to flourish. We need to reflect more carefully what human flourishing consists of. Technology is not synonymous with civilization.
We see the world as a machine and humans as the apex predator. The world is there to serve us, we are not there to serve the world. And if you don’t think anything larger than yourself is sacred, making it worthy of your personal sacrifice to sustain it, you inevitably descend into narcissism. And like Narcissus of Greek mythology, you become the victim of your own vanity.
“Now I know, Narcissus cried, what others have suffered from me. Since I burn with love of my own self. But I cannot leave it. Only death can set me free.”