I really enjoy your analysis of historical inventions, trying to understand why they were invented at a particular time and not some other.
I understand that your work is partly advocacy. We want more growth, more progress, at the same time as we learn from the lessons of the 20th century about the accompanying risks.
What’s not yet clear to me, and which I hope you’ll illuminate in the future, is your view of the relationship between a “philosophy of progress” and concrete technological innovations or economic and social advancements.
As you note in your essay, “We need a new philosophy of progress,” the philosophy of progress in the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution happened along with the development of lots of dramatic technological innovations. Antibiotics, flight, electricity, bulletproof vests, cars, dyes, a revolution in agriculture, the list goes on and on. These were innovations that were obviously marvelous, put on a spectacle, and directly change the way that many people live every day.
Isn’t that technological innovation what causes the philosophy of progress, rather than the other way around?
Didn’t the philosophy of progress fade when technological innovation started producing dangers and destructions that were more obvious and dramatic and story-friendly, and hit people where they live on a daily basis?
Can we really ignite a new philosophy of progress without a concomitant explosion in dramatic, everyday technical innovations that impact ordinary people’s daily lives with the same force that the positive innovations of the 19th century produced?
And even if we can generate a widespread new philosophy of progress through advocacy, will that philosophy cause us to accelerate our positive technological and economic growth? Or will it mainly serve to attract more appreciation to the technological innovations that are already happening? Rather than increasing the rate at which we create innovations on par with AlphaFold, might a new philosophy of progress just cause more people to be excited about AlphaFold?
The reason I ask these questions is partly that I find your writing about the details of historical inventions are in a sweet spot where there’s a combination of concreteness in terms of the construction and economics of the machine, and big-picture questions in terms of understanding the bottlenecks to their invention.
Ideology is a more ephemeral topic. It seems important to nail down some of these questions with the same level of rigor that you bring to your analysis of historical inventions. These are the main questions I’m hoping you’ll explore in some depth in order to give us clarity on the direction of your nonprofit. I hope this doesn’t seem like a criticism of your work, which is exciting and ongoing. Note also that I haven’t read everything you’ve published under the Roots of Progress aegis. It’s more just to give a sense of the main questions I find myself with when I zoom out from individual essays to consider the project as a whole.
I think the relationship between the philosophy of progress and actual progress is reciprocal. When people believe in progress, they do more of it; and when they see it working, they believe in it.
Note that the idea of progress arguably began around the time of Bacon, which was more than a century before the Industrial Revolution.
Yes, but. Historical events like this pose a challenge to existing ideas—they don’t determine how people will interpret them or what new ideas will come along to answer the challenge. Every challenge is a crossroads. I think we took the wrong fork in the mid-20th century, and I want us to get back on track.
Again, I think this will be reciprocal. If the coming decades see Mars settlements and affordable supersonic passenger travel and CRISPR gene therapies and an mRNA cure for cancer and fusion energy and effective longevity treatments… that will help people believe in progress again. But also, helping spread the idea that progress is real and we can make it happen could help inspire people to build the future.
Rather than increasing the rate at which we create innovations on par with AlphaFold, might a new philosophy of progress just cause more people to be excited about AlphaFold?
Excitement about things translates into money and talent going into them, which causes more of them to happen.
This seems connected to the broader question of the relationship between ideologies and human actions or social structures more generally. What forces generate, develop, and spread an ideology? How do social forces and the physical environment in turn affect ideology? I’m sure there must be some substantial literature on this, though I wouldn’t know how to judge its accuracy.
My guess, though, is that individual people have intuitions both about the general average level of ideological potency, and also about the relative level of potencies between ideologies.
I don’t really know how this is viewed by scholars, and it seems likely to me that scholars and non-scholars alike will claim that ideologies are more or less potent as a persuasive tactic or affiliation signal.
Without being confident about this at all, my perception is that “progress” is not viewed as a default-favorable ideology amongst scholars. In my world (biomedical engineering), there’s a deep-seated respect for progress, but it’s never couched in such lofty terms. We use words like “cool,” and “exciting,” and “fascinating,” but we usually are a bit sarcastic about the real-world impact of our research. It has a sexy end-goal (curing various diseases, creating novel bio-sensors, etc), but we’re currently tinkering with lots of optimizations and mechanistic questions in mice, and need to primarily focus on next steps.
Every new person in the lab comes in excited to cure disease X, and we have to talk them into accepting that their role right now is to optimize the size of hydrogel beads.
So I also suspect that an unaddressed wrinkle is that the people who are professionally invested in creating “progress” have a nuanced opinion on it as a concept. It wasn’t the word “progress” that got me into this field, but it was the spirit behind the word that served as a bridge from my former profession into this one. It might be useful to distinguish between “progress” as a way to motivate people to pursue a new direction in life or give their money to a cause, and “progress” as a practical professional goal. Understanding how it functions in both of those contexts, and how values shift as a person deepens into a field, seems useful.
I think this touches on an important aspect of the nature of progress. Thomas Kuhn wrote about how fields where the research is guided more intrinsincly by focusing on problems that a scientific community itself considers important (like theoretical physics) then fields that focus on solving real world projects (like domestic science).
It might be imporant for scientists to actually believe that their field can make progress in a notion that’s independent of real world application. For Einstein believing in progress meant believing that he could completely revolutionize physics. Eric Weinstein believes that similar progress is still possible in physics while the mainstream theoretical physics community believes that there isn’t foundamental progress to be found and what’s left is just aligning parts of string theory.
Progress means expanding the collective knowledge on know-hows. Before you didn’t know how to make something, now you know how to make something based on years of research that build on existing knowledge. In academia, there is a distinct separation of science and applied science. Progress is a combination of those two. Math is pure science; a lot of it isn’t really directly applicable in the real world. As other fields expand similarly, those knowledge get borrowed in their applied science department. The applied science is always built on top of science. Without science we would have nothing, but without applied science, we wouldn’t have any progress. Science can be verified to various degrees while applied science placing a confidence level on those verification. Consequences may vary and the applications can be good/bad/neutral depending on which context and aptitude you apply.
Plenty of advances in knowledge have nothing to do with science and applied science out of academia. The notion that “Without science we would have nothing” sounds like propaganda out of some academic departments that overrates their importance.
OK I admit that’s a bit too absolute. I wasn’t using the word science to distinguish stuff that don’t follow the scientific method. I’m not sure what to call those. Maybe just human knowledge? I was mainly trying to distinguish pure knowledge that isn’t used to make something tangible vs the method of using those knowledge/science to achieve/make something.