From Progress Studies to Progress: Through decadence and beyond

by Bill Benzon

How do we get there from here? Evolution, revolution, or revolution through evolution? I don’t know, but as the smart kids are saying these days, I have my priors. As does everyone else.

A movement begins

Back in July 2019 Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen called for a science of progress in an article in The Atlantic. The article generated a fair response, some in favor, some pushing back – Collison has collected some of the responses here – and people have begun conversing and gathering around the idea of progress studies. The purpose of this post is to take a quick look at what has been going on and a somewhat

more considered look at what needs to happen if an interest in progress studies is to yield discernible progress.

Let’s begin with a passage from Collison and Cowen, “We Need a New Science of Progress”:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

Before digging into what Progress Studies would entail, it’s worth noting that we still need a lot of progress. We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we don’t yet know how to solve climate change; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we don’t yet understand how best to predict or mitigate all kinds of natural disasters; we aren’t yet able to travel as cheaply and quickly as we’d like; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. The list of opportunities for improvement is still extremely long.

Mark their reach: cure all diseases, solve climate change, world’s population live comfortably, predict and mitigate natural disasters, travel cheaply, educate all young people well. The words are easy to comprehend, and those two paragraphs are relatively short. But they are talking about human life on earth, all of it, going forward. Can you get our mind around it, your hands? Really? It’s beyond my grasp.

They go on : “Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.” Given their reach, if not their grasp, just what would treatment, the laying on of hands, entail? Read more »