November 14, 2015

Believing in progress is not the same as believing in perfection

Recently, a debate took place between Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley on the one site and Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton on the other side. The debate was about the motion 'human kind's best days lie ahead'. Pinker and Ridley defended the motion, Gladwell and de Botton argued against it. You can watch the debate here.

According to the audience in the room and on the Internet (and according to me) the debate was clearly won by Pinker and Ridley who offered countless facts about how the world has made and is still making progress in practically any aspect you may think of.  Gladwell offered at least one good challenge to the motion. He suggested that while we are making progress in the world we are also creating greater and greater risks. As far as I'm concerned this reasonable argument was effectively countered by Ridley and Pinker.

For the rest, Gladwell disappointed because of his mocking style of debating which distracted from the content. I suspect he realized that, in this debate, the content he could offer simply would not be enough to win the debate. Even weaker, however, was the contribution by de Botton who seemed to have ended up in the wrong debate. He offered several fallacies of which I will mention one. He offered a straw man argument by claiming that Pinker and Ridley believe that through science a perfect world can and will be built. Pinker responded by saying he believed de Botton was in the wrong debate. He was right. Nothing in what Pinker and Ridley said suggested thy believe in the attainability of a perfect world.

To confuse a progress focus with a perfection focus is an important misunderstanding. That one believes in the existence of progress and in the possibility of future progress does not in any way mean that one believes in a perfect world. The difference between believing in progress and believing in perfection is great and important. In a perfect world there are no problems and tensions and progress is no longer needed and even no longer possible. This world is thus static.

A perfect world is an illusion. No matter how good our circumstances are, as human being we can always distinguish between desired and less desired aspects of the situations we are in. We will always want to change what we find undesirable. We will always keep longing for progress. The belief in a perfect world is a dangerous illusion. This belief will prevent you from ever being satisfied because you will never find perfection. We will never achieve perfection in anything. Fortunately, it also isn't necessary.

It is wiser to aim for progress. Progress is achievable. When we realize that progress is always possible and will always remain necessary we can always do our best to improve our circumstances.

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