February 14, 2018
Progressphobia: what is it and how can it be cured?
Enlightenment Now, I came across a new word: progressphobia. The book is a fervent plea for four central Enlightenment-ideas: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Pinker argues that the combination of these ideas means that humanity, through a greater understanding of reality, due to science, and an increasing circle of sympathy, caused by cosmopolitanism and reason, can make intellectual and moral progress. The aim of Enlightenment-thinkers was not so much to change human nature but to build institutions which would bring out the best sides of human nature. According to Pinker, these ideas need to be defended more than ever.
These Enlightenment-ideas have been quite influential, not only in Western societies but also in many other places around the world. Yet they have also met strong resistance. Anti-Enlightenment-ideas can take the form of nationalistic ideas, religious dogma, authoritarianism, and different types of political ideologies. Sometimes it is thought that only underclasses of society are susceptible to such ideas but this is not the case. They are also, and have been for a long time, quite popular among cultural and intellectual elites. The value of reason, science, and progress is viewed by many intellectuals with cynicism and disdain.
Taken together, this means that, although there is a lot of progress in the world, it is not visible to most people. Many more people think that the state of the world is in decline, while in reality the opposite is true. That is a serious problem. If you are not aware of the progress, it will be harder for you to believe in the possibility of progress. And the less you believe in the possibility of progress, the less you will be inclined to do your best to help achieve it.
But can we even agree on what progress is? The answer seems to be 'yes'. We can agree to a significant extent. We can define progress as an increase over time of whatever it is that we value. But can we agree on what is valuable? It certainly looks like that. It is easy to get an intuitive appreciation of what is valuable. We'd all rather have enough food than suffer hunger. We'd rather be healthy than sick. We'd rather have sufficient money than too little. We'd rather live peacefully than be at war. These and a few other intuitive notions closely resemble the Millennium Development Goals which were formulated in 2000 by the United Nations. And, as Pinker says, we have made great progress in all these areas, unfortunately without most people knowing that.
Author: Coert Visser