The Rise and Fall of the Idea of Progress

[tl;dr – Modern industrial civilization is rooted in the mechanistic worldview of dominance of Nature. This worldview is in error, and dangerous. We need to reboot our cultural understanding of man’s relationship with Nature if engineering is to fulfill its role of benefiting mankind.]

Monumental Arrogance

Remember this quote from the Oath of the Order of the Engineer?

Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.

Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.

Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.

This text implies that transforming natural resources into increased standard of living for humans is a moral imperative. The extraction of energy from the ground or via the construction of a dam, or the transformation of a forest to a neighborhood of homes, is seen as a virtuous act.

It’s clear that the above text doesn’t seem to take into account the consequences that unchecked resource extraction poses for humanity. This might seem like a minor oversight. It is not.

It is absolutely critical that we understand the intellectual source of our ideas about progress and purpose as they relate to engineering. For that, we need to go back a few hundred years.

It turns out that the above quotes are rooted in perspectives that came out of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, by some really radical thinkers.

The Myth of Progress

It is worth quoting at a bit of length from the book The End of the Long Summer by Dianne Dumanoski. Emphases are mine.

The revolutionary change that launched the modern era’s radical cultural experiment involved two distinct steps: first, the demotion of Nature into mindless mechanism; second the bold elevation of humanity vis-a-vis the larger world. [Francis] Bacon reflects this immodest view of humans when he begins his Refutation of Philosophies with the declaration: “We are agreed, my sons, that you are men. That means, as I think, that you are not animals on hind legs, but mortal gods.” The upshot was the creation of a yawning chasm between humans and the rest of life. In this dualistic vision, humans, who appeared to verge on divinity, stand starkly opposed to a Nature reduced to malleable matter.

Even though his scientific utopia proposed an essentially mechanistic approach to solving problems by breaking them down into parts, Bacon’s writings are full of violent, sexually charged metaphors in which he often personifies Nature as a recalcitrant woman. Promising that the new science would bring about “the masculine birth of time,” he declares, “I am … leading you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

Regarding the widespread changes taking place in the world around those times, Peter Bowler says

The new commercial empires began to demand an ideology that presented Nature only as a material system to be exploited… If people were to feel comfortable when they used the earth for their own selfish ends…, Nature had to be despiritualized.

The men who drove this sweeping cultural shift presumed that nature was endlessly bountiful, and saw its exploitation as means to escape the human condition and create heaven on earth. They sought to become gods. This aim was the implicit (and often explicit) purpose of industrial and scientific progress, that vast sweeping arc of human narrative.

Obviously, a critical role of that narrative is played by the engineer–one could say that the engineering profession is the main protagonist, if we’re sticking to the narrative metaphor. By applying the principles of science to real-world problems to produce artifactual systems that propel humanity along the proscribed arc of progress, we are fulfilling the aspiration of dominating Nature and fulfilling the Destiny of Man to ascend to a higher existence.

Unfortunately for everyone, the assumptions built into the myth of human progress are fundamentally flawed. As a scientific community we are now realizing two things:

  • Nature’s material and energetic resources are considerably less vast than we thought, and
  • Nature is not as docile as we thought.

In fact, Nature might turn out to be more of a raging bitch when it comes to being endlessly fucked with.

A Dead End

Even if one is not immediately and viscerally repelled by the incredible hubris of men like Francis Bacon, even if one finds the vision of transcended humanity compelling, the reality has become clear: the manner in which Bacon and others sought to liberate humanity is not viable. The dualistic and mechanistic view of humanity’s relationship with nature is fatally and deeply wrong.

Not only is this myth of human progress wrong, it is leading us to an outcome opposite of that intended. It is leading all of humanity towards an impoverished world, one devoid of bountiful resources, full of hazards and dangers the likes of which our species has never experienced. The mechanistic view of Nature is a cultural and intellectual dead end.

Hope

That this vision is a dead end is not to say that engineering or science themselves are intrinsically wrong. Applying knowledge of science for the betterment of mankind can be virtuous. But doing so in a manner that denies the integral relationship between humanity and the rest of nature must absolutely be abandoned before it is too late.

We need a cultural and intellectual reawakening and realignment, one firmly rooted in a sober critique of the myth of progress and educated in the nature of Nature.

Final Question

Put in the language of virtue ethics: If the role of engineering is understood as increasing the public welfare, is continuing on in the spirit of Francis Bacon in a mechanistic perspective of man’s relationship to Nature the most excellent means of doing so?

Is attempting to reach divinity via science and tech while pillaging Nature and provoking cataclysm the most kickass way to obtain the flourishing of civilization?

The question answers itself, doesn’t it?

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4 Responses to The Rise and Fall of the Idea of Progress

  1. D.Advocate says:

    “The men who drove this sweeping cultural shift presumed that nature was endlessly bountiful” at the time nature surely seemed endless and mankind so minuscule as to make the destruction of the natural world seem impossible. As such the deposing of nature would be the natural act of men who needed to take on the insurmountable.
    It would seem that for the time the “hubris” of men like Francis Bacon was exactly what the world needed. Would it not appear the failure was/is in more modern Engineering? The total lack of the Engineering community of the past 200 years to recognize the writing on the wall?
    It would seem to beg the question, why were men of 400 years ago able to change a culture towards what they thought was utopia and the community of the last 200 was not able to steer the figurative ship in the right direction to the point where now we need to make a 180deg turn in order to avoid crashing on the rocks?

    Are Engineers of the modern world really the “Gods” they were in the past or simply craftsmen who have learned the skill “Engineering”? It would seem to me the men of the past actually had a much more holistic view and understanding of the natural world, appropriate for the time. The problem is that the Engineering community has be resting on their laurels, plying the skill of engineer without the responsibly that should come with “playing” Demigod.

    • tylerjd says:

      at the time nature surely seemed endless and mankind so minuscule as to make the destruction of the natural world seem impossible.

      Sure.

      As such the deposing of nature would be the natural act of men who needed to take on the insurmountable. It would seem that for the time the “hubris” of men like Francis Bacon was exactly what the world needed.

      I’m a bit lost. Why did the men “need” to take on the insurmountable, and why did the world need what the Industrial Revolution brought about?

      Would it not appear the failure was/is in more modern Engineering? The total lack of the Engineering community of the past 200 years to recognize the writing on the wall?

      Perhaps… we’re really getting into complex issues here. Industrial civilization is a fantastic mechanism for concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a relatively small number of people. The vision of the industrial revolution might have been universal deification, but it soon evolved into a means of making people rich. If you’re lucky enough to be born into privilege, you get in on some of the wealth. If you’re not so lucky, you have no power to change things.

      So is it a failure of modern engineering that we are where we are? There is a failure of imagination and realization, I think. What I perceive to be a greater issue is that engineering morphed from being a means to utopia to being a pawn of the commodification of human experience. We got assimilated into a larger phenomenon.

      Are Engineers of the modern world really the “Gods” they were in the past or simply craftsmen who have learned the skill “Engineering”?

      No, they’re not gods. That aspiration died a long time ago I think. Now… craftsmen with the skill “engineering” be a good way to put it, although I have a reservation about that that I can’t put my finger on.

      It would seem to me the men of the past actually had a much more holistic view and understanding of the natural world, appropriate for the time.

      Absolutely disagree. Their view of nature was *not correct*. It’s wrong now, it was wrong then. “Holistic” is the precise opposite of what their view of nature was. Remember: they sought to divorce humanity from nature and hold mankind apart from (and above) nature. I can’t imagine how that perspective could ever be considered appropriate.

      The problem is that the Engineering community has be resting on their laurels, plying the skill of engineer without the responsibly that should come with “playing” Demigod.

      Perhaps the engineering community has been figuratively resting on its laurels, enjoying the privileges of being an integral part of the systems of power in industrial civilization. But my point is that they should NOT be playing Demigod. The idea that man can mechanistically control and dominate natural systems is wrong and dangerous and what got us into this mess in the first place. We’re not in this mess because we got lazy at playing god: we’re in this mess because we tried to play god.

  2. D. Advocate says:

    Ok why did they need to create the industrial revolution. Well if you believe in creationism or evolution you believe in the need for man to better himself. The strong survive or the search for god would appear to be hard wired in.

    The why? Well why does man feel the need to climb mount everest does it further anything? The need to feel progressive or like you are making a difference is a part of survival. The industrial revolution drove a lot of the advances that got many of us out of grass huts. Modern medicine, science, a lot of the things we take for granted now were derived from the industrial revolution. Arguing why it needed to happen is kind of redundant at this point… It has happened and it can’t be undone..

    As to your next point, I don’t think the industrial revolution was a device for concentrating power any more than tribalism was if you look at it. I believe that it is part of humanity’s preprogrammed self preservation to attempt to divide the “winners” from the “losers”. In other words if you took the most innocent of humanity’s creations my guess is it would eventually become a methods for concentrating power. Religion, politics, science, entertainment, libraries, communism, nothing is beyond corruption.

    Next point if you are going to classify engineers as the protagonist of the industrial revolution they must also be the antagonist of the fall of the “natural” world.

    More to come latter…

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