Are humankind’s best days ahead?

Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical. -C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Yesterday I watched a Munk debate on the resolution: humankind’s best days lie ahead. In favor of the proposition were Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley, while Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell took the negative.

Pinker and Ridley had the easier task and won the debate handily. (I say that as someone who would have gladly taken up the contrary position.) Pinker’s opening statement was merely a list of the many ways in which material life has improved over the last several centuries: greatly increased life expectancy, eradication of deadly diseases, massive decline in extreme poverty, fewer working hours and more leisure, fewer wars, less crime, more education, increased human rights, better gender equity, and a general increase in IQ. Pinker then added a critical qualification to preempt claims of perfectionism: that while there will always be some measure of poverty, disease, and oppression, there will be much less in the future. Ridley offered a similar line of reasoning, although he provided a different set of facts, such as increased innovation, and dealt with a potential counter on climate change, which most everyone seemed to think was the preeminent threat to human progress.

Botton tried to argue that material prosperity isn’t enough to bring about complete happiness. Yet he came across as ungrateful rather than insightful. He made several tactical errors, such as claiming a millionaire in Switzerland can still live in “poverty,” and asserting that material increase will not bring about a “perfect” world. While I appreciated his sober reminder that, despite significant medical progress, all of us must still face our inevitable demise, he often argued against propositions that the pro side did not offer (as Ridley rightly reminded Botton throughout the debate).

Gladwell’s approach was different and, perhaps, more sophisticated, although it still conceded that progress is an almost entirely material affair. Instead of suggesting the indicators of progress were incomplete, he claimed that while our ability to manage “ordinary” crises had improved, we have simply engaged in the “reconfiguration of risk.” We might be experiencing less warfare, but the wars we do fight are far more catastrophic than in the past. On so on. The key issue for Gladwell was whether the changes in the nature of our risks should concern us.

Human progress is a tricky subject. It is easy enough to make self-satisfied assertions about the direction of humanity–that, perhaps, one’s political enemies are on “the wrong side of history” on some transient political or cultural issue. It is far more difficult to make a claim that is supported by a thorough, disciplined inquiry into the many subjects that govern the seemingly unfathomable proposition that humanity’s best days are ahead. History, economics, politics, philosophy–is there any area that would not factor in at least some way? Master of one subject takes a lifetime. A suitable synthesis would require many. Not only must someone get the facts right, but they must cast a narrative (or create a model) that successfully orders and accounts for all the relevant facts.

Furthermore, analysis of the proposition is beset by intractable sociological bias. It is a curious feature of history that most societies, save the middle-to-late Roman period, have thought their best days were ahead. Yet each society has held to its own, mutually exclusive version of progress. For example, no conception of medieval progress could be sustained without including some measure of spiritual progress, yet in the Munk debate the only discussion of spirituality was thoroughly secularized and treated mostly as a symptom of material deficiency. How can it be that so many societies were so sure of their future, yet so decisively wrong? Perhaps it is because the sort of person who has the leisure, learning, and aptitude to ask whether humanity is progressing is also the sort of person who enjoys a fairly good life, and almost necessarily (if we are reading their writings) the sort of person who holds a great deal of power and influence. Is it really any surprise that those whose lives were defined by success and comfort would see the future as holding more of the same? Just as the child who was raised in abject poverty finds himself worrying about food and money as an adult, so too will the child of privilege believe that life is, and will always be, generally stable and prosperous. (In fact, there were a couple moments in the debate when participants offered personal anecdotes that clearly colored their broad understanding of the question.)

The contrary position was disadvantaged on other terms as well. Pollyannish as the opposition might have been, it is far easier to believe life is going to be splendid, or at least very comfortable, than to accept that life could get very hard, very fast, especially if life no longer has any transcendent meaning to give potential (or actual) suffering a purpose.

I would have modified Gladwell’s risk argument by appealing to the problem of induction. As Hume famously inquired, how do we know the the sun will rise tomorrow? How do we know the future will be like the past? We certainly feel justified in believing the sun will rise tomorrow. Yet as any skeptic will be quick to tell you, feeling is no reliable guide to what is real, logical, or certain.

As a Christian, I am happy to dismiss the problem given certain properties about the character of God. But for the secular humanist or other materialist, it turns out there really is no good reason to believe the future will be like the past. If this holds true for generally reliable facts like the rising of the sun, how much more cautious should we be about projecting the future given the tumultuous history of human affairs, with the rise and fall of empires, cultures, and religions? It is a great irony that the same Enlightenment tradition of skepticism and scientific inquiry that provided such great material prosperity is unwittingly its own undoing.

I am under no illusion this line of reasoning would be cogent when dealing with the privileged attendees of a Munk debate, but perhaps it would at least make some people think.

Botton’s argument had the greatest potential for undermining the pro side. If it could be shown that spiritual indicators should factor into an assessment of progress, any argument that relies solely on increasing material indicators would be inherently flawed. This approach would still be subject to our problems of predicting the future, and it would have likely been laughed out of the debate (at least I am imagining Ridley eviscerating such a proposition with the all polite scorn of a Brit who thinks you are treading dangerous ground, but doesn’t quite wish to grant legitimacy to your position with a real counter-argument). But it would turn Pinker and Ridley’s certainty on its head. Material progress at the expense of spiritual progress is no progress at all.

Alas, Botton’s argument languished under the sort of impotence I have come to expect from someone who tries to pit the secular humanities against the secular sciences. He was right to say that there is more to the human condition than material prosperity, but his self-identification as a secular Jew and his appeal to fictional literature, rather than a truly authoritative text, rendered his questions inert. Botton may be haunted by the transcendent, but lacks the conceptual tools necessary to share that conviction with others.

Unless we are willing to claim something wildly transcendent–perhaps that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead and, as such, the world is beholden to his standards of spiritual fitness–spiritual concerns will ever only be evaluated through the lens of material progress.

The immanent frame was on full display during the Munk debate. Gladwell could only argue within its confines, and Botton was hopeless to challenge it.

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