We live

We live in interesting times, friend. Yet, perhaps people have generally always been tempted – irrespective of time or place – to consider theirs the most exciting of times?  In any event, a case can be made that there never existed a time more… changeable.  In particular, our current age is arguably unprecedented by virtue of the rapid pace of technological change, and the concomitant access to information.  Of course, these ‘benefits’ (if that is indeed what they are) are not experienced by everyone.

Like many worriers today, people of past generations have also been hesitant to embrace change, especially after the sun passes the high noon of their lives.  The very first thing, therefore, that anyone who feels truly concerned with the effects of current ‘progress’ must ask themselves is: how do I know for sure that things are changing for the worse? Only then can one seriously go about seeking solutions.

Here, I try capture and communicate some of the trends facing our time that I have come to see as particularly worthy of attention.

4 Responses to “We live”

  1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

    I would be curious as to what constitutes “progress”, i.e., a change for the better, in contrast to a change for the worse. I tend to be rather skeptical of such broad claims about some state of humanity and the world, since I find they, all too often, focus too much on some particular subset of all the things composing that state. But what makes that subset, and not some other, the definitive one that answers the question, is it better or worse than the previous? Ultimately, it seems that one must have in mind some idea of *the good life* for a human being, or communities of human beings together, in order to even begin to think that some state of humanity and the world is either better or worse than some other. And even if one could come up with some comprehensive conception of *the good life*, to use it as a measure of comparison between different “eras” or “ages” would presume that what is *in fact* the good life–if there be such a thing at all–never changes and is, therefore, always applicable, anytime. But as the world changes, as we change the world, as we change and change ourselves, is it not more reasonable to believe that whatever might be “good” for a human life is, too, in flux? And perhaps even, is, in some sense, to some degree, determined by us? If one makes an evaluation, one must use a standard with which to measure. But, from whence does one get such a standard? And how can one be so sure that that standard is applicable to all of human life?

    At any point in time, is the state of humanity and the world really any better or worse? Or are we just the kind of creatures so endowed with the remarkable ability to conceive of what is *possible* by a process of comparisons?

    This is not, of course, to say that terrible things aren’t currently going on all over the world, and people aren’t genuinely suffering and oppressed. It is just an inquiry into what sort of justification one might have for either or both of a claim about progress, and an evaluation that things are better or worse than any previous time. And I wonder, too, if the very liberal belief that each human life is of equal moral value is lurking somewhere behind the scenes here, and if so, perhaps that needs to be addressed. Not to imply that I think it’s false, but there many people in the world who do. But more to the point, I don’t see how such a belief would *not* influence one’s evaluation of the current state of humanity and the world, and since that is what is being questioned, then it is worth laying all of one’s cards out on the table, eh?

    I hope my lengthy reply, especially to this “about” entry, is not inappropriate, and that it doesn’t come off as an attack, for it surely isn’t. I’m just playing my part as the lowly, worthless philosopher, who is probably wasting her life pondering and inquiring about such things.

  2. Jelte says:

    Cheryl E. Fitzgerald, the issue you touch upon has long kept me awake at night. It is no accident that you find my ‘progress’ lurking safely in the shadows of quotation marks. I am not committed to the existence of such a thing as ‘global progress’, let alone to a particular specification thereof. But neither am I committed to its non-existence. As my ‘About’ section should make clear, it was these very questions (“[1] does progress exist and [2] if so what is it?”, more than any other, that spawned realfuture.org.

    I would add one further dimension to your comments: time. Recall that, when asked whether or not “the French revolution was a good thing”, Mao-Tse Tung (~1970’s) opined that “it is too soon to tell”. Even if we are successful in arriving, for two different time-slices, at a comparative evaluation of how humanity is doing, thereby enabling talk of ‘progress’ – how do we cover ourselves from the possibility that today’s happiness won’t lead to tomorrow’s misery? This question is all the more pertinent in the present era of ‘(un)sustainability’.

    With regards to whether there is such a thing as progress, I proffer two examples for your consideration:

    [We can allowably talk of progress, example 1]
    Consider the case made by Robert Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’, in which he charts the decay of American civil society. I’ve placed some of his graphs here: http://www.realfuture.org/GIST/Images/SocialCapital_USA/

    To mention a few trends: Compared with the 1970’s, Americans today spend less time together, have less time to themselves, are unhealthier, are unhappier, and are likelier to commit suicide.

    [We can allowably talk of progress, example 2]
    Consider that, by mass, our Oceans now hold more plastic than algal matter. The time it takes for such plastic to decay caries between ~1.000 to ~100.000 years. Plastic is making its way into our livestock, vegetables and bodies. Increasingly strong links are appearing between plastic and, for instance, (i) breast- and other cancers, (ii) mental disorders, (iii) obesity.

    In my examples above, one would have to look very long and hard to find ANYTHING to place on the positive side of the scale. (Unless, of course, one makes a case like “the extinction of the human race would amount to progress”.)

    Thank you for your comment, Cheryl E. Fitzgerald.

  3. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

    Again, I think it is undeniable that there are unfortunate states of affairs in the world; but such is true at every point in human history since civilization. To simply point out such things as “evidence” that things are worse off, even if we limit our scope to a particular nation, seems hasty. What about all the positive things we can point to, such as the growing awareness in medical science of specifically female-related problems that were largely ignored by the medical community because (a) doctors were male, and (b) they all worked under the false beliefs that female bodies work just like male bodies? (Not to blame them; they lacked the proper information, but the lack of information was due to a lack of research that was deemed unnecessary.)

    In the trends that you mention about Americans, again, I have my reservations about simply accepting the conclusions drawn from the data. But then again, I’m fully aware of how misleading something like that can be, regardless of how genuine the intentions are. As I’m sure you’re well aware–no, I dare say I *know* you’re aware–the process of collecting data, analyzing, and then drawing conclusions can be guided by questionable presuppositions, misled by a lack of awareness of other, causally significant factors, unknowingly misrepresentative data, etc.

    How happy people feel is undeniably dependent on the conception of “happiness” they have, which is usually acquired from one’s culture. I think it would be intellectually irresponsible to ignore what conceptions of “happiness” Americans have held over the past several decades. But how does one collect data about that? I’m not so sure that’s as easy as we might think. But I can tell you there’s quite a stark difference between my conception of “happiness” and that of my parents, and even between theirs and that of their parents. A conception of “happiness” is surely dependent on the horizon of possibilities set before one–or, perhaps, more accurately, the horizon of possibilities that one believes is open to oneself. One thing that has certainly changed over the decades is how far of a horizon is visible to Americans. Now you will probably think that supports the conclusion, but I’m not so sure. I think there is a difference between being genuinely happy with one’s life, and being content to accept one’s lot. Are people *really* less happy? Or are they instead less content to accept what is in front of them? I don’t think the latter necessarily leads to being less happy, it just makes one have a lot of complain about; but there might still be plenty a person could list as positively contributing to his life, and so in reality, he’s not unhappy, he’s just not content, because he can always see past what he has.

    But that’s just one possible idea, so here’s another: the American conception of “happiness” has become increasingly unreasonable, and unreachable. Is it fair to say that people now are actually unhappier than previous generations, even if, in fact, they *feel* exactly the same way? It is certainly plausible to imagine that the descriptions of the current generation about itself, and those of some previous generation about itself, lead one to believe that the current generation is largely unhappier than the previous, when in fact, both generations actually feel very similar. The difference might merely be how one describes oneself, which is dependent on some conceptual framework they have for such self-description.

    In general, the mental health of Americans has been claimed to have been declining over the past several decades, but again, I have to say I’m skeptical, because I see too many ways in which the evidence can be misleading. (I’m much more willing to accept the possibility that we just *can’t* know these things.) Average Americans have become increasingly aware of mental disorders and problems over the past several decades. Prior to the 1990s, I think, seeing commercials on television advertising medical relief for some disorder or disease was unheard of! But what is significant here is that almost all of those commercials shared a common feature: the listing of symptoms for whatever disorder or disease the medication was intended to treat. And thousands, millions of Americans suddenly began thinking, “Oh, well that sounds like what I experience!” What this showed people was that they had legitimate symptoms to complain about, where before, they never would have raised such complaints. But what this has also done is shift a whole lot of attention onto demanding relief, relief from *everything*. Are they really so much more ill than they ever have been before? Maybe, of course, but maybe not. We can’t count on looking into past medical records to give us the answers, precisely because the very conceptual framework and image of mental health & disorders possessed by both doctors and laymen that is responsible for whether or not an individual ever complains to his doctor about something, and then whether or not his doctor takes it seriously, how it is evaluated, what sort of diagnoses are available options, etc., that very conceptual framework and image is precisely what is in question. One thing I think Americans have learned over the past several decades is that it is *okay* to openly discuss one’s mental health, or lack of health. And doctors have learned that it is a legitimate factor of health, something to take seriously. Furthermore, psychological research over the past several decades has been leaping forward far beyond previous research, which makes the reliability of previous medical records and claims of doctors and medical scientists questionable. Even now, there is still so much we don’t know!

    I’m not arguing that the claim that Americans are unhappier, or mentally more ill, or whatever, is false. Rather, what I am arguing is that drawing such conclusions is far more difficult than it appears, and there are far more obstacles to getting at the truth here, some of which I am willing to accept as insurmountable. At best, we can make inconclusive judgments, admitting where the gaps in our information and analysis lie.

    [I would say that similar things can be said about physical health, too. However, I’m perfectly willing to grant that that might admit of less room for error, but I still think there is plenty of room for error.]

    [I could also say something about the claim that Americans spend less time together, but this comment is already too long.]

    Now, having said all of that, I will say this, too: I think it *is* probably likely that current Americans are less happy than previous generations. But I’m not willing to claim that I have any good justification for that, because I think that I don’t. I think my own beliefs here are guided by personal experience, which is incredibly limited, and probably my own prejudices.

    But even if we could have conclusive evidence that current Americans are unhappier, does that contribute to the claim that we’ve gone in the opposite direction of progress? No, not until one can flesh out some conception of “progress” that necessarily includes increased happiness. But happiness of whom? Individuals? Or some kind of aggregate happiness of the whole? It is certainly possible that individual happiness can decrease dramatically, while aggregate happiness of the whole dramatically increases. But the real sticking point is, why should a conception of “progress” include happiness at all? Again, where does this idea of “progress” come from? *To what* are we “supposed to be” progressing? (I use scare quotes there only to avoid the implication of some teleological feature of the world, for I’ll leave it open as to whether there is one or not. It isn’t needed in order to have some conception of “progress” to which we should attempt to move.)

    As for the claims about plastic, I have nothing to say, since I have no idea what sort of research it is based on, which could be questioned, but I won’t go there. But, just to play devil’s advocate here about something to which I know you’ve had a bit of exposure, what might a futurist perspective of all of this be? As we slowly progress towards a gradual artificialization of ourselves, we suffer a period of transition. As crazy as it sounds, someone could very well point in this kind of direction–and for all we know, they might be right! If we can one day upload our consciousness into computer hardware, what worry shall we ever have of human bodies? Or perhaps, for something a little less extreme, we might gradually replace our “natural” bodies with “artificial” ones. One could argue that such a process is already begun on a chemical level, given the way we alter ourselves chemically in so many various ways. And one could claim this is progress, because again, he has a rather different conception of “progress” in mind, one based on, perhaps, the capacity for technological advancements for the achievement of immortality.

    Ultimately, I think we actually have similar sentiments here, although I have obviously not been attempting to demonstrate that. I’m applying the pressure to your position precisely because, as a position similar to my own, it is something I have had to face up to in my own feelings on much of this, admitting to myself that many of these beliefs lack the kind of justification I’d prefer them to have. I see the gaps in my own beliefs, and I haven’t found any adequate way of filling them (yet?) because those gaps are hidden away in some very, deep, difficult, and tangled metaphysical issues and epistemological questions that are easily overlooked. Perhaps one might say that I’m demanding too much in the kind of justification I seek. But when I consider the consequences of being wrong, imagining that my beliefs were held by many others, not just myself, others who have the power to affect the way things happen in the world, I can’t help feeling that falling short of such justificatory demands would me morally irresponsible.

    Now if I could just as easily put the kind of time and thought and effort into my schoolwork as I just did in this response… 😉

    [And yes, sometimes, some days, the extinction of the human race(s?) seems the only avenue to “progress”. One cannot deny how horrific of a species we can be.]

  4. Jelte says:

    In your first communique you charged that many notions of progress “[…] all too often, focus too much on some particular subset of all the things composing that state”. That’s true, and it’s exactly what is at issue here. But perhaps we can identify proxies for progress? I propose that Putnam’s statistics, all of which capture the same trend (that is, decaying social capital) offer a viable candidate. YES, elements playing into social capital comprise but a subset (albeit an important subset) of the state of a society. And YES, identifying ‘progress’ with ‘societal progress’ demands difficult justification (e.g. “is societal progress good for the Earth?”).

    BUT if we can identify elements of progress that, at least, are:
    (i) Unlikely to translate into regression in alternate conceptions of progress; and
    (ii) Unlikely to inhibit other progressive elements in the applied or alternate conception; and
    (iii) We allow ourselves to be limited to ‘reasonable’ ‘uncontrived’ conceptions [cf. moral relativism, critiques thereof]
    … then I’d say we’re on the right track.

    My previous two examples illustrate, in turn, my two conditions. The decay of American social capital [example 1] was given as a possible example as a proxy for societal regression. Now, this conception of regression may not be regressive in alternate conceptions of progress – it may not be killing any Panda’s, for instance – but I don’t see it being PROGRESSIVE in any reasonable conceptions [condition i&iii]. (I may of course be wrong in the particular but it’s just an example).

    I offer my plastics [example 2] as a candidate for condition (ii): the dumping of nefarious plastic into our Oceans has not enabled equivalent or greater PROGRESS within the conception applied (explicitly: that conception that includes the view that dumping plastic in Oceans is regressive). Neither has is done so in alternate conceptions of progress that don’t give a damn about plastic: civil liberties, emancipation, women’s rights or other elements of progress that may be potential competitors in alternate conceptions have not somehow been ENABLED by Ocean-bound plastic. (I may of course be wrong in the particular but it’s just an example).

    In practice, it may in fact turn out to be impossible to isolate progressive/regressive elements that can withstand the scrutiny of ANY reasonable conception – but until I KNOW that, I will keep trying. I hope you and others will join me. What do we have to lose?

    [I will respond to your tasty comments Re: American happiness in a separate communique][these people are just going to have to wait]

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