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On Assessing Progress June 1, 2015

Posted by Summerspeaker in Epistemology, Primitivism, Transhumanism.
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Reluctance or refusal to rank different times, places, and experiences in no way goes against or implies at rejection of rationality, empiricism, or science. To the contrary, it’s commonly a rational move informed by an understanding of the power of knowledge production and the danger of spurious claims. It’s entirely legitimate to admit ignorance and to question the desire for assessment. Why assert progress? What does this assertion do? Whom does it serve?

While certain types of progress are almost undeniable empirically – the overall worldwide increase in life expectancy at birth over the last couple centuries comes immediately to mind – any attempt a grand evaluation runs into a whole host of problems. As the word itself suggests, evaluation is a matter of values. The lack of data compounds this arbitrariness. How do you figure out, for example, what medieval English laborers thought of their lives? The documentary record is spotty at best and tends to get worse the farther back you go. Both studies and my personal experience suggest that happiness is a tricky thing. One theory is that it’s significantly genetic or otherwise set early on. Wherever you go, there you are. While I might think myself privileged over the medieval serf with laptop and internet connection, it’s not certain that I’m enjoying life more.

I still find Philippe Verdoux’s sweeping analysis of the historical record compelling. However, regardless of whether there’s progress in the human condition since prehistory or medieval times or 1965, we can and should do so much better than all that’s come before.

 

Context: This post comes as immediate to a Facebook argument with William Gillis but relates to key themes in futurism and transhumanism.

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