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?