A TRAJECTORY OF PROGRESS - AN UP-BEAT GRAND NARRATIVE OF THE HUMAN RACE
It’s All Rising To Something Better
A guest on a local radio show made the comment that “the world’s a mess”
and it was “easy to see this”. Another radio commentator noted the recent news that the ozone hole over the Antarctic was reaching a record extent this year. He apologized for bringing such dismal news up, leaving his listeners with the impression of great peril and disaster looming ahead due to human influence on nature. This widespread belief that the world is messed up and in peril has become one of the commonly accepted truisms of our time (see postscript 2 at end).
live in a time where unsettling scares are repeatedly sent surging through the
public consciousness. A fog of apocalyptic despair has become the background
atmosphere of our age. For instance, we have been told that bird flu disease
would kill multiple millions of us, or human-c
Julian Simon said that there is no sanction for floating such scares but there is news value in them. And the more these scares proliferate they add to the growing impression that the environment is a more and more frightening milieu (Ultimate Resource, p.264).
A vicious cycle operates with such scare mongering, according to Simon.
The media quickly pick up on scares raised by environmental hysterians.
The public is then frightened. Polls then reveal the public concern and this worry is cited by politicians as support for polices enacted to counter the supposed threat, policies enacted out of fear which result in great cost to the society at large (p.220). The larger damage from such fear mongering is that populations are frightened into immobility.
People are frightened away from adopting new technologies that could better life (e.g. Genetically Modified foods). They are pushed to abandon cheap energy sources (oil) for expensive and unreliable new sources (solar, wind). The outcome is a general hindering of growth and development and in such situations the poor suffer the most severe consequences (i.e. the rise in food prices due to the shift of agricultural land to growing biofuels in response to baseless fear over supposedly catastrophic global warming).
it takes is the irresponsible expression of some shoddily concocted fear to
start a public scare but it then takes huge amounts of wasted resources and
time to prove that these scares have no sound scientific basis. As others have
said, apocalyptic scares have a 100 percent failure rate. Surely Y2K, with
airplanes falling out of the sky, should have t
This may be the greatest battle that humanity faces today- the fight against the despair and hopelessness engendered by a distorted apocalyptic view of reality. The endless repetition of such views in public reinforces a distorting narrative about life, deepens gloom, and weakens the ability of people to engage life positively.
And apocalyptic is entirely distorting of reality. Life on earth has never been better. The cosmos has never been better and human civilization has never been better. And it is only going to get much better still. We have only just begun the rise toward a far better future. The actual state of the world and the prospect of an improving future should buoy our spirits with hope and celebration.
What do I base this upon?
believe that in part the erroneous belief that the world is a mess is the
result of a distorted focus. It is the result of thinking that has been t
In response I would argue that we need to train our minds to focus on what is most fundamental about reality, life and civilization. This
triumvirate- reality, life, civilization- relates to the three great emergences and mysteries of the universe: the emergence of material reality (cosmos), the emergence of life, and the emergence of consciousness which has led to the unique development of human civilization. These three emergences have exhibited the same fundamental trends that drive all existence. In these emergences we see clearly the rise of life toward a better future.
To properly understand these three realities we need to note the main forces that have shaped them. We should also look at the overall long term trajectories that have defined their existence. And we need to look at the outcomes of those trends and trajectories to this point in time.
The past provides convincing evidence about what the future might be.
Where any system is heading is a product of where it has come from and has been heading to this point in time. There is no more convincing evidence than these long term trends or trajectories. And with no good evidence to the contrary we can be assured that life will continue its rise toward a better future.
So what are the dominant trends in the three basic emergences above- the cosmos, life, and consciousness/civilization?
The most fundamental trend that has defined all three emergences can be summarized in the concept of general progress toward something better and more specifically toward something more humane. All matter, life and consciousness have advanced, developed, improved, grown, and undergone perfecting from their earliest emergence. All reality has moved from something more chaotic toward something more ordered and structured; from something less complex toward something more complex and diverse; from something less developed toward something more developed; from something not as good toward something much better. There is nothing random, purposeless or meaningless about any of this.
This is more than the anthropic principle which argues that everything appears suited for the emergence of humanity. I would argue that everything exists for more than just suitability to humanity but exists for something more specifically human. I would argue that all is moving toward something more humane and this speaks to the reason for the existence of all reality.
I will note later that this fundamental trend toward something better also speaks volumes regarding the foundational Reality or Mind that gives existence to all. That Reality first invented and organized matter, time, and space. It then moved the cosmos toward something more ordered, advanced, and carefully suited to the life that would eventually emerge. And with the later emergence of consciousness the same basic impulses to improve all things and make them more humane became more intensely focused in the endeavors of conscious humanity.
The meaningless dogma of much modern science denies this progress and is perhaps the most irrational belief to have ever captured human minds. It denies overwhelming evidence to the contrary and this denial is too often the result of a childish reaction to the straw God of archaic religious mythology. That God has never existed and it is irresponsible for many scientists to continue to engage such silliness and build their dogma of meaningless arguments in response to such distortion.
Physical reality did not emerge from nothing (some void of nothingness or energy field); it did not emerge by chance nor develop randomly and aimlessly. It is not therefore meaningless. This perception, all too common in contemporary science and philosophy, is irrational and incoherent in the extreme. As Roy Varghese (The Wonder of the World) has argued so well, you do not get something from nothing. And whatever
exists- material reality, life, consciousness- can only come from something similar but of much greater capacity, intelligence and potential. It can only come from something with the same features, properties, and potential but of infinitely greater quality and perfection.
We all feel the need to create meaning for our lives. We need meaning to shape what we value, how we behave, and what we are trying to become.
And our system of meaning should respond in some way to the great questions that have always inspired human curiosity- Why something? Why life? Why consciousness and what does it mean to be consciously human?
Hopefully, the meaning we create will connect with and express something of the purpose for which all physical reality exists. If all this reality has been created for some reason then it is important, at the least, to not violate that purpose. This seems only common sense.
I believe that something of the purpose of existence can be discerned from the trends and overall trajectory that all reality (cosmos, life,
consciousness) has taken so far. And that purpose can be generalized in the concept of progress toward something better, toward something more humane. It appears that everything exists to find fulfillment in a more humane reality.
Some more detail
The fundamental trend of progress is evident in the formation of matter itself (the universe or cosmos). Out of the initial chaotic heat of the Big Bang fundamental forces were formed along with basic matter. With expansion and cooling, matter continued to become more ordered and was then structured into galaxies, stars, and then planets. Over billions of years, stars formed and then died in a process which produced the basic elements such as carbon. The cosmos emerged with all its elements extremely fine tuned in preparation for the later appearance of life and then consciousness. For more detail on this fine tuning see Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, The Privileged Planet by Gonzalez and Richards, Nature’s Destiny by Michael Denton, A Meaningful World by Wiker and Witt, The Wonder of the World by Roy Varghese, among other similar works. The very nature of the developing cosmos and basic natural laws reveals the care and concern for the life and consciousness that would later emerge.
on planet Earth where initially chaotic conditions prevailed, things like a
climate system emerged and began to function. Water was an essential part of
this larger system with its finely tuned properties necessary to the emergence
and development of life (see Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny). A carbon cycle
also developed to make this essential element available to life. And when life
itself initially appeared it emerged with
But this early complexity was only a foretaste of far greater complexity yet to come as later multi-cellular organisms appeared along with more complex biological systems that supported them. Edward Wilson has noted, “The overall average across the history of life has moved from the simple and few to the more complex and numerous. During the past billion years, animals as a whole evolved upward in body size, feeding and defensive techniques, brain and behavioral complexity, social organization, and precision of environmental control- in each case farther from the nonliving state than their simpler antecedents did.
then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any
conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and
intentions in the behavior of animals” (quoted in The Evolution-Creation
Struggle, Michael Ruse, p.234). And later, John H
All of this biological complexity reached a pinnacle/apex in the most complex thing in the universe, the modern human brain which appeared approximately 100,000 years ago. This organism was the only suitable vehicle for the greatest wonder to ever emerge in the universe- the single greatest advance and transformation in life- human consciousness.
Consciousness can only be properly understood as a gift from God. As John Eccles has said regarding the related reality of the human self, “We are constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the psyche or soul to a supernatural spiritual creation…we submit that no other explanation is tenable” (The Wonder of Being Human, p.43).
And let me add that the size of the cosmos does not diminish the value and importance of conscious creatures emerging on one small planet. The present size of the expanding universe is a result of the time needed to produce the basic elements of life (e.g. the formation of carbon in the repeated cycle of dying and rebirth of stars). The size of this universe is not meaningless overkill but simply a function of the time needed to prepare for life and consciousness. Advanced life itself was also the product of a long, slow process of development. And the development of human consciousness has similarly been the result of a slow process over long time frames.
Human consciousness then sets in motion the epitome of all the trends of progress, the movement of humanity out from animal existence toward a truly human culture and existence. This is the great story of human liberation. It is a story of a creature escaping from the slavery to base animal drives (retaliation, domination, exclusion) and discovering the freedom to become human. It is a movement from the darkness and cruelty of the animal world to learning how to be more humane in human culture and civilization. It is a story defined by new human values such as freedom, love, forgiveness, inclusion, generosity, responsibility, creativity, and so much more. Primary among the unique values that define humanity would be freedom and love.
And how is human civilization doing? Well, we have less violence and more freedom than ever before in history (see, for example, James Payne’
s History of Force and Manuel Eisner’s research on homicide in Western societies). We have also, over the past two centuries, created more wealth than ever before in history and this has enabled us to solve all the problems that humanity has faced, including environmental problems that have accompanied our growth and development. The wealthiest areas of the Earth are now the cleanest and most improved areas in the world.
Human civilization is overall making grand progress.
And with the discovery of the wonder of spontaneous order we have learned to restrain state/government power and to protect individual freedom and rights. This has led to the unleashing of the infinite creative potential of people. The results have been awe inspiring- the doubling of human life-spans in the past century, improved living conditions and comforts, less disease, and more time for recreational and spiritual pursuits, among many other benefits (see the 100 improving trends noted by Julian Simon in It’s Getting Better All The Time). It almost seems as if the creative impulse is intensifying over time in a rising exponential manner.
We (humanity) have figured out what it means to be human. This has set us on a trajectory that is entirely different from that of base animal existence with its violence, domination, and exclusion (small band mentality). We understand that human life to be about love, forgiveness, persuasion, creativity and freedom. And as we have learned to humanize our existence so we will also eventually humanize all life and then take our experience out to wherever else we explore in the cosmos.
And just a thought here on animal life and the environmentalist’s claim to be defending and saving animals and their habitat. Environmentalists claim to speak for poor defenseless animals. They argue that we must preserve animal habitat as it is. And yes, there is some validity to certain aspects of this position. But species of animals also seem to prefer domesticated situations also. Some people have noted, for instance, that more species of birds are being found in German cities than in surrounding nature. The novel Pan’s Labyrinth also has a chapter on animals preferring zoos. There is more food security, protection from predation, and protection from weather and disease.
Nature as Lyall Watson noted, is brutal, harsh, and dark.
As soon as we could, when we gained some sense and ability, we humans moved out of wilderness and started to improve our environments. We developed a more secure food supply, we fought disease, and we established security from predators. We also developed other human features, such as overcoming band exclusion and other forms of inhumanity (animal behavior).
If animals could speak, I suggest that they would opt for the same development that we promote and enjoy. So perhaps, environmentalists don’t really speak for animals in arguing for preservation of the status quo of wilderness. Maybe new spokespersons are needed to argue for the same humane development that we find in human civilization being applied to animal existence.
A review of the above facts (the overall trends of the three emergences) is helpful in countering modern materialist irrationality and absurdity which claims that all arose randomly from nothing, means nothing, and is going nowhere in particular except downhill toward ultimate destruction (e.g. the heat death of the universe or the varied apocalyptic scenarios for life on earth). Such nihilistic denial distorts the very essence of reality and life- its obvious directionality which is persistent progress toward something better. One can, in one sense, understand materialist irrationality as a fearful reaction and denial of the obvious that everything points toward. And unfortunately, many conclude that it points toward a religious conception of deity. But it doesn’t.
Religious people have built an apocalyptic mythology around their religious gods, a mythology constructed to explain the aberrations of life. They claim that the anger of their gods is evident in natural disasters and personal suffering. But these are straw gods that have never existed. Such distortions of reality have blinded people, as much as materialist irrationality has, to the love that undergirds
everything- the be
Such irrational conclusions, whether from religious myth or materialist nihilism, are the result of a distorting focus on trivial things such as the Second Law, and the belief that aberrations such as downturns in long term trends, setbacks, accidents and disasters define the fundamental trends and trajectory of life. But they don’t. These aberrations miss the great underlying trend of progress toward something better and more humane.
of humanity over history, employing basic common sense, has been able to figure
out what physical reality is about. And again- no, I do not mean that this
common sense perception validates religion or religious viewpoints. In fact,
our growing understanding of physical reality and life often undermines
traditional religious worldviews, especially the core religious belief of
apocalyptic which denies progress in favor of ultimate decline and destruction.
This fearful apocalyptic viewpoint has long been the basis of salvation
thinking with its programs of bloody appeasement and subjection to higher
Apocalyptic is the essential element in salvation theology (God will punish sinful humanity with coming disaster so people must engage in some salvation scheme to avoid the coming disaster). We are seeing this archaic narrative being acted out once again in the environmental movement with its hysteria over CO2 and warming climate.
me put a stake in the heart of this blood-sucking monster of salvation
mythology by stating that yes we do suffer through setbacks, downturns,
disasters, and the cruelty of others. These are all part of life in any era.
But they are more of the nature of aberrations to fundamental trends;
aberrations that provide a backdrop against which the emergence of something
better can be more clearly seen. We feel such aberrations intensely and often
personally. But they do not define the overall trends of life, civilization or
the cosmos. They are not evidence of divine displeasure or the need for
salvation (“this man was not born blind bec
To understand the aberrational side of life better it helps to recognize that it is often the result of freedom. And here we get some sense of the profound divine valuation of freedom. God does not intervene to overrule freedom. We see this in nature where freedom is necessary to ensure genuine novelty and creativity. Panentheists explain this in terms of the fact that God creates through the laws and processes of nature. God does not act in some additional manner that counters natural laws (i.e. miracles). God creates through chance operating in the natural world and this preserves freedom (The Wonder of the World, p.143-4).
also of this element of freedom in relation to humanity- to be truly human we
must be free. Love is only
In the final analysis, it helps to evaluate our personal suffering in light of the fundamental trend of all reality toward something better, and more humane. We all suffer in some form or other and in what I have said above I am wary of any explanation that may appear to downplay individual human struggle and pain. What I am trying to do is to view suffering against the backdrop of something greater taking place, which is this grand rise of life and civilization toward something better. We all need some unshakable core around which to re-center our thinking and lives when we are personally hit with tragedy, accident, loss, downfall and all the rest. Something that gives meaning to all that we experience.
From the rise and progress of everything in response to infinitely impossible fine tuning of myriad factors we can also detect something of the great Transcendent Mystery that creates and sustains all. We can recognize from the immanence of this Mind that sustains all in existence that it is accomplishing some great purpose in physical reality. We can detect intelligence beyond comprehension, love beyond experiencing, and generosity, care, mercy and so much more that defines truly humane reality. The laws of nature themselves reveal infinite concern for the emergence and development of life in an orderly fashion. As Roy Varghese notes, “The same laws of nature that show the Mind of God also show the Heart, for these laws are manifestations of both incredible ingenuity and exquisite concern for our life and well being” (The Wonder of the World, p.389). John Eccles says, “The conscious self is not in the Darwinian evolutionary process at all. I think it is a divine creation… and this is a loving creation…This is a loving Creator giving us all these wonderful gifts” (quoted on p.23, Cosmos, Bios, Theos by Roy Varghese).
Above everything else all that exists expresses the love of the Creator.
The infinite Love that is God became manifest and embedded in the physical realm with the emergence of material reality and this Love has now uniquely incarnated in humanity. Whereas in the past God maintained the rise and progress of all, we now recognize that this great Consciousness and Life has now buried itself in humanity and this now makes us more responsible for the ongoing rise and progress of life toward something better.
I have found no better way to express this grand story of progress than to say that all comes from Love, exists in Love, and then returns to Love in the end. Love is the essence of Ultimate Reality and this love is evident in the fundamental trends that define reality and its meaning.
Bishop Kallistos Ware (In Whom We Live And Move And Have Our Being) also speaks to this idea that creation is an expression of the love of God.
He says that in creating, God was in fact expressing God’s own true self. “God is a God of love, and love is by its very nature self-diffusive. It implies sharing, exchange, self-giving, and response”
(p.168). This self-diffusive nature of love is evident in God’s self-expression as creator, he says. God’s love is an outgoing love that shares with a world. “Creation is…a convincing disclosure of God’s true nature as love…it expresses the self-diffusive love that is precisely at the very heart of the living God” (p.168).
He also adds a theological take on the progressive trend of creation. He says that the power of God is present in all creation, transforming and divinizing the world, “continually bringing all things to ever new levels of reality, constantly transfiguring them ‘from glory to glory’
(2 Cor.3:18)” (p.167).
I am reminded here of an ancient Mid Eastern sage who saw things in physical reality and life that his contemporaries did not see clearly.
They had given way to apocalyptic hysteria and consequently focused their attention on accidents, cruelty, and natural disasters to conclude that everything was heading toward ultimate disaster and destruction.
the sage told them to fear not, to not be anxious or afraid bec
With his clear insight and strong hope he knew that the progress of life, consciousness, and civilization would continue. It would only get better.
focusing on the fundamental trends of life we can also build a better worldview
from which to draw hope to tackle the setbacks, crises, and problems of our
time. And we can know that our efforts will be efficacious in the long term as
we are part of the grand rise of life toward a better and more humane future.
We are each an individual incarnation of the Source of all existence and our
personal endeavors to make life better contribute significantly to the greater
overall trajectory of progress in life. This is an unstoppable rise bec
The dark pessimism of much science and the environmental movement has discouraged many people. It has made them afraid to engage life fully.
In response we need to find encouragement in where the cosmos has come from, where life has come from, and where consciousness has led humanity in human civilization. We are part of this grand rise of everything toward something far better, something more humane. This great overall trajectory of reality ought to encourage us in our efforts to engage the world and make it something better. Despite the many setbacks, downfalls, accidents, and even purposeful sidetracking by others, we are succeeding wildly in making the world a better place for life. This is reason to celebrate life as party.
So while life may be imperfect with its elements of chance, accident, and struggle there is no overall mess in the cosmos, life or civilization. To the contrary, everywhere there is evidence for hope, meaning, and celebration.
complete understanding of everything (a theory of everything- TOE) will never
be an attainable goal or product of the scientific movement bec
So the complete story of the universe will not in the end be only a materialist or naturalist story (a story about the physical realm). That is only one aspect, important as it is.
Science has been developed as a mechanism for human knowing and understanding that is oriented primarily to probing the material realm and what this realm is made of and how it functions (the material substance, systems, and regularities of nature). This approach has helped us to know how life and the cosmos works. And to do this properly it has been important to restrict the influence of philosophy/religion on science (the science/religion separation). But it has never been possible to restrict entirely the crossover influences of these separate disciplines on one another. Scientists have personal philosophies that influence what they look at, what evidence they will consider, and the conclusions they reach about such evidence. Hence the wide diversity of conclusions over the same evidence.
And religion can never remain in isolation from scientific discovery. We have seen significant changes in religious views as scientific evidence has contradicted traditional religious beliefs. Science has done humanity a great service in correcting the many grotesque religious distortions of the divine Ground or Source of all.
But it needs to be recognized that by its very orientation to material reality science can never answer the big questions- Where did material reality come from? Why does it exist? Why life and consciousness? What is the purpose of it all? What does it mean to be consciously human?
To gain a more complete understanding of reality, life and consciousness we need to engage the disciplines of theology and philosophy. The discoveries and insights of these disciplines will still be influenced by scientific discovery (at least they should not contradict such
But only theology/philosophy can fully deal with ultimate truth. Science deals with contingent truth- that which has been created and is now sustained in existence by its Source and Ground.
And even while philosophy/theology try to understand ultimate reality and truth they must always recognize that in the end that which we refer to as divine is inconceivable, inexpressible and very much unknowable to finite minds. As Joseph Campbell noted- even the term God is penultimate. It refers to that which is infinitely beyond- beyond thought, forms, words, concepts, and understanding. But this great Transcendence is immanent everywhere holding all things in existence at every moment. This grants all existence an element of profound wonder, mystery and meaning.
Every time some environmental change occurs somewhere there are those who react with hysterical panic. It appears that they do not understand that change is natural and normal in nature and even extreme events are common in nature. Note, for instance, paleo-climatology research which shows the wide swings in heating and cooling periods over the past millions of years. The only normal condition in regard to climate, if we can speak of such, is that it has been much warmer than today for most of the past 500 million years. Today we are still in an abnormally and unnaturally cool period. And CO2 levels today are at historically unprecedented lows.
In nature there are few states that can be considered optimum or normal.
Earth has experienced massive changes such as glaciation extending far south to cover continents and then retreating to entirely ice-free conditions over the Earth. Volcanism has led to sudden severe cooling.
Solar cycles, along with the regular wobble of the Earth’s axis, have similarly produced severe changes in climate conditions,. This change is normal and natural.
The perception that any change in nature is a sign of peril has a long history in human apocalyptic mythology. And while the changes may bring serious peril for human existence at any given time, we have made adjustments to such changes in the past and we are much more able to adapt today with the increase in human knowledge, wealth, and technology. There is less reason today to react with irresponsible hysteria to every change in natural conditions. And even less reason to blame all such change on human influence.