Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Myth of Indefinite Progress

The Myth of Progress

(Any lessons for Mental Illness?)

Since humankind began to live in communities which then grew into the great civilizations to which we today owe our origins, the need to catalogue, to differentiate and to label became a necessity for the survival of structures. The growth of knowledge over those last seven or eight thousand years of civilization has now become a rising curve stretching ever outward into infinity. The last couple of hundred years have seen an explosion in knowledge of all kinds, especially in the sciences and technologies. The famous sociologist, Alvin Toffler spoke of an “acceleration of change” rather than the “speed of change.” How correct he was, and he was speaking in the sixties of the twentieth century.

However, as humankind has gradually come of age we have changed from a geocentric and theocentric world to a heliocentric and homocentric world. In other words, at the beginnings of civilization the world was the centre of the known universe and God was the great clockmaker who made this world operate in a rather mechanistic way. As sciences and technologies gradually ousted God from his central place as “universal operator,” this transcendent being was expelled to the fringes of mystery to fill the gaps in humankind’s knowledge. Of course, as knowledge expands with exponential alacrity in these modern days the area or areas where God operates or was supposed to operate have been reduced to ever smaller proportions. Of course, atheists have long argued that God is dead; a mere outmoded concept, useless in our modern world. Humanism took over from Deism, which had previously unseated Theism, to preach a new Gospel, and that was the Gospel of Progress.

Most philosophers and scholars of all disciplines today recognise the Concept of Progress as being the Central Myth of the Enlightenment. In 1789 in Paris the Goddess of Reason was carried through the streets instead of the Virgin Mary and an altar was raised in her honour in Notre Dame and this goddess was a woman of low character. Robespierre attempted to establish a cult in honour of the Supreme Being. Out of fear of incensing the people in the provinces, the leaders hesitated to abolish religion or close the churches entirely. The Reason of Man had replaced the Irrationality of Religion. Progress was proclaimed instead of Salvation. Indeed the Myth of Progress, one could say, replaced the Myth of Salvation. A religion of an omniscient, ubiquitous and omnipotent God had been replaced by a religion of a humankind dedicated to progress in all the spheres of existence. Where once Salvation was peddled by the Church, now Progress was peddled this new humanism. One myth replaced another.

Just as the religion promulgated by the churches was decaying in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so too, were the myths promulgated by the Enlightenment. The Scientific revolution brought progress indeed, but it also brought much suffering to workers who were treated as expendable pawns in the new economic game of capitalism which was underpinned by the Myth of indefinite Progress. The Industrial Revolution did nor raise all boats. The rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. Then The First World War, The Great War, The War To End All Wars swept though this so-called cradle of Western Civilization, which was peddling the Myth of Indefinite Progress, and left more than nine million soldiers and civilians dead. The conflict had a decisive impact on the history of the 20th century. It grew harder and harder to believe in this a new myth which proclaimed the inevitable progress of humankind when over nine million human beings lay dead. Where was Progress now? Or indeed, where was God in all this? That’s really the same question asked from different perspectives. God has not all the answers, or rather humankind’s concept of God does not give all the answers. Nor has atheistic humanism all the answers either.

However, it would appear that an open agnosticism on the one hand, and an equally open spirituality, be it even of a religious variety, would seem to be good ways to proceed in our acquisition of knowledge and in our attempt to live in a humanizing world. Both must cherish an openness and a willingness to listen to the stories of other nations, of other beliefs, of other approaches. They must learn humbly that their truth is not the only truth, that there are other truths, or perhaps more correctly other approaches to similar truths.

Likewise, as we journey on our way to new insights and to new knowledge in all the distinct areas of learning, we must learn that our hypotheses are just that, hypotheses, useful only until replaced by better ones. All of this has an important impact on my dealing with what we humans have defined as “sanity” and “insanity” which like any other polar concepts like justice and injustice, good and evil, peace and war, etc there is a wide space, almost a “No Man’s Land” in between them. And so, friends, if there is a continuum between Good and Evil, Peace and War, there is also a continuum between “Sanity” and “Insanity.” The lines of demarcation are not that clear at all, are they? Think about this – it is worthwhile meditating on it, I feel. It often appears that when we engage in thinking in this marvellously oppositional way about any topic we find that the truth lies in a very healthy tension between both poles.

In short, we humans are too quick to swallow whole our own shibboleths, to believe fully our own propaganda and forget the marvellously pure approach of Socrates who taught his followers to question not alone the presuppositions of others but their very own biases. This Socratic approach is necessary today in all our sciences and in all our relgions (witness Christian America versus the Muslim East – surely they can talk, surely they can find some middle ground?) in today’s world. If there is one smaller, though very important area, where such an approach is doubly, nay trebly important it is that of mental illness. Let us ask questions the shake the the tree of psychiatry and let the rotten apples fall to the ground.

I have posted above another picture I took of the "poor crooked timber" of a rotten tree in Newbridge House, summer 2006.

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