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The Fallacy of Human Freedom (nationalinterest.org)
99 points by imb 1063 days ago | past | web | 64 comments

The main argument seems fundamentally flawed. It is argued that the idea of progress as a goal for humanity is pointless, because we are ultimately restricted by our nature, and instead of idealizing the concept of progress we should be satisfied with what we are.

However, it is painfully obvious that we are not imprisoned by our nature. We were not born to fly, yet we do fly. We fly gigantic metal heaps, around the world and even farther. We carry oxygen with us to outer space to circumvent our biological limitations. We can already bypass certain built-in elements of our "nature", such as anger, via medicine or surgery. In fact, we have been capable of changing our nature for a long time already, as advances in science have taught us that it is possible to cause physical changes in our brains through conscious effort, such as meditation. In the future, our capabilities for changing our nature will only increase.

Yes, we are still commonly quite foolish, and history has shown that we easily reduce ourselves to beasts in times of crisis, but we can, and have changed our beliefs into ones that represent the world around us more accurately. Using labels like secular humanism, our progress may be painted to look like misdirected religion, but these ideologies do not just represent the idea of progress, they have proven it - we truly have developed a more accurate image of our existence. We have progressed, and we will continue doing so.


Another obvious counterpoint is this TED talk, Steven Pinker on "The surprising decline of violence":



The irony here is that Pinker then embraces the American prison-industrial complex in The Blank Slate as being a necessary part of this trend, when the US is probably an outlier.

There is a similarity between Pinker (at least in The Blank Slate) and Gray in that they both paint their targets with one big flaw before bashing them. Gray's template straw man is a humanist who didn't read The Selfish Gene.


It fits somewhat with the ideological background (since the late 2000s) of The National Interest, which leans paleoconservative. The classical conservative view on progress is suspicion, hence a preference for stability, tradition, religion, and a bit of nostalgia for aristocracy and monarchy. Tends towards a negative view of the disruptive effects of the "progress" (often illusory in their view) that's driven by alternative ideologies like liberalism, leftism, secularism, or capitalism.


Skimmed the article... but I thought the point was about idealogical progress? The flying fish thing was a metaphor about human nature (how we behave, not what we can technically accomplish). For example, we've invented better weapons, like guns, but it's still used to kill people.

I think the answer to progress is to fundamentally alter human genes (thereby altering fundamental human nature), which the author seems to assume is not possible. Of course genetic evolution will also provide progress to humans—if not provided by technical accomplishments.


I read the article properly and came to the same conclusion. The author (of the article, unsure of the book) is definitely arguing that Progress is a flawed concept because of the frailty of human nature.

Genetic alteration and controlled environments might help solve these issues and help overcome the "human nature sucks" argument against the idea of Progress. But maybe the problem is more universal than human nature. One could argue that we become "less" human by attempting to make ourselves less irrational or prone to being negatively effected by our environment with the endpoint being that we become some kind of rational uncaring machine that is every Romanticist's worst nightmare.

I'm not doing a terribly good job of getting my point across so I'll reference some good reading that relates to this:

For becoming less human try: Blindsight by Peter Watts

For a vision of a technocratic utopia try Iain Bank's Culture novels.


Genetic modifications can't alter human nature. What you'll have is a different species, closely related to humans. You can argue that's just semantics, I can agree to a point but unless you give a proper answer to what does it mean to be human my criticism is still valid.


As long as we're going to argue semantics, a "species" is a set of animals who can reproduce with each other.

Dogs are all still dogs, despite the massive genetic changes we've imposed on the various breeds. They can all still interbreed.

I really don't expect humans to accept genetic modifications that make their offspring reproductively incompatible with the rest of humanity. So speciation seems unlikely.


There are genetic differences between different human races... not to mention constant mutations.


I used to think so too, but my views have altered considerably. And trust me, altering my consciousness and cultivating self-awareness has been a lifelong process for me; I agree that one can make great changes...on the individual level. I'm much less certain about collective advances, though.



It was a long, thoughtful but misguided article, which you just perfectly and effortlessly refuted it in three paragraphs. Nicely done.


As Rob Pike would say; mais oui.

I believe in the EU; or rather, I want to believe in the EU, because I want to believe that the European countries can work together and close at that. Politically, economically and so on.

But neither am I naïve to believe that the current implementation of the EU is the best solution, nor do I believe that it will ever form into some sort of 'United States of Europe'. Nation states will never disappear in my view (that's the cynic in me), regardless of how ridiculous the idea may be to keep them.


Amusing. Whoever voted my comment down fails to realise that the EU is based on an ideal of humanism. The article in question specifically mentions that Gary has become a Eurosceptic, which falls perfectly in line with his opinion on humanism and progress.

One might think that the ideal of humanism and progress is merely to elevate all countries to Western democracies (if we limit humanism and progress to politics), but in fact, even Western democracies needs step up; such as the European Union.

Edit: When I wrote this blob my parent comment had 0 points.


Well, it was based on an ideal of humanism. Now? It's been taken over by people with other beliefs. Have a listen what Vladimir Bukovsky (who spent many years in Russian labour camps and psychiatric prisons for defending human rights) feels about this 'new' EU: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bM2Ql3wOGcU

He draws some frightning comparisons.


I would not be so sure about nation states staying as they are now. They seem pretty resilient but historically, they're not anything like a constant.


How come the united "states" of America still exists today? Or do you think that one day that will break up? (I do as it happens)


Looking at the nation-state idea via the perspective of the US is probably going to be misleading. The American countries are former colonies where the colonists (as opposed to the colonized) formed countries and the nations were formed from those countries.

European nations mostly predate their states (at least in the minds of the people). You can be Irish-American in the US. That is a different kind of a thing to German-Italian. The US version is a nod to heritage. The European version is an admission of a schism. It means German (nation) citizen of Italy. In modern times immigrants do assimilate but this is probably following the US' example. By tradition, citizenship does not imply nationality. You can live in Japan, that doesn't make you (or your grandchildren) Japanese. The Basques are not "Spanish." Kurds are not "Turkish" or "Iraqi" or "Arab." Israel is probably the country that takes the nation state idea most literally.

I actually think the US is the most stable model, because of its flexibility. But, nothing has lasted forever so far.


I too want to believe in the EU much more than I actually do.


A couple of thoughts:

1) A hard upper limit on the intellectual capacity of an individual human being does not directly necessitate a corresponding limit to the capacity of humanity as a whole. There are now reliable means of preserving past knowledge and experience, and population growth means more minds are available to ponder difficult problems.

Interestingly, this is somewhat analogous to where we are today in computer hardware - an individual processor's power is limited, but large gains are yet to be made by adding more processors, and storage of information is increasingly exponentially.

These kinds of gains are not linear as you would expect from an increase in processors' speed, but they are gains nonetheless.

2) Even if you do assume that the individual human's finite capacity does imply an upper limit on human progress, it is still possible for progress to increase indefinitely; the gains will merely be increasingly marginal.

I agree that the idea that progress is an inevitable force of nature is completely false. It is a goal, not a natural force. I personally don't know anyone who actually believes this though, so I feel like this is something of a strawman.


The capacity to aggregate the capabilities of individual humans is greatly improved, but the way we vote has not been adapted accordingly.

All voting systems currently assume the capability of a voter to aggregate all the knowledge in the world into asingle rational decision. This is impossible, one person can never know enough to rationally vote on anyone or anything.

We need a whole different kind of democracy, one which aggregates individual knowledge instead of reducing it to insignificance. I don't know what it should look like, but i do know i've not seen it yet.


Interesting observation. I completely agree that as the amount of information needed to be synthesized to understand any issue multiplies exponentially, the capacity of an individual voter to grasp all of the necessary information is quickly exceeded. So people resort to shortcuts, voting based off of quick proxies for true discernment such as party affiliation or ideology.

I would even say that ideology can be considered as little more than a shortcut, a cache if you will of information and answers to tricky problems. Unfortunately, most people's "cache" never actually expires and they go to their grave still holding to hopelessly outdated data.


You've just described the difference between central planning and markets. The biggest reason markets work is that they aggregate knowledge and propagate it throughout a society.

(Granted, there's plenty to criticize about the implementation of real markets. But if one wants to design a system for intelligently aggregating individual knowledge into globally beneficial outcomes, markets are the place to start.)


Whatever one's thoughts on the article in its entirety, the initial implication that the thinkers listed could not account for Herzen's fish is disingenuous.

Helvetius (one of the listed):

"The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment ... it is not lack of freedom, not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale."

If freedom refers not to the biological limitations and fundamental nature of man, as the author repeatedly asserts during the construction of their straw opponent, but refers to whether man is in chains, then it becomes possible to generate empirical measures demonstrating "progress" in terms of freedom:

At the beginning of the 19th century, serfs and slaves made up 3/4s of the world's population.


And now beside having more slaves than any other time.in history in absolute numbers without counting prisoners in countries that allow prisoner slavery, like the US, we have people.that would happily.volunteer to.be slave if.they had a guarantee of food, we have sweatshops, we have young people desperately working in jobs they hate to pay student debts Oh, I am not slave, I am free, I am free to work in whatever job I find, or die starved and in debt.


There are an estimated 12-27 million people currently in slavery[1]. With a current world population of 7 billion, this proportion is between .0017 and .0038, a dramatic decline, and probably the lowest in history.

Regarding incarceration in the United States, despite a 10X increase in population from 31.4M to 311.8M and mandatory sentencing policies associated with the War on Drugs, the absolute number of Americans incarcerated in 2011 (2.2 million) was still less than the absolute number of Americans in slavery alone in 1860 (3.9 million).[2][3]

If you wish to move on to economic issues and contend there has been no progress in living conditions, a point the author of this article does not argue, I would challenge you to produce some actual metric and numbers for a similar period of time (after the dawn of philosophical liberalism) showing the average worker to be no better off, keeping in mind the enormous increase in life expectancy and GDP per capita which has occurred.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1860_United_States_Census [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_St...


A great blog on this theme is Mencius Moldbugs "Unqualified Reservations". Which he describes as an 'anti-democracy blog'. (Where 'democracy' includes supposed populist ideologies like fascism and communism.)

Writing from the view that monarchism is a good idea, Moldbug has a strange perspective on just about every topic imaginable. While I'm not sure how much of it I agree with, it's definitely interesting.



Yes, I was going to say the same thing. If you found this article interesting, you'll likely find Moldbug's perspective very interesting too.


A fantastic find. If you read the Federalist Papers, it quickly becomes clear that the founders were not so much wide-eyed idealists as many Constitution-thumpers would have it, but a fairly cynical bunch who were as worried about the inability of people to rule themselves as they were about being ruled poorly from afar. Reading the FP made me quite a fan of Alexander Hamilton, hence my sometimes-grumpy statist position.


What if this were written in the 1850s? Of course slavery is normal. All cultures have had slavery. So all those loony abolitionists with their progress notions are beating their heads against the fixity of human nature.

Take your is-ought fallacy and... well... this is a family web site.


I liked this. A lot. I don't necessarily agree with it, but it brings up some great "deep thinking" conversations. Excellent HN fodder.

It's ironic that this would be on the front page as the same time as "HTML 5 genetic cars" because the two are so related. I think an extended analogy is in order.

Gray's first mistake is to do exactly what he accuses others of doing -- making a value statement about whether one society later in history is better than another, or whether there is some "direction of progress". Gray thinks there is not. Others think there is.

What I've learned from political and systems theory is that small, self-optimizing systems always outperform other systems, because they are able to adapt better.

Does evolution produce "better", "smarter", or "more perfect" creatures? No. It produces creatures better adapted to current conditions.

So when you look at civilizations, you should think about those little cars. Sometimes early adaptations lead to performance problems later on. Many times there is no universal car. Different adaptations work at different times. The best we can hope for is a system where the cars adapt as they move along.

Likewise, human systems will not get "better" -- that's a value judgment, akin to "I like chocolate ice cream". Such statements are impossible to argue one way or another. Human systems will always adapt. The key, critical question here is this: are we encouraging systems of humans in which small units adapt and self-optimize? Or are we trying to create universal rules for all humans, thereby decreasing our ability to adapt to what lies ahead of us?

Moving farther to the right on the HTML5 cars app is not necessarily better or worse than spinning in place. But it does take us to places we haven't seen before. And that's pretty cool.


The article opens with an example of someone seeing how life broke down in postwar Italy. But there is an alternate view of how humans behave in crisis, well-articulated by Rebecca Solnit in "A Paradise Built in Hell". She notes that, in actual crises, the expected apocalypse of savagery never arises. Instead there is often an unusual sense of solidarity.


Now, this has no bearing on the claim that humans have a limited capacity for rationality, which is obviously true at some level. But I want to draw your attention to the rhetorical strategy. In order to get you to submit to the idea that domination is normal, they first have to depress your hope in humanity. It then follows that one's choices are between slavery and chaos.


What a neat article.

My wife and I have been recently binge-watching the TV show "Jericho." It's not deeply philosophical, but its a nice expression of this quote in the article: "The most basic trait is the instinct for survival, which is placed on hold when humans are able to live under a veneer of civilization. But it is never far from the surface."


> Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.”

This just seems like empty rhetoric.

Some people are more rational than those in the past - and we've learnt a lot about cognitive biases, and about how to have productive conversations. I don't think it requires a particularly great leap of faith to believe that people may one day be more rational.

It's not a sure thing mind. But to go from a prescriptive must, to a may, to then saying that oh it's never going to happen. The evidence of science and history here may as well read 'It's common knowledge that...' a phrase that doesn't really support anything.

> “Technical progress,” writes Gray, again in Straw Dogs, “leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.”

Because, hey, I say it is.

> Humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith. They see the realization of human potential as the goal of history, when rational inquiry shows history to have no goal. They exalt nature, while insisting that humankind—an accident of nature—can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals.

Straw man.



I mean, look, I appreciate this is meant to be a book review, but in that role it's really bad. It's just a list of the book's claims along with some talking about what Grey believes. It might be an excellent book, it might be total tosh, but you're never going to know from that review which rapidly dissolves into nothing more than a political rant that takes it as granted that you already agree with Gray.


The author is really arguing two things. (1) There is no such thing as moral progress, because human nature is fixed.(2) People are not naturally inclined to be free.

His first claim is demonstrably false. If you look at historical, statistical evidence you can rapidly demolish his position. Start with Stephen Pinker's Ted talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violen...

His second claim is probably true, but irrelevant. Humans do seem to naturally love hierarchies. And in the grand sweep of time and place, freedom is still a tiny blip.

But So. Fucking. What. Humans are naturally inclines to die of infectious diseases, too.

The author admits that science does progress. And more importantly, the capital structure of society progresses along with it, symbiotically. That puts the lie to the rest of his argument, because ideas from science have demonstrably altered human behavior, and science is already on the cusp of altering human nature directly at the molecular level.


The more you study archaeology and ancient history, the more you realize that humans really aren't apt to change. The outward appearance of human behaviour is different (we work different jobs, eat different food, have different institutions), but we have the same social tendencies we did 7000 years ago.

As for our supposed decline in violence, it's mostly due to technological advancements which have allowed us to have more resources at our disposal, and an efficient international market to trade them. Our nature is no less violent, our circumstances are merely better.


> Our nature is no less violent, our circumstances are merely better.

Even if that's true, it has the same effect in the end.

"Put people in a better environment, and they will behave better" is a radical, pro-progress statement that would have been unrecognizable to most societies.

We're so infected with the progress meme that even people here arguing against it keep implicitly granting some of its premises.


How about this: take people out of a 'good' environment, and put them in a bad one, and they'll revert to primitive behaviour. This is something that has been observable even in recent times. In recent conflicts people have committed incredibly base behaviour, including cannibalism... http://documentarystorm.com/the-cannibal-warlords-liberia/

Technological 'progress' is not really progress, it's just an accumulation of information, just like a snowball is simply an accumulation of snowflakes.

If our technology, accumulated information and institutions were wiped out tomorrow, we'd be back in the stone age, and it would take us another 5000 years to 'progress' back to where we are now.

We've been able to observe it in the past too, many civilizations were destroyed and the result was their descendants were much less sophisticated technologically. 'Progress' does not change people, and people will easily revert to base behaviour.


But if all our institutions and capital were wiped out, it would be appropriate for our behaviors to revert. That just proves that humans are extremely adaptable to changes in environment.

Which state shows our "true nature"? I would argue the concept is meaningless. Our current state is just as natural as any other.

To argue otherwise, you need to make theological assertions about humans being supernatural. A city is no less natural than a beehive, which is no less natural than a mountain.


It's relevant because if people only behave better because they're in a better environment, you haven't really changed them. The goal is then dislodged from getting people more freedom and converted into creating better environments. It is easy to see how a goal of creating better environments could be hijacked to justify all kinds of unsavory political actions. And indeed it has been.

Gray isn't implicitly granting premises of progress by saying this form of governance is better than that, for the same reason that accepting local optimality doesn't grant global optimality. In other words, having a greedy algorithm that improves things doesn't imply that the greedy algorithm always finds a most-optimal state, or even that such a most-optimal state exists. Gray is arguing that it is a fundamental assumption of progressivism that there is a most-optimal state and that progressive political behavior of implementing liberal political agenda items is believed to move one closer to it. I don't see how any of your points address either of these assumptions nor do I see how others debating you are conceding them.


> The goal is then dislodged from getting people more freedom and converted into creating better environments.

But freedom is a property of the environment. How would you possibly get someone more freedom without altering their environment?

I actually don't think Gray himself would agree with you. He thinks the whole idea of "increasing freedom" is illusory. He's not arguing against progressive politics in particular. He's arguing against (small "d") democratic politics in general. Even modern (economic) conservatives believe in progress -- they just see it coming from markets more than governments. Gray is opposing them too.

One doesn't need to believe in global optimality to still believe progress is possible. If you believe that a society without chattel slavery is definitely better than one that has it, you already concede that there is at least a partial ordering (in the mathematical sense) of "social goodness". That's all that's required.


I hate to shout "semantics!" but I do think you're misappropriating (or perhaps correctly reappropriating) Gray's progress. Arguing for political change on the grounds that it will improve things is not an implicit acceptance of the doctrine of progress as he defines it. If it were, the doctrine of progress would necessarily be continuous with all change and therefore meaningless. He's clearly stating that classical governments predate the doctrine, so how exactly could they have experienced change and refinement otherwise? Pointing to the expectation of improvement after change generally and calling it progress strikes me as really massively overbroadening the definition and missing the point.

He's not arguing that democracy is bad and that distinctions do not exist. He's arguing that it is clearly not the pinnacle or final goal of some sort of ever-improving vision. He illustrates this by showing that there are plenty of times in history when a democracy turns into something else, and a few times where a democracy built on brutality is erected on the ashes of a more civilized government of some other flavor (monarchy, often). This is not anti-democratic because it isn't a judgement about democracy, it's a judgement about progress and history. It is an indictment of the doctrine of progress, because the doctrine cannot permit the idea that a monarchy be better than a democracy. If the case is being made that democracies are bad, I don't see it here. The point I'm seeing being made (forgive me if I missed something) is simply that while two governments can be compared, what makes one better than the other ultimately doesn't have as much to do with the ideology as the way it plays out in practice, and the two are often quite far from each other.

I haven't read Gray's book, but I'm quite excited about it and am looking forward to it because of this review. Most of the negative feedback I see here has an indignant air to it that I tend to associate with first contact with powerful ideas. I will end my comments here, since if I'm off-base I'm not going to get any closer until I read the book, but thanks for having the conversation with me. I do appreciate the clarity of your thought and your taking the time to share it with me. Thanks.


I think his definition of progress is steady change toward an ideal version of humanity. The main problem is that the ideal changes with the age, and not in a predictable way. If you were to ask someone 500 years ago what a perfect person was, it would be quite different from the answer you'd get today. What does progress even mean if the ideal towards which humanity is moving keeps changing? It just becomes a random walk.

Also, just because human behavior is changing, doesn't mean human morality is becoming better in any objective sense.


The phrase "random walk" immediately makes me think of evolution. :)


I think the difference is the decrease in scarcity. There's a reason that intensive agriculture marks the beginning of what we consider civilization. Aside from the fact that it requires sedentary living, it removed the constant threat of starvation and relieved us of our basest instinct to kill or be killed. Human progress and arguably human evolution has gone beyond our genetic destiny and is now shaped by our works. People who live in first-world countries are unlikely to ever face a shortage of high-quality food, potable water, sanitation, basic medical care. There are simply fewer things to fight about.


A third point notable in its absence, is that religion, freedom, American two party voting, all of it exists to control, pacify the masses. Only the dumbest of the masses believe.

The purpose of the two party political system is to keep the masses calm, make them think they have an input. They don't, of course. But it calms them. Writing a book about how voters choice and free will doesn't really exist is pointless. The opiate of the masses sometimes causes hallucinations, who cares as long as the right people stay in power.

The situation is identical with religion, or "moral progress" or the articles example of militarism in Austria a long time ago.

Our technology for distracting and redirecting away large masses of humans from their own self interest has never been better.

You could summarize the pointlessness of the discussion to something like the whip doesn't exist so don't fear it's lash... Well who cares if it exists or not, if the only reason our culture talks about the lash of the whip, is to control the masses?

This individual TV commercial sucks. We could change the channel on the global TV system to a different channel, but its got the same general set of commercials. Or we could hit commercial skip, whoops it seems to be nothing but an infomercial channel. Maybe the system sucking is the actual lesson, not that one individual TV commercial sucks.


I would have to say that they are both true. We are, I believe, at a peak in our moral cycle. You're hemmed in by your narrow, human lifespan perspective.

How has science altered human behavior? We still lie, cheat, steal, and kill. Civilization is a thin veneer, and one that can be stripped away in a calamity.

The pendulum swings, and civilization rises and falls.


Reading the article, France today is more cruel and unfree than under the kings? What argument ist that, comparing France to post-invasion Iraq.


Pointing out that neither Russia nor Iraq have evolved into liberal democracies the instant they escaped despotism, is hardly conclusive. The number of democracies in the world is always on the slow rise. When Russia overthrew the tsar, they thought they had a better idea and decided to give it a try. Not every experiment is a success. When South Korea escaped war with half a country, they traded occupation for an authoritarian Democracy that devolved into despotism and eventually evolved into a true liberal democracy. The process took a good 30+ years. Progress isn't linear, but it is steady.


What is this, some Ayn Rand fanfic in reverse?

Seriously, it's the kind of book that she had one of her strawmen write within Atlas Shrugged.

Please let's not encourage the randroids.


> their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.

If some someone thinks that the history of humanity has always been one of progress, that's an empirical claim that can be shown to be false. But most of the people who I think promote the idea of progress are actually not like that. The idea of progress is an ideal, not an empirical claim. An ideal is something you aspire to, despite the fact that it does not match reality at this time, nor at any time in the past, and perhaps never even in the future.

Progress is something that you want to spend a lot of time producing, not something you just find in nature. It's something that you want to produce despite the fact that billions of people before you have failed miserably, not because of previous successes. If you want to help the kids in Africa who die of easily preventable diseases, you're a believer in progress. Just because you don't think it has a high chance of success doesn't mean that you don't want it to happen.

Now, people do disagree about what constitutes progress. But only a sophomore philosopher throws away an idea just because people disagree about it. If you throw the baby out with the bathwater every time you find a contamination in the bathwater, there will be hardly any babies left. And guess what, a life without ideals is like a world without babies. Without babies, our species will die out. Without ideals, our intellects will have nothing better to do than contemplate the grim reality. If that's all we're going to use our brains for, why have an advanced brain in the first place?

> We simply need to accept our fate, as they did in the classical age, before the Socratic faith in knowledge and the Christian concept of redemption combined to form the modern idea of progress and the belief in the infinite malleability of human nature.

It is not true that people simply accepted their fates prior to the invention of Greek philosophy and Christianity. Animals with highly developed brains never simply accept their fates. After all, they understand that if they manipulate nature in certain ways, at least some parts of their fate can be averted! Fruit on a branch that's too high? Get a stick to reach it. Too much weed and not enough grain? Burn the weed and plant some barley. River too deep to wade across? Build a bridge or a boat. Boat is too slow? Add some sails. No wind? Add an internal combustion engine. Anything else too inconvenient for your lazy ass? Find a way to make it easier. It's in our nature.

The paleo-conservative movement, which The National Interest seems to be a part of, is getting ridiculously out of hand. No ideal of progress? That's not even paleolithic. Cavemen lived in caves because they found it warmer and safer than sleeping in an open field or on a tree. They used stone tools because they found them more convenient than ripping things apart with bare hands.


I think you may be arguing against a strawman.

The article, as I read it, said Gray was arguing against the ideal of progress in the human individual. The hope that the individual will use reason and knowledge to improve themselves, the world around them, and act moral / just / rationally. The endgame being no need for power structures but instead responsible and free individuals.

But, he's only addressing the individual. Humanity, the aggregate, does build organisations and power structures. We will forever trade our away our freedoms because the free individual will never be Good.


I was responding to the review by Robert W. Merry, not to Gray, at least not directly.

My impression was that Gray has an axe to grind about the idea of progress as applied to both individuals and societies. The first few paragraphs of the review talks extensively about ideas of political progress, such as Fukuyama's "End of History". The review also gives us a glimpse of Gray's colorful political opinions, followed by an extensive discussion of what Gray thinks about the political history of Europe.

Maybe that's how the reviewer chose to read between the lines, rather than what Gray himself said. The review is written in such a way that it's difficult to distinguish the content of the book from the reviewer's embellishments. In any case, as I said, I wasn't trying to respond to Gray, only to the review. The reviewer sounds like he's dying to apply Gray's theory to politics, society, and everyone else. Too much enthusiasm and too little analysis.

By the way, I suspect that I might in fact have misinterpreted what Gray and the reviewer mean by "progress". The author's (and perhaps also Gray's) usage of the word seems to be very closely related to freedom, democracy, and a few similar words to which they attach extremely negative connotations. This is certainly unusual. But at the same time, both Robert and Gray also use the word "progress" to refer to what most everybody else means by it, and what I assumed as well: scientific progress. Proof: "Outside of science, progress is simply a myth." But if I am at fault for misinterpreting their unusual use of that keyword, they are certainly at greater fault for overloading that keyword with so much hidden agenda.


>We will forever trade our away our freedoms because the free individual will never be Good.

Freedom, and the pursuit of individual desires is a form of Good. The problem is this can come at the expense of others. The question is under what conditions do free individuals strive for an inclusive "Good" if any conditions at all.

>The endgame being no need for power structures but instead responsible and free individuals.

The endgame is the ideal of a self-actualized human being. In the same way a "free man" will see his own self-interest in the interests of his family and close ones so will a self-actualized person see their own self-interest in the interests of their communities and the world.


  Animals with highly developed brains never simply accept 
  their fates. After all, they understand   that if they 
  manipulate nature in certain ways, at least some parts 
  of their fate can be averted!
Your argument has the appearance of something that's badly contrived (or derived).

You may have not chanced on arguments surrounding your premise on "highly developed brains" and natural limits imposed on such brains owing to a multitude of things including encephalization quotient (if not exclusively that).

It's verging on the conceited to make such claims without at the very least mooting the points and counterpoints surrounding such assumptions.

The following is a decent one:

Argument for a finite upper limit to human knowledge

  1. The human brain consists of a finite number of particles
     and energy states.
  2. This matrix of particles and energy states is less than 
     what exists in the cosmos.

  Ergo: The human brain has insufficient capacity to contain 
  a matrix containing the total map of all the particles and 
  energy states that exist in the cosmos.

  Ergo: A human's knowledge is limited.

  Further: All of the humans that exist, or will ever exist, 
  will always comprise a subset of the cosmos; Ergo, the 
  collective knowledge of humanity is also limited.
Argument dismantling the aforementioned

  That isn't convincing. All you have shown is there is not 
  a one to one ratio of particles in a  human brain and the
  sum of the universe. This isn't an indication of epistemic
  limitation. Although, I agree we have epistemic  limitations.
If a natural upper limit does exist - that also stunts our ability to rise above certain petty disputes arising out of a set of very human instincts such as ego, vanity and self-preservation - then progress could indeed be an illusory concept.





Edit: Additions


The physics argument against your "Argument for a finite upper limit to human knowledge" is that outside one brains lightcone, nothing can be known or matter. Inside that brain's lightcone, the ratio of states between particles in the brain vs particles in the lightcone is "pretty good" such that it could, possibly, never become the limiting factor. Not "all the particles in the cosmos" but more like all the particles in the light cone plus whatever light arrives from further away outside. Its really pretty small now.

Also you can't use a scientific argument to discuss non-scientific things. "stuff outside the lightcone" is defined as non-scientific by its very nature. We'll never observe it by definition, we'll never be able to test a hypothesis by definition... Way outside the scientific method. You'll need a non-scientific argument. May as well use religion.

Now you might get somewhere with an argument a little more advanced based on some kind of communications theory theoretical maximum signal to noise ratio over a lifetime implying a maximum theoretical bandwidth of information. Perhaps some kind of (related?) thermodynamic argument.


I completely agree with you that human knowledge, whether individual or collective, is severely limited compared to all there is to know in the Universe. Part of this has to do with the fact that we as a species has only been observing the Universe scientifically for ~500 years. But it probably also has to do with the physiological limitations of homo sapiens. I don't disagree with any of that.

But what does that have to do with the sentences you quoted from me? Is it even relevant? Human knowledge is limited, so what?

    1. Human knowledge is limited.
    2. ???
    3. Ergo, progress is an illusory concept.
You haven't supplied a single proposition that could fill the space of #2.

Meanwhile, the fact that our mental capacities are limited has not prevented us from "rising above certain petty disputes arising out of ... ego, vanity, and self-preservation" at least from time to time, even if it's only .0001% of the time. The idea that progress always happens is a ridiculous proposition, but the idea that progress is always stunted by other factors is just as laughable. Also, even if we did agree that progress never happens in reality, there is still a very large logical gap between that and the (even more preposterous) proposition that the concept of progress itself is an illusion.

If you say "True progress rarely if ever happens", fine, we can talk about that.

If you say "Your definition of progress is wrong", fine, we can talk about that.

If you say "Progress is not one thing but many different things depending on the context", fine, we can talk about that. Cultural relativism is nothing new, there's plenty of good philosophy on that topic, and you're at least a century late to the game if you think waving the flag of cultural relativism will change anything.

But if you say "The concept of progress is an illusion" (or some variation of it), that's just one of those strings of profound-looking words that college freshmen put down in their PHIL 101 essays. If there is any useful content in such catchphrases, I have yet to see any. So I suppose it's just a figure of speech.

> Your argument has the appearance of something that's badly contrived (or derived).

Arguments don't have the "appearance" of being badly contrived, and even if they do in some sense, it doesn't matter. Either they are badly contrived, or they are not. If they are indeed badly contrived, it should be possible to say why without committing the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi.



It should have read:

  "The arc of human progress is an illusory one" 

  "The arc of human progress - as defined by the narrow parameters of decreasing
   number of recorded human conflicts and genocides, declining number of
   incurable devastating medical conditions, improving/degenerating overall
   environmental health of the planet etc - is an illusory one." 

as you put it

  "true human progress is illusory" (whatever the parameters that determine it)
However what cannot be denied is that "liberal humanism", as Gray puts it, has come to wield the "pervasive power" it has now, in large part due to the advancements made by the West in the fields of science, technology and medicine and not despite of those advancements.

It's hard to make a case for universal "liberal humanism" when your own people are succumbing to famines in the millions.

Eg: The Great Famine in Ireland (1845–1852).

So simply put

  1. Knowledge is an absolute necessary element for the overcoming of 
     "cultural backwardness, blindness and folly" and to advance 
     "to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and 
     civilization" and thereby the progress of humans.
  2. Human knowledge is said to be limited.
  3. Ergo, human progress will always be stunted by the said natural 
     limit of knowledge.    
  4. Further: There is no necessary condition that prevents humans from 
     reverting to the ways of the past once that limit has been reached.


> It's hard to make a case for universal "liberal humanism" when your own people are succumbing to famines in the millions.

I already said that I'm no fan of "universal liberal humanism". If someone thinks the Irish famine was progress because everything progresses all the time, they're wrong. But just because liberal humanism has problems doesn't mean that one must run to the other extreme. "If you hate my enemy, join my side" might be a useful tactic in war, but in philosophy people will just shrug and say "No way, you're both my enemies." My opinion is that humanity sometimes progress, sometimes stagnates, and sometimes regresses.

Anyway, here's my objection:

    1. Agreed.
    2. Agreed.
    3. Nope. Human progress will be limited by the aforementioned
       limit of human knowledge, but this is a very large limit,
       so there's plenty of room for progress before we hit the limit.
       We might have already hit the limit in some areas, but that
       doesn't mean we won't keep making progress in other areas.
    4. Agreed, but there is no necessary condition that says that
       humans MUST revert to an inferior state, either.
       Maybe they'll just stagnate until evolution produces
       a superior species with higher limits of knowledge. Why not?
       Just because X isn't necessary doesn't mean that
       not-X is necessary. Usually, they're both unnecessary.


Yes, limit for human brain should exist, however anyone with the ideal of progress knows that there are a couple of ways to change that - genetic modification and artificial intelligence are few of the possibilities. So the limits exists only for us, not necessarily for our children. Just like our ancestors at some time in the evolution path had limits that made them incapable of even having language, children of the future might exceed all our limits by a scale we don't even imagine now.


False because of the following:

* compression

* symbol substitution

* levels of abstraction


"Argument dismantling the aforementioned" should be required for any long post on HN. Would save lots of endless back-and-forth threads.


A lack of inevitable success is no argument against a moral or cultural ideal. If it was, then the only available ideal would be Entropy.


As the Joseph Conrad story implies, there doesn't seem to be a viable alternative and as with all beliefs, all things really - fundamentalism and extremes can become harmful pretty quickly. So my fellow believers in progress, don't give up but be wary.


And yet, slavery is now frowned upon in much of the world.


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