Skepticism About Progress

Philippe Verdoux, in Transhumanism, Progress and the Future, argues against the optimistic assumption of great and continual improvement of the human condition since prehistoric times.

The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven (2005) notes a similar decline in life-quality throughout most of human history.... Along these same lines, the Harvard psychologist Gregg Jacobs argues that modern society – with its phenomena of social atomism, consumerism and information overload – is largely responsible for the growing statistical prevalence of such psychopathologies as depression and anxiety. In Jacobs’ words, “The root cause of modern stress is the discrepancy between [the] modern world and ancestral world” in which we evolved (Jacobs 2003, 60; emphasis in original). This observation – which one also finds explicitly discussed in Bostrom and Sandberg 2008 – leads Jacobs to declare “that progress has come at a great cost, for by creating maladaptive negative emotions and inhibiting positive ones, we have disrupted nature’s balance” (Jacobs 2003, 60; Verdoux 2009b). ... Cohen similarly concludes with the assertion that:

These data clearly imply that we need to rethink both scholarly and popular images of human progress and cultural evolution. We have built our images of human history too exclusively from the experiences of privileged classes and populations, and we have assumed too close a fit between technological advances and progress for individual lives. In popular terms, I think that we must substantially revise our traditional sense that civilization represents progress in human well-being – or at least that it did so for most people for most of history prior to the twentieth century. The comparative data simply do not support that image. (Cohen 1989, 140, 141.)

- Philippe Verdoux, Transhumanism, Progress and the Future, Journal of Evolution and Technology, December 2009, pp. 49-69.

Even if it were found that the human race as a whole had been moving forward and progressing for an indefinitely long time, no-one could guarantee that its era of decline was not beginning at that very moment....
- Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, edited by H. S. Reiss, translated by H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, 1970, p. 180

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