Progress Is a Myth - But It's Also Real
On doomers, bloomers, brain hemispheres, and fixing stuff
First a couple small announcements. If you happen to be Slovak, you’re in luck, because the new edition of Political Ponerology has been translated and published by Torden. Get it here, or send it to a Slovak friend.
Also, Michael Shellenberger and Peter Boghossian over athave published their Woke Psychopathology taxonomy, inspired in part by Lobaczewski. Check it out. Now, on to our regular scheduled programming.
Black-pilled doomer. Or white-pilled bloomer. Is trying to fix things pointless, or the point? Is progress an illusion? I’ve been asking myself these questions for a while, but especially after the latest Tonic Discussion:
I find myself ping-ponging back and forth between the options. Whenever that happens, I find it is usually because both are true in some way. Both/and, not either/or. As we discussed near the end of the talk, the key point seems to be balance.
On the one hand we have the progressives, the extreme version of which seem to think we can reshape human nature into an image of what it could or should be. Asargued, this is left-brained blank-slate-ism, where an abstract model divorced from reality is taken as reality and then imposed on that reality, with predictably abysmal results. Left-brain thinking refuses to see anything outside the model, and in this case, there’s a whole lot of reality outside the model: human nature.
On the other hand, we have the reality watchers, who understand history and want to know how things actually work. They see the big picture, right-brain style. They see that human nature exists, see its tendencies operating in all epochs, and conclude that substantive change is impossible. We may be able to understand, but we cannot progress. There’s no point, because things will just fall apart as they always do.
But I’m going to go out on a limb as say both sides are wrong. And if that offends you, then both sides are right. And if that offends you, well, read on.
Lobaczewski was an evolutionist in the broad sense (i.e. not a neo-Darwinist in the narrow sense). For him, evolution is a trend of gradual development, with new levels and functions built upon older ones, and human action should take this fundamental reality into account. Thus we can speak of the evolution of a species, a car design, a human mind, or a civilization. More specifically, here’s Lobaczewski’s fellow countryman Dabrowski summarizing the evolutionary thinking of Hughlings Jackson:
In 1884 John Hughlings Jackson delivered three lectures on the Evolution and Dissolution of the Nervous System. In these lectures he presented the idea that progressive impairment of neurological activity, such as observed in epileptic seizure, descends step by step down the evolutionary strata of the nervous system.
The evolution of the nervous system is a particularly striking example of development of new structures and associated functions. This development is hierarchical because the organization of the nervous system is hierarchical. The relationships between levels of this hierarchy are very intricate but here we want only to point out one general feature which was particularly significant to Jackson’s line of thought, namely, that higher levels control lower levels through inhibition. Thus, when alcohol, extreme fatigue, or epileptic seizure dim consciousness and voluntary activity, the highest level of neurological functioning is impaired, or “dissolved.” The next lower level is now functionally the highest and the controlling one. But it is more automatic. If, in turn, this level is “dissolved,” the organism’s functioning descends again to the next lower and even more automatic level.
Jackson said that automatic actions can be automatic because they are independent of other actions. In consequence, they have simple organization, even though they may be quite elaborate. Automatic action has to run its course, it can be stopped but it cannot change pattern or sequence. Functional complexity, on the other hand, requires intricate and mutually responsive mechanisms. With this in mind Jackson formulated three laws of evolution of the nervous system:
(1) Evolution is a passage from the most to the least organized; “the progress is from centers comparatively well organized at birth to those, the highest centers, which are continually organizing through life.”
(2) Evolution is a passage from the most simple to the most complex.
(3) Evolution is a passage from the most automatic to the most voluntary. The essence of Jacksonian thought is that the highest levels of nervous activity are the most complex and the least automatic. It is, however, hard to accept his view that they are also “least organized.” Rather, one may say that they are more flexible and because of their complexity, allow a multiplicity of operations (Dąbrowski, 1964).
The significance of Jackson’s theoretical contribution lies in associating a hierarchy of levels of functioning with evolution and suggesting its general trends. Jackson represents a multilevel and evolutionary approach to development. (Multilevelness, 1996)
Jackson applied his thinking to the structure and function of the nervous system. Dabrowski applied it to individual human evolution: personality development. But the principle is wide enough to encompass much more, and I think this is what’s missing in the doom vs. bloom debate.
Months ago a reader recommended this McGilchrist interview to me. I’m finally getting around to it, and this bit stuck out:
Burke made this very important point that the society was not just an association of people but it was the association of those people now with those who lived in the past and those who would come to live in the future, which is why in many stable societies other than our own present one, people pay attention to what the elders thought, to what the traditions that they inherited have to say about this. This means that instead of being like a rudderless ship that can be blown any way by whatever wind happens to spring up, they have some point to refer to. This may sound conservative but it doesn’t have to be at all.
I believe that the way we make progress is not by cutting off the strain of life, the stem from which we grow, and then finding ourselves with nothing to feed us and no idea of where we should be, but it is from that growing, flexible, trainable organism that the next steps come. So the tradition, if you want to call it that, is always growing and changing, but doing so in a way that has meaning at the time rather than abstract fiats from somebody who is intolerant and says this is what we must do.
This is a balancing act. Stray too far in one direction and you get the tyranny of stale dogmatism—and the head that sticks up out of the crowd gets lopped off. Bounce too far in the other direction and you get the tyranny of chasing impossible dreams—and the recalcitrant who fail to grow into the shape required get put on the rack. Some refuse to accept even healthy, necessary change. Others refuse to accept even healthy, necessary tradition.
Everything changes. Change is either evolutionary or devolutionary. Sometimes I get the impression that anti-progressives miss this fact, even as they bemoan how everything is falling apart. Perhaps they are unwittingly stuck in the modernist worldview where evolution (as defined above) is impossible, because value judgments are completely subjective. There’s no such thing as “better”—just more of the same. What is the point in creating new institutions, devising new policies to address existing problems? Such actions will only create more problems, and any new institutions will inevitably become corrupt.
They’re not wrong. I’ve probably said similar things in the past. But we’re missing a point, which John included in the article we discussed above:
This feature is so basic to humanity that no thought process can be complete without acknowledging it. And here’s the thing: it works, too. Our entire history is one of thinking up ideas of how to do things better, implementing them, and then using their success as the foundation for even more ideas. (It’s also a history of bad ideas, of course.) This is most obvious in the field of technology, but less obviously applies everywhere else. Food preservation, housing construction, surgical techniques. The question is one of balance. Will this new piece of technology disturb the dynamic equilibrium too much? Will this new medical procedure result in more harm than good in a generation (or ten)?
Read any of Thomas Sowell’s books, and you’ll see him discuss how and why practically all political policies are bad and just lead to more problems. This isn’t just because everything is a trade-off, where even good ideas have negative knock-on effects. Some of it just has to do with the nature of the democratic political system. There is no real incentive for good policy, and much incentive for bad. But the underlying premise is that there is such a thing as a better policy. Sowell provides many examples.
Progressives, by contrast, push one of the principles of evolution too far, wanting the newness without the retention of the old. Rather than seeing progress as evolution, which is hierarchical and preserves those structures that work while adding new, complementary ones on top, they go after those very foundations. They want to start again from scratch.
Evolution and devolution are part of the grammar of reality. They are fundamental. In a properly organized system, the higher levels inhibit the lower levels. Psychologically, this means that our higher functions (emotional and intellectual) control our lower ones. We learn the basics of this as three-year-olds (if everything goes well). Societally, it means that the most advanced should take on the “executive functions” of the social body, and inhibit the least. Whether this just means that the architect directs the laborers, or the normal keep the criminal and psychopathological in check, the dynamic is the same.
Destroy the higher levels, and the lower ones run the show. That level will be the least creative, the least voluntary, and the most rigid. This is why actual revolutions always turn out the same. If you destroy the existing structure, it will not simply be replaced by a better alternative. It will revert to a lower level. Dissolution. Devolution. Negative disintegration. Evolution is a conservative process.
Psychologically, letting the lower levels run the show is equivalent of putting the psychopaths in charge (even if they had already corrupted the existing system). Structurally, it can be simply putting the system on autopilot, with no creative and intelligent input to operate it and course-correct when necessary—which is also conducive to psychopathic operators. Evolution moves in the direction of volition; devolution in the direction of automaticity.
Destroy the lower levels of the structure and you destroy the organism. Good luck without a brainstem, cultural traditions, or basic institutions—no matter how bad they may seem to be.
One of the responses to Lobaczewski’s proposal for a logocracy goes something like this: “Sure, psychopaths do a whole lot of damage. But even if we implement something to attempt to prevent them from getting into politics, they will inevitably just game the system and get in there anyway.”
I’ve got a couple responses to this. First, it may very well be true, but we don’t know that. We don’t know because no one has tried it before on the level Lobaczewski is proposing—i.e. implementing a simple screening procedure for certain positions of power. It may turn out to be much more effective than current methods—which are nonexistent. And on the scales where it has been tried, it arguably has been successful. Whether it is in small tribes whose psychopathic members just happen to have “hunting accidents,” or small groups or associations with written or unwritten membership criteria and who kick out those with psychopathic tendencies. If evil scales at all levels, maybe the solutions to it scale, too?
Being actively against such a screening policy strikes me as essentially saying, “Nah, let’s just keep things the way they are. I’d rather it remain as easy as it is for psychos to get in positions of power than potentially make it more difficult for them.” And who does that benefit?
Second, on the chance that it is true, and “things will just fall apart anyway,” well, maybe the impulse to fix problems (however intractable those may seem) is actually what keeps us for falling apart completely, i.e. from going extinct. This impulse—the evolutionary impulse—may be precisely what staves off devolution. Imagine never making the effort to improve food preservation techniques. Then imagine actively stalling anyone for innovating such techniques in the first place because “the food will go bad eventually.” Just because having standards doesn’t always work, doesn’t mean we should stop having standards or attempting to apply them.
What about the evolution of humanity and and civilization? The progressive view of human history may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean human evolution is impossible. Progressives of this bent tend to see a steady and mostly irreversible, unidirectional progression from the past to the future, the present being better than the past. In fact, it may be possible for humanity to evolve (to more voluntary, more complex, and more flexibly organized forms), but at the same time, for us to have, in fact, devolved in important ways. This is the dysgenics argument: that for the past 150 years or so we have become less intelligent and less healthy (physically and psychologically), even as we have become more technologically advanced.
So what is the solution? I think John summed it up above:
Finding problems in the world and fixing them is deeply human. We can’t stop ourselves from monkeying about with things. But that monkeying is much more likely to be successful if it is based in reality.
We shouldn’t stop trying to fix the problems we find. But our solutions should be based … in reality. They should be evolutionary: building upon and refining the traditions and institutions that have come before, to paraphrase McGilchrist. Of course, as in human personality development, this will no doubt require some “positive disintegration.” Some lower structures may not be necessary at all in their current form (the Department of Education, for instance?), or will need to be restructured (like the social sciences after communism, and now under wokeness).
But this will only work if the controlling center is truly higher, evolutionarily speaking. We should extrapolate again from human nature:
A higher center, in order to be indeed higher, i.e., in order to assure better control of a wider array of nervous functions, cannot be less well organized, rather we should expect it to be organized differently. The difference would involve a greater role of reflection, greater plasticity, and an ability for integrated global handling of situations through intuitive-synthetic processes. (Dabrowski, Mental Growth, 1970)
Sounds pretty right-brain to me! The Master should direct the process, not the Emissary. When it does so, in a balanced manner, creative solutions can be found for any problem. Failure to do so is just a failure of imagination.
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