Monday, January 21, 2019

"Progress Isn't Natural:
Humans invented it—and not that long ago"

Professor Mokyr is an economist, historian and economic historian.
We are fans.
One of his more profound insights is a succinct observation on human nature:

"Sooner or later in any society the progress of technology will grind to a halt because 
the forces that used to support innovation become vested"

"In a purely dialectical fashion, technological progress creates the forces that eventually destroy it.
This result holds for a single closed economy."

—"The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy"
Joel Mokyr
From The Atlantic, November 17, 2016:
Progress Isn't Natural
Humans invented it—and not that long ago.
How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so.

Why might people in the past have been hesitant to embrace the idea of progress? The main argument against it was that it implies a disrespect of previous generations. As the historian Carl Becker noted in a classic work written in the early 1930s, “a Philosopher could not grasp the modern idea of progress ... until he was willing to abandon ancestor worship, until he analyzed away his inferiority complex toward the past, and realized that his own generation was superior to any yet known.” With the great voyages and the Reformation, Europeans increasingly began to doubt the great classical writings on geography, medicine, astronomy, and physics that had been the main source of wisdom in medieval times. With those doubts came a sense that their own generation knew more and was wiser than those of previous eras.

This was a departure from the beliefs of most societies in the past, which were usually given to some measure of “ancestor worship”—the belief that all wisdom had been revealed to earlier sages and that to learn anything one should peruse their writings and find the answer in their pages. In the Islamic world, wisdom was found in the Koran and the Hadith (which consists of sayings and acts attributed to the prophet Muhammad); in the Jewish world it was the Torah, the Talmud, and the sayings of Chazal; in China, wisdom was contained in Sishu Jizhu, the four books of commentary on Confucius compiled in the 12th century. In late medieval Europe, wisdom was found in a limited number of ancient texts, above all those written by Aristotle.

The respect for classical texts started to fade away in Europe in the 16th century and went into a meltdown in the 17th, when more and more of the ancient certainties were questioned and then found to be incorrect. If the classic authorities could be wrong about so many things, why would should they be trusted about anything? The English philosopher William Gilbert, the author of a famous book on magnetism, sounded downright impudent when he wrote in 1600 that he was not going to waste time on “quoting the ancients and the Greeks as our supporters, for neither can paltry Greek argumentation demonstrate the truth more subtly nor Greek terms more effectively.”

Many of the widely believed propositions of classical science collapsed under close examination. The examples piled up. Above all, the belief that the earth was at the center of the universe, the centerpiece of ancient cosmology, withered away. But there were so many others: Aristotle had insisted that all the stars apart from the planets were immutable and fixed, but in 1572 a young Danish astronomer named Tycho Brahe observed a supernova and realized that Aristotle had been wrong. Even more striking, Aristotle had written that the tropical areas around the equator were so torrid as to be uninhabitable—but Europeans found people living and thriving in such regions in Africa, America, and India. By 1600, much of ancient wisdom had crumbled.

Worse was to come: After 1600, Europeans developed scientific instruments that allowed them to see things the ancient writers could never have imagined. No wonder they began to feel superior: Ptolemy had no telescope, Pliny had no microscope, Archimedes had no barometer. The great classical writers may have been smart and well-educated, but European intellectuals thought of themselves as equally intelligent and better informed—and thus able to see things the ancients could not. Hence, everything must be tested with real evidence, not on the say-so of authorities who had lived 1,500 years earlier. The motto of the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660 in London, was in nullius verba—“on no one’s word.” Skepticism was the taproot of all knowledge. Even the Bible itself began to be examined critically, not least by Baruch Spinoza, who cast doubt on its divine origins and saw it as just another text.

Tradition did not give up without a fight. In the closing decades of the 17th century, an intellectual battle occurred between two groups, the ancients and the moderns. People in all seriousness debated the question of who was better, the writers and philosophers of Greek and Roman antiquity or those of their own age. This controversy was memorably mocked by the great satirist Jonathan Swift in his Battle of the Books, in which he described an absurd physical battle between modern writers and those of antiquity, not unlike the Monty Python skit hundreds of years later in which caricatures of Greek and German philosophers compete in a soccer match.

While the question of whether Sophocles was as good a playwright as Shakespeare is clearly a matter of taste, the questions of who was right about the speed of falling objects, the circulation of blood, the orbits of heavenly bodies, or the spontaneous generation of organisms were not, and the answers were becoming increasingly clear. By 1700, in Europe, the battle had been won decisively, and ancient writings on science and medicine were treated with condescending respect. A leading textbook in natural philosophy published in 1755 (and still taught a century later) started off by noting that “it is a matter of no small surprize to think how inconsiderable a progress the knowledge of nature had made in former ages ... compared with the vast improvements it has received ... of latter times.” It went on, “Philosophers of former ages buried themselves in framing hypotheses ... without any foundation in nature [and] so lame and defective as to not answer those very phaenomena for whose sakes they had been contrived.”

It was a turning point when intellectuals started to conceive of knowledge as cumulative. In the past this had been questionable: Much ancient knowledge, after all, had been lost when manuscripts were destroyed. But after 1500, the printing press and the proliferation of libraries made such losses increasingly unlikely. The moderns could know what the ancients did, but they continuously added to the stock of useful knowledge. The young Blaise Pascal, for instance, saw the world of knowledge as a single infinitely-lived individual, “incessantly learning.” A generation later, his compatriot Bernard de Fontenelle (now largely forgotten, but a central figure in the intellectual world of his day) asserted that in his age a truth hitherto unknown—justesse, he called it—ruled. He predicted that in the future this truth would go much further....
[but then Twitter was invented and shot that idea all to hell]

...MORE (Mokyr, not Climateer)
Related, earlier today: "The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet"

Previous appearances of the Mokyr channel:
Economists Debate: Has All the Important Stuff Already Been Invented? 

"Technopessimism Is Bunk"

"Mokyr: 'How Europe became so rich":
Because Dutch is the language of love?
Then I give up. How did Europe become so rich?