What Is Progress?: Or How to Tell a Hawk From a Handsaw – Part 2
(Continued from the previous post.)

In order to talk about progress, development, growth, and sustainability, it is helpful to define the terms of the discussion. But before we can talk about definitions, we need to introduce, just briefly, the idea of complexity. Complexity theory is a relatively new branch of science that looks at nonlinear adaptive systems, or complex systems. Interaction is the key to complex systems. The greater the level of interaction between the constituents parts of a given system, the greater the possibility that it will organize to new levels of complexity. On the other hand, if there is too much connection, too much noise, the system can disintegrate into chaos. Likewise, if there is too little connectivity, the system can be bogged down in order and lose adaptability. This point between order and chaos is commonly called the “edge of chaos.” It’s that sweet spot between order and chaos where novelty arises. Imagine for a moment a system of information, like the shared DNA of a bacteria colony. The information in the system can be represented by a bell curve. Too ridged or limited a field of information and the system stagnates in the face of adversity. Too much information in the face of adversity and the system falls into chaos. The “edge of chaos,” where emergent properties arise, is on the cusp of the bell curve, where there is enough information to spark novelty, but not so much that the system falls apart; enough order to support this novelty, but not so much as to retard its development.

Complex systems can exhibit emergent qualities and experience organization to higher levels of complexity. An example of complexity in the Earth’s physiosphere would be the interaction between the oceans, geological forces, and the atmosphere in the creation of the world climate system.  In contrast to complex systems, a complicated system may have a large number of constituent components, but the system as a whole tends to be predictable. An airplane is complicated, while the weather and the economy are complex.

Systems theory, complexity theory, and the like are relatively new paradigms, new tools that can be used to understand the universe, but they are not new worldviews. They are methods that can be used to see the world in a deeper fashion, but they are not the insight itself. Think of different paradigms as colored lenses placed before your eyes. The dark blue lets you see the sky in ways you hadn’t while the yellow makes the shadows of the snow visible. Complexity theory doesn’t replace the scientific paradigms that preceded it, but instead adds an extra layer of depth to our understanding.

Progress is a new order of complexity or novelty arising within systems, or systems of complexity arising from the interaction of non-complex components. This novelty occurs at the edge of chaos, between system stagnation and chaotic collapse. Additionally, development is the refinement of existing systems in such a way as to increase the efficiency of the system as a whole or of sub-systems, often in response to an external stimulus.  Growth is then the addition to, or expansion of, a system or sub-system. This cannot be accomplished without interaction outside the system. Lastly, sustainability is the driving force behind the action of, and interaction between, progress, development, and growth. If any of the three is not attentive to the sustainability of the whole system, sub-systems, or individual components, there is the possibility of system wide stagnation or chaotic collapse. Sustainable systems do not necessarily need to be balanced on the edge of chaos, but they cannot be immersed in too much chaos or too much order.

Confusing the traditional definitions of progress even more is the notion of “quality of life,” which is what is usually meant when the words progress or development are used. Quality of life is what it sounds like. There is no real measure of how good our lives are, but we can take an integral approach and look at them from a couple of perspectives.

What is the quality of the physical environment we live in?  What is the government we live with like?  Is it democratic or totalitarian?  Does it have equal access to power, or is its access to power skewed toward those with wealth?  What is our cultural setting like?  Do we find ourselves the focus of racial, ethnic, or religious hatred?  Are women valued in the culture?  Are the elderly?  What is our personal experience like?  Do we have adequate access to food, clean water, and shelter?  Do we have enough wealth to be comfortable?  Do we have opportunities for employment?  Do we have a stable family life?  Is our community safe to live in?  These are just a few of the aspects that contribute to the quality of life, and few if any of them are normally considered when talking about progress and development.

Now that we have some definitions, a few examples will help clarify what I mean. The examples focus on the four major aspects of being; the physical, the personal, the cultural, and the social. Readers of Integral philosopher Ken Wilber will recognize these as his Four Quadrants of Being, a framework he has created for assessing the world from an integral perspective.

In the physical realm examples of progress include; the evolution from matter to life; the emergence of a global atmospheric system capable of supporting life; the emergence from life to mind; and ecologies that emerge suitable to their respective environments, from jungle to desert to ocean floor.

In the personal realm examples of progress would be; cognitive shifts between developmental stages of worldview, i.e. from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood etc.; the expression of creative insights; and the expression of cognitive, psychological, informational, or spiritual insights in novel and complex ways.

In the cultural realm examples include; cognitive shifts of sociocultural worldviews, i.e. from traditional, to modern to postmodern; the shift from reverence of the male to reverence of male and female; the shift from reverence of nature to reverence of all life; and the shifts from affiliation for the family to affiliation for the community, to fidelity to the nation, to loyalty to the whole of humanity.

In the social realm examples of progress would be; the shifts from theocratic to monarchic to democratic forms of government; the increasing representation of the individual in the process of government; a greater balance of the responsibility and rights of individuals with the rights and responsibilities of society at large; and the larger connections between individuals and groups to create novel systems.

Examples of development in the physical realm would then include; the continued adaptation of organisms to their changing ecologies and environments and the continual adaptation of the global weather system to changes in the levels of greenhouse gases. In the personal realm, examples would be the refinement of skills and talents and the realizations of ego-self nature resulting from self-inquiry. In the cultural realm examples of development would be changes in rituals and religions to embrace the ever more inclusiveness. Another would be the shift experienced as reverence for women increases in patriarchal cultures, and one more would be the shift as religions slowly change to accommodate women into positions of leadership and equal participation.  In the social realm an example of development would be the refinement of the structures of government that extend the concepts of progress to all levels of a society regardless of sex, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Examples of growth in the physical realm would include; the expansion of ecologies across regions; the expansion of organisms beyond their original ecology; and the physical and biological expansion of an organism from birth through maturity. In the personal realm examples would be physical and psychological growth from birth to maturity and the acquiring of skills, talents, knowledge, etc. In the cultural realm examples of growth would be the expansion of cultures through war, trade, communication, travel, colonization, or settlement. In the social realm, examples of growth would include population expansion due to increased birth rate or conquest of other societies and increases in personal wealth as well as access to resources.

A commonplace example of the difference between progress, development, and growth is the automobile. The invention of the internal combustion engine was not progress but merely development. It was not a novel new system and while it was complicated, it was not complex. It was a development in the creation of energy for use in industry and transportation, much like the steam engine or the electric motor. While the individual automobile was not complex, millions of them would create novel changes in the larger system of the country. Henry Ford refined the process of manufacturing cars (development) and this resulted in their wider availability. Increases in the number of cars (growth) resulted in increases in the need for roads (more growth) and plentiful supplies of oil. This growth of cars and roads led to a new order of complexity (progress) allowing easy transportation around the entire country.  The growth of this new complex system increased beyond the levels of sustainability and resulted in traffic jams (overloads of order) and global warming (overloads of chaos).

The way we think about progress, development, and growth will in large part determine our future because it will influence the choices we make and the paths we follow. Our current paths are leading us away from real progress and toward a sham version of it consisting almost entirely of massive growth and some small amount of development. This is not to say that the increasing complexity of the world will not result in a genuine progress, such as might arise from a world of interconnected and highly advance computers with a simulacrum of intelligence. However, such a leap in complexity in no way guarantees increased prosperity for humanity at large and may instead provide scenarios that threaten human well-being.

To change the world we have to contemplate it and the idea of progress in particular. Through contemplation we can avoid Hamlet’s existential angst, bypassing both feigned and real madness, to know for ourselves the difference between a hawk and a handsaw. So, with that in mind, I leave you with this exercise in contemplating progress:

Contemplation on Progress

Take a few minutes out of your day and contemplate the relationship between progress, development, growth, and sustainability in your own life. Do you feel like you are experiencing progress on a personal level?  If so, in what ways?  Are you engaged in some action of development or some process of growth?  How so?  Are these forces interacting in a balanced, sustainable way?  How are these forces playing out in the relationships you that have with your family members and your friends?

Look around at the world you live in, your town, city, or state. Do you sense progress?  What kind of progress?  How do you define progress and how does it compare to what you are seeing in your city, your state, or your nation?  You may hear about developed and developing countries around the world, but do they seem to be developing?  Are they experiencing growth?  What about progress?  What are the factors that contribute to growth, development and progress in the world?  Do you think the world is progressing, or simply growing?  Do you feel that it is developing, and if so, how?  Are these forces pushing our world system into chaos, or are they drawing us into a stagnation of rigid order?  What can we do to contribute to the world system and all its nations remaining sustainable or evolving novel complexities?

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