The Paradox of Progress

Goethe once wrote, “Progress has not followed a straight ascending line, but a spiral with rhythms of progress and retrogression, of evolution and dissolution.” We live with a clear paradox . . . compelling evidence of human evolution and equally compelling and often horrific evidence of what appears to be our lack thereof. In order to defend what Ken Wilber calls the “secret drive of the universe,” both our advances and regressions must be addressed.

For many of us, the idea that we are evolving in a trajectory of greater care and concern is negated by the actions of people in the world today, not to mention historical travesties such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Chernobyl to name just a very few.  Nonetheless it simply doesn’t make sense that everything on earth is evolving but humans. The variety of developmental models across disciplines chart a course that is clearly map evolutionary in direction. And looking backward we seem to be “of a piece” with a single and all encompassing evolutionary current.

As we behold that current which began 13.7 million years ago, it appears that there is no upper limit to our progress. Rather humanity, propelled by Spirit, will continue what Whitehead called the “creative advance into novelty” as long as we are here on this planet. With so much compelling evidence against this position, the only answer is found in Goethe’s quote . . . progress is not a straight ascending line, it much more accurately envisioned as a spiral.

What generally propels us to spiral from one level to the next is the problems inherent at that level. Wilber calls this the dialectic of progress (A Brief History of Everything, p.45) . Any level of development contains both the progress and problems mentioned above however once the scales tip in favor of the problems, some sort of chaos ensues and from it a new level is developed. This level offers certain solutions for the problems (think French and American revolution or the Reformation) and inevitably  adds new and often more complex problems. In addition, since the motivation for change is to solve existing problems, it is like us to set aside all aspects of a particular level rather than retain what is still working.

This “throwing the baby out with the bath water” is clearly seen in the Reformation when all things Catholic were set aside. Aspects of the tradition that supported an experience of the Divine including ritual, liturgy and art were purged from Protestant worship only because they were part of the Catholic tradition.  Slowly these aspects have found their way back into the Protestant denominations because they are an important part of the worship experience. When we transcend a level of development and do not include that which is positive at the current level, problems will always arise.

Add to this the fact that the technologies developed by higher levels of development are available to people at any level of development. Those who interpret their scriptures from a mythic/literal level use the technology available to wage war on those they view as infidels or sinners.

As the spiral continues to develop it is imperative that we acknowledge both the “dignities and disasters” as Wilber puts it, of each successive level. Spirit continues to drive evolution despite the disasters . . . it has ever been thus.