Active Thinking Topic 75  - What is Progress?

6 February 2024

Any replies to the organizer -

Venue: Zoom online


Recommended Viewing: Steven Pinker (22 May 2018) "Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers". TED talk @

Talking Points

1. Someone said to me recently, "Human nature never changes and never will" - implying that we were unlikely to find better solutions for getting along than our ancestors did. Do you agree with this? Is is possible that "human nature" (whatever that is) might never change, but that we can find better ways of channeling its tendencies? Examples?

2. What gives you a sense of personal progress? Is it important, or is it enough to drift from day to day?

3. It has been easy to see technical progress, for example, in the development of smart phones. Where has technical progress led to social progress, where has it led to regression, where has it made no real difference? Examples?

4. We have been conditioned to expect progress in the quality of life for each generation - our parents, ourselves, our children. However, in some countries large parts of the population have lost this sense of progress. Why? What are the consequences?

5. Many companies and organizations have a slogan such as "Continuous Improvement is Our Motto". Does this make sense? When? What kind of organizational structure makes it possible (or not)?

6. In any group of people there is a natural division between people who welcome fresh change or challenge, and those who are hostile to it. Politically this is represented by 'progressives' and 'conservatives'. Given this human reality, what kind of social & political system can give the best outcome for everyone?

7. Imagine you live in a country such as Ukraine or Myanmar (or many others). You have been quietly making progress in you own life. Suddenly your future, everything you own, is swept away by war. Your friends are killed. The future seems hopeless. What would you do? How can you recover a sense of purpose?

8. If you read newspapers from the 1800s, the 1900s, the 2000s ... in many ways the news seems not to have changed. The same disasters and human follies occur again and again. Yet if you check actual statistics (e.g. see Pinker) there have been huge changes in average human behaviour for the better. This is real human progress. How can we make such progress more appreciated, and build on it?

9. In country after country, birth rates have gone into steep decline. This is described by governments as a disaster. What is an argument for the case that smaller populations are our best hope for survival and even progress as a species?

10. Well, what do you think of this: "We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating an illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization." - Gaius Petronius, A.D.66

Extra Reading & Links

Sophie Scott-Brown, The Institute of Art and Ideas (Dec 10, 2023) "John Mearsheimer and Steven Pinker go head to head on Enlightement ideals". @  [Quote: "The Enlightenment advocated reason, science, democracy, and universal human rights as a grounding for human morality and social organization. In the quarter millennium since, to what extent have these ideals been realized? Has the Enlightenment in fact been successful in bringing about moral progress? Are there viable alternatives to the Enlightenment vision? Sophie Scott-Brown, Director at Gresham College, hosts a debate between John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University."]

Steven Pinker (22 May 2018) "Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers". TED talk @ 

Nick Bryant (December 30, 2023) "The world seems to be spinning in reverse. Have we reached the end of progress?" The Age @ 

Julia Hobsbawm (December 28, 2023) "Workplace Trends in 2024: Why Workers Need to Learn AI, Metaverse". Bloomberg @ 

Anonymous (n.d.) "Making Progress - The Only Way". Less Bad website @ 

John Rich (Jul 29, 2022) "Progress" @  [US Country & Western song - 3 minutes - irony free]

Christina Brook (Aug 1, 2014) "What is progress? -- the untouched perspective". TEDx @ What is progress? -- the untouched perspective @ 

Morning Shot (May 19, 2022) "The Myth Of Human Progress (Morningshot Original)". @ 

George Orwell (Jun 26, 2023) "A Warning to Mankind Documentary". The People Profiles @  [1 hour Biography]

Progress? So what makes a country "powerful"? Here's a rather scathing answer:  [2 minute video]

John Gray (Jun 5, 2017) "Progress is a Myth". The Cogito @  [6.5 minutes] [Quote: "According to Gray, Humanism claims that Sapiens are special and capable of progress. That history is not a cycle, but an upward curve towards forever better things. In this video, I explain why Gray believes this view to be false, and also some possible responses to him".]

Marcus Aurelius (7 February 2024) "Overcome Your Inner Coward". Freedom in Thought @ 


What is Progress? (c) Thor May 2024

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