Saturday, January 19, 2013

Could Progress Stop?

Here's another answer to this year's Edge's question, "What Should We Worry About?", from Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media:
For so many in the techno-elite, even those who don't entirely subscribe to the unlimited optimism of the Singularity, the notion of perpetual progress and economic growth is somehow taken for granted. As a former classicist turned technologist, I've always lived with the shadow of the fall of Rome, the failure of its intellectual culture, and the stasis that gripped the Western world for the better part of a thousand years. What I fear most is that we will lack the will and the foresight to face the world's problems squarely, but will instead retreat from them into superstition and ignorance.

Consider how in 375 AD, after a dream in which he was whipped for being "a Ciceronian" rather than a Christian, Saint Jerome resolved no more to read the classical authors and to restrict himself only to Christian texts, how the Christians of Alexandria murdered the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia in 415, and realize that, at least in part, the so-called dark ages were not something imposed from without, a breakdown of civilization due to barbarian invasions, but a choice, a turning away from knowledge and discovery into a kind of religious fundamentalism. . . .

Civilizations do fail. We have never yet seen one that hasn't. The difference is that the torch of progress has in the past always passed to another region of the world. But we've now, for the first time, got a single global civilization. If it fails, we all fail together.
I have, of course, contemplated the same question: could our civilization fail as that of the classical world did?

I am much more impressed than O'Reilly by the differences between our situation and that of the Romans. The scientific, technical side of classical learning was quite small compared to what we have achieved, and any progress had slowed to a crawl long before Rome turned to Christianity. It is hard to point to any major achievement in ancient mathematics or physics that took place after about 100 BCE. The ancients never created any rigorous experimental method, nor did they ever establish the infrastructure of science -- university chairs, learned societies, scientific journals -- that helped accelerate scientific progress in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today technical advancement is considered crucial by both business and government, and any entity that turns away from it is soon left behind by others that continue to innovate. The spread of scientific culture around the world may make it more vulnerable in one sense, but it also means that if one nation or region lags, others move ahead. Consider cloning, where the squeamishness of Americans and Europeans has led the Chines and Koreans to invest heavily, hoping to seize the lead. Even if America should fall to the fundamentalists, or Europe to mad greens, scientific progress will continue somewhere. I think the only potential threats to our civilization are ecological catastrophe and war.

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