Politically, I tend to align myself with progressive thought. I generally like the idea of progress; moving towards an ideological target. But when I think more closely about the idea of progress as a concept, I think it lacks something important, and has some potential inherent dangers, when compared to the idea of a process.
One of the dangers of political ideologies is that very distracting idea of a target or set of social and political goals. Because while those goals may be based upon clear thinking, good values, and hopefully even empirically sound philosophical bases, the fact is that circumstances change and we may not notice if we keep looking at the destination.
See, progress is teleological. Process is methodological.
Teleology implies intention, design, and is associated with religious theology in many ways. The presence of intent and purpose, when it come to theology especially, might seem safe because the designer is often believed to be perfect, or at least optimally knowledgeable and powerful. But progress in the real world involves imperfect people, and so when we think about progressing towards some ideal utopia, or merely a better set of values and policies, we are almost certain to err. And if we are attached to the destination too strongly, we may not even see those errors.
Instead, we should be focusing on the process by which we solve problems and understand the world. Goals are nice, and often necessary to accomplish anything, but by focusing on the goal rather than the road we walk upon, we will lose sight of many things.
Many forms of religion, and religious thinking, suffer from this very problem. The focus on Heaven (or Hell) for many people is a prime example of this. Built into the worldview of many forms of Christianity, for example, are things like purpose, intent, and ultimate destinations for us in God’s plan. And even within the Christian world people will criticize other believers for focusing too much on the goal, rather than what God wants us to do here. By being focused on getting to Heaven (or avoiding Hell), many people are not doing many of the things here and now that they could, or should, be doing in this life.
And, of course, this leads to the common atheist criticism of religion; people’s focus on the afterlife, rather than this real life (the only one we have), leads people to miss all that we really have. But this mistake is prevalent throughout all of human groups, including some atheists. It’s one of the many imperfections with how our brains evolved, and I think we can all benefit from an awareness about what methods we use, rather than an ideological goal.
That’s what skepticism and science are good for. Because skepticism and science are not goals; they are methods. Granted, it’s hard to avoid looking at the potential horizon in our pursuit of the truth, but we need to make sure that how we think about those goals in the here and now, so we don’t get caught up in the dream rather than the reality.
Focusing on our process, our method, will make sure that we are on the right road, because all-too-often people find that the road they are one don’t lead anywhere; that the location in the horizon was a mirage, and the road (which they were not looking at) just goes in circles, or merely stops one day, nowhere near their illusory destination.
And there are many images of potential futures with science as our road (I’m looking at you, transhumanists). But we cannot live in the hope that those futures will occur. We can be inspired by them, but we have to live where we are. I’ve known Christians who miss too much of life because they are awaiting Heaven, and I have known atheists who let life pass by because they desire their cybernetic bodies or their mind to be uploaded into a different kind of immortality.
In my opinion, we all would be better off by making sure that the thinking we are doing today is connected to real goals and real life, otherwise we may be letting precious time slip by in the name of illusory goals. I want my goals to be attached to a skeptical worldview, utilized to make this life better for us and our descendants.
All of my distant goals and ideals are subject to change and revision because I keep my attention to what is going on around me, and thus my goals sometimes change.