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Considering the violence that occurred during the previous century, can the Western ideas of science and reason be considered "progress"?

The twentieth-century witnessed the most technologically advanced nations in the world (i.e. Britain, Germany, France, Japan, and Russia) engage in two World Wars which killed millions of innocent civilians. Not only did the wars itself create unprecedented destruction, but atrocities such as the Holocaust were perpetrated by advanced, "civilized" nations. Although we have not had a major world war in seven decades, the most powerful nations in the world have created nuclear arsenals with the potential to destroy ever inhabitant on the planet. Finally, the Western lifestyle, perfectly exemplified by the United States, is warming the planet and destroying fragile natural ecosystems. Can this be considered progress?

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    Mar 4 2013: Hi Matt,

    While you are correct in just about everything that you mentioned and although I share you sentiments, I wouldn't blame Science and Reason for this. Science and Reason are the means in which these powerful nations viewed progress (Hegel and Engles (not Marx) would have called it Dialectical History/Materialism) but the were not the cause of all that destruction.

    You have to also take into account Politics, Economics and just plain old human cruelty and lust for power/domination. There are many factors that play into what you are mentioning. For example, during the Holocaust, the Naiz's were conducting experiments in a unjustly manner. Their unjust actions and experiments do not say anything about the nature of science but the nature of governmental institutions and the potential for evil that humanity has.

    The issue of Global Warming is almost exclusively an issue of politics. You would be hard pressed to blame science, technology and human reason for issues of Global Warming. Since the 1970's when Earth Day was first established (you can correct me on the date if I'm incorrect) Science has been concerned about the sustainability of the earth. Without this Scientific interest and advancement, we would not know much about global warming and it would be left to politicians and philosophers to judge the issues of global warming (perhaps w/o sufficient evidence)

    There is much debate between the scientific community and the government. The reason for this is because it is the government's job to govern, in light of the findings of science. The government feels as though the scientific community is trying to fight for the last word in global warming discourse and by doing so, the government feels as though the S.C is overstepping its boundaries. All the S.C is trying to do is get the gov't to act hasty.

    You are right that science and technology can be used as instruments of evil but if used in the right way, I think we can actually talk about progress.
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    Mar 3 2013: let's just ignore abundance of food, vaccination, comfortable living conditions, travel, cellphones, the internet, advanced medicine, human rights or democracy.
    • Mar 3 2013: I think this is the best argument against my point. I did fail to mention the incredible advances such as food production, vaccinations, the internet, and human rights. I think that these are all valid points that can be used to justify why western ideals are better than anything that existed before. However, these incredible advances don't wash away the "dark side" of progress and industry. Even in the United States, where we have human rights, democracy, advanced medicine, cell phones, the Internet, comfort, we are still living a lifestyle that is just unsustainable. Do you think that maybe we have to temper our advances with a perpetual awareness of human dignity and protecting the environment?
  • Mar 3 2013: I see war as a failure of humans to achieve higher ideals of respect, love, civility, tolerance, et al. All the above you mentioned could actually serve to force the planet to accept better relationships. If we cannot learn via discussion, negotiation and patience, we learn the hard way through awfulness of loss. This route will lead to progress because enough of humans will demand and accept more peaceful ways. A terrible price is to be paid when we refuse to accept the higher ideals and ideas for civilizing the planet. So much sorrow is evident and eventually we will see the benefits of sitting down together at the conference table to hammer agreements.

    Progress is a definite feature in evolution of thought; we either accept it peacefully and smartly or we are forced to learn in sorrow. The sorrowful way is the really scary way!!
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    Mar 3 2013: The atrocities correlate to the rise of psychology.

    The world has steadily become less violent over the past 100 years

    The last year or so show reports that the world is now cooling.
    • Mar 4 2013: Can you explain what you mean by the "rise of psychology"?
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        Mar 4 2013: Psychology came into existence starting in the late 1800's

        The communist countries said that they learned everything they knew from Woodrow Wilson who learned everything he knew about manipulating the masses from Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew. Incidentally old Woodrow is the president who brought us income tax, the federal reserve, and the most crippling of all the 17th amendment, rather dubious accomplishments for someone who has America's best interests in mind don't you think?

        Hitler employed 10s of thousands of psychologists to implement eugenics, which was the reason for the atrocities. I wonder how hard it is to plant a seed regarding eugenics in a mad man?
  • Mar 4 2013: Yes, as long as we avoid nuclear war and continue in the development of practical clean energy.
    • Mar 5 2013: I feel that this statement is an oversimplification of the ethical dilemmas facing science today that cannot be answered with a simple, scientific answer. For example, I think most people can concur with the statement that not destroying the planet is generally beneficial to everybody involved. Most people can also agree that practical, clean energy is a noble objective. However, when we look deeper at ethical issues, such as human cloning, embryonic stem -cell research, animal rights, preserving ecosystems, prenatal genetic testing etc... science does not have an answer. Just because we can do all these things, does not mean we should. We need to look deeper to find an ethical framework to wisely choose which of these advancements can be considered "progress", and which of these advancements should be thrown in the same garbage bin as Mercury thermometers, eugenics, nuclear weapons etc...
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    Mar 3 2013: Matt, Issues like this would be easier to discuss in specifics other than generalities and knowing your location would be of great value in doing this .. IMO.

    Science is a tool that is used as a force for the good or evil. Reasoning is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, for establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.

    We have enjoyed a boom in science ... yes weapons are involved ... But so is space travel, medicine, entertainment, travel, comforts, and all types of electronics and toys ...

    We enjoyed the art of diplomacy after WW II notably John Foster Dullas, Henery Kissinger, and some Presidents that understood foriegn affairs. We do not have that talent available to us now and depend on diplomatic astute nations such as England to do our bidding. The USA is a failed diplomatic nation and has added greatly to our problems.

    The same problems exist today and throughout history ... kingdoms, dictators, fanatics, and the greed of man. I would consider that fewer of these exist today that ever before .... and yes that is progress.

    Matt ... I get the feeling that the real issue here is "green". Could you provide some guidance where you would like this conversation to go. Right now it the history of the world part one.

    I wish you well.

    • Mar 3 2013: I guess I was hoping that this conversation could go toward teaching ethical values of human dignity and environmental protection to our children, because I feel that we spend our lives living in comfort and hearing about how much better our lives are compared to just 300 years ago, yet we forget that we are still human. Although we may believe that we are more advanced than our ancestors, we still have the capacity to use our knowledge of science to the detriment of society. I think you are right in talking about "green" as an issue, and this is a perfect modern-day example of how we have to temper our science with ethics. Many scientists talk about science for science's sake or progress for progress' sake, but I believe that science is an incredible tool that can be used to achieve our goals that our founded on our beliefs and principles. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude, as exemplified by nuclear weapons and climate change, is "to hell with ethics, if we can do it, why shouldn't we"
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        Mar 3 2013: Matt, Part of the problem is that we hear on the news fronm radicals in both arenas. President Obama poured millions into "green" that had no chance to succeed ... Americans took a bath. The environmental groups have assigned Al Gore to be the face of the movement when he is a punch line for cocktail hour jokes and has never dedicated any protion of his personal life toward the issue in fact much to the opposite.

        We have seen the same figures in the hands of spin doctors ... prove and disaprove all of the arguments until this year there appears to be a reversal in the findings that the earth is cooling again.

        Matt I agree that there are things we are doing that are abusive to the environment and we should stop. But until issues like the environment and immagration and so forth are taken serious and not just political sabre rattling for votes there will never be real change as you seek.

        Matt I might suggest that we, as a nation, begin to take our government seriously. If we returned to a Constitutional government, reduced the size and the programs offered ... and additionally took charge of the "career politicians" and made them once again servants of the people then we could seriously tackle the issues facing us.

        We need to focus on the things we can control and work toward those issues you have expressed.

        I wish you well. Bob.
  • Apr 2 2013: I think that with our current political & social structures in place, if the leaders find clean, efficient energy, they'll find a dirty, or slothful use for it.
    The "nuclear family" seems to have been one gigantic failure. John Taylor Gatto has some good information on how our schools are designed to let us down. Dave Meslin has a good talk on apathy. Cheap labor from overseas youth is just another form of war, theft, & slavery - but "keep shopping" seems to be the new mantra for the last century.
    It's definitely not the scientific progress that should be our focus; how we use this knowledge, this technology, and our time, is just as important. We've all got a hand in this right now. The technology's as good as inescapable. And if we can't master our selves, we'll never tame it.
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    Mar 12 2013: Can you blame our fire-discovering ancestors for the burning of accused witches in Salem? No. You cannot blame a scientistific discovery for the atrocities that people commit with them. Everything we use on a day to day basis is a tool. The tools are not evil. However, people can be. I argue that anti-science propaganda is rooted in the distrust of secular peoples. This is religiously motivated.
    • Mar 13 2013: I agree that it isn't science that is the blame but what people have done with this newly acquired knowledge. How is this connected to religion in anyway? I am all for science and do not practice a religion, but I am having difficulty connecting this to religion.
  • Mar 4 2013: I suppose it could be considered progress but,
    it certainly cannot be considered civilization, or civilized.
    Is it progress when we have eliminated so many species from the earth
    and to also threaten the extinction of many more?
    Is it progress to have removed so many rainforests so that we can plunder, destroy impoverish
    and produce more methane gas into the atmosphere and with forests gone or dying, we lose (the earth loses) the ability to keep cooler? Well, we do lose.
    The melting of the ice caps is a reality but the mismanagement of the resources we still have isn't progress.
    The filling of the oceans with garbage, that experts say cannot be removed, doesn't sound like progress to me.
    When I was a child I drank cold, sweet water from underground springs. That cannot be done any longer.
    That's progress.
    You know, many illnesses are progressive. That means in order to progress somewhere, they have to start somewhere.
    This thing called progress has been nothing more than a scam, a sham, a lame story, that started somewhere and
    has now progressed somewhere. That is what most call progress and it is a mess. Maybe they are wrong, but if they
    argue and defend what has happened, as progress, then they are mentally ill or insane.

    So mental illness has progressed as we continue to think we can "fix this shit" instead of just doing what is very clear to do: stop this shit!"

    But we don't stop. We say we can't stop.

    "Ya can't stop progress" but that is exactly what we should do." Belief in such insane thinking is not progress but just how did we get here? By our thinking, which is insane.
    We have done the same things over and over, expecting different results, for centuries. The results have been the same only worse.
    That is a description of insane behavior. Thus, the actors must be insane.
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    Gail .

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    Mar 4 2013: As all that we believe in is in decline (collapsing), I would say that what you speak of is helping humanity "hit bottom", so that different choices can be made. If this is the case, then it will ultimately be seen as a good thing by those who come after.
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      Mar 4 2013: who is the "we" in this sentence? you and who else?
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        Gail .

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        Mar 4 2013: "we" = "We, the people" = conventional wisdom.

        "me" = not in accord with conventional wisdom.
    • Mar 5 2013: I think it may be seen as a good thing by "those who have power"
      and not necessarily those who come after.

      Josef Mengele may become a hero in the next 25-30 years,
      which his comrades declared would happen.

      I won't be around.
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    Mar 4 2013: .

    Our life goal is to keep our DNA alive;
    but the science leads us to go against it mostly.

    (For details, see the 1st article, points 1-3, 14, at
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    Mar 3 2013: WW 1 & 2 were both attributable to the power vacuums that were created when the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires fell. Nuclear weapons, scary though they are, have enforced a "stalemate" that has prevented another world war. Most of the technological advances we've made are a direct result of military R & D.

    NO ecosystems have been destroyed; altered, attenuated, weakened, changed to no one's benefit certainly, but not destroyed and more attributable to population growth than "violence".

    The exploitation of oil and gas has benefitted the entire planet, has driven innovation, prosperity, economies…progress…and yes, it has consequences. Our "science and reason" is also helping to mitigate those consequences as much as increase productivity and impact social change to bring us closer to a more peaceful state.

    So yes…progress
    • Mar 4 2013: Do you think that science and reason has to be tempered with ethics?
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        Mar 4 2013: Do you think they are not? Have you considered what the world would be like compared to today if they were not?
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        Mar 4 2013: I agree with Daryl. They have been and I think will continue to be. If not, we'll just be conducting experiments on anybody at any given time without their consent. You should keep in mind that these ethical values do not only end with human beings but applies to many other things like dogs, cats, chimps and the environment.
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    Mar 3 2013: Yes. Undoubtedly yes. Because on the other hand always lays the spirit of progress and the pulse for improve.
  • Mar 3 2013: "...engage in two World Wars which killed millions of innocent civilians." "....atrocities such as the Holocaust were perpetrated by advanced, "civilized" nations"

    Early in the last century the problem was that people were still not educated as we are now and dictators were determining the nation's future. Nowadays, we have fairly educated masses, the Internet as means of unprecedented communication and criticism, governments more transparent than ever and the number of people killed world-wide keep steadily decreasing.

    " the most powerful nations in the world have created nuclear arsenals with the potential to destroy ever inhabitant on the planet"

    Nuclear weapon stockpile keeps also decreasing:

    "Finally, the Western lifestyle, perfectly exemplified by the United States, is warming the planet and destroying fragile natural ecosystems. "

    Yes unfortunately sometimes progress causes other side-effects like global warming. However I see many positive trends. For example, technology is decreasing pollution created by cards, we are moving toward energy from solar panels, more energy efficient appliances and so on.

    I think we will overcome global warming, eliminate all arms conflicts and have better life for everyone in near future. The Internet is playing a major role in connecting people and teams to work and resolve these problems

    • Mar 4 2013: I would argue that Germany was one of the best-educated countries in the world at the time of World War II. In fact, many of the supporters of the Nazis were not the "poor, uneducated masses", but rich, powerful German nationalists who believed in the racial philosophies promoted by intellectuals that interpreted the works of authors like Friedrich Nietschze to justify the superior Aryan race. I do certainly hope that this vision of peace for the future is fulfilled, but the past century and the current crises we face does not inspire optimism
      • Mar 4 2013: Yes Germany might have been one of the best-educated countries in the world at the time. However this cannot compare to today's level of education. We have much better education, people think in more abstract terms and what-if scenarios (there is a TED 2013 talk that is coming) and significantly higher number of people in highly cognitive professions.

        Also as I mentioned today, due to the Internet, people have substantially higher access to information, including videos taken by people everywhere and blogs, twitters etc. that report factual information. Government cannot any more easily control media.