So I've been thinking a lot about modern progress over the last couple of days. One reason, of course, is that the president explained to us that his view on same-sex marriage has "evolved," by which he seems to means progressed or gotten better. Meanwhile, Demoocrats have claimed that Romney's view has "regressed," or gotten worse.
We conservatives aren't so much against progress as always wanting to add that if things are getting better on one front they're often getting worse on another. So we tend to use words like "progressive" somewhat ambivalently or ironically.
It's certainly true that the modern West is defined by a kind of faith in indefinite progress toward a somewhat vague or amorphous goal. And that progress is usually connected with scientific progress. The twin peaks of modern science are, it seems to me, Rene Descartes and Charles Darwin. For Americans, let me add that Descartes' best student was John Locke. Locke actually surpassed Descartes by applying his basic insights to both the foundation of personal identity and what he believed would be truly progressive transformations of economic and politial life.
One problem with this understandng of modern progress toward personal autonomy is that the Lockean understanding of personal identity is fundamentallay contradicted by Darwin. I will get to that problem for modern progress later. For today, let me focus on Descartes and the Cartesian Locke.
Descartes (and, especially in America, the Cartesian Locke) and Darwin are sort of the twin scientific foundations of the modern West’s devotion to progress. Both Descartes and Darwin can be criticized by achieving clarity and certainty through reductionism, through ignoring or abstracting from the complexity or existential, relational, and transcendent depth of being human. Descartes reduces being human, everyone knows, to a solitary “I” detached from the relational web that makes consciousness—or knowing with—possible at all.
The Cartesian “I” is unrealistically empty, nothing more than consciousness of not being integrated into the mechanistic world described by modern science. There’s no such thing as a self-conscious machine (so far, at least). So the self-conscious being must be understood to exist to control the machine, to change the impersonal, mechanistic world indifferent to the inexplicable and momentary and so utterly contingent fact of the “I” or personal existence.
The “I” desires to impose rational control on nature, to techno-change the world with “me” in mind. The “I,” contrary to what some have written misleadingly about Descartes, is no “ghost” in a machine. A ghost doesn’t depend on the machine for its existence; ghostly existence is genuinely immaterial or disembodied. The "I" disappears when the machine that is his body stops moving. So, unlike the ghost, its very being is under constant threat from its wholly mechanical environment.
Fortunately for the “I,” it also differs from ghosts in being able to impose its will on machines, to bring their motion under its conscious control. The "I" becomes genuinely “autonomous” insofar as it can make nature obey its personal will. The autonomy it seeks is that deluded suckers believe is displayed providentially by God himself.
As Locke explains, the "I"—the only being who displays personal identity and self-ownership—knows that it must provide for itself in a mechanical world that has no personal value or content. That self-provision or self-perpetuation is both rational and industrious; it's about clearly and methodically working to change its worthless or utterly hostile natural environment. The “I”—unlike the ghost—gives evidence that can be seen by anyone with eyes to see for its real existence through its intellectual productivity through material transformation. The other animals aren't technological animals because they're merely animals—machines. The "I" doesn't experience itself as an animal at all.
Technological progress, in truth, is the replacement of natural or impersonal evolution with personal—or, as E.O. Wilson says—conscious and volitional evolution. It's evolution, in other worlds, produced by ME with ME in mind. The homogeneous theory of evolution was completely true until the "I"—who knows why?—came into being. The globalization of the technology inaugurated in the Cartesian/Lockean West has radically transformed our natural enivonment everywhere on our planet.
Marx, of course, went way too far in thinking that modern progress had eradicated natural scarcity from a personal view. "I"s are still disappearing from our planet all the time, and there's reason to believe that the "I" experiences itself as more contingent and ephemeral than ever. That's one reason why the "I"—in its more pure or enlightened or authentically self-conscious forms—is working harder than ever to stay around. The only real evil is personal extinction, and persons are less likely than ever to believe that there's a God who can save each of us.
The reason Descartes understand the “I” abstractly or non-socially is that a free person or personal identity, as Locke explains more clearly, can’t be understood as a part of some machine. To the extent that our thought and behavior are determined by social instinct, we’re no different from the other animals—from, say, the bees or ants or gregarious chimps. We’re suckers, acting impersonally or inauthentically as part of a whole greater than ourselves. The "I" knows itself to be no such part, to desire to exist for itself for an indefinitely long time on its own terms.
To the extent that I can free myself from such delusions, I can think more clearly about securing the conditions that make me—a unique and irreplaceable being, from my point of view—possible. For a clear-thinking Cartesian or Lockean, being itself depends upon me, my continued self-consciousness. The only thing I know for certain is myself as a conscious "I," and so there's nothing to know and no one to know it with me gone.
There's a lot more, but that's enough for now.