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Progress and Tradition

by Niklas Haas on March 27, 2020

Tagged as: mental health, philosophy, politics.

I’ve come to notice that one of the most defining human traits is that we depend on progress. Unchanging things very quickly lose their appeal. We crave that feeling of advancement, of development, of change. It doesn’t matter how passive you are, you’re almost surely still being bombarded with a swarm of new information. New books. New shows. New games. New movies. New people. New phones. New wars. We very quickly go insane without a constant influx of novelty, e.g. in isolated confinement or sensory deprivation. Not only does the brain never stop learning, it never wants to stop learning. We get mind-numbingly bored from any activity that doesn’t stimulate some novel neural pathway. Heck, we even prefer destructive change to monotony. On top of this, we practically live to chase after goals - especially unreachable ones. It’s the reason why addictive video games are very carefully structured to ensure you keep making incremental progress, because that feeling of progress is what gives us deep-seated satisfaction. Our survival as a weak, but intelligent species depended on natural selection finding a way to make us enjoy solving novel problems (or adapting to novel threats).1 Depression, for example, I suspect is often fueled by this mechanism breaking down, i.e. depressed people stop achieving personal goals in favor of stagnating in apathy. (Which is why therapy’s first goal is to help us relearn the concept of initiative - because achieving personal goals is ultimately the best anti-depressive.)

So what’s the flip side here? If progress and accomplishment are such basic human needs, why do traditionalist or conservative attitudes proliferate at all? My personal hypothesis is that the flip side is simply ‘recuperation’. Experience and rest are caught in an eternal tug-of-war. For every two thirds we’re awake, we need one third to sleep. The brain demands time to recover, to prepare itself enough to absorb the torrent of new information it’s going to be fed with tomorrow. As much as the march of progress dictates human evolution, this is intermixed with periods of stability and recovery, giving us time to adapt to the constant change. Some people just adapt to change more quickly than others, giving rise to the eternal political struggle of progress vs tradition. On this note, I suspect it’s a consistent theme of every generation that the younger generation is more progressive while the older generation is more conservative, simply because younger minds still have a faster ability to adapt to change.2

Given this fundamental dichotomy, one of the interesting questions we can ask ourselves is: how much progress is too much progress? We’re essentially still stuck in ancient biological prisons, with its millions of years of baggage that is proving to be quite the challenge when faced with the rapidly-changing landscape of human society. As much as we evolve our society and knowledge to the point where we can tackle novel external threats (like COVID-19), we’re also faced with an increasing barrage of internal threats, as our outdated emotions hold us back or even lead us into self-destruction. I don’t think that foolishness is the source of human suffering - it’s emotion. Emotions come straight from the limbic system - there’s barely anything logical or intelligent about most of them. A primitive defense mechanism against primitive threats. They warp our cognition, challenge our wisdom, trick us into using our brains against us, or sow discord as once-useful survival instincts cause us to paradoxically turn against one another. One of the most important aspects of traditionalism might thus be giving our brains time to adapt to the changes in society and lifestyle, lest we evolve our surroundings more quickly than ourselves and get lost in the process.

On the flip side, we’re simultaneously making incredible advances in our ability to overcome our own limitations. The dual fields of neurology and psychology are sadly lagging greatly behind the other, heavily industrialized sciences; and so we’re still playing catch-up - but there’s also a kernel of hope that we can learn to understand our brains and disseminate effective strategies for coping with outmoded emotions before they spell our doom. The increasing acceptance of mental health resources, and the (sadly recent) shift from archaic, guesswork-based psychology to the modern field of statistically rigorous, empirical psychology are both very promising advances in the direction of the utopia we’re consistently striving for.

The overall question turns out to be: What is the balance of internal and external threats? And how should we balance our pursuit of external vs internal knowledge in response? (And do we even have a choice?) There’s no doubt that the field of external threats is ever-evolving. But so is our contribution to those threats (ecological collapse, nuclear apocalypse, global pandemics etc. are just examples). We have to keep in mind that mindless expansion in one direction without taking seriously the threat from the other direction is a recipe for disaster. Can ethics keep up with science? Can morality keep up with globalization? Can psychology keep up with society? Only time will tell. I’m personally hopeful. Rather than human stupidity, if there’s one thing that should never be underestimated, it’s human ingenuity. We were given the gift of infinite evolution potential, and so it is our sole responsibility to the universe to uphold it. Because at the end of the day, anything else is simply too boring to tolerate.

  1. The other major breakthrough of modern humans was natural selection finding a way to develop our ability to communicate abstract information via speech. This led to an evolutionary exponential explosion as we started side-chaining the slow, stochastic process of passing on knowledge via genes and demonstration, and started passing it on directly via stories and instruction. Our ability to more effectively build on previous wisdom eventually led to a series of breakthrough inventions in information storage and communication, leading to books, leading to the Renaissance, leading to the scientific and industrial revolutions, and currently culminating in the internet - the greatest invention in all of human history in terms of its ability to speed up evolution beyond even the wildest expectations of our predecessors.

  2. I think that, essentially, every generation complains about the “boomer” equivalent of their generation. Which is also fairly sobering if we keep in mind that, eventually, it will be the next generation that complains about us. Will we have the bravery to commit the same cultural suicide that we currently expect of our predecessors? To go boldly into “gray haven”-type exile as we hand over the reigns of the world to those unshackled by age?