On the illusion that Knowledge makes for Progress // John Gray

On the illusion that Knowledge makes for Progress // John Gray

“In science, progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition. The accelerating advance of scientific knowledge fuels technical innovation, producing an incessant stream of new inventions; it lie behind the enormous increase in human numbers over the past few hundred years. Post-modern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is in the belief that it can affect any fundamental alteration in the human condition. The gains that have been achieved in ethics and politics are not cumulative. What has been gained can also be lost, and over time surely will be…..

The core of the idea of progress is the belief that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking the human life can improve. Rather, it is imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative.  Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations.

Science enlarges human power. It cannot make human life more reasonable, peaceful or civilized, still less enable humanity to remake the world….

The lesson of the century that has just ended is that humans use the power of science not to make a new world but to reproduce the old one — sometimes in newly hideous ways. This is only to confirm a truth known in the past but forbidden today: knowledge does not make us free.”

John Gray (“Heresies”)

Back to Top