Is Progress Actually Always Progress? Thoughts on Parashat Haazinu.
They incensed Him with alien things, Vexed Him with abominations.
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, Gods they had never known,
New ones, who came but lately, Who stirred not your fathers’ fears.
You neglected the Rock that begot you, Forgot the God who brought you forth.
I might have reduced them to naught, Made their memory cease among men,
But for fear of the taunts of the foe, Their enemies who might misjudge
And say, “Our own hand has prevailed; None of this was wrought by the LORD!” For they are a folk void of sense, Lacking in all discernment.
Today’s drasha will be very philosophical, perhaps more than all my previous drashot. Nonetheless I encourage you to read it and to follow my train of thought. I assure you it will be worth your while!
Humanity is continuously growing further apart from its origins, which seems to be something completely natural for human beings. A radical conservative would say that humanity keeps on straying from its path, since the Truth (with a capital “T”) has been already known for a long time and there is no need to come up with anything new; all one needs to do is to adopt “the wisdom of ages” and live according to it; Whereas a radical progressive would say that the wisdom of our ancestors was in essence “mere ravings of the ignorant”, that all which humanity has embraced until now has been replete with errors and that only striving for progress will lead us to anything of value – but not to the truth, since truth does not exist etc. Oh, wait, actually truth does exist, it exists in science and it is predominantly in science that there is progress; it is owing to science that we enjoy “progress in general”. Only that which is scientific holds any value, and those who dare question this premise are a bunch of ignorants.
This is a vastly extensive topic, but we can go ahead and say that it is not reasonable to believe in everything that is spruced up with the label “scientific” or “scientifically proven”. Behind each scientific truth there is a certain methodology which has led to its discovery. And this methodology is a human invention, often an effect of many years of pondering done by methodological minds, but still just an invention, and thereby something which is flawed. Science is not a disengaged reflection on reality, as it had seemed to antic Greek philosophers and as it was commonly believed in the 19th century. The Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper clearly demonstrated (and his theory was improved and confirmed by other philosophers from the same school, such as Thomas Kuhn or Paul Feyerabend) that scientific truths are not derived directly from human experience nor from experiments. They are a creation of the human mind, the result of its “creative guessing”, wherein the observed reality serves only as “creative inspiration”, since due to our limited capabilities we always have only a certain limited amount of data based on which we can formulate our theories. And only after we have formulated them we proceed to check how they work in practice – and if they do work, we decree that they comply with reality, and therefore are true. However, there can be several alternative theories which work and explain reality. They differ with regards to the range of phenomena they can successfully describe. A theory deemed to be “true” is one which successfully describes the broadest range of phenomena known to us and which does not attempt to deny the validity of those phenomena which contradict it. (In fact the same rule applies to religions as well – a religion which attempts to invalidate other religions is tainted with falsehood. And while some of its other teachings may be true, it cannot aspire to be the „only right” religion, one coming directly from God.) And if this is the case, then science can be mistaken as well. And while there is undoubtedly progress in science, which amounts to the accumulation of human knowledge and to the constant emergence of newer theories which are better equipped to describe reality, nevertheless this progress is not entirely “linear”.
Moral progress. Since every epoch faces its own kind of moral challenges, which are the result of the changing paths of history, the question of progress in this field is problematic. Certainly it is not a linear one and the famous metaphor claiming that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” applies here only to a limited extent. According to one belief, actually quite a legitimate one (though counter-examples could be provided), the measure of human morality is their approach towards animals. Generally speaking times of peace and prosperity are the ones which foster the development of that “moral sensitivity”, the level of which can serve as the criterion for progress in this area. But paradoxically in times of peace and prosperity people move away from traditional moral ideas which are part of different religions and from religion as such. A Polish philosopher who worked as a professor at Oxford University for many years, Leszek Kołakowski, claimed that the passing of three generations is enough for a society, if it is cut off from religion, to completely distort its familiar, traditional and deep-rooted morality. And since reality can’t stand a void, the “void left by religion” is filled by various idols: be it human intellect, science, pseudo-sciences, political ideologies or various other kinds of ideologies. All and each one of them start to play the role of religion in a given society. Therefore, if progress entails rejecting traditional religious teachings and turning to “new idols”, then the ancient Israelites, who repeatedly engaged in idolatry, could be called… progressive.
Progress in culture, understood in its broadest, anthropological sense (that is when by culture we understand for example eating with the use of a knife and a fork, and not for example with chopsticks) objectively speaking does not exist, even though people commonly believe that in fact it does exist, since they view certain cultural behaviors as better and some as worse. These judgments are being made only on the basis of conventions accepted in a given society. Real progress in culture applies only to those of its parts which are directly related to interpersonal relationships and to ethics, when given cultural norms are subordinated to ethical norms. But here we also face a problem, if in a given situation different ethical norms contradict each other: for example “love thy neighbor” and “tell the truth.” From the first norm the rule that we should be nice towards others or that we should treat everyone with respect is commonly derived. These guidelines become difficult to adhere to in certain situations, for example when we should tell someone a certain unpleasant truth about them, a truth regarding which there is a consensus among many people. While respect seems to be something unconditional, which is possible to display in almost any situation, things get much trickier when it comes to being “nice”. The truth may be painful for the other person, it may be perceived as an attack and it can trigger a counterattack. Of course a lot depends on the way in which we communicate a certain message to someone, but let’s remember that the more diplomacy there is in language, the more falsehoods it contains, if we define truthfulness as a complete agreement of our words with our thoughts and feelings. Thus with excessive diplomacy communication starts to falter as well, since we leave much more to speculation: We hope that the other side will guess our true intentions. They might, but they don’t have to. They might derive completely erroneous conclusions from what we said. Also, good communication is valuable in itself and it is yet another variable which factors into the equation in all of this chaos.
Different cultures of different communities have created different norms trying to find a balance between these rules. To resort to stereotypes and simplifications, Californians are nice and diplomatic, whereas Poles and Israelis are honest and blunt. However, there are no criteria which would allow us to determine that the culture of a given country, of one community, is superior to the culture of a different community, since both of them have their virtues and vices. In spite of that people in many countries across the world are convinced of the superiority of their own culture over their “neighbor’s” culture. Or, in the best case scenario – that their own culture is not “inferior” to or worse than others. If I’m mistaken, then please show me a country, a community, a society which thinks of themselves differently on the whole. Of course I’m not counting individuals who display a critical approach towards their own country’s culture, since such people exist in every society, but they play only a marginal role in them.
Such a social egoism does not have to be something bad, if kept to reasonable proportions. The problem starts when, blown out of proportion by local demagogues, it turns into a universal basking in self-complacency, which usually serves to compensate for the inferiority complex displayed by that human community. All displays of nationalism and all forms of tribal thinking are symptoms of an overblown ego of a given group of people. The larger the size of that ego, the more defensive or aggressive its reaction to criticism will be (this rule applies to each separate human being as well.) The larger the size of the ego of a given society, of a given human community is, the larger its genocidal potential directed towards all kinds of strangers, since the easier it becomes to dehumanize all those viewed as “inferior”. A society with an overblown ego and devoid of any criticism commences its path towards the annihilation of all the others by choosing/establishing the only proper and “legitimate” authority, which is already dangerous once it turns into an oligarchy, but becomes even more dangerous when it evolves into tyranny – the despotism of one individual. Regardless in which of these two forms it manifests itself, this new authority starts to claim that it possesses a Divine mandate, and thus the right to create a new law, a new morality and a new “truth”, all of which is done solely for the sake of its own group, nation or tribe. In our religion this kind of arrogance is vehemently reviled:
The pious will celebrate with song,
evil will be silenced
all wickedness will disappear like smoke,
when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth
(U-v’khein, Mahzor Lev Shalem)
And that is why in the Hebrew Bible God repeatedly calls for humility and He admonishes and rebukes the Chosen Nation, which is also repeatedly called the “stiff-necked people”. The aim of these Divine actions is to offset all the possible negative traits, such as that overblown ego, which stem from being the nation chosen by Him. “Yes, you are my people, but I’m the one who’s God here!” – that’s one way to put this concept in a nutshell.
Based on my observations of the political world I can say that generally in many societies people accept words of critique only when it becomes absolutely clear and commonly known that they have done something truly bad, when they have absolutely no other choice. And even then – not always. Therefore I am not an optimist when it comes to the belief that criticizing social norms can serve as a driving force for their further development, at least in most cases.
However, our religion, especially in its traditional form, introduces no sharp distinction between science, morality and culture. In its case all of these spheres can be ascribed to one category: the realm of human spirit. Our tradition abounds in different visions of “final days”; almost in all of them the arrival of a new world order is preceded by some enormous catastrophe. All that which I’ve mentioned above seems to be already somehow encapsulated in these visions – namely in the claim that “human nature” can be changed only through some kind of an enormous catastrophe, after which humanity will engage in a truly deep reflection about itself and will decide to build a society based on entirely new pillars and rules, keeping in mind that previous drama and intent on not re-living it never again. That’s how the theological significance of all the great catastrophes which took place over the course of human history could be understood: despite the enormity of evil and suffering they bring with them they are a necessary element which leads all of us towards a better future. However, if that vision of history has a cyclical character – that is how history was understood by the ancient Greeks – then we can’t really speak of progress. We can speak of progress in the realm of human spirit only if we embrace the Jewish, linear concept of history and if we believe in the coming of one, final catastrophe, which will completely change the course of things as well as the “human nature.”
Hag Sukkot Sameach!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka