A confused conservative takes a closer look at the notion of progress

15.08.2018 | By Krzysztof Mazur

We have come a long way. From the naive Enlightenment ‘faith in progress’, through the doubts of the nineteenth century to an end of modern optimism after Concentration Camps and Gulags. Nowadays, the development of neuroscience, genetics and the expansion of new technologies undermine the role of a human being as the foundation and subject of progress. Instead, what we get is a new religion of informationism (or dataism), at the centre of which are data-driven algorithms replacing both God and a human being. On the horizon, there is a need for a tactical alliance of conservatism inherent in Catholic tradition with liberalism drawing from the tradition of the Enlightenment. The dignity of a human being in the dehumanised world is at stake.

The notion of a “conservative believer in progress” sounds like an oxymoron. It is true that in the Polish tradition of the last 200 years conservatism has rarely meant a conservative attitude because there were relatively few institutions worth preserving. Polish conservatism clearly has had a constructivist character and a quasi-revolutionary formula.

Meanwhile, the current PiS government does not seem to notice this issue. In the statements of the influential politicians of the “good change” camp of the ruling party, the rhetoric of technological progress visibly permeates conservative postulates in the field of social or cultural policy. One of the symbols of combining these two, seemingly hostile, elements was Jarosław Kaczyński’s speech during the “Impact’16” Congress. In a room filled to the brim with young start-ups, CEOs of large companies, venture capital investors and analysts working for reputable consulting companies, this very conservative politician said that the Morawiecki Plan was to be “a venture that would build direct facilities for the start of construction the fourth industrial revolution. (…) Only the combination of inventiveness, intelligence, abilities and sometimes outstanding Polish talents, with this enterprise, can yield a result which will allow us to say in a couple of years that the revolution in Poland was not late, that we are at the vanguard, that Poland is changing”.

Poland under PiS is not to be an open-air museum, but the avant-garde of a technological change. It is worth analysing the evolution of the notion of progress used by Kaczyński in his speech from the perspective of the history of ideas. Can this notion, which is central to the rhetoric of the industrial revolution, be so easily combined it with a conservative vision of the world?

Progress – the idea with Christian roots and anti-Christian effects

The idea of ​​progress is the supreme idea of ​​modernity. It originates directly from the philosophy of history, that is from the attempt to endow history with meaning, through the evaluation of particular epochs. The age of modernity was to be opposed to what was premodern, old, backward. Such a vision of history appeared when modern political philosophy broke with the traditions of antiquity and the Middle Ages. This process is perfectly illustrated by the German thinker Karl Löwith in his book entitled Universal History and the History of Salvation.

The fundamental idea of ​​modernity is the faith in the possibility of achieving salvation in history. For the Greeks, history was a circular, natural flow in which cosmic logos was manifested. Christianity broke with such a circular understanding of time. Christians perceived the history of the world linearly as the history of salvation. This assumption made it possible for the philosophy investigating the purpose of history to come into existence.

Modernity, however, made a significant correction. Christianity proclaimed faith in salvation outside of history because the end of earthly life was to be a beginning of a timeless existence in heaven or hell. Meanwhile, modernity, in the course of the evolution of the concept of progress, replaced it with the faith in salvation inside history, which will be realised in the form of a particular final state achieved by humanity in the world.

The modern philosophy of history, therefore, derives from the biblical faith in fulfilment, yet its purpose has been secularised. All other dimensions of secularisation – the separation of the state from the Church in the political dimension or the crisis of religious attitudes – have their source in the belief that God does not exist, and if there is some Absolute, it certainly has no impact on the history of the world. Therefore, in modernity, the purpose of people’s lives is not transcendent, because it is not beyond the mundane, but is imminent and reduced to salvation in history.

A brief history of disenchanting the world

Karl Löwith was a German philosopher who investigated the process of disenchanting the world. He discovered the seeds of the idea of ​​salvation in the history in the works of Joachim of Fiore, a monk living at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This thinker, who studied eschatology and philosophy of history, created the tripartite model of the world’s history. In his interpretation, after the age of the Old and New Testaments, the Kingdom of the Spirit was to come as the final revelation of God’s will on Earth and in time. The proclamation of this view, however, yielded results which were contrary to those envisioned by the author – the religious idea of ​​the desecularisation of the Church – in the hands of other thinkers – turned into in its opposite, i.e. the secularisation of the world.

The change took place in two steps. The first step was connected with the Reformation, which postulated the principle of sola scriptura, or the search for faith in its pure, original form. Protestants abandoned the medieval scholastic as a purely intellectual invention, thus creating a gap between science and faith. Reformation thus became the engine of universal spiritual emancipation, which reached its philosophical maturity in the ideas of Descartes, Hobbes, Voltaire or Rousseau.

The second step was connected with the Enlightenment. In his work, The New Science, the Italian thinker Giambattista Vico made a reinterpretation of the concept of divine presence in history.  In his understanding, Providence works “in such a natural and simple way that it is almost identical to the social laws of historical development. It works only through indirect causes within the framework of the economics of civic affairs; in the same way – though less transparently – it acts in the physical world. It manifests its ordinances through the easy way of innate human habits”. In this way, the transcendent God is reduced to the immanent principles of social development in relation to history, which can be fully comprehended through rational analysis of facts.

The dichotomy created by Vico, which clearly separates the history of salvation and the history of the world, resulted in a purely human understanding of the beginning and progression of civilisation, as well as its inherent element – religion. The world becomes fully disenchanted here, since all the rules governing it can be grasped through empirical analysis of facts. At the same time, it is impossible to pose questions regarding moral criteria for scientific or technological development, because such questions transcend the realm of facts.

Progress as the religion of the educated

The disenchantment of the world resulting from the continuous learning about the rules by which it is governed was combined with unwavering faith in the progress which in the Age of Enlightenment gained the status of the religion of the educated. The faith in the Providence of the supramundane God was replaced by the belief in a mundane and infinite development.

The idea of ​​progress (which neatly combined political, economic, social, scientific and moral dimensions) was closely connected with the dream of overcoming all limitations resulting from nature. In this context, Löwith recalls the ideas of Nicolas de Condorcet, according to whom economic and social progress would inevitably lead to the physical perfection of a human being, which would ultimately “delay death or abolish it at all”.

Enlightenment’s faith in progress, as the religion of the educated, soon came across a major obstacle. It was expected that scientific discoveries would be accompanied by moral progress, however, this assumption turned out to be mostly false. It became clear that it is much easier to overcome viruses of infectious diseases than the vices of human beings. The culmination of this stage in the history of progress struggling with its own limitations was the Second World War. In the face of the experience of Auschwitz and the Gulag, the historical optimism of modernity turned into horror. In the face of the loss of God and the transformation of the cosmos into chaos, a human being has no choice but to immerse himself or herself in his or her individual existence, whose mysterious contingency is terrifying.

Thus, the dreams of modernity about the salvation of man in history ended up with the loss of meaning. Once again, the whole paradox of modern times which are Christian in origin and anti-Christian in practice has been revealed.

Enlightenment commits suicide

Half a century after Löwith, the issue of the crisis of the Enlightenment paradigm was resumed by Andrzej Zybertowicz. It is worth completing the picture with conclusions from his work under a telling title: The Suicide of the Enlightenment? In his book, Zyberowicz places scepticism towards the idea of ​​progress in the context of the latest achievements in the field of neuroscience or the dissemination of big data analytics methods in science. Among other things, these achievements, which are turning science into techno-science, has shaken the foundations of the Enlightenment philosophy.

In its original assumptions, it was supposed to be an epoch based on the idea of “a human being leaving his self-induced immaturity”.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own reason without the guidance of others. A human being is guilty of his or her own immaturity when it stems not from the lack of reason, but from the lack of determination and courage to use reason without the authority of others. “Sapere Aude! – dare to use your own mind! – is the guiding principle of the Enlightenment!” – According to Zybertowicz, this quote from Immanuel Kant is the most precise definition of the Enlightenment ideal. At the core of this belief was an individual who dared to reject external authorities and superiors acting as guides on the way to learning the truth. A human being should instead trust the abilities of his or her own reason, whose cognitive potential is sufficient to comprehend the principles which govern the world. Based on those abilities, he or she should build a better world of tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the contemporary culture created by techno-science, although historically rooted in the ideal expressed by Kant, imperceptibly leads us precisely in the opposite way.

Rejection of external cognitive authorities, such as tradition, social institutions or religion, creates a culture without institutions which could supervise the development of techno-science. This means that there are no barriers to learning about the world and using the findings in practice. In such a culture, one may observe a very rapid development of natural sciences and technology based on scientific achievements. At the same time, there is a gradual weakening of the areas which do not fit into a narrow, modern concept of rationality, reduced to the phenomena that can be described by means of mathematics or empirical sciences. This leads to further expansion of instrumental reason, which is capable of figuring out how to achieve a specific goal but does not offer intellectual tools to investigate the criteria for its choice. So, we have mutually reinforcing mechanisms: the more technological solutions automate our lives and increase our cognitive abilities, the more we trust them. The more we believe them, the broader range of cognitive tasks we delegate to them, thus becoming addicted to them.

This process is intensified by the fact that we are cognitive misers by nature. According to Zybertowicz, modern science proves that the primary goal of the mind/brain is not to get to know objective truth but to survive. So, if something works, we do not have to understand how it works. Every day more than a billion people use Google search to find information that directly affects their life decisions. At the same time, only a tiny fraction of the population understands how the algorithm that creates the hierarchy of search results works. This growing confidence in technology pushes us even further towards giving our freedom to it. Cognitive miserliness together with the increasing effectiveness of technology leads to the weakening in our real desire to understand the world in depth. At the end of this process, there is a collapse of intellectual culture and the growing disproportion between technology that has more and more computing power and a human being, who understands less and less.

Such a disproportion of strength offers an unprecedented ability to control our every action, even every thought, to which the development of modern neuroscience is heading. This is precisely what the title Suicide of the Enlightenment stands for.

Kant promised us that the individual would be independent of any external cognitive guides, but what happened was the creation of a world in which humanity can neither regulate nor comprehend. According to Zybertowicz, if we go further in this direction it “may mean a chronic inability of humanity to understand the social world and control some of the conditions of our lives”.

Liberalism is over

Very often the same facts can be interpreted in a completely different way. That is why it is worth to compare Suicide of Enlightenment? With another outstanding work- Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. This book, by the highly acclaimed Israeli thinker, presents one of the most interesting contemporary visions of the future. Harari agrees with Zybertowicz that modern science undermines the fundamental assumptions of modernity, although he claims that this is more evident in the intellectual assumptions of liberalism than in the Enlightenment paradigm.

In his opinion, liberalism is based on the assumption that every human being is an individual endowed with freedom and that through introspection, he or she understands himself or herself better than anyone else. Meanwhile, modern science has undermined all three elements of this assumption.

Modern science has failed in its trials to investigate human consciousness. Consciousness has always been perceived as the mainstay of thinking about a human being as an individual. At the same time, the discovery of DNA and further genotype research have shown that a human being is a computer-like structure, governed by collections of complex algorithms. What is more, probing more in-depth into the nature of principles governing the operation of these algorithms leads to the conclusion that a human being is not free, but determined by the inherited genotype and environmental influences. His decisions are therefore made in an externally determined or accidental way. The combination of these discoveries with the growing computing power of the big data era results in the fact that, thanks to technology, the external subject understands a particular human being better than he understands himself. The current research on the human brain/mind allows us to suppose that this disproportion between the individual and the technology will only grow. If, therefore, a human being ceases to be an individual endowed with freedom who understands himself or herself better than anyone else, why should we give him or her any special rights guaranteed so far by liberalism? – asks Harari provocatively.

Liberalism, however, has a problem not only at the philosophical level. Some social conditions which from the end of the 18th Century strengthened the liberal vision of the world have ceased to exist. According to Harari, the victory of this ideological trend observed in the last two hundred years was directly related to the issue of security and economic development. In the first aspect, the emergence of a mass army was crucial, since giving citizens full political rights was associated with the need to mobilise them to participate in the war. This is clearly illustrated by the example of the First World War, which demonstrated the huge role of women both in the conflict itself and in need to replace men in their social functions. The effect was granting women full political rights in the interwar period. Nowadays, the a highly developed technology operated by a narrow specialist elite today counts more than a sheer number of soldiers. A similar process can be observed in the economy. The second technological revolution was based on Ford type factories, which were in need of many menial workers. As a result, the nineteenth-century industrialisation was driving mass migration from villages to cities. However, the fourth technological revolution leading,a lack of workforce, but widespread unemployment.

Liberalism is experiencing a crisis today not only in the anthropological field but also as a result of changes in the area of security and economy. The social circumstances that once justified granting universal political rights to the masses are being eroded.

Zybertowicz and Harari’s diagnoses are therefore surprisingly convergent. In both analyses, techno-science leads to the disintegration of a human being as a subject, questioning his or her freedom, undermining individual cognitive abilities, assigning technology a leading role in learning about the world, and finally giving up our freedom to it. Both thinkers, however, differ in the assessment of these processes and the visions of the future.

Silicon Valley elite and dataism, their information religion

The future, according to Harari, no longer belongs to the individual who, thanks to the power of his own intellect, learns the rules governing the world. The future will be dominated by increasingly complex and comprehensive information systems in which a single person is reduced to the role of the information carrier.

At first, we used to live in tribes, then in cities. Later states became the dominant form of social life, and finally, we are living in a global village. These forms of civilisation differ in the number and diversity of users, which is gradually increasing, as well as the intensity and complexity of interactions between them. The critical element is freedom or a free flow of information in the system. This observation is the foundation of the Data Religion or dataism which, according to Harari, is professed today by the majority of the world scientific establishment and the elite of the Silicon Valley.

The essence of the Data Religion is reducing reality to mathematical algorithms, which is associated with a series of parallel discoveries in various fields of science. A human being can be perceived as a computer based on a set of algorithms because our DNA is an algorithm. All other biological organisms can be viewed in the same way due to the theory of natural selection which is based on the evolution of biochemical algorithms. Similarly, the Beethoven’s fifth symphony or a stock market may be the broken down to algorithms. Everything is mathematics, and all areas of human knowledge can be reduced to algorithmic analysis.

Along with the ongoing expansion of the Internet, the last phase of the development of history begins to appear on the horizon of history. “A human being is merely a tool in the creation of the Internet of Everything that can spread from the planet Earth to penetrate the entire galaxy and even the entire universe. This cosmic data processing system would be like God. It would be everywhere and would control everything, and the destiny of people is to merge with it “- these are the words of the author of Homo Deus.

Eventually, neither God nor a human being will be in the centre of the universe. Their place will be taken by abstract and depersonalised information. This is indeed the high price that the modern techno-science establishment must pay for professing the Enlightenment’s faith in progress. Since so many facts proved the fact that a human being is not able to achieve salvation in history, the human was replaced by information. Such is the gospel of dataism.

Philosophy: logos instead of instrumental reason

Let’s return to Kaczyński’s words. Is Poland really going to be in the vanguard of technological changes described by Zybertowicz and Harari, the changes which drive the fourth technological revolution? In his speech, the PiS leader did not address these objections. Knowing, however, the political vision of PiS, expressed both by the politicians belonging to this party, as well as the intellectuals and journalists supporting it, one can indicate three levels at which the right wing has an obvious problem with the vision of progress described here.

At the most theoretical level, directly referring to theological and metaphysical decisions, the vision of progress imposed by modernity cannot be combined with Christian faith in God as a subject acting in history. Unquestionably for the voters of this formation and many of its intellectual leaders, Catholicism still remains the essential reference, creating the metaphysical foundation of their vision of the world. This fact suffices to make it unacceptable for them to use the category of progress as a vision of human salvation in history because it is fundamentally anti-Christian.
Christians should instead return to the vision of the Logos, which was recalled by Benedict XVI in a famous speech at the University of Regensburg in 2006. His vision assumes that the world is an intellectually intelligible reality. However, to fully understand the rules governing it, one has to reject the concept of rationality, narrowed down by modernity and based only on the mathematical and natural science methodologies. The vision has been founded upon an unauthorised reduction of the world to the mathematical structure of matter, which, let us note, characterises the modern techno-science establishment described by Harari.

This is the key point in which Christians, questioning the modern vision of progress in the name of defending the theological view of the world, are also defenders of Kant’s ideal.

Such conclusions can be drawn from Zybertowicz’s book. In the age of ever more rapid technological development, the limitation of rationality only to an instrumental reason, which asks “how to achieve a specific goal?”, but is silent regarding the criteria of its choice, can be a devil’s trap for mankind. The salvation lies in expanding our concept of reason and its application. For this purpose, it is helpful to return to the distinction between ratio, pure reason, and intellectus, the wisdom that gives the opportunity to understand also those dimensions of our reality that are not knowable empirically. Only from this perspective will we be able to avoid the path of technological development leading our culture to the suicide of the Enlightenment.

Anthropology: dignity instead of algorithms

The second level concerns anthropology. As Zybertowicz and Harari claim, modern techno-science leads to rejection of the understanding of a human being as a subject and questioning his or her freedom and cognitive abilities. The anthropology understood in this way has not only nothing to do with Christianity, but also undermines the foundations of both liberalism and modern humanism. Thus, there is a severe threat that further development of techno-science towards the break-up of the subject will ultimately lead to new forms of economic exploitation, rejection of democratic principles, and finally new forms of subjugation unknown even in totalitarian systems.

Controlling technology will be able to follow our every move and to influence our actions without the participation of our consciousness. Gone will be the world of innate human rights and guarantees of our individual freedom. In front of our eyes, an entirely new civilizational and political division is taking shape.

One of the axes of the division in ideological disputes over the last two hundred years was the conflict between the individual (individualism) and the community (collectivism). The liberals were in favour of the former, while socialists, republicans or conservatives adopting a more communal concept of human nature supported the latter. It was along this line that, the division between the ‘liberal Poland’ and ‘solidary Poland’ took place during the 2005 Polish parliamentary campaign. However, if we as citizens and as voters realise to what extent modern technologies lead to the deprivation of our libertarian political rights, it may result in the formation of a completely new political division. On the one hand, there will be a coalition in defence of the rights of the individual who will unite liberals and all sorts of collectivists. They will demand the active role of the state as a regulator and defender of the individual against the actions of increasingly aggressive global technology concerns. On the other hand, there will be followers of the idea of ​​progress advocating the unrestricted and free development of techno-science. The formation of such a division is not a simple matter. It requires the rethinking of the situation and revision of existing strategies by both liberals and conservatives.

Liberals who genuinely strive for individual freedom must understand that a culture based on a strong concept of the subject is necessary to maintain democracy. However, liberal-leftist thinking in the last fifty years instead leads to the disintegration of the subject, which is noticed even by the left-wing intellectuals. Paradoxically, it may turn out that the only hope for the preservation of liberal political rights is the return to Christian metaphysics and the concept of inalienable human dignity as the foundation of Western civilisation. Zybertowicz proposes such a direction at the end of his book, adding that the defence of such a view of a human being is not possible from a narrowed concept of rationality. Rather, it is rooted in social non-cognitive practices, which are carried by tradition and culture. To return to the understanding of the individual as the guarantor of political order, we would have to de-sacralise the scientific knowledge, that is, to reject the vision of science as the religion of the educated. Science should become only one of the ways of exploring the world, and its discoveries should be verified by reason rooted in ethical and metaphysical order.

Liberal-left intellectuals must, therefore, decide whether prejudices against Christianity are more important to them than genuine concern for individual freedom.

Conservatives must carry out a similar review. In the near future, it may turn out that the current dispute within liberal democracy will take on an entirely new meaning. Today, there is a lot of tension between liberals, who claim precedence of the individual rights over the community rights, and various forms of collectivists, who want to subject individual rights to the interests of the community. Victor Orban formulated such postulates in his famous speech on illiberal democracy. In his opinion, individual rights should not be a brake on solutions aimed at increasing the economic competitiveness of Hungarians, because in the era of global capitalism it is not individuals that compete, but nations.

Similarly, in Poland, the dispute over the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court is, in essence, a dispute over the extent to which political will expressed in general elections can be limited by judicial decisions defending individual rights. The Supreme Court referred to these decisions in famous rulings aiming at “diluting” the lustration law or restricting the rules of police provocation as a tool for fighting corruption. These two decisions show that the rights of the individual were put clearly above the public interest. Looking from this perspective, the limitation of the role of the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court may seem justified as a strengthening of the executive branch, since this power has an electoral mandate to make profound changes in the state. The problem is, however, that in the long run, it may mean the destruction of the authority of vital public institutions that could protect individual rights against the actions of global techno-concerns.

Thus, the right-wing government in Poland, while being more empowered in current political disputes, deprives us of a crucial ally in the key disputes of the future.

Conservatives who support a confrontational course against the principles of liberal democracy should, therefore, ask themselves whether an illiberal democracy really gives hope for an adequate defence of individual freedom in the face of technological progress.

Economy: development instead of progress

Finally, the third level is related to economic development. Kaczyński’s words can be perceived merely as an expression of the modernising creed of the current government. It consists of a transition from a labour-based economy to a capital-based economy, with a final aim of achieving a knowledge-based economy. The notorious fourth industrial revolution would entail the search for those branches of the economy, where the global “cake” has not yet been divided, and where the balance of power between key players is still being formed. The Morawiecki’s Plan would thus be an attempt by the state to support those Polish enterprises which have the chance to play the role of global champions in this race. By reasoning in this way, one does not have to accept any modern vision of progress, but only bear in mind the economic interest of Poland, because in global capitalism the wealth of the Polish nation is dependent on the quantity and strength of global Polish companies.

It is far from being a simple matter. It is impossible to drive the development of technology companies through substantial public subsidies, not recognising the social risk associated with the dissemination of their subsequent products. It is also wrong to finance research on the human brain by looking only at the potential economic profit, without considering the social effects of the dissemination of such a solution.

Conservatives prefer to talk about ‘development’ instead of ‘progress’. While progress is based on unwavering faith in the unhampered expansion of techno-science, development implies the necessity of moderating this expansion by the forces capable of protecting the common good and the interests of the weakest.

Development means thinking in holistic terms as well as strengthening social bonds and trust. It is an attempt to direct technological progress in such a way so that it will serve everyone in the future. At the Jagiellonian Club Analysis Center, we set up a team that aims at developing a methodology for defining and then evaluating development characterised by social solidarity and sustainability which could constitute a new modernisation paradigm of Poland.

Innovative conservatism

A conservative believing in progress sounds like an oxymoron. At the same time, the Polish conservatism has always been extremely innovative. In the face of subsequent national tragedies, it was characterised by a constructivist approach to tradition, in a way “inventing” it from scratch or “adapting” to changing conditions. The technological revolution requires precisely such an approach. While maintaining loyalty to specific ideas from the past, we must be incredibly innovative in looking for their contemporary implementations to cope with its subsequent phases.

We must avoid two extremes along this path. On the one hand, we cannot lock ourselves in an open-air museum, rejecting in advance all the changes that the future will bring. Such an attitude means voluntary exclusion from the mainstream of events and thus condemning ourselves to marginalisation. On the other hand, we cannot let ourselves be unreflectively carried away by the naive rhetoric of progress, because the free development of techno-science can mean a world that contradicts all the values in which we believe.

The only route is maturity based on understanding contemporary trends, skilfully implementing their positive sides while fighting against their harmful effects. In this spirit, Jakub Lipiński formulated on our pages the proposal of use of blockchain technology – which is often thought as anti-state and anarchist – in the Polish administration.

Today, we need a lot more of this type of solutions to adapt the next achievements of techno-science to the service of man. If we are not creative and effective in this process, then not only suicide of the Enlightenment awaits us, but an Orwellian police state unknown in the history.


Translation from Polish: Magdalena Stawicka



This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.