Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Is progress inevitable? And will the future laugh at us?

The other day – ploughing up and down a swimming pool and therefore badly in need of delight – or even merely solace – I discovered the pleasure of listening to BBC Radio 4’s programme The Philosopher’s Arms. The premise is that it takes place in licensed premises, a pub, where professional philosophers (or near-philosophers: we’ve had an anthropologist and a psychologist already) mix with amateurs in the audience, to debate a notable philosophical issue.

One of the podcasts concerned the issue of judging the assumptions and beliefs of another culture or, indeed, of the same culture in another age. You know – “how hilarious that they thought that, before society progressed to the level of enlightenment we enjoy today.”

The Philosopher's Arms being recorded.
In an actual pub
The presenter, Matthew Sweet, had enough self-awareness at least to ask at the end what our successors might find to laugh at us over, in our views and attitudes.

I’d have two possible answers to that question. Two because I think standing still won’t happen, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that there’s anything inevitable about progress. Regression is at least as possible

Here then are two possible conversations between a father and his teenage son sometime in the twenty-second century.

“Dad, is it true that back in granddad’s time, men could wander around the streets holding hands and – well – kissing?”

“More like his granddad’s time, but yes, they did. Men with men. Women with women. Those were degenerate days. It took a long time, and a lot of purification, to put all that behind us.”

“Didn’t the godly deal with such evil?”

“Well, of course. But it took hard work. People in those days weren’t all of the true faith. You wouldn’t believe it – you could have looked down this street and seen all sorts of temples and churches for every blasphemy imaginable. And some of them, and not the smallest, even allowed sexual deviants in. They called them ‘gay’, as though there was something joyful about denying your God.”

“Wow. At least we’ve got rid of that kind of vice.”

“Not entirely. Why do you think you see the hangings at the South Gate? We’re never free sin, you know. It’s a test God sends us. To see how we deal with it.”

“That’s why we deal with it so firmly.”

“Yes. And even that’s something new. I mean, some countries were still pretty good at eradicating evil back then, but some actually did away with the death penalty. They thought it was backward. That just because the Lord tells us not to kill, we shouldn’t execute.”

“But… that’s nonsense. How can you truly value life if you don’t hang people?”

Now things might not go that way. Here’s an alternative version of the conversation.

“Dad, what’s this? People in granddad’s time used to die of cancer?”

“Well, his granddad’s really. But you know, medicine was pretty much in its infancy then. If someone got cancer, they’d often treat them with chemotherapy, which basically meant injecting huge quantities of highly poisonous stuff into them, in the hope that it would kill the cancer.”

“But didn’t it sometimes kill them?”

“I suppose at least the cancer would be gone.”

“Killing people was pretty much the answer to a lot of problems, wasn’t it?”

“Yep. If you wanted something, you went and took it, and if the people it belonged to objected, you used guns to persuade them they’d got their sense of values wrong. And the nice thing about a gun is that if you use it effectively, the mistake goes away with the person who espoused it.”

“Just like the cancer. But why didn’t the victims use their own guns?”

“Some people had a lot more guns than others.”


“They had pink skins. Which they called white. That made them top dogs. And anyone darker had to do what they were told.”

“They thought that skin colour mattered?”

“They did. And anyway they had more money.”

“Ah, yes. Is it true that it all it took to come out on top and succeed in any field, and get your hands on power too, was to have a lot of money? And it didn’t matter how you made it?”

“That was the way society was organised in those days.”

“But isn’t it exactly the same now?”

“Yes. You don’t think progress changes things as fundamental as money, do you?”

Ah, well. At least I won’t be around to find out which scenario is realised. Though I hope I can do a little to make sure it isn’t the first.

The one sure thing: in either case, they’ll be looking back at us. And laughing.


Anonymous said...

Was the first scenario based on a hypothetical Islamic Caliphate?

David Beeson said...

Oh, nothing specifically Islamic. I was thinking at least as much of the "Christian" regime in Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' as the un-Islamic Caliphate of ISIS