Category Archives: Philosophy of Science

The Promise of Progress


What’s so special about science?

This was the topic of our first (super interesting) ‘Science and its Social Contexts’ session. As it turns out, science is often set apart from other domains of human culture by its seemingly progressive nature. Science, unlike the humanities, is cumulative and makes improvements which can be measured by certain criteria; in short, science advances society.

Or so they say…

This progressive, cumulative view of science is rooted in the underpinnings of the 18th century Enlightenment. The notion was later incorporated in the early 19th century program of positivism, a theory which states that only that which is observable or measurable can be regarded as truth. As a result, the dominant view is that science accumulates empirically certified truths in a linear fashion, and consequently promotes progress in society. This has essentially informed the view today which regards increases in human knowledge as equivalent to human progress.


Parody of the March of Progress. The original canonical image has been the subject much of controversy, said to suggest a linear, sequential progression in evolution. According to Stephen J Gould, ‘evolution’ has now become synonym for ‘progress’.

However, thinking critically here, to what extent is science really progressive? And what is actually meant by progress in science?

To investigate these questions, an important first step is to disentangle what is meant by this enigmatic concept of human progress. Progress is a complex term used to refer to many aspects of improvement. As such, a step from A to B can be seen as progress if B is better than A (…so that seems less complex as I made out to be)

However,  when thinking about the progressiveness of science in particular, I find it useful to consider three main strands: cognitive progress (increase or advancement of knowledge); technological progress (increased effectiveness of tools and techniques) and social progress (economic prosperity, quality of life and justice in society) 1 .

I’m going to steer clear of cognitive progress for simplicity’s sake, and to resist opening up another can of worms (i.e., entering into the issue of how successful science is in knowledge-seeking or truth-seeking…Uh-oh).

I do, however, wish to focus on the potential disharmony between technological progress and social progress

Now it is almost undeniable that science has increased the effectiveness of technology, as evidenced by the present-day scientific revolution that we see all around us. Today, the range of scientific disciplines aimed at solving engineering problems is expanding, with even the social sciences in some way contributing to technological development and accelerating innovation.

Now according to positivism, technological progress is the foundation for social progress. This makes perfect sense in some ways. New technologies have benefited many aspects of vital activity in society, including agriculture, transportation, communications, medicine and education 2 .

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08: A 3D printed prosthetic arm is displayed in the exhibition '3D: printing the future' in the Science Museum on October 8, 2013 in London, England. The exhibition, which opens to the public tomorrow, features over 600 3D printed objects ranging from: replacement organs, artworks, aircraft parts and a handgun. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 08: A 3D printed prosthetic arm is displayed in the exhibition ‘3D: printing the future’ in the Science Museum on October 8, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

However, it is important to bear in mind that technological progress achieved through large corporations and elite industries can sometimes also mean the militaristic and misanthropic use of technology.

Take Stark Industries and its CEO and ingenious engineer Tony Stark (aka. Iron Man). Yes, admittedly, whilst this is an entirely fictional example fished out of the minds of Marvel (specifically Stan Lee), the Iron Man stories make plainly clear the double-edged sword of technological progress – get ready for some SPOILERS…

So the Iron Man movies suggest that science does, and will continue to, fulfil its promise of progress. Technologies shown in the movies include Digital Life Assistants based on Artificially Intelligent software (Jarvis!); 3D holograms and, of course, the Arc Reactor. Given the speed of technological innovation today, some of these are not unimaginable technologies of the future.

Now, despite heading-up a multi-million dollar weapons company, Stark uses Arc Reactor technology to build a powered suit of armour to defend society. While this is perhaps an example of where technological progress can bring about positive social action (albeit in a Superhero-land), the Iron Man films demonstrate that we must be wary: ‘baddies’ such as the Iron Monger and Whiplash exemplify that technological progress can equally be used to fuel social menace.

iron-man-2-whiplash (1)

‘Whiplash’ constructed electrified whips powered by miniature Arc Reactor

These consequences do not fall squarely on the shoulders of fictional private sector industries, however. Science commissioned for the ‘greater good’ in warfare is all too often utilised to the effect of unimaginable destruction.


Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) both 1945

Having recently marked its 70th anniversary, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a fitting example. The atomic bombs, dropped on the two Japanese cities by the US during the final stages of World War II, killed around 130,000 citizens, and remains to this day the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare. While evidently a tremendous feat of science, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the deployment of technological engineering here produced anything other than physical, psychological and social destruction.


The U.S. developed two types of atomic bombs during World War II. The first, Little Boy had a uranium core and was dropped on Hiroshima. The second weapon, dropped on Nagasaki, was called Fat Man and had a plutonium core

Technological progress can also be accompanied by regression of spiritual values and destruction of human individuality. Although now seemingly well-integrated in society, with compliance stretching across the globe, people remain wary of the impact of social media technologies (Facebook, Twitter etc.)  on the well-being of the individual and society at large. Indeed a large body of research exists on the repercussions of such social technologies on the human psyche and the pressures of societal conformity.

One notable community to mention, when considering technology’s potential to undermine pivotal values and traditions, is the Amish. Contrary to common belief, the Amish community do not reject technology and technological progress altogether; instead, technologies are adopted selectively and evaluated on the basis of whether it is a good fit for the lives they want to lead 3 4 . If one is to consider the Amish as a healthy and content community, it might be uninformed to assert (as is common from a Western vantage point) that the Amish are ‘backward-facing’ and not progressive. The Amish community’s selectivity regarding technology makes it clear that technological progress is not necessarily tantamount to social progress; it demonstrates, at the very least, that progress is not one but many separable entities.


Most Amish groups forbid using electricity, although electricity from batteries can be permitted. In some Amish settlements, Amish use batteries to power lights on buggies

So what can be concluded from this small handful of examples? To what extent does science fulfil its promise of progress, and what is progress?

Well it seems clear that progress is a huge, multifaceted concept, and when evaluating the extent to which science is progressive it is important to bear in mind these multiple strands of progress.

While it is generally accepted that science produces technological progress, I would personally be reluctant to say that science is generally progressive. Technological progress can bring with it undesirable repercussions and, as such, cannot be considered synonymous to other areas of human progression, most notably social progress.

Coming full circle, then, if science doesn’t quite fulfil its promise of progress, what’s so special about science? For the moment, at least, I don’t know the answer to that question…and that’s exciting!

For the next few weeks we’ll be thinking critically about what makes science ‘science’, and I’m positive that class discussion will be enlightening. So watch this space!

Read more here
Karl Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959)
Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Sir Howard Newby, “The dream of reason brings forth monsters – science and social progress in an era of risk” Presidential Address September 9, 2002