Who’s On the Right Side of History?

The blind faith that science can deliver us from evil is not real science but scientism.

‘Car, Cliff and Sunset’ Shutterstock
‘Car, Cliff and Sunset’ Shutterstock (photo: Shutterstock)

It is odd that those who consider themselves “progressives” assign an inexorable inevitability to the course of the future. They scorn those who believe in God for their superstition but they appear to believe in a supreme unalterable will to history and especially to the almighty Future which is predestined to be superior to the present. This is why they can talk of people being on the “right side” and the “wrong side” of history. Those who believe in a bright future ushered in by advances in technology will prove to be on the right side of history; those who are skeptical of such a future are ipso facto on the wrong side of history.

To be fair, such progressives don’t believe that history has a personal will but merely that the cleverness of science will always make things better. The future is bright because science will solve all problems, ushering in a golden age free from poverty, slavery and religion. Such a naïve faith in science and its omnipotence appears to be stronger than ever in the wake of the blind faith placed in the “experts” during the recent pandemic. Refusing to conform to the judgments and dictates of the “experts” makes one a dangerous dissident and a threat to society. 

The problem with those who hold this progressive understanding of history is that they are ignorant of reality. They believe that people behave badly because they are not comfortable enough. When science is able to satisfy all their material needs, people will be happy. It is a view of reality rooted in a flawed understanding of humanity. People are not happy when they want more but when they want less. The key to happiness is in self-limitation or self-restraint, not in self-indulgence and self-gratification. Those who spend all their time seeking comfort make themselves miserable, as well as making others miserable through the consequences of their selfishness. The pursuit of comfort is the path of corruption, or what is rightly called decadence, in both individuals and in societies. It leads to the anarchy which betrays happiness and freedom with a Judas kiss.

The irony is that progressivism is based on a reductionist understanding of science. In the ancient sense, science is “knowledge” (scientia), which includes the knowledge of God (theology) and the love of wisdom (philosophy). Science, in the modern understanding of the word, was what the ancients called “natural philosophy.” It was the study of nature. The blind faith that this sort of science can deliver us from evil is not real science but scientism. It is a political ideology based upon the worship of technology, not the love of science per se. It is the enthronement of cleverness and the abandonment of wisdom.

A further irony is that many so-called conservatives are buying into the progressive presumption that things are progressing inexorably in one direction, which the progressives think is a liberated future and which conservatives think is a libertine hell. Such conservatives agree with the progressive perspective; they just don’t like it! They fall into despair in the presumption that the progressives are predestined to be on the winning side of history, even if they don’t accept that it’s the right side. They are like Denethor in The Lord of the Rings who spends so much time staring into the palantír stone that he believes the demonic propaganda that he sees in it, committing suicide on the assumption that evil is too powerful to resist and that its victory is inevitable. If, however, we look to the past as a guide to the future, it is evident that the progressive culture of death is not only deadly but suicidal. The progressive utopia is destined to implode in its own too-muchness. When this begins to happen, even erstwhile progressives will come to their senses, their eyes being opened to the reality of the lie they've believed. 

When the whole of society is heading towards the abyss, Chesterton quips, the wise are in the rear. When the abyss becomes visible, everyone will want to be in the rear! 

The consequences of scientism with respect to the real future, as opposed to the imagined future of the progressives, can be perceived by the employment of a technological metaphor. Human society can be likened to an automobile. It keeps moving forward safely and in the right direction with the coordinated use of the accelerator, the steering wheel and the brakes. The accelerator is technological progress, the steering wheel is wisdom, and the brakes are tradition. When all work together, we move forward with safety and in the direction in which we need to go. The problem with scientism is that it has its foot down on the accelerator, refuses to use the brakes and has thrown away the steering wheel.  

It doesn’t take a genius to work out where such an ideology will lead. We either have to abandon this way of driving or expect one hell of a crash. And we can be sure that those who drive in this way will not be judged as being on the right side of history.

This essay first appeared in the Imaginative Conservative and is published with permission.

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COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’