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On Cycles, Peace and Progress

The myth of scientific omnipotence has engendered a second, even more potent myth that of progress.

To our pre-scientific ancestors, time, at least as it manifested itself in nature and in their material lives, was circular. There was the cycle of seasons, and thus the cycle of sowing and harvesting, repeated each year; and there was the cycle, shared by all living creatures, of birth and death. Over and above that there was a political cycle, of rulers coming and going.

Our ancestors were profoundly aware of variations in the cycles; some years brought abundant harvests, others brought famine; and some rulers brought peace and justice while others brought conflict and terror.

But these variations were themselves part of a divine, moral cycle, of good and evil, with no one imagining that one would permanently vanquish the other until the final day of judgement.

Science and technology have pulled this circle out into a straight line. Bacons image of science as an empire, extending its dominion over the universe, promised that each generation would enjoy greater control over the natural order than the last. And this in turn held out the prospect of ever-increasing comfort and prosperity for the human race, as it turns the laws of Nature to its own advantage.
Today we take Bacons promise for granted. We expect to enjoy a higher standard of living than that of our parents. We assume that each new product from our factories is an advance on its predecessor. Most important of all, our culture teaches us that change should always be for the better, never for the worse..
Bacon himself foresaw that progress would accelerate. Not only would one scientific discovery lead to another, but each door that opened into the mysterious citadel of nature would reveal many more doors through which to walk. And this too has become accepted as both inevitable and desirable.

We enjoy looking back and enumerating the vast changes that have occurred between our grandparents, our even our parents time and our own. And we are delighted at the speed at which fashions change and products become obsolete. Our nagging dissatisfactions with our lot are assuaged by the prospect of improvement.

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