The Myth Of Unending Progress

The last 100 years have seen more technological, medical, and scientific advancements than probably all of the prior centuries of human civilization combined. In less than 150 years, we went from most people traveling on animals to being able to fly thousands of people across the oceans each day and even land people on the moon. We went from the invention of the telephone to everyone holding one in their pocket (which also happens to be an advanced computer, entertainment device, camera, book, and much else combined). We went from the first image taken from space, to having high quality images of galaxies millions of lightyears away from us. There’s a reason they call it the technological revolution – the last 100-150 years have indeed been nothing short of a revolution of scientific advancement.

For many of us who grew up in this age of rapidly advancing technology and science, there tends to be an assumption that it will always be this way. Apart from some cataclysmic event, exponential rates of scientific and technological advancement seem inevitable. Give us a thousand years, and the world of Star Trek doesn’t seem that far fetched.

I understand this assumption, as it is one I myself have held for a long time, mostly unconsciously. Only recently I’ve begun to wonder if it is not mistaken, perhaps severely so.

Where We’ve Been (And Where We’re Going)

I have no doubt that there are many things we will continue to discover – new medicines and medical treatments, advancements in AI and robotics, and all kinds of incredible engineering techniques. It seems likely we will put humans on another planet for the first time within the next 20 years. That will be a staggering accomplishment when it happens. But these are not the kinds of advancements that I am questioning. I am questioning the continued exponential level of advancement that we seem to take for granted. All the advancements I mentioned before – flight, space travel, computers and so on – represent massive and sudden leaps in technological progress and scientific understanding. On a civilizational level, these represent landscape-altering seismic shifts.

Continued advancement in these areas, impressive though it be, is altogether different. Even AI, though it may revolutionize society in certain ways (e.g. labor), is itself more of a slow and steady step forward. Think of it this way: the average person in 1900 could not fathom flying across the ocean, let alone landing something on the moon. Both had happened within 60 years. On the other hand, a world full of humanoid robots has been in modern man’s imagination for at least 70 years, and we are probably still decades from that reality if not more. So yes, advancement is bound to continue, but the progress in many fields will likely be much slower from here on out. More importantly, in some areas progress may never come at all.

A simple example is faster-than-light (FTL) travel. Most of our space movies are predicated on the possibility of FTL travel. Without it, a universe like Star Wars or Star Trek is impossible. In the Star Trek storyline, it is the discovery of FTL travel which took humanity from an uninteresting backwoods planet to a part of the galactic community. But is FTL travel really possible? Many physicists doubt it is even logically possible since it creates causality paradoxes. But even if it is logically possible, there are reasons to believe it is not practically possible, such as the amount of energy that would be required and other physical constraints.

If FTL travel is not possible, then while we may still be able to travel to other star systems, we won’t be going there quickly, and for that reason we will be severely limited in how many we can reach. We’ll be lucky if we can even reach 50% the speed of light, at which speed it would take over 8 years just to get the next closest star, and this of course doesn’t address the issues of acceleration and deceleration, interstellar debris, time dilation, gravity, food, water, and a host of other significant challenges. Most sci-fi movies make it look simple, but in reality, traveling among the stars is an extremely complex and dangerous task. Sending people to other star systems will prove one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Other galaxies are likely completely out of the question.1

My point is this: we can’t assume all the sci-fi imaginations we’ve had over the past 100 years are actually possible. We’ve become accustomed to seeing our imaginations come to life, and even accustomed to predictions that such-and-such is impossible being proven flat wrong, but that isn’t guaranteed to always be the case. This has been hitting home in recent years with the discovery that our universe is not teaming with other civilizations. We’ve discovered (as of this writing) nearly 6,000 exoplanets (planets in other star systems). This is itself an incredible accomplishment, yet none of these planets suggests anything like a civilization. In fact, despite sensational headlines to the contrary, none so far shows any real hope of being habitable.

So that’s just one imagination that is looking increasingly untenable with our advancing understanding of the universe. In my view, FTL travel is in the same boat. We’re only just beginning to learn things about the quantum world and while we will no doubt learn more, there are probably limits to what we will be able to understand. In many ways, our advances in science and technology, rather than showing how much control we have over the material world, have served to show us quite the opposite: we know very little about our universe and are at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding, let alone control.

That doesn’t mean we should quit trying, of course. I am strongly in favor of continued advancement of our knowledge and technology (with certain moral limits on the latter). In fact, I believe scripture shows us that God wants us to do that very thing. So my goal here is not to be pessimistic or antiestablishment or some such. I’m trying to get at something deeper.

Something Deeper

In his book Bulwarks of Unbelief, Joseph Minich, building on the work of Charles Taylor, argues that the shift towards unbelief/atheism over the past 150 years has in no small part been influenced by these radical shifts I talked about previously. Due to these rapid advances in scientific knowledge and technological prowess, “rather than seeming suffused with inner potencies of mind, all of reality at least feels reducible to predictable and (what is more) manipulable matter.”3 This, Minich says, along with the impact on labor, has led to a sense of divine absence that was never felt in the past. I think Minich makes a strong case for this in his book, but I also think it’s possible we’re seeing the beginnings of a sea change, in which people start to realize the universe may not be as predictable and manipulable as previously thought. This may well drive people back to God, or at least alter some of the plausibility structures we have grown accustomed to over the past century.

In his recent book The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, Justin Brierley proposes that, “Matthew Arnold’s long, withdrawing Sea of Faith is beginning to reach its farthest limit and … we may yet see the tide of faith come rushing back in again within our lifetime.”4 I’m not sure if the tide will come “rushing back in” exactly, even if my thesis above is correct. Minus some cataclysmic event, the “technoculture” (as Minich calls it) in which we live isn’t going to recede, and it is this technoculture which leads to us unwittingly practicing the absence of God in our daily lives rather than his presence. That’s not going to be easily overturned, no matter how humbled we are by forthcoming discoveries.

However, I do think Brierley is correct that the tide seems to be shifting. The notion of a purely materialistic world seems to be waning, and more people appear to be open to some kind of transcendence. Take panpsychism for example (the view that everything has consciousness at some level), which has been making a resurgence within the study of consciousness. I don’t think this would have been taken nearly as seriously even 30 years ago, but now it is getting airtime in academic journals and on popular science websites. It’s an attempt to make sense of the fact that consciousness continues to defy simplistic materialistic explanations. This is just one field, but there seems to be a greater openness to some kind of transcendence in the scientific community more broadly.

There is perhaps a kind of storm on the horizon (I prefer to call it a new dawn), in which the simultaneous realization of human ignorance, limitations of advancement, and the infeasibility of the secular narrative starts to drive people to look for more. We may find that the God we thought we killed has been resurrected (he’s good at that kind of thing). Of course, being open to transcendence and being open to the personal God of the Bible are two very different things. But given the modern cultural context, an opening for transcendence is an important initial step.

The Divine Path Forward

I imagine that many skeptics would decry this as a new appeal to the so-called God-of-the-gaps argument, in which people claim that God explains anything we don’t understand, but this is mistaken. Such a return to transcendence would be based not upon what we do not know, but precisely upon what we do know. The realization that human ingenuity has certain limits, and that all of our fevered imaginations are not guaranteed or even possible, should give us pause. As our increasing understanding of physical reality begins to point us beyond physical reality itself, we should be moved toward wonder and deep introspection.

The decision to ignore this – to say, “give us enough time and we’ll figure it all out” – is itself purely an act of faith, and we have good reason not to take that step. Indeed, such a step may hold us back from true flourishing and progress because it will twist our understanding of reality, forcing us into a materialistic box that does not accurately represent reality. If reality involves certain limitations, we need to accept that. If reality involves transcendence, we need to embrace that. How can you move forward if you are unable to admit where you really are at the present?

Our scientific advancement may itself be starting to apply its own brakes, as it reveals to us our limitations. Exponential progress is not guaranteed to continue forever. Some of the leaps we have hoped for may be forever beyond our reach. Does that mean we should we just give up and stop seeking to progress? Of course not. On the other hand, should we ignore the limitations we discover? That doesn’t seem helpful either. How do we balance the recognition of our limitations with the appropriate desire to learn and grow? How do we accept where we are, while also holding out hope for more? That is a difficult question. It will require wisdom, and quite possibly some divine guidance along the way. It may be those who open themselves to the divine are the ones uniquely equipped to help lead us forward.



  1. Even the nearest so-called dwarf galaxy which is practically a part of our own galaxy is 25,000 light years away, meaning it would take 50,000 years to get there at 50% the speed of light. Andromeda, on the other hand, is over 2.5 million light years away. Even going 100 times the speed of light, it would take us over 25,000 years to get there. The only way such travel would be possible is with some theoretical wormhole, but even if they exist (and we have no evidence they do at the moment), creating one is a different matter entirely, and traversing one safely would likely be impossible.
  2. Although we sometimes hear of potentially habitable planets, this is typically meant in the absolute loosest of terms. A planet like Mars or Venus would be considered potentially habitable if discovered as an exoplanet, but neither is anything close to habitable in reality, at least without some kind of terraforming – a process which might also be impossible.
  3. Joseph Minich, Bulwarks of Unbelief. (Lexham Academic, 2023). pp.5-6
  4. Justin Brierley, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers Are Considering Christianity Again. (Tyndale Elevate, 2023). p.4

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