Something that has been going through my head recently is the concept of "progress". I especially hear it in the context of politics. Some people believe that if a society allows a certain behavior then "progress" has been made. Or if another behavior is allowed then we have "regressed". We talk about progress all the time regarding projects at work, home, or church. But we also talk about progress in sociological contexts- most commonly with social government, same-sex marriage, and abortion (at least that I have seen). I'm not going to debate the merits of any of these three today; rather, I'd like to challenge the idea that these represent progress.
Many of the people who promote these views tend to be atheistic. They do not believe that a God exists. Consequently they also do not believe that life has any ultimate purpose. Natural processes are responsible for getting the universe from the initial Big Bang to where we are today- humans living together in highly organized societies. Evolution is a continual process. Species emerge, mutate, and eventually become extinct. The process continues in a cycle of emergence and mutation as long as reproduction is possible. A species becomes extinct when it mutates too much to be the original or simply dies off. Either way, all species will become extinct.
Initially, this doesn't seem like much of a problem- the process of evolution appears to not really have much to do with progress. I mean people
assume that humans have value and the comfort of humans is also
valuable. The ultimate purpose of those three ideas above is the comfort
of humans (whether that is valid or not, again, I'm not arguing that today). So where is the issue? I'd like to look at three issues with the concept of "progress" in all worldviews founded in naturalism.
Does Humanity Have Value?
Since the emergence and extinction continues, the survival of any specific species is not guaranteed. In fact, the extinction of all species is what is guaranteed. Nature does not play favorites; it does not have a species that it considers to be of any more value than another. The human species is no more valuable than any insect species, for instance. An individual human is no more valuable than the house fly I just swatted.
If humanity has no more value than a house fly, and we don't give even half of a second's thought to killing flies, why should we give a care about the life (much less the comfort) of humans? The fact that humanity doesn't really have any objective value means that there is no real reason to "progress" towards their comfort. In naturalistic worldviews values are subjective. All one needs to do is mentally ascribe value to humans and act accordingly. But that could as easily be done with house flies- fly-swatters could actually be weapons of hate.
Now, this does not really question the concept of "progress" on a naturalistic worldview. It more questions the reasons for progress. So, let's look at the concept of progress itself.
Can Progress Really Exist?
Progress is a concept that requires a minimum of three states of affairs: the first two must be in reality and the third must be a goal. The first state is how things were. The second state is how things are. If the second state is closer to the goal (third state) than the first state, then we can say that progress has taken place. On the other hand, if the second state is further from the goal than the first state, then we can say that regress has taken place.
The challenge that I raise is that the third state of affairs does not objectively exist in a naturalistic worldview. There is no agent in existence outside the universe to establish the goal. Because of this, all goals exist subjectively in the minds of individuals. One individual's goal may be completely different from another individual's. Because of that, the first individual will consider a change in state of affairs to be progress, while the second will consider the same change to be regress.
If someone claims that "progress" has taken place, the claim is dependent upon the goal that they have in mind. There is no solid foundation to demonstrate to someone else, who sees a regress, that they are, in fact, wrong. The wrongness can be demonstrated relative to the "progressive's" ideas, but that hardly makes a difference to the opposition, because they don't share the same goal. The "progressive" must establish that their goal is objective, which is not possible considering the fact that humanity has no objective value.
Comfort Is Actually Regression
Now, in the first part I mentioned that evolution will always ultimately result in the extinction of a species, not its survival. Just above, I stated that an objective goal does not exist in naturalistic worldviews because of the absence of an agent outside the universe. However, that is not the only source for an objective goal, thus progress and regress can still objectively exist. Nature has set the goal, the objective goal: extinction. If there is nothing outside of this universe to ascribe value to a particular feature of nature over the rest, then nature is the only source for an objective goal. Any second state of affairs that results in greater survival or greater comfort for any particular feature of the universe (humans included) is actually going against progress; it is a regression from the objective goal set by nature, itself.
The more that we, as merely a feature of the universe (and barely even a footnote in the book of the history of the universe, at that), resist our own extinction, the more we regress, the more we work against the objective goal. The further from progress we move. The fact is that progress, on atheism, is more accurately represented by any action or policy that brings humanity closer to extinction.
Denial and Delusions
The idea that we can survive is against nature, itself. If naturalism is true, then evolution has selected brains to survive that believe what is patently false. The idea that humanity can survive is a result of psychological denial. The idea that humanity's comfort is progress is one of atheism's great delusions. If atheism is true, we must deny its truth to see "progress" taking place. If we must deny a feature of reality that reality has caused us to believe, why should we believe that that feature of "reality" actually IS a feature of reality?
If atheism is true, then we have a very powerful reason to believe that it is not true, or risk undermining all our claims of "progress". If we wish to affirm that an action or law or anything that supports humanity's survival or comfort is "progress", we must affirm that some Agent outside of the universe has established that humanity has an objective value and that the objective goal of humanity established by this same Agent is closer to being achieved. Logically, if progress is claimed by such, atheism must be denied by necessity. However, atheism may be affirmed if we are willing to accept that we have actually regressed against the objective goal of nature and the universe.