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  • Sean O'Leary

The Future of Human Progress

On a global scale, progress occurs gradually. Yet, the problems of human nature stay with us.


Media headlines do not often report on real and sustained human progress, but they do capture the everyday problems of human nature. Scandals, political intrigues, killings, theft, abuse, wars and unethical actions fill the pages of newspapers and digital media. This tells us something about our nature.


Horrific headlines capture our attention in a way that good news stories do not. It seems that we are more often motivated and engaged by fear than by positive emotions like gratitude or thanksgiving. This should remind us that human problems never really disappear. It should also tell us that media headlines offer an extremely narrow window onto reality.


Progress is always possible but each new development comes with its own mix of hope and doubt. The actualisation of ideals and ideas across society can become bogged down and even tarnished by real world problems. Rarely does progress offer us a free pass without some cost to society, to groups and individuals or to the living systems of the planet.


The problem is that we can’t see all ends despite what we like to tell ourselves. Yet, there is something providential about the human story that we cannot fully comprehend.


Humans have made remarkable progress since the dawn of civilisation. In recent decades, education, healthcare, science and technology have flourished. We now live in a knowledge age based largely on information and computerisation.


The groundwork for these developments was laid long ago. But, what sort of soil for future progress are we now preparing in today’s world?


It is possible that we are creating enormous challenges that will test human ingenuity beyond its limits. Such challenges may yet prove to be detrimental for future generations. If one accepts the vicissitudes of the past as relatively unimportant, it is easy to claim that the grand sweep of human history has tended towards global progress. But, will this tendency towards progress always hold true?


There is a limit to how much information we can usefully gather. Information can paralyse us when we become too focused on gathering data instead of acting humanely as each challenge arises. In today’s world, our need for information can become an appealing and even justifiable excuse for inaction.


Another problem is that individuals become less able to act for the common good because we individually lack the expertise and processing power to analyse the large amount of relevant information available. In Dublin, individuals who provided help to homeless people were criticised by a city council representative for negatively influencing state-approved policies for tackling the challenge of homelessness.


At a time when individuals are seeking greater freedoms, it seems that our over reliance on information and data is making us less free as individuals in ways that really matter. We have a serious problem when simple acts of neighbourly concern and personal effectiveness become lost in a policy-driven world obsessed by big data, efficiency and productivity.


When the well-intentioned judgements and actions of individuals are deemed to be meaningless or even detrimental, we have destroyed our own souls. A solution to this quagmire is to move beyond the age of knowledge and work towards establishing the age of wisdom.


Intellectually and spiritually, wisdom has often been associated with older people. But, there is increasing evidence that younger people can grow significantly in wisdom in their late teens and early twenties given the right contexts.


Information alone cannot solve the world’s challenges nor the problems of human nature. The challenges brought about by individualism, selfishness and greed are not diminished by data nor by technical solutions. Individual knowledge is of very little use without insight and enlightenment.


We can each aspire to wisdom no matter how many years we have lived. This is a starting point that does not require any new information or technology.


Wisdom is highly regarded in Christian tradition and church communities are extremely well-placed to foster wisdom. The biblical Wisdom books help us to think about how to live a good life. This is about the knowledge needed to deal with the practicalities of everyday life.


For Christians, the compelling narratives of the life of Jesus present a critical wisdom that requires us to develop a deeper discernment. Such revelatory insights help us to deal with the thorny complexities of our lives.


Jesus came into the world to fully adopt our challenging and complex lives so that he could show us the heart of God. The eternal Word became human so that we could follow the ways of wisdom throughout our journey of faith.


There is something innately human about learning to respond to the uncertainties of life.


No amount of information, data or technology can alleviate this part of our lived experience. Despite human progress, we will always live with some uncertainty. For the deeper challenges we face, the only answer is wisdom. When we look to the source of all wisdom, we learn how to live an effective life.