Incremental Improvements

On this cozy planet, at some point long, long time ago, a wheel was discovered:

It was part of, or, as some may say, it gave birth to an ever accelerating technological progress, which, in mechanical engineering, has arrived to the bearing …

.. and then, relatively quickly, upgraded the steam engine to a full-blown internal combustion engine, which we still use plenty:

In today’s world, circumstances must be rather strange for it to make sense to utilize the roue primitive again.

At the same time, we can’t argue that if a well-educated modern engineer finds themselves a few thousand years back in time, the very best they could give the ancient us would be just that: the wheel.

The idea of substituting sliding friction by rolling resistance, to be more precise. But it won’t change much in their primitive minds.

Improving the efficiency at which goods can be transported from point A to point B is something that can be shown by example, internalized in our antecedents’ reptile brains, and tremendously improve the pace at which technological progress happens.

Humans of that epoch lacked the knowledge of mathematics and physics necessary to adopt something even a tiny bit more sophisticated.

Hence, if, for a thought experiment, we assume a wheel has been introduced to our species by some superintelligent being, we may as well assume this being possessed the knowledge of not only the wheel, but also the bearing, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the transistor, the CPU, space travel, and many more concepts we are soon to be aware of, or, maybe, are destined to never witness.

If, in this hypothetical thought experiment, there was no means for the human race to arrive to the idea of the wheel by ourselves, I, for one, would be thankful to the imaginary superintelligent being for gifting it to us.

… I see human history as a long period of complete failure. Failure that is to make any progress. Our species has existed, depending on where you count it from, maybe 50 thousand years, maybe 100, 200 thousand years, but anyway, the vast majority of that time people we alive, they were thinking, they were suffering, they wanted things, nothing ever improved. Or… the slow improvements that did happen, happened so that geologists can’t distinguish the difference between the artifacts of one era to another with a resolution of, like ten thousand years. So from the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever improved. And generation upon generation upon generation of suffering and stasis. Then there was a slow improvement, and then a more rapid improvement, and there were several attempts to institutionalize a tradition of criticism, which I think is the key to rapid progress in the sense that we think of it. Progress discernible on the timescale of a human lifetime. And also error correction, so that regression is less likely. Ah, that happened several time and failed every time except once: in the European Enlightenment of the 17th-18th centuries …

— David Deutsch, on a podcast with Sam Harris.

Similarly, a well-educated modern philosopher would not be able to teach ancient humans much. And we won’t blame neither this philosopher nor those ancient us. The development of our species as a civilization, with respect to speech, script, logic, or moral judgement to name a few, was still a few millennia behind.

What a modern philosopher could do is introduce something that can be shown by example, internalized by our antecedents’ reptile brains, and tremendously improve the pace at which moral progress happens.

One such idea, or, perhaps, the best of such ideas, could be the concept of treating each other as Human Beings. In modern mathematical terms, this would be the idea of treating our civilization as a positive-sum game, not as a zero- or negative-sum one.

But from the standpoint of the ancient humanity it doesn’t really matter which words of which language do you use to describe the idea. What matters is that it got widely adopted, and then internalized through generations.

Now replace the wheel by Christianity, and you’ll get a point of view which, if you ask me, is pretty damn healthy.



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