1. Forward or onward movement towards a destination
— or —
2. Development towards an improved or more advanced condition
Progress appears to be related to a specific type of movement: forward, but this still doesn’t seem to capture the essence of what we mean by the word progress. This is captured by the second definition by the inclusion of improved or advanced, but on what dimension are we assessing this improvement? Except in the minds of the adherents, this appears coincidentally to be arbitrary; anything in line with their wishes appears to be an advancement.
Unfortunately, progress is more than this still. Take the expanding universe model as an analogy—let’s not even discuss how a multiverse would further exacerbate things. Imagine that I can travel from Earth to Mars, and if I define Mars as the destination, then I have satisfied definition Nº 1, as I have made progress towards Mars (my stated destination), but I haven’t actually made any improvement. All I’ve done is changed position. I’ve gone from here to there, but now there is here, and here is there. If I retrace my route from Mars to Earth, again I’ve made progress under the first definition, but, in fact, I’ve just completed a circuit. Sure, I can argue that I may have done something on Mars that I can label progress: perhaps I’ve planted a flag or started a colony, but how is this progress? Following the same logic, is a cancer in your pancreas colonising your, well, colon progress? A disinterested observer taking the perspective of the cancer might say that the cancer has progressed or spread, but the patient may disagree with the assessment of progress.
In the sense that history is (anecdotally) written by the victors, we may have the illusion of progress, but as notables from Rousseau to Thoreau have quipped, progress is no progress. Even so, this progress presumes a wholesale concept of worse and better, yet there is no objective measure. This can only be claimed within some context. So, if I accept, within in the human domain, that Capitalism is better than Feudalism, then I can claim to have progressed. If I build a house on a plot of land, I can claim progress. Of course, to the previously standing wood, this is no progress. To the creatures who had occupied the wood, again, no progress. So, is progress a zero-sum game that I can qualify as a positive sum game by narrowly defining the system boundaries? Probably so, but let’s leave that for another day.
“Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” ― Alfred A. Montapert
So what’s my point? My point is that there is only the illusion of progress, and that only in the realm of jingoistic specieism can we accept this illusion. In reality, there is no progress; there just is. We just are.