“Progress” is a tricky word that can defy definition. Economists will give one meaning. Communists another. Each religion has its own idea as to what constitutes “progress.” Christianity has too many sects to summarize one definition of progress, but generally means more people behaving as good Christians and working to create God’s Kingdom here on Earth. To Muslims, progress is whatever increases the size of the Dar al Islam, shrinks the size of the Dar al Harb, and gets more infidels to say the Shahada. Communists define progress as whatever advances Communism, whether it is overturning all forms of tradition, banning religions, jailing whole nations (e.g. Stalin), or simply taxing the wealth of the more capable in society.
I admit, I used to have a simplistic understanding of the word, and for most of my life associated “progress” with technological advancement. However, it is difficult to argue that technological advancement is the sole component of progress, as many technological advances have clearly been a step backward for human progress, such as costly military armaments, and the massive, high-tech, expensive, electronic police state. The advances in medicine made since the discovery of anesthesia I once considered incontrovertible evidence of human progress – but good does it do to apply the spectacular boons of scientific medicine to helping the progress-averse Third World?
Jacques Ellul has written at length on the subject of technological advancement on human freedom. While it is difficult to summarize such a voluminous ouerve, Ellul’s prognosis for continued human freedom is generally poor. The modern technostate requires enormous levels of obedience from its captive populations, in order to supply the State with the scientific means for cementing itself into power. Any deviation (outside of special persons who are above the law, e.g. the Clintons and Bushes) from the law leads to severe punishment and permanent career damage.
I cannot even attempt a definition that would withstand the slightest scrutiny. The best proxy might be the United Nations “Human Development Index”, which is a numerical measure of quality-of-life in a country. High education levels, high GNP, and long, healthy life expectancy are components of the calculation. While an increase in HDI is a good start at measuring a country’s progress, it does not capture the whole picture. Cultural, artistic, and literary achievements are also indicators of progress, but are presently difficult to quantify. What if one country has a slightly lower HDI than another, but is producing great novels, fantastic paintings, and musical compositions?
A difficult-to-obtain-but-would-be-nice definition would likely be a function of the IQ distribution, coupled with a quantitative definition of human freedom. An increase of high IQ people into leadership positions (not just government), with wide freedom to pursue their interests and goals, is a clear improvement in human progress. The upper-tenth are needed to guide the middle, and to block the depredations of the bottom third.