Jeremy Côté

The Constellation of Progress

Progress should be more than just increasing material standard of living

What does progress mean to you?

In November 2023, I met with my cohort for The Roots of Progress Fellowship in sunny San Francisco to tackle this question. We filled a wall with sticky notes of ideas, examples, and concepts. Certain categories of progress showed up: material, cultural, scientific, and health. We debated and discussed all morning, but ultimately we didn’t come up with a definition of progress that we all agreed on. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s even possible. Instead, we created a constellation of concepts.

That’s useful, but it also means we each carry a subset of this constellation in our heads. When we talk about progress, we’re drawing from this fragment, which can lead to misunderstandings. For example, if one person sees progress as safeguarding the environment and another sees progress as needing to develop and build out infrastructure as quickly as possible to support more people, there may be tension between them.

In my experience in science, one of the most difficult parts of talking with other scientists is establishing a common language. While it’s true that a researcher in a field closely related to mine will likely have overlapping language, that’s not a given (and we will still need plenty of discussion to clear out subtleties).

In a similar way, if we want to make the argument that progress as we envision it is something worth having, it’s worth being clear about what we mean. Otherwise, we will be speaking a foreign language to many people.

I began this essay with the intention of exploring scopes of progress, discussing how they were too limiting, and proposing my own. I left thinking that while I still like my scope (it’s mine, so that’s not surprising!), there’s a lot more nuance to progress that resists tidy scopes, and that’s not necessarily bad.

Scope 1: Progress as raising the material standard of living

I’m super sympathetic to this view of progress. My experience in mathematics and physics makes me appreciate crisp definitions that we can use to craft experiments and measures. If we restrict the scope of progress to raising the material standard of living (as Michael Magoon suggests), then it’s straightforward to derive a bunch of metrics that enable us to compare periods of history and different societies to determine where progress occurred and where it didn’t. Such a definition gives us a firm basis for material progress studies to be part of the social sciences. Don’t underestimate the power of a clear definition.

Within this scope, we can look at technology, the economy, housing, electricity, and infrastructure as levers to create progress. As someone who writes about infrastructure, I care about this view of progress! The downside is that this scope ignores other aspects of progress, such as scientific, moral, and political progress. By pushing these elements out of scope, I worry that we are not capturing what many people would count as progress.

Let me share a thought experiment to illustrate my second issue. Suppose I could survey everyone on their desired material standard of living, and then I could wave a magic wand to grant the world the standard from the highest response. By that definition, everyone should be satisfied with their standard of living. Increasing it further would mean progress (by this scope’s definition), but who would care? We would then have progress while simultaneously not benefiting more from that progress. That seems off to me. I think our idea of progress should be rich enough to not end when we’ve saturated any improvement in material standard of living that people care about.

Scope 2: Progress as more options

In discussing this topic with my cohort at The Roots of Progress, they noted that perhaps we could view progress as the increase in options for humans. I like this framing because it subsumes Scope 1. Increasing the material standard of living is one way to increase the number of options, so people can choose paths that lead to happiness. As Ryan Puzycki suggested to me, this view implies that progress is a means to an end, not an end in itself (this jives with my own view). But the framing of increased options also lets us incorporate aspects of progress that pertain to education, vocation, and culture. When you have more options, you don’t have to take a job that you hate just to pay the bills. You don’t have to serve the needs of others for survival. You can do what fulfills you (which could include serving the needs of others!).

Jason Crawford pointed out to me that this framing is pretty similar to that of “capabilities” from the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, among others. As he explained to me, the idea is that we can’t really measure well-being, nor can we provide it (since it involves individual choice). But we can offer more and more capabilities, such as wealth, knowledge, and human rights. Then, it’s up to everyone to make the best use of those capabilities as they can.

I find this framing to be useful, yet I still see some gaps.

The first issue I have with progress as more options is that more options don’t imply better outcomes. It seems plausible that we could tweak our defaults or the presentation of our options to deliver better outcomes. For example, physical activity is super important for long term health, particularly in kids. Yet under 40% of kids (5-17 years old) in Canada get the recommended hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. While some of this is likely a material standard of living issue (think about the cost of sports), I wonder if there are other levers we can pull which would change our defaults (such as more physical education in school)?

The second issue is that options aren’t all equal. I’m unsure if ruthlessly increasing the number of options is a good proxy for progress. Instead, we probably want some more complicated measure of “quality” for options.

Therefore, I don’t think it’s enough to give people more options. We need to be mindful of how people make choices given options, or else I think we’re leaving an element of progress on the table.

Scope 3: Progress as creating and applying knowledge

There’s this quote from David Deutsch that I like: “If something is permitted by the laws of physics, then the only thing that can prevent it from being technologically possible is not knowing how.” It gives me hope that we can continue to solve our problems in the future. His quote suggests to me a way to phrase progress:

Progress is the development and application of ideas that lead to sustained increases in flourishing for large groups of people.

Here’s what I like about this phrasing:

Still, there are weaknesses:

I think this scope is useful for thinking about some “units” of progress, yet I also can see that it’s not the full story.

As I was writing this essay and discussing it with others, it became clear to me that the word “progress” is overloaded with meaning and nuance. Please forgive me for the physics analogy, but it seems to me that when we say “progress”, we’re only speaking at low resolution. Imagine that the constellation of concepts I mentioned at the top of this essay was an actual constellation of stars. If you look at the stars from too far away, it becomes impossible to distinguish one point of light from another. It’s only when you get closer to the sources that you can resolve them1:

When concepts overlap, the result is a blur (dashed lines). It's only when we increase the resolution and spread out the concepts can we distinguish them.

Similarly, if we don’t dig deeper into what we mean by “progress”, our constellation of concepts remains a single blurry point of light. That’s not useful for discussions, and it also can also remove nuance from the term. Personally, I feel alienated when I read pieces that are exclusively focused on material growth, as if this is the whole scope of progress. Even if that’s the lever that helps us achieve human flourishing, I think it’s worth being more explicit about it! I know it will help people (like me) that don’t necessarily connect all the dots.

Ryan also raised an excellent point: your standard of value matters a lot. What is it and who is setting it? In Scope 3, human flourishing is my standard of value. That may sound right to you, but maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you think we shouldn’t be only focused on humans. Or maybe “human flourishing” sounds good at first, but then as we dig deeper we discover that my concept of human flourishing and yours split apart like in the animation above. This is why it’s worth drilling down on specifics, or else even those who agree with you may be doing so on the wrong assumptions.

While I like the idea of having a unified definition of progress, that’s probably the theoretical physicist in me. What may be more useful is a definition of material progress, of scientific progress, of technological progress, of economic progress, and so on. The specificity limits scope creep, and lets us deploy smaller, modular definitions that build up to the constellation we call “progress.”

That’s why I now want to ask two questions whenever I hear the word “progress”:

  1. Progress on what, exactly?
  2. Progress by what standard of value?

Thank you Heike Larson, Laura London, and Alex Telford for initial discussions about this idea. Thank you Ryan Puzycki, Jason Crawford, and Laura for feedback on this essay. And thank you Michael Magoon for writing a bunch about the scope of human material progress, which inspired this piece.


  1. In optics, you could also increase the diameter of the lens.