Moderns are conditioned to think of improvement in solely evolutionary terms. That is, the theory that from single-celled organisms, steady advances have been made with various genetic accretions and atrophies along the way, such that eventually more complex forms began to exist through the various competing forces of nature.
While I reject this as an ultimate explanation of origins for humanity or complex organisms, I think the underlying mechanism is actually at work in many areas of life, and this is why Evolution has such memetic power. Thus, I propose two different models of the idea of “progress.”
This is something that, as more and more intellect acts upon it, can be shaped and improved in its efficiency and overall purpose over time. It is a proper mode of thinking when it comes to anything inherently technological – that is, methods of thought below a certain level of abstraction (this is a crucial difference, as certain basic rules of Philosophy absolutely cannot be improved upon) or tools.
In other words, it applies most directly to concrete things which admit being acted upon by an intelligence, and the action of this intelligence is imperative to creating progression outside of a certain small amount.
For example, Dog breeding would not work if the dogs were not tightly managed and their reproduction managed. There would be a certain maximum range of specificity which they would not exceed without direct, intelligent management, and ultimately a destructive sort of mixing would actually end up destroying precious genetic material as that material did not tend to reproductive success. If there are no herdsmen using dogs for such a purpose and selecting them intelligently for that purpose, this trend is not as pronounced. Breeds are selected on a different basket of skills or biological traits.
Microbiology is another example. Aiming for certain end results or aiming for a range of end results, intelligent management can produce “evolutionary” results, but without a tightly controlled lab and intelligent guidance, variation is not focused in such a way to produce a specific result and ends up firing in various directions and being managed by haphazard competing environmental forces.
Even academic arenas can go awry if they are not intelligently managed and focused on a certain end result and with proper methods; they can descend into fiefdoms controlled by a reigning ideology and stultify progress.
An interesting dynamic to examine is the concept of a market where many different intelligences act upon some object or concept and that object is crafted to mean or to symbolize certain things, without some conspiratorial backing preserving it. This is something you see in “memetics,” where the most poignant memes tend to stick the most readily in subcultures where they resonate the most. This can be observed in the history of certain religions, but it is important to note that this has to do with signs and symbols, and so this evolution is guided by the common experience and traits of a people which admits some intellectual management; it is not random.
The emphasis that evolutionary progression in any arena is only minimally random should be emphasized repeatedly. Biological evolution with a primarily random action cannot “prove” itself except by gratuitous extension from very minor random variations (such as tiny accretions or losses in Finch beak size).
We see and utilize all around us the results of intellectual evolution; in mechanics, in energy, in computing, in food production and agriculture. These were processes by which the most efficient methods prevailed, given enough time, and further refinements were stacked upon further refinements with occasional epochs of tremendous innovation.
However, this conceptual idea of progress has distinct limits.
Whereas evolutionary progress represents accretions and shavings to form a better and better product as in creating a statue, a piece of pottery, or a new pharmaceutical, depository progress represents a case where there are only certain concepts or methods “on deposit,” and human beings by their efforts only access a certain percentage of them. This percentage varies across societies and cultures and time, and actually declines when civilizations are in decline.
The actual deposit itself does not change; only the percentage and specific components which humans legitimately access varies over time.
Such is true of Philosophy; in every age there are incorrect ideas which flourish, in comparison to sound ideas formed by proper thinking backed by truths of philosophy.
Such is also true of the concepts of the natural sciences; a discovery of a method of producing energy is not the creation or accretion of anything new (but perhaps a succession of idea discoveries led to an easier discovery of such a method), but a discovery of a truth that had always existed.
Thus, whereas the internal combustion engine had never existed prior to the modern era, the mechanics and chemical reactions that take place in it had always existed theoretically, and were not created by the discovery of such a technique.
Interbreeding of various fruit trees can produce a new type of fruit which has never existed, but the methods of interbreeding and the chemical and physical realities had always existed, if only in potential.
The word “depository” might imply a limited contents; however, I think such a depository of all of the truths of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. might be so vast that, while not being quite infinite, would have such a high volume of contents and various iterations of that content across its attributes and dimensions that it is virtually infinite in human terms.
So, while such a depository of spiritual truths or philosophical realities or natural laws might itself be limited, this limit should be understood as we understand the limitations of the galaxy; perhaps one day we will have transportation methods to press against the limits of such distances, but at present we do not.