The Paradox of Progress – Dr James Willis

After several reprints, the latest publication of Dr James Willis (1995) “The Paradox of Progress” is as an e-Book (2022) here at PayHip.

I first reviewed and recommended it back in 2003. At that point I was only a couple of years into my own quest for “a better world model” and Willis as a practising GP was one of the few (non-academic) professionals I found making positive reference to Robert Pirsig “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in his day job.

The paradoxical perspective we shared was that despite ever more science-led technology and management practice, there was a real sense that we humans were in fact coming off worse.

When I started work at the Middlesex Hospital my senior medical registrar told me that our job in life was to make sure the patients died with their electrolytes balanced. Joking apart, when doctors work to rule there is a grave danger that the rules will do better than the patients.

Here we are at the crux of the paradox. We want to define clear solutions to the problems we can see in the world. But as we do so we progressively destroy the essence of life itself. It seems to be an unavoidable rule that the precise definition of human affairs has the effect of killing humanity itself.

According to Pirsig: “The crisis is being caused by the inadequacy of existing forms of thought to cope with the situation. It can’t be solved by rational means because the rationality itself is the source of the problem.”

Rather than treating rules as “tablets of stone” to be enforced by technological implementation it was clear in human terms that rules really were there to be broken, with care. That “rules are for guidance of the wise, and the enslavement of fools” has become a mantra of mine. That, and the fact the problem lies in the received wisdom of our own rationality, misunderstanding ourselves, has been a driver of my own research and writing ever since.

The seriousness and scale of that problem for humanity as a whole has done nothing but grow in the two intervening decades. Yet Willis book is highly readable & witty and, with a career’s worth of practical learning through anecdotes between doctor, patients and caring colleagues, both moving & funny. Still highly recommended.

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