“Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” —William Inge
2021 has me thinking about the nature of time and progress.
I have to agree with William Inge on this one. If our beliefs keep on changing with the times, our beliefs will keep on changing because the times will keep on changing. We’ll find no solid ground anywhere.
And yet, I can see the rationale behind: “Newer is better” (or maybe, “Older is better”?). As the world gets older, isn’t it getting smarter? Aren’t we constantly acquiring greater knowledge? We have smartphones and spaceships because we leapfrogged on the backs of the conglomerate of scientific discoveries that came before us.
Isn’t that the way the human existence works? “Older and wiser” and all that? At nearly fifty, am I not smarter than I was at five and maybe even twenty-and-five? I keep hearing that my prefrontal cortex hadn’t fully developed until twenty-five, but since then, although a lot of brain cells will have died and not been replaced, have I not made up for the loss of brain cells by a gain in practical wisdom? Don’t I just plain know more about life now?
I can testify to the truth of the overall decrease in brain strength since I was twenty-five. The physical equipment isn’t now what it once was, and I can feel it. “The old grey matter, she ain’t what she used to be.” But I do think I know more about life. I know more about my own ignorance, at least. I now know that I know less about life than I once thought I did. So there’s that!
But humanity as a whole doesn’t have some sort of collective brain as a physical organ to degenerate with age and natural processes. In that case, shouldn’t we, as the human race, only be getting smarter and better with the increase of information we now have more access to?
When I first started this blog to defend my positions as an admitted (but somewhat) reluctantly admitted) conservative, this was the question I wrestled. Inherent in their name, conservatives are trying to conserve or preserve something. There are at least pieces of the past we’re clinging to. Progressives assume that the old ways must necessarily be worse and “newer is better” because progress is the reality of our reality. In scientific terms, one line of thinking would come down on the side of the “survival of the fittest” and the other on the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
But isn’t there truth to both? Newer may not necessarily be better across the board (I hope we can all agree on that if we think it through), but overall, is there a gradual upward trend or a gradual downhill effect?
With the example I just mentioned, in the human brain, we see both. The brain grows and develops, and then it deteriorates. And of course, it deteriorates till eventually it ceases all activity. Physically, it is scientific law that there is an overall downhill effect and a crash and burn at the bottom of the hill. Everything is heading for an ending point. The overall downhill effect certainly seems to win. In life on earth.
But does that analogy of one human life expand to include all of life on earth in a broader historical sense?
I’m talking about smarts this post, so let’s restrict the discussion to that subject. Aren’t we getting smarter as a human race by mere virtue of now having been around longer? Isn’t there some merit to the idea that we must leave behind archaic ideas that have gone out of fashion because we now know more? And if any ideas have gone out of fashion, they must be archaic and therefore wrong just because they happen to be old-fashioned?
It’s an angle I haven’t yet explored in this blog on, apparently, my favourite subject: epistemology; the study of knowing how we know what we know. (I can’t seem to stay away from the subject.)
And I can’t deny the truth of the growth in gathered knowledge. Yes, I would have to agree that we do now know quite a lot more on certain subjects than our ancestors. We’ve taken their hard-won learning and expanded on it by building on the foundations they laid. We have smartphones and spaceships because our progenitors started a scientific revolution. (This leaves open the question of progress in any kind of real sense. Is smarter better? Are our lives really better than life pre-smartphones and spaceships? Our lives are longer and easier, in a sense, than our distant elders, but are they richer and more fulfilled? The question is subjective, so there’s no way for any of us to answer the question, living only when we’ve lived and having no other insider experiences to compare to. I hope we can agree that in a moral sense, we are not better by being smarter. This should be obvious by recognizing that the highest IQ people on earth can be a very mixed bag of goodness and badness, and low IQ people are not unquestionably more prone to depravity than high IQ people. But I’ve said we’ll restrict the discussion to mere smarts, so in this post I’ll ignore the questions of whether life is now better experientially or better morally than it used to be. I don’t think I could answer those questions, anyway. The subject of this post is the epistemology behind, “Newer is better.” Or at least, “Newer knowledge is better knowledge.”)
So I can agree that we do have more information than people did in “the olden days.” In that sense, we’re smarter. (As in the case of my deteriorating, almost-fifty-year-old brain, the ol’, inexorable Second Law does seem to be doing its dirty work on humanity generally. I don’t think we are genetically or physically or intellectually superior to those who came before us, and I have a theory that our technology is speeding up the deterioration process. Smartphones are making us more frivolous; lazier and stupider. Why bother to exercise one’s mental muscles remembering anything with Google always at our fingertips? Why bother acquiring any useful facts when we’re so bombarded by a constant flow of information that we have to pick and choose what will get our attention, and what the Kardashians are getting up to is far more salacious than how many planets we have in our solar system?) But I would agree that we are smarter than our predecessors solely on the metric of the sheer weight of accumulated knowledge.
Does it follow, then, that those of us clinging to outmoded ideas are wrong about them?
And here’s where we come back to William Inge and his statement that those who marry the ideas of their time will soon be widowers.
Today’s bright idea may be tomorrow’s outmoded one.
Until we are infallible or omniscient, we have no way of really knowing which is “the right side of history.” There may be the general overall trend for our knowledge to increase, but we haven’t hit the end of history yet. We don’t yet know all we’ll ever know. I may be more right in my thinking at almost-fifty than I was at twenty-five, but that’s not to say I’m right about everything at fifty. Far from it! I’m sure at twenty-five I was right about some things that I’m now wrong about at fifty. (I just can’t remember what they are because… y’know! Fifty.)
If conservatives wanted to preserve every bit of everything ever and resist all change, this would be very foolish. But the idea that “all change is good change” is equally foolish and strongly contradicted by the Second Law. Good change is good change. Determining what change is good change is the trick.
And again, that brings me back to the subject of epistemology. If just getting older (as an individual human or as a collection of humans) is no guarantor of truth, how can we know what we know? Has there been rock-solid truth that has stood the test of time? Is there knowledge worth conserving and preserving?
I hope you can see from all this discussion that this must be the case if there has been any real progress in learning. If I’m smarter now than I once was, it’s only because of my accumulation of knowledge. If we are smarter now than we once were, it’s only because of our accumulation of knowledge. If we get rid of knowledge on the grounds that it managed to accumulate, this is counterproductive. We don’t get smarter by tossing out everything old simply because it’s old and still around. Because it’s old and still around, it may be good argument for hanging onto it longer and giving it another look. But longevity doesn’t automatically prove value.
I’m only smarter at fifty because I’ve learned from experience. Experience by itself doesn’t make me smarter. Learning from experience makes me smarter. Mistakes can be a source of wisdom but only when recognized as mistakes and learned from. If we cling tightly to our mistakes and go on and on making the same ones, we’re not getting smarter. Just more solidified.
In fact, the ol’ “survival of the fittest” theory has been debunked by the observable reality that quite a lot more than just the fittest survive. All of us still hanging in there with all our harmful mutations also still hanging in there disprove the theory practically. This includes our harmful intellectual mutations—our bad ideas.
But how can we sort through old ideas worth hanging onto and old ideas that were mistakes, worth learning from but potentially harmful and needing to be discarded now?
In other posts, I’ve talked about the role of authority in our epistemology; how only a perfect fool or a complete lunatic rejects all authority. Really, authority is our only major source of knowledge. We all get through life by looking around at all the authorities open to us and investigating the evidence of their reliability and choosing which ones to build our lives on. This process may be conscious or subconscious, but it’s the epistemology all of us necessarily rely on. I can know a little based on my personal experience alone but such a very little. We would not be farther ahead by continuously re-inventing the wheel and discovering fire over and over in every new generation.
And then I’ve also tried to show in this blog and elsewhere (through arguments too lengthy to be reiterated here; if you’re interested in the subject, here’s a link to one: “The Search”) how an infallible authority must be available to us if absolute truth (instead of the oxymoronic relative “truth”) is to be truth for us, as humans. There’s really no way to get by unless we all live as though there is truth. Absolute truth. Any other epistemology creates a nonsense world. One way or the other, we must have beliefs on which to build our lives. And it’s hard to build anything lasting on logical contradictions. But this is the position the disbeliever in revelation finds him or herself in: constantly building and rebuilding his or her life on an ever-active fault line.
In fact, I’ve come to see that if there isn’t an omniscient God and a divine revelation from that omniscient mind given to us, there is no truly reliable authority on which to know what we know. There is no solid ground. For those who’ve taken the logical step to a belief in a divine mind of some kind, the process begins again of sorting through all the authorities claiming divine revelation to see which looks like it has the best evidence behind it. You know my views on the subject.
In the sorting through of authorities to build on, some live as though just the passage of time is a “good-enough” infallible authority. Because an idea is current and widely accepted, it must be true. “If it’s new, it’s true.” In writing this blog post, it’s my hope that any subconscious holders of this idea who stumble across this post can recognize their unexamined position and begin to examine it for the very shaky ground it is.