The wisdom of the Ancients

Paul’s post on social change and its effects touches on an old conservative idea: that we should not abandon the accumulated wisdom of generations, the “wisdom of the Ancients”. The fact that social change can have deleterious and unequal effects seems evident. Certainly change should be assessed on its merits. But the idea that society might be the repository of any wisdom at all has always been the kind of idea that made me cock my head to the side and squint warily at my interlocutor.

The irrational meat-sacks that comprise humanity have a tendency to find patterns, even in random data. That’s called apophenia. (Every day on the internet is applied apophenia day.) We also have a tendency to privilege causative explanations. That’s the tendency that causes us to make post hoc ergo propter hoc errors (and to dribble platitudes about everything happening for a reason). We’re simply very bad at recognizing–and accepting–that certain things happen by chance. Because of that, we’re very bad at accepting that a certain state of affairs may exist as a result of chance.

This criticism doesn’t apply across the board. Biological evolution, or more specifically the survival of the fittest, is compelling partly because it provides causative explanations that aren’t random. For example, we can look at a turtle with a long neck, and make inferences about the evolutionary process that caused it. Because of evolution, we can look at a biological feature and say “feature X exists because of reason Y” instead of having to say “feature X exists because of a reason, maybe, but potentially by chance and for no particular reason at all”. We can’t say that in most other domains.

Let me call survival of the fittest a “causative explanatory mechanism” (CEM). (That is an ugly phrase, and a terrible abbreviation, but it’s better than imposing a neologism on you.) CEMs can come in a couple of flavors – they can be “complete” or they can be “incomplete”. Complete CEMs allow you to derive all of the features of a present state of affairs, non-randomly, from antecedent causes. So, for example, if evolution is a “complete” mechanism in this fashion, we could explain all of the features of a long-necked turtle through evolution. If, in contrast, evolution was an “incomplete” CEM, we might say that we can determine most features of a long-necked turtle through evolution, but there might still be some randomness. I’m not an expert in evolutionary theory, but I suspect survival of the fittest is incomplete, because evolution relies on a degree of randomness to generate variations (in the form of natural mutations). I suspect most CEMs are incomplete to a greater or lesser extent.

Things are already bad in terms of causative explanations, but they are about to get worse. Even in the case of a complete CEM, you may not be able to reason directly from the most recent event or state of affairs directly back to a much earlier event or state of affairs. This is because of path dependence. At time 1, event A may lead through a complete CEM to event B. However this has foreclosed event C. At time 2, event B leads through a complete CEM to event D, but this forecloses event E. And so on. Each of the foreclosed events blocks off a path of future options. From the standpoint of time 50, the attempt to reason from event X (through a complete CEM) directly to event A will be faulty, because it will fail to identify the effects of each step in foreclosing future options.

That is painfully abstract, so let me try another example, sticking with evolution. Imagine our hypothetical long-necked turtle in an ecosystem with no predators. We ask, “why does it have a shell?”, seeking an explanation from its immediate environment. We try to come up with explanations – perhaps the shell is to prevent accidental harm? But more likely there was some explanation in the past that caused the shell to develop, such as the existence of now dead predators, which set the path. Perhaps the shell is vestigial, like the human appendix.

These examples are far from perfect.  Evolution would, over time, pull you back towards the the CEM and away from the dependent path. (For example, without predators, a smaller shell might be an evolutionary advantage, and it would be gradually shed. Likewise, perhaps enough appendicitis would have bred out the appendix.) But you get the gist. The idea is not that the steps are impervious to reason, more that they are concealed. Accordingly, you can’t jump from the present to the past in one reasoned leap.

Are you still with me? You are a generous reader.

Let us apply this theoretical framework to society. There are purported CEMs for societal development. The most well known, and universally despised, is social Darwinism. The CEM in social Darwinism is, once again, survival of the fittest. Societal structures compete, and the superior structure prevails. Aside from the damage done in the name of social Darwinism, there’s something incoherent about it. Social conventions accrete, and change, in ways it would be difficult to attribute meaning to. What is the functional purpose of a convention against wearing hats in church? Why was big hair such a hit in the 80s? These are trivial examples, but the trivial examples are the best starting place, because they are so obviously arbitrary. And if they are obviously arbitrary, why would bigger conventions–like marriage–be any less arbitrary?

Even if we’re generous for a moment and say there is some CEM (be it social Darwinism or otherwise) that applies to social arrangements, why assume it is “complete” in the way described above? If, in any given set of social structures, there is some randomness–some noise–how do we know which parts are random? Is marriage part of the noise, or a result of the CEM, whatever that may be? Which social conventions are the wisdom of the Ancients, and which are pure, meaningless, random outcomes?

As a result of all this, I am a hearty skeptic of tradition. I think it has no independent value and no explanatory power. I find certain traditions–the confinement of women to familial roles, widespread racism, homophobia–outright repugnant. I find other traditions–good manners, respect for others, friendship–to be valuable. The category “tradition” seems to do none of the heavy moral lifting; it seems to contain no wisdom, ancient or otherwise.

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