Are We Smarter Than Our Predecessors?

It is extremely improbable that we have suddenly become better and smarter than our predecessors. In fact, what has happened is that we have lost the ability to understand functional social patterns other than markets and bureaucracies. The result is that the past appears irrational, our society is plagued by dysfunctions we cannot understand or deal with, and we treat our own blindness and stupidity as the triumph of virtue and enlightenment.

James Kalb — Against Inclusiveness

Governments

Living in America means that many believe unequivocally that the U.S. Constitutional democracy is the greatest form of government that has ever been. Except that it has been amended on 18 separate occasions. The most recent? 1992. Guess what? People from other countries like their own governmental systems too. There is no end to the flaws that can be found in any governmental system.

Even the Hebrew system of government, given by God himself, could not stand the test of time. It has been roundly criticized for not including the 13th and 19th Amendments.

Purity and Marriage

For many hundreds of years the notions that sex should only be between a husband and wife and that adultery was wrong were the widely held default beliefs. Now it is not hard to find viewpoints asserting the glories of a wide variety of extra-marital sexual expressions. Since the sexual revolution, it has become ever more hateful to assert the traditional Christian teachings on sexual purity and marriage. Jonah Goldberg writes:

We live in an age where we take the razor of reason to every little thing and strain to know the whys of it, as if knowing the why will empower the how. For example, we know that kids raised in stable, two-parent, religiously observant families will on average do better than kids who are not. This holds true despite differences in race, class, and religion…but too many people think that if we can just isolate the variables, we can take the good bits and discard the husks we don’t like. An even worse — and more prevalent — mindset is to not even bother with the why. If we can’t immediately grasp why [it]…is worthwhile, we tend to instantly dismiss it as outdated and old-fashioned.

He is exactly right. Modern Man in the quest for perfect enlightenment is willing to destroy anything standing in the way. The self-appointed saviors have decided that the old way has to go. They’ve even gone as far as declaring that “right-wing Christians are the biggest threat to traditional marriage”. For such as these, the evidence doesn’t matter.1 The old morality has been declared obsolete: it is self-evident.

The Spiritual

Science seems to have killed God. Reports of his demise are everywhere. Churches are closing and religions are losing adherents by the thousands.2 We live in a golden era of science where God is no longer necessary, where science explains everything. But the metaphysical view that science is sufficient to explain everything cannot itself be explained by science. And yet it is frequently used, especially by atheists, to show that spirituality is outdated. Come on, it is Current Year! At OJB’s blog, Owen writes about the limitations of science:

There is no way to really prove that science can answer every question and there is no way to prove that it’s even the best way to answer any question, but there are two informal reasons why I think we should accept both of those ideas. First, science gets results: in all the years various philosophies have been applied to the world’s problems it is only since we used science that we have made significant progress.3 And second, it just makes sense.

After admitting the limitations of science, he goes on to ignore those limitations in favor of his personal judgment (see below) using non-scientific arguments (see below). The claim about solving world problems is the ‘triumph of virtue and enlightenment’ described by James Kalb. It is joyful arrogance. Notice how Bruce Charlton uses the same historical results-based argument to defend astrology:

Astrology was, after all, the original science – and acceptable to some of the greatest ever human minds – so our assumption (prior hypothesis) should *not* be to reject it utterly.

Both arguments use what happened in the selected period of time to defend their position. Neither claims are scientific. There is here a difference in metaphysical assumptions: one view asserts that science is, by definition, sufficient while the other does not. Only the scientific viewpoint claims to be the exclusive source of explanation. Despite the impassioned claims by science, it cannot be used to prove/explain itself or to disprove that which is not in its domain, including the spiritual. While specific religious doctrines may be in conflict with science, there is nothing inherent in spirituality that is incompatible with science. Bruce Charlton pursues this in detail:

You are making the same big fallacy that ‘explains’ the results of all non randomised studies as plagued by the placebo effect – when such studies made all the significant discoveries in medicine. The serious scientist takes into account his own self-deceptions – that is built into judgment; but nothing is better than human judgement…Statistics is not ever an explanation of anything – at best it is just a summary or condensation, assisting clarification, of what is going on – but the judgment is always a consequence of human decision (of course humans can build the judgment into statistics and then forget they have done so- as when a p value of > 0.05 is assumed to be ‘significant’).

I’ve noticed time and again that when discussing the supernatural with atheists: They reject any non-randomized study evidence into the discussion of the spiritual. Every instance of the supernatural is explained away as fraudulent, naturally caused, delusion, the placebo effect, or similar. And yet science is riddled with examples of scientific discoveries made, not with randomized studies, but through anecdotes and inspiration. Why were these scientific discoveries not simply discarded as completely invalid?

Human judgment is required to evaluate scientific claims, but is not itself scientific. Not only is it easy to overestimate current ability relative to historical viewpoints, but other potential sources of truth are frequently disregarded. Science likes to take a hypothesis and try to determine a pure “true” or “false” answer from that. Spirituality is gray. It might have elements of truth mixed in with false elements. But that isn’t to say that there are no additional truths to be found. It may not be as easy as science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. And it can help answer some of those questions that can’t be answered by science.

The Bible

The Bible is evil because of course the Bible promotes rape, slavery, murder, lying, abortion, infanticide, and so forth. There could not possibly be an alternative.4

Conclusion

Modern Man is convinced that our predecessors were wrong in many things that really matter. Our predecessors got a lot wrong, but they got a lot right too. Of course we can and have improved on the mistakes of the past, but extreme hostility towards the past (or any current viewpoint that is not our own) is not justified.

Overconfidence in our abilities is a real problem. Some of this unintentional (e.g. the Dunning-Kruger Effect) and some of it is willful. It’s difficult to find the right answers. It requires time and effort. It also requires getting it wrong once in a while and being able to learn from that. The rampant intellectual dishonesty is not okay.

1 The study referenced in the article found that members of the Southern Baptist Church and non-churchgoers in the Bible Belt had much higher incidence of divorce than the rest of the population, mostly because of lack of education and low incomes. It falsely concluded from this that there must be an overall flaw in all conservative protestant theology that causes increased divorce rates. This is contradicted by numerous pieces of evidence, none of which was discussed in the articles referenced.

2 The decline of organized religion in the West is well-deserved. Christians have been criticized for doing everything the Bible instructs except the most important: love“…we treat our own blindness and stupidity as the triumph of virtue and enlightenment” applies to the religious as well as the non-religious.

3 This is a straw man argument. Also, it is not even true.

4 This is sarcasm.

6 Comments

  1. Sorry, but I can’t let you away with your poorly reasoned criticism of my blog post…

    I said “it is only since we used science that we have made significant progress.” Which you claim is a straw man and not true. I can’t see in what way it is a straw man. I was simply using the observation as a way to support the scientific method. It wasn’t supposed to be a formal proof. If anything, you used a straw man argument against me!

    And regarding the truth if the statement. Have a look of a graph of any major objective indicator of societal health you want to name and you will see a correlation with the advancement of science. Life expectancy would be the best example.

    Then I said “…it just makes sense” which you claimed was an appeal based on nothing. But on the next sentence I continue: ” If you want to understand something you should observe it in an objective way and set up unbiased experiments to test ideas.” I think most people would concede that, without any prior knowledge of existing methodology, that would be a good way to establish truth.

    You also repeat the old, tired line that science is used to prove science. Well, I don’t think so. If science needs proof beyond the practical benefits I mentioned above it is supported through philosophy, such as the work of Popper, Hume, etc.

    I think you conclude with a couple of straw men of your own. Few people would claim that everything ancient people knew was wrong, but there is no doubt that there ideas of medicine, cosmology, etc were mostly untrue. And few people would claim that everything about the bible is evil – despite the existence of sites like evilbible – but there is a lot of bad advice in the Bible and using it as a moral guide is very dangerous, hence the numerous atrocities committed by Christians over the last 2 millennia.

    1. Ram-Man

      Regarding my straw man argument(s), this post is a generalized polemical opinion piece, not a logical refutation. That said, I’m happy to discuss (and fix) any flaws in my argumentation or go into more detail. My posts are “works in progress”.

      The straw man is using “science gets results” to show that “we should accept both of those ideas” (that “science can answer every question” and “it’s the best way to answer any question”). If this isn’t a straw man, I don’t know what could constitute one. This is the case whether it is formal or informal. (Jonah Goldberg makes a similar argument from results.)

      You seem to think a straw man argument is a serious weakness. It’s okay to state your opinion by setting up what you believe against what you don’t believe. You are honest when you say “…there is no way to really prove…” and “…I think…” I acknowledge your straw man argument for what it is, and reject it for what it is. I am only pointing it out, not saying you are unjustified to use it. I wish more people were as up-front honest as you are: you state the limitations in the argument even if you believe that they are unimportant.

      I didn’t clearly explain what I meant by ‘appeal based on nothing’ and it wasn’t important, so I removed it from the post.

      “I think most people would concede that, without any prior knowledge of existing methodology, that would be a good way to establish truth.”

      I see what you did there. You didn’t say “that would be the only way to establish truth.” Your statement is not controversial. Indeed, science is a fantastic way to establish many truths. We were not debating that.

      “You also repeat the old, tired line that science is used to prove science.”

      No. The claim is that (1) science can answer every question and (2) to do it best. If this explanatory power of science were true, then logic dictates that science must be able to explain both science and more importantly metaphysics. It does neither. If logic is a tired line, then I am guilty as charged.

      Why do you appeal to philosophy if you actually believe this? If you need philosophy, then your claim can’t be true.

      “Life expectancy would be the best example.”

      Penicillin was discovered by accident.

  2. A straw man is where a person argues against a weakened version of his opponent’s position instead of the real one, making it easier to refute. I can’t quite see how that fits in with what we were discussing above. It might be that I committed another logical fallacy to some extent but I wouldn’t use that description. But I don’t think we should get too hung up on labelling these things. Let’s just discuss the points being made.

    I think that you have a point and I might have over-stated the case a little bit. I think there are questions which science is not in a good position to answer, but those tend to be questions which might be unanswerable and therefore don’t deserve an answer.

    For example “how did we get here” (in the sense of tracing the origin of the human species) is a question, but “why are we here” isn’t because it begs the question that there is a reason. The first question is a scientific one, the second is not. But I would say it isn’t even really a question worth asking.

    Before I go any further, does that remove your major objection to my post? I don’t modify my original posts but I will put a correction in the comments if I have understood your point correctly.

    1. Ram-Man

      Yes, acknowledging that there are some questions that science cannot answer is exactly my objection in my reply to your reply. I’m not surprised you don’t find those other questions worth asking. I’m sure we would disagree on which questions are answerable by science as well. But it’s a start.

      I need to rework the conclusion in this post. You’re right, it has issues.

      1. In fact I think I over-stated the case even more than I conceded above. I think the implication was that we were talking about questions about the nature of the physical world, of natural reality, but I didn’t make that clear.

        So there are other questions which science would not be the primary source of information for as well, like questions about history, literature, etc. These are questions are best handled by experts in those fields which would not normally be thought of as science.

        I think the key point that the original article and I were trying to convey is that questions about the natural world are best handled by science. So religion has no place trying to tell us how the universe originated, how life evolved, etc.

  3. Pingback: 25 Barriers to Belief in God, Part 1 – Derek L. Ramsey

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