Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Past and Present.

We can only know the present through the prism of the past, and the past through
the prism of the present.

In gaining an honest understanding of the world around us, there is nothing in
human history which has ever surpassed the basic Scientific Method as a tool.
And the Scientific Method isn't really all that complicated stuff about
hypotheses and notebooks they told you in school. At its heart the
Scientific Method can be boiled down to a couple of simple ideas.
One: go out and take a look at nature, don't just theorize about what you might see. And two, be honest. That's pretty much it. Add to this mixture the ability to tweak things a little bit (i.e., experiment) here and there to see what happens, and you've pretty much got the whole shebang as practiced by the most advanced scientific establishments.

This simple melange of commonsensical ideas has enabled the vast expansion of
human life, health, and aspiration which those of us privileged enough to live
in industrial society enjoy today.

Unfortunately there are certain vital areas of understanding which are not
susceptible to treatment via the Scientific Method. These include the religious,
the political, the cultural, and the sociological among others. In these complicated
areas it is very difficult to just look, harder to be honest about what we
see, and impossible to tweak nature by doing experiments. It is difficult
to just look because the objects of interest in these areas are not
simple things we can see and touch. They are abstractions of what we see
and touch of higher and higher complexity. What is "good art", what is
"fascism" or "liberalism", what is "the divine"? These questions are very
difficult to answer because they are not directly available to the senses
in ways we can all agree on. Most people claim to know
"good art" when they see it but people do not by any means all agree. To some
extent "reality" in these areas is necessarily socially constructed, which
leads to the ever-present danger that the current emperor wears no clothes.
Some people--maybe even vast numbers of people--will all agree that they
know what a certain word like "fascism" means, will probably believe that
they know what it means, and yet it may not mean a thing. Or more likely, it
simply means that they are people who wish to belong to the herd of people
who claim to know what "fascism" means.

To take one example, a friend asserts that the Soviet Union was not
a threat and we overreacted, to which I respond that the Soviet Union was
a huge threat which became less of a threat precisely because we reacted.
But how can we know either way? No experiment can be run to verify or falsify
either hypothesis.

Given the lack of Scientific Method or anything remotely approaching it in
such matters, one is led to ask by what means people can possibly come to
any conclusions in these matters? And yet come to conclusions they do.
I think the answer is that these are
precisely the areas in which gut instinct, emotions, and experience play
the most important roles. Contrary to the model propagated by Mr. Spock
in the TV series Star Trek, it has always struck me that the more
intellectually complicated the situation the more it requires emotional
involvement. It is precisely this sort of ambiguous, highly abstract
situation--far too complicated to understand analytically--which requires the use of emotions in order to make a decision.

The question remains: how do we develop our emotions to respond appropriately
or intelligently, if one may use such a term in this context, to evaluating
various situations? The answer comes from the old saying:
"Good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions".
In other words, our only guide to understanding and dealing with
extreme complexity comes from the past. But the particular experiences
we may have had in our own personal lives may not be--nay, frequently is
not--sufficient to give us any good guidance in the novel difficulties
with which we are faced almost daily. No American army has ever
invaded Iraq before. What should we think about it?

The discipline of History provides, at least in theory, a vast reservoir
of experience from the past upon which we can collectively draw. One
can even argue, with George Santayna, that it is precisely this which
differentiates civilized from primitive man. He wrote:

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first
stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses
progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the
condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned
nothing from experience."

In short, we can only view the circumstances of the present intelligently,
maturely, through the lens of the past.

But what is the past? Here we are faced with a new set of conundrums.
What happened a year ago or yesterday even?
Already my memory is fading. When it comes to last week or a year ago, I've learned through bitter experience that my memory cannot be wholly relied upon. The act of writing things down is a great help of course but leads to its own problems. We can't
possibly write down enough to cover the whole bundle of inchoate thoughts
that might have accompanied a certain action or a certain circumstance.
Instead, of necessity, we pick and choose, and thereby we omit, exaggerate,
and overgeneralize. Naturally, further constraints are added when the writings are available to others, when they are made public, because then we are tempted to lie, or at least to exaggerate a little to make ourselves look better. When U.S. Grant
wrote that he considered the order to attack at the Battle of Cold Harbor
to be the worst command he ever issued, that may be true--or it may not.
Maybe he thought so at the time, maybe he thought so later, or maybe
he was just saying he thought so later. There's no real way to know.

How much worse, then does the situation become when we are writing about other
people, people whom we may never have met or never could meet, or even
people who lived hundreds of years in the past, in an era so different
from ours that even those possessing the highest gifts of imagination among us
can scarcely grasp the meaning of life in those times?

People lie, they exaggerate--we all do it--and even when we're doing our
dead-level best to be honest we may not really know what we're talking
about. How then can anything in history be relied upon? Henry Ford was
right when he wrote that "History is bunk". It's all a pack of lies on
some level, even the things I tell myself about what I did yesterday.
Even on that simplistic level there are exaggerations, mistruths, half-truths,
mistakes, etc. etc.

How then can we evaluate History at all? The only possible answer is that
we must rely on our basic understanding of human nature, an understanding
gained from our actualy experience in our actual lives. If someone tells
us for example that the Germanic tribes converted to Christianity because
of their need for salt, we can test this statement against our actual
experience. Do people undergo religious conversion because of their need
for salt? Have I ever known anyone who underwent religious conversion?
Have I ever known anyone who desperately needed salt (or another mineral)?
If this assertion doesn't match our understanding of human nature
then we can reject the proposal out of hand, not because we have scientifically disproved it, but because it doesn't meet the most basic requirements of common sense.

In short, we can only know the past through the prism of the present.


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