Obsolescence of Ideas

Posted by on January 21, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 10 comments

Historically there are certain human inventions have helped catapult humanity forward at an unprecedented rate; from the invention of simple tools, to the advent of steam-power, the harnessing of electricity through the burning of coal, the printing press, and the information super-highway, to name a few examples. Also historically we see many of these ideas in their simplest or more advanced forms superseded by a newer technology or idea as innovation and social cooperation increases, or are left behind altogether as the climate of human activity shifts.

Tool-making has allowed us to create better and more precise tools, and all of these technologies have evolved from the common ancestor of a tool like the first stone hammer. But we see technologies and ideas, as they become more precise leaving behind old ways of doing things in favour of better and more efficient modes. For example, steam-power was ousted by the advent of the internal combustion engine, and that looks to be superseded by more efficient models of propulsion. Coal power, now considered to be dirty and dangerous, has been superseded by nuclear fission, and possibly soon again by nuclear fusion. The printing press, in it’s letterset format, has been ousted by offset printing, and now by digital printing, and even that looks to be superseded by digital devices such as the iPad or Kindle, and while there is a resurgence of “handmade” in the world of print, this is mostly from a sense of nostalgia; that kind of printing will never be seen in the mainstream again. That’s the thing about progress, it progresses.

Human endeavour has hinged on progress, in our tools, our technologies, and most importantly, our adaptability in thinking. If we’d never asked the question “Why and how?” we would still be climbing trees and eating nuts and berries. We adapt our thinking to suit changes in situations, developments in society, and technological progress, and we adapt our ideas alongside these changes. We have developed social mechanisms, some developing along with us, and others imposed upon us, to either allow us to get along better, or to ensure the status or power of a ruling class or person. The “social moral contract”, as discussed by Shelley Kagan in his debate with William Lane Craig is an example of the former, and the caste system in India is a great example of the latter. We have discovered that some ideas that we have developed don’t hold water anymore, once the social or technological climates change enough, and whether these ideas remain in mainstream society depends upon their suitability to the societal climes in which they appear.

For instance the Hindu caste system in India is now seen by many as an outmoded way for humans to act, and has been debated in India since the 1930s, because the system was seen as a non-progressive way for the society to act. The system split society into castes or classes which varied from royalty to “help”, and if you were born into a caste, there was no escaping it. It’s in your lineage, and a caste is for life; once in a caste, always in a caste. Those born into the lowest caste are destined to live on the streets and beg for money, while those born into the higher caste will be treated like kings for life. In its heyday the castes system may have helped the society run smoother than it would today under such a system, and this is due to the fact that people are not content to be put into a box, told how to live their lives and be forced, whatever their aptitude and drive, into a life which is less than they could be. Seen as an inequality, and not a burden to be born with, the caste system is only held onto loosely now, and is more akin to racism than to an actual cultural structure to be adhered to strictly. India has made a bold move away from the caste system, even though it was borne from a religious doctrine centuries old, because the society in which people were living had changed significantly enough to render it obsolete.

The idea of “social moral contract” is one where the moralities of life are based around the best possible outcome for everyone involved. We do what we find best for us to coexist as a society, for we are highly social animals. Our lives, as does our success as a species, revolves around the flourishing of others around us. We don’t kill, rape or steal from people because if we do, someone might see it as an excuse to inflict this or similar against us in return. As time goes on and our demands and needs become better known, so the “social moral contract” develops with us. For example, the original versions of a social moral contract stated that it was a man’s place to have dominion over women in their lives. However modern re-evaluations of this contract have shown that this is no longer socially acceptable, and that the new contract strives to include equal rights to men and women of all races and social statuses. While the social moral contract may not be perfect, it certainly gives us a good basis to see that things like morality can indeed shift as we become more aware of ourselves and our environs. (For more on the social contract theory, here’s a pretty good summary at the peer reviewed Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.)

Ideas such as religions have come and gone, and it would seem that as time goes by, ideas of supernatural and superstitious beings and happenings fall by the wayside as new information comes to the fore. We have learned to explain the curious bump in the night that was once considered ghosts, or the occurrence of thunder once considered battles in heaven, by looking, then looking deeper, and holding on to what we find. We do not dismiss the learnings, we pass them down from generation to generation, then use them as a basis for further learnings in the natural universe. Our learnings are not simply stories or parables, these are concrete in their nature, as they continue to remain true over time. If they are disproven, we accept that, and move forward with a better model to explain things. Religions and superstitions have simply not done this. While on the surface some beliefs may appear to be amending their ways (the depopularisation of the caste system in India, bringing the Catholic pedophile culture to the surface, and even in some cases reforming the idea of what it means to be a good christian), it has not really made any progress beyond cosmetic changes. This is mostly due to the fact that religion is whatever the believer wants it to be, and not a series of universal concrete facts, nor is it even striving to be so. Where once it may have helped people to explain happenings around them and give a constructive doctrine for how to live, freeing their minds for just getting on with life, now it sits as a vestigial tail in humanity, as ugly as it is unnecessary.

While it is true that religion and superstitions can lend a person a certain sense of comfort in tough times, we now know that we can also find this comfort in our societies, in the companionship of others, and in our knowledge that this is the one and only life we get to live. No need for an afterlife or the threat of eternal damnation to give us reason to be good to one another, we simply know that this is the best way to be for the wellbeing of all others. I say, we can safely move away from all these superstitious dogmas and beliefs, and in doing so, like the shedding of a skin to small for us, we can move forward in a positive fashion, happy in the knowledge that we are doing the best we can with what we have in our universe.

So we can see that the story of human progress has been one where either systems and ideas adapt or change to suit the needs of the society at that time. By this measure, I don’t see any reason why the superstitious dogmas of religion and religious thought are immune from the same measure of progress. In order for these ideas to remain relevant to the world at large, they must either come into line with the learnings of the rest of society, or perish as a no longer useful artifact of historical explanations for the natural world.

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