Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chronological Snobbery


Definition of Snob:

a person who has an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth and who looks down on those regarded as socially inferior.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

There is a tendency in modern times to look at the past with disdain, and to assume that something of the past is of no value simply because of the age of the observation.  CS Lewis describes this in his book, Surprised by Joy, when he says:

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (p207-208)

The Effective Assumptions of Chronological Snobbery

The argument of Chronological Snobbery tends to run as follows:

  1. It is argued that A implies B.
  2. A implies B is an old argument, dating back to the times when people also believed C.
  3. C is clearly false.
  4. Therefore, A does not imply B.

Because we have an exaggerated respect for the scientific data we know today, we look down on people from earlier periods of time as being mentally inferior.  I suppose many might believe this today, but I'd suspect Socrates and St. Thomas Aquinas probably had superior intellects to most people who disdain them today.  They might not have known the scientific data of today, but there is no doubt that had they lived today, this modern data would have deepened their arguments, not led them to hold the opposite of what they held when alive.

Of course this brings us to the major problem of Chronological Snobbery: The disdaining of the belief in God and in miracles based on our incrementally increased knowledge over the past

Scientific Data and Truth

Chronological Snobbery assumes, that because we have more scientific data available today (due to the advances in the past), it means the society which did not have access to the scientific data we have now were basically "dumb as rocks" and whatever they claimed to have observed could not be true, especially if they spoke of a Theophany, or of an action by God, it must have been an event which had a natural cause, and the ancients did not know it.

However, we need to recognize that something that is true today could be known in the past, even if it was known with less detail.  The fact that ancients believed some things we obviously know to be false now does not indicate everything they believed was false.  The ancient world may have believed in Geocentrism for example, but that belief did not make untrue the other things which they held, such as Geometry.

In other words, just because ancients did not know some things were true, does not mean they had no knowledge of truth.  The claim that it did is essentially Scientism, holding that only that which can be established scientifically, ignoring all other forms of knowledge.  (The paradox of scientism is that one cannot establish it scientifically).

An Reductio ad absurdum for Chronological Snobbery

Let's envision a time in the 23rd century, where society has changed, and the world is a meritocracy.  Those with genetic advantages in the mental field are given positions of authority and power.  Those who lack are relegated to doing menial jobs, essentially the property of those who have.  Now, lets assume that a person comes forward, and brings up writings against slavery from the 19th century as showing arguments as to why the current system ought not to be tolerated.

Would it be valid to negate his arguments on the grounds that "people back in the 20th century believed [X], therefore they had no idea what they were talking about on slavery"?

Chronological Snobbery Today

Yet, that is what passes for argument today.

  1. Medieval People believed in God and Miracles (Medieval people believed [A])
  2. They also believed in Bleeding as a medical practice (They also believed [B])
  3. They were wrong on Bleeding (They were wrong on [B])
  4. Therefore they were wrong on God and Miracles (Therefore they were wrong on [A])

The problem, of course, is that Medieval people being wrong on [B] has no bearing on whether they were wrong on [A].

A Variant of this Error: The Ancients "Didn't Know" About Natural Phenomenon

Because of this assumption, we often assume (as I said in the beginning) that ancient peoples were "dumb as rocks" about natural phenomena, and assumed natural phenomena were the acts of gods.  In modern times, we assume that because there is a natural cause for these things, the belief in gods must be attributing a supernatural cause to the natural.  However, the ancient Christian author Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), in his Stromata, wrote on superstitions over "ill omens" this way:

It was a clever remark of Antiphon, who (when one regarded it as an ill omen that the sow had eaten her pigs), on seeing her emaciated through the niggardliness of the person that kept her, said, Congratulate yourself on the omen that, being so hungry, she did not eat your own children.

“And what wonder is it,” says Bion, “if the mouse, finding nothing to eat, gnaws the bag? ”For it were wonderful if (as Arcesilaus argued in fun) “the bag had eaten the mouse.”

Diogenes accordingly remarked well to one who wondered at finding a serpent coiled round a pestle: “Don’t wonder; for it would have been more surprising if you had seen the pestle coiled round the serpent, and the serpent straight.”

For the irrational creatures must run, and scamper, and fight, and breed, and die; and these things being natural to them, can never be unnatural to us.

Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. II : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Fathers of the second century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (529). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

In other words, the educated ancients were quite aware of natural causes for things, and did not possess the superstition the modern with chronological snobbery claims all ancients held.  CS Lewis, in speaking of miracles, had written about the Virgin Birth of Christ as such:

The idea that the progress of science has somehow altered this question is closely bound up with the idea that people in ‘olden times’ believe in them 'because they didn't know the Laws of Nature. Thus you will hear people say "The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin. but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.” Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense and the story of the Virgin Birth Is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modem gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point—that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now, 'The thing is scientifically impossible,’ he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being overruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature When St Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancées pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature.

The error of Chronological snobbery asserts that because they did not know in the past what we know now, they therefore knew nothing and thus attributed to supernatural causes things of nature.  But we can see this was not believed in the time of the Old Testament, as we can see in Genesis 38:24 where it says "About three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law Tamar had played the harlot and was then with child from her harlotry."  Sounds very much like knowledge of where babies came from.


Essentially, the argument from chronological snobbery is to assume that, because the ancients did not have knowledge of cells or atoms, they had no knowledge at all and therefore an appeal to an old source has no validity because of its age.  However this is not logical.  A lack of knowledge on topic [A] does not mean a lack of knowledge on topic [B].  Nor does increased knowledge in the present on topic [A]mean no knowledge in the past on topic [A].  We might have radar and other things to help us with advanced knowledge of storms, but this does not mean the ancient sailor or farmer had no knowledge of weather.

To assume that the ancients believed in God because they had no knowledge of science is false.  It is also false to assume that because an idea is old, it is untrue.  These are a priori assumptions of one who rejects belief in God or miracles (I say "or" because not all who deny miracles also deny God… we do have Modernists who reject miracles yet seem to have some sort of belief in God)

It is not the newness or age of the knowledge which is important, but whether it is true that matters.

No comments:

Post a Comment