Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stuck in Our Own Time

There are few times that have shown such total disrespect for earlier times as our own. Other ages have over-respected the past and made earlier ages practically unquestionable. But because of our advances in the areas of science and technology, we have dismissed the past in all areas. But it does not really follow that because we have made advances in these areas, we have made advances across the board. Rather, I suspect the opposite: that we have made advances in these areas by neglecting other aspects of knowledge. At least we should reserve judgment until we have examined the facts. But I would not necessarily conclude that previous ages were superior to ours, even in the other areas. Rather, as a whole I would rather follow the opinion of C. S. Lewis in this regard. The virtue of studying the ideas of previous ages is not that their ideas are necessarily better than our own, but that they are different. They make different assumptions and follow different lines of reasoning to reach different conclusions. But if we seriously look at them, we have a basis for challenging our own assumptions. There are many things our age takes for granted because everyone believes them. We need to have an input of different ideas by which our ideas can be tested. This is particularly true in the modern age, where communication and transportation have made us more and more one culture. The only thing that can help us challenge our current line of reasoning is to compare it with the past.

Now as Lewis points out, it is not that the people of the past were in general smarter or more virtuous than we are. It is that they made different errors. By comparing notes we can try to determine who is right. While if we know nothing but our own time, we will have no basis for making the comparison. We may conclude we are right, but find we are more certain in our opinions for having tested them. We may conclude we are wrong and are even falling into the same old error that has been continually shown to be wrong before. This is especially likely in realms such as theology and philosophy, where few clearly new pieces of information have been introduced over the years. Or we may conclude that, given the diversity of opinions, we need to look for new approaches to the problem. But at the very least we can learn what our options are. So if we want to avoid being locked into the ideas of the present, we need to examine the ideas of the past.

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