Series One: Post One
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana (1863-1952)
I enjoy Santayana’s quote and have paraphrased it many times. I find at the surface this idea seems intuitively simple and accurate. I think it also begs the question and rests upon some very large assumptions.
The Theory of Uniformitarianism:
According to the founder of modern Geology, James Hutton (1726-1797), this theory “was the belief that geological forces at work in the present day—barely noticeable to the human eye, yet immense in their impact—are the same as those that operated in the past” (Mathez).
Human ideas and culture, for better or worse, will follow a sort of psychological uniformitarianism drawing individuals, groups, or even subsequent generations to follow a pattern of cycles. The Mathez profile of Hutton mentioned that Charles Darwin was familiar with Hutton’s work and that Darwin was influenced by the principle of past, present, and future consistency in nature as well.
“Uniformitarianism is one of the fundamental principles of earth science. Hutton’s theories amounted to a frontal attack on a popular contemporary school of thought called catastrophism [circa 1780]: the belief that only natural catastrophes, such as the Great Flood, could account for the form and nature of a 6,000-year-old Earth. The great age of Earth was the first revolutionary concept to emerge from the new science of geology” (Mathez).
The young Earth position is still attached to the catastrophism idea and when Apologists or Evangelicals challenge the age of our planet, they are challenging Hutton’s theory as well as many other theories established in the natural sciences.
Unlike geological systems, human will has the capacity to change the systems that lead to our future if we choose. Such things as overcoming self-interest, avoiding nationalistic hubris that is common in declining empires, controlling human lust for wealth and power, and addressing our natural fears among other things are assumed possible in Santayana’s quote if we understand our passions and our own nature.
My impression of this quote is that if we are uninterested in living in the world created by our ancestors, then we can create a different future. Following the middle ages, this is precisely what we have done, with opposition every step of the way.
First, the question I am trying to raise now is whether or not a time rewind would be played back like a digital file? I am indicating my age here, but as a kid, I could rewind a cassette tape and be certain to hear the same song upon playback. In fact, it was because I could remember the past that I wanted to repeat it. I did not seek out a new song until the song I was playing lost its novelty. I enjoyed the song, I thought the song was better than any other song I hadn’t yet heard, so I hit rewind and repeated this cycle. It’s telling to note that I still enjoy the songs I repeated as a child even though many others have come and gone.
These last two sentences sound very conservative and borderline religious. If we think that whatever we have now is better than any other possible future, then we may be inclined to fear change; we may be inclined to draw from an ancient culture as our guide for the future. We know how things have gone in the past, so we can glean some expectation of what will happen in the future and thus prepare for it.
Knowing the Past, Approaching the Unknown Future
Grasping at ancient straws is not progress, and I think this is the message the Santayana quote means to convey. Simply maintaining a stranglehold on past and present systems, ideas, beliefs, and attitudes does not guarantee a more comfortable future. All this does is offer us some consolation of certainty. I think all of this stems from a very powerful fear of uncertainty that could easily be explained using evolutionary reasoning. Our ancestors must have experienced a very uncertain future and therefore adapted a discomfort producing mechanism as a utility to limit risks and promote survival.
In my opinion, the supernatural component of religion has nothing to do with metaphysics, morality, epistemology, or even faith. Instead, supernaturalism is an idealized explanation meant to explain the unknown and avoid uncertainty. Likewise, conservatism does the same thing—‘this is how it has always been, so this is how it should always be.’
I think we can address both isms using the same logic, and I see only one progressive outcome. The generations who have lived a long life with a set ideology (those committed to a single book and in the United States, committed to the vote) must be left to die out. I think there is some hope for the generation following this older crowd, though raised on a single book and taught conservative values by the previous generation, they could be encouraged to imagine a new future. The next generation is the key. The battle for the future is a battle over the minds of the Youngers, not the Elders.
Picking our Battles
While I travel the web and live in this world following the Theist-Nontheistic conversation, I notice a trend of quasi-Uniformitarianism. By that I mean, the conversations do not change. Even our best and brightest secularist and atheistic speakers continue to engage in tired arguments and dry debates. The information is dense, the skill to debate is acquired slowly, those engaged only address the opposition who is willing to engage, and the discussion becomes circular. This conversation, Overcoming Religious Dogmatism, is a logical fallacy in and of itself.
I think we need a new strategy, and I think the best examples of what I am imagining are coming from a few leading scientist. For example, Richard Dawkins wrote a children’s book that is very well suited for any age, and Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks and writes with great awe of the universe and existence. Bill Nye approached the debate with Ken Hamm not to convince Mr. Hamm of anything, but to unveil a picture of science to the Creationist audience that they are surely sheltered from. When Lawrence Krauss speaks publicly, he does so with great enthusiasm, humor, and admiration for science.
Painting a New Picture—A Picture of the Future
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”—Edmund Burke (1729-1797)
This is not a new idea, but to wrap up this post, I want to say that I recognize the current conversation as an endless, repetitive cycle.
We debate the nature and existence of God. We discuss the validity of religious claims verses science or secular claims. We compare Biblical morality with that of some individualistic version of atheistic morality. The conversation is not new.
“If we are to actually make progress in creating a more comfortable future, we need to start talking about, imagining, and discussing the possibilities. We need to get people excited about moving forward again. We need to inspire change and stop trying to guide change. Who knows where that will lead us? I certainly don’t claim too. But, we do know what the past looks like, and if we remained focused on antiquated ideas and strategies, we will remain stuck in this place while time moves forward without us.”
Mathez, Edmond A. James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology. Profile. American Museum of Natural History. n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.