The Fallacy of Assumed Progress

It is often heard in this advanced technological era the phrase: “Back then people actually believed…” This is said in a way that tries to demean our ancestors as if they were so much more ignorant than us about life because they didn’t have the scientific and technological advancements that we have. Now it may be true that they did not know as much about certain things then we do today. But people seem to mix up wisdom about life with discoveries that advance knowledge about certain things.

A brief allegory will illustrate the fallacy here. Say a group of travelers came upon a great mountain that had never been seen before. These travelers begin to speculate about this mountain. Some believe on the other side may be an entire new land that had yet to be claimed. Others believe the mountain is full of gold. Some believe the mountain is too high to climb, while others believe at the top of the mountain is the paradise man has always been looking for. These travelers, too tired by their journey, settle down at the base of the mountain and begin to build their families and homes. As time passes their descendants then begin to explore the mountain until they finally climb to the other side. After generations the secrets of the mountain are revealed and they are able to tell their children the truth of the mountain. Now, it can be said clearly that these later people know more than their fathers did about the mountain. But does it then follow that just because they know more about the mountain they know more about humanity, or God, or the afterlife?
The fallacy here, which we shall call the fallacy of assumed progress, is that people assume that the knowledge of more facts about certain subjects naturally make people more wise about life. But actually it could very well be the truth that those who knew more about the mountain had lost some wisdom in the process and actually knew less about the meaning of life.
But this fallacy is the prevalent fallacy of our era. We think since we know more about biology we know more about God then our ancestors did. We think since we have access to an internet of facts we know more about the purpose of existence. We think because we know more about the stars we know more about humanity. And with this fallacy the modern man goes about his life arrogantly looking back at his ancestors as if they have nothing to teach him.

How could grandpa know about the truth of life if he didn’t have satellite HD television?
I have seen many of these things often outlined in the advertising of the age, the part of this age that is by far the most revealing thing about modern man. For I have heard them say: “The old athlete only had water, but the modern athlete has Gatorade,” and therefore the modern athlete, though he uses a drink never used before by mankind, is a superior athlete to all who came before.

In another commercial a man who is selling cable television speaks about how great and advanced his deal is and refers to past generations as “but back then people still believed Moonshine had vitamins in it.” As if just because people believed this one fact that was wrong, then they naturally are not to be trusted about anything else. And there are many more examples such as: “People used to believe the earth was flat and was the center of all the universe; people used to stand on their heads believing their headaches would go away; people used to believe that a retarded person was possessed by a devil; people used to believe that thunder was the angry voice of the gods; people used to believe that if a woman peed after sex she wouldn’t get pregnant; and so on and so on.”

And all these things are said so as to demean the entire philosophy of our ancestors and to say that because we may know about these things we are naturally to be trusted in knowing more about all areas of life.
But couldn’t it also be said that in all our learning we have become mad? Couldn’t it be that in learning so much about what our ancestors thought was uncommon, we have lost all common sense? Couldn’t it be that the things that were obvious to them have now become unclear to us because we have become skeptics about all the things they believed.
To demonstrate let me turn the sayings around and put them like this: “People used to believe that a man and a woman went together simply because their pieces fit; people used to believe that a woman was supposed to stay with the child because her body carried the child for 9 months and then fed the child from her very breasts; people used to believe that a baby was a baby even before it was born and it didn’t matter what the mother had to say about it; people used to believe that the man should do the hard labor since the man was generally built for it; people used to believe that all serious criminals were practical sinners; and for that matter people used to believe that all people had the potential to be serious criminals; people used to believe that children should obey their parents and that parents should never obey their children; people used to believe in anything but themselves because they knew that they couldn’t trust themselves; people used to believe that the best wisdom didn’t come from new discoveries but from old men and women who had discovered how to live; and for that matter people believed the ancients were the wisest simply because they were not influenced by the new philosophies which were yet to be tried and proven; people used to believe that commitment came before love; people used to believe that marriage was a vow for life, simply because it was a vow you took for life; and for that matter people used to believe that you were supposed to get married to build a family; people used to believe in belief simply because there was nothing else to believe in.”
And the list could go on and on. To put it sharply, the ancients may have been superstitious about life, but at least their superstitions fit life. They may have thought the earth was flat, but this didn’t effect their sailing the ocean and exploring the land. They lived life as humanity had always lived it. But we in our technological and industrial age live life in ways that humans have never lived it, and I fear we are losing our humanity in the process.

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