Friday, July 1, 2016

The Golden Age Fallacy

Blogging is difficult. It is easy to find topics to write about but not so easy to do the necessary reflection that turns the topic into something more meaningful than a news item. I am not a journalist, but a blogger, a word that rhymes with plodder. Blogging takes much time and effort., at least for me. It does not spring out of my mind overnight, although some of my best thoughts originate then or grow there. This is just my way of indicating the process is more arduous than it may seem. So, if I do not write as regularly as you and I might like, be patient with me. It takes a while. The best is yet to come!

What do the "Leave" voters in the recent Brexit vote, the supporters of Donald Trump in the US, the troops of Daesh (aka. ISIS or ISIL), the Russians who adore Putin, and not to forget those in many churches all over the world who oppose same-sex relationships, all have in common? Among other things, they are victims of the Golden Age Fallacy.

This is the belief that things were better in the past,.in a Golden Age. It is a fallacy because we make an invalid inference, in this case from what ought to was. Another form of this fallacy is called the Primitivist Fallacy in which an invalid inference is made from was to ought. This sometimes involve a return to nature, as in the thought of Jacques Rousseau. The result is the same: the focus is exclusively on the past.

This fallacy is committed by conservatives of all kinds who conclude that, since the past was better than the present and since we live in an age of decadence and decline, we should try to turn the clock back to a golden age. or at least retain as much of that age as possible. Such an age never existed, in spite of the many eras that go by that name.

Remember when you were a child and the world wasn’t so complicated and messed up as it is today? Many of us have had this fantasy, We have a deep-felt nostalgia for a long-lost, idyllic past when life was simpler and we did not have to deal all the problems we face today. Discontent with the present causes many to look back for concrete examples of better times. But the argument for this involves a fallacy since we confuse what was with what ought to be.

This is wrong on at least two levels. First, that simpler or better past never existed. Each age has its own problems and difficulties, Second, even if such a simpler past had existed, we can never go back to it. One cannot enter the same river twice, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it.

The idea of a Golden Age first appears in the Greek poet Hesiod, who identified five ages, the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the Iron Age. The Roman poet Ovid simplified these age to four, each age being worse than the one that went before, The Golden Age was the best. Because of this constant decline, by definition, one is never in a Golden Age. The Bible uses this image of decline in Daniel 2.

Every country has had its own Golden Age. Sometimes, this has been called the "Good old days,"a term that is tinged with more than a bit of nostalgia, so much so that it becomes a fallacy. It is important to distinguish between a fallacy and legitimate comparisons with the past. Not every positive appraisal of the past is wrong, because the world really has changed and not always for the better. It's just that the past too has always been complex and uneven, and no period or people have ever had a monopoly on virtue.

We all have  selective memories. We tend to remember only what we want to remember. That is why the memories of our childhood are so often distorted. Our memories are also limited in scope; our time frame is so short that we are unable to get the right perspective. We need the divine perspective if we are to see everything correctly. Only God does so, since for him the past, present, and future are the same.

Terry Pratchett, the British fantasy/science fiction writer and humorist/satirist, wrote this delightful piece in 199 in which he spoofs the limited perspective that all mortals have. His Discworld, of which this is a part, may have influenced the author of the Harry Potter series. Discworld is a fantasy that is no more real than any Golden Age one, nevertheless, there are lessons that  we can learn here. Also, it adds a note of whimsy to this otherwise serious topic,

The sun was near the horizon. The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching.
"You don't get the kind of sun now that you used to get," one of them said.
"You're right there. We had proper sun in the good old hours. It were all yellow. None of this red stuff.
"It were higher too."
"It was. You're right."
"And nymphs and larvae showed you a bit of respect."
"They did. They did," said the other mayfly vehemently.
"I reckon, if mayflies these hours behaved a bit better, we’d still be having proper sun."
The younger mayflies listened politely.
"I remember," said one of the oldest mayflies, "when all this was fields, as far as you could see."
The younger mayflies looked around.
"It’s still fields," one of them ventured, after a polite interval.
"I remember when it was better fields," said the old mayfly sharply.
"Yeah," said his colleague. "And there was a cow."
"That’s right! You’re right! I remember that cow! Stood right over there for, oh, forty, fifty minutes. It was brown, as I recall."
"You don’t get cows like that these hours." …
"What were we doing before we were talking about the sun?"
"Zigzagging aimlessly over the water," said one of the young flies. This was a fair bet in any case.
"No, before that."
"Er … you were telling us about the Great Trout."
"Ah. Yes. Right. The Trout. Well, you see, if you’ve been a good mayfly, zigzagging up and down properly—"
"—taking heed of your elders and betters—"
"—then eventually the Great Trout—"
"Yes?" said one of the younger mayflies.
There was no reply.
"The Great Trout what?" said another mayfly, nervously.
They looked down at a series of expanding concentric rings on the water.
"The holy sign!" said a mayfly. "I remember being told about that! A Great Circle in the water! Thus shall be the sign of the Great Trout!"


                                          The  Golden Age (fresco by Pietro da Cortona)

The Golden Age Fallacy has also been called the Nostalgic Fallacy  By whatever name it is known, it is wrong. In Russia, even today, there is a nostalgia for strong leaders, people like Stalin. This explains Putin's popularity at home, especially among elderly Russians but also among te young. This nostalgia lies deep in the Russian psyche.

Donald Trump has capitalized on a similar nostalgia with his campaign slogan to "Make America Great Again." Unfortunately, he does not specify when precisely America was great; he simply assumes it was. This is part and parcel of American exceptionalism. The US is the greatest and most powerful nation in the world. And, if it is not at the moment, it should be.

Trump uses the fear of some specified threats to the US and its people to bolster his fallacious argument. He has been successful thus far in his campaign. Whether it will bring him all the way to the White House or not remains to be seen. I hope not! His success will come at the expense of countless Muslims, Mexicans, and whoever else he can tar and feather before November. because they supposedly pose a threat.

The leaders of the Brexit vote were equally evasive in their campaign to have the United Kingdom leave Europe. What country did they have in mind with their demand to take our country back. Fifty years ago or five hundred? Are they nostalgic about post-WWII Britain, the Victorian era, or the Elizabethan? Or are they afraid, as the US is, about uncontrolled immigration?

What about Daesh? They too are looking to the past, to the re-establishment of the Caliphate that marked an era when Islamic nations were powerful and Muslims the intellectual leaders of their age. Their retrospective ideology has managed to captivate thousands of young men and women, many of whom know little about Islam but are, nevertheless, willing to sacrifice their lives for this cause.

What about Christians who are opposed to same-sex relationships because they regard such relationships as evil and sinful? In churches everywhere they too look back at a time when such relationships were largely unknown and, if mentioned, were quickly dismissed. LGBT was unheard of.

The beliefs of many Christians were not questioned in those not-so-long-ago eras that were marked by theological and moral certainties. This was true until recently in many churches all over the world. Some churches in Africa and Asia are still unwilling to tolerate what they regard as unbiblical behavior.

These are all rational people who know that older is not necessarily better, but many are taken in by this fallacy and seem no longer able to reason with any degree of reliability. Whatever else may be motivating them, this fallacy in all its variations and under diverse names plays a role.

The supposed simplicity of the past with its many certainties is attractive to people all over the globe, coming from every nation, every religion. and every philosophy. They tend to be conservative in the sense that they prefer the traditional over the new. They are fearful of change, regarding change as a threat to the established order that they have inherited from previous generations.

Change is not necessarily bad. While change for the sake of change can be wrong, the inability or even reluctance to change is not healthy, especially if change is necessary. We must not idolize the past, since not everything in the past was necessarily good. Nor should we idolize the future by wanting to change everything. That too is a fallacy, one that we must studiously avoid.

Yet change is inevitable, Let us not resort to fallacies in order to hide these changes nor to supposed certainties, hallowed by age, to interdict those who advocate change. Churches are notorious for this. In a previous century they defended slavery as biblical. The apartheid regime in South Africa did the same to perpetuate their hideous ideology.

Only recently did my own denomination allow divorced people to be members of the church in good standing. But this privilege is not yet accorded to same-sex couple who are married. In all these instances, the Bible was touted as the reason why change should not be permitted. Only reluctantly, did change come about. In some cases, it still has not happened, I belong to an older generation, but I recognize the need for change, I am not afraid of the future and thus I am willing to let go of the past.

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