Progress in the Truth

Individuals start out knowing nothing, and then they learn things over time, which constitutes progress in the knowledge of the truth.  Of course sometimes they adopt false views, but even false views contain some truth. And sometimes they regress, as by forgetting some truth that they knew, or by abandoning true views and adopting false ones. But surely for most people most of the time, they are learning new things, refining true views, or improving false views so that they are less false. Naturally this will not apply to everyone at all times, but surely it is the norm.

This growth in knowledge will automatically carry over to some degree to communities and institutions, and to humanity as a whole, insofar as each of these is composed of individuals. However, this applies mainly over short periods of time, and there is no such guarantee for communities over longer periods, since individuals die and are replaced by other individuals who need to learn everything over again.

Over time, people have devised ways to overcome this problem to a greater or lesser extent, beginning with tradition. The wise man who has arrived at some knowledge by experience can pass it on to others simply by telling them about it, without the need for everyone to have the same experience. However, this is an imperfect method of transmission, since without experience the thing is not known as well, and sometimes the tradition is distorted, misinterpreted, or ultimately forgotten. Writing was a still stronger means of passing on knowledge, preserving knowledge intact for longer periods of time and allowing a greater possibility for building on the knowledge of the past. The internet is a still stronger means, more or less in the same vein, with a greater guarantee of common knowledge over the entire planet. Thus for example many Eastern European countries under communism used textbooks stating that Galileo was burned at the stake, a historical falsehood. With the internet it becomes easier to eliminate mistakes of this kind.

There are also protocols that apply mainly to certain topics, more convincing ways to transmit truth so that all or the great majority accept it. Thus mathematics and various sciences have become more or less universal, not in the sense that everyone knows them, but in the sense that those who study them basically agree on the conclusions. This allows for the possibility of progress in mathematics, physics, and the like over periods of time much longer than a human lifetime.

There are also many areas which do not have such protocols, such as religion, philosophy, politics, ethics, and the like. This does not mean that there has been no progress in these areas, but it may mean that there has been less. Thus the fact that polytheism is now very uncommon suggests progress in religion.

There are various possible ways that the transmission of truth might be improved in the future, both in general and in regard to specific topics. But even if these ways are not devised, the worst that can happen is that certain areas will stagnate on account of the original problem mentioned, the fact that individuals die and are replaced by others. There is no reason to believe that in these areas considered overall, knowledge will decrease over long periods of time. This means that the overall trend will be one of growth in the truth (since the combination of stagnating areas and growing areas will be an overall trend of growth).

Another way to summarize all of this is that “ways of learning the truth” and “ways of transmitting the truth to future generations” are two technologies, and humanity has been improving both of these technologies, resulting in overall growth in the truth for humanity.

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11 thoughts on “Progress in the Truth

  1. This is basically true as far as it goes,but it takes into consideration only the pursuit of truth as such, and does not consider human tendencies that oppose it. For instance, there are very strong human tendencies that make overall progress in, e.g. sexual ethics, quite difficult indeed, and further make it so that even real progress in knowledge does not translate into progress in practice.

    More generally, neither progress in ways of learning the truth nor progress in ways of transmitting it necessarily implies progress in desiring to know the truth, and indeed it is not at all clear that there has been any such progress overall in recorded history. Thus, in areas in which natural human desires are opposed to the truth, there will not necessarily be progress (at least not in terms of numbers of people; it is possible those who do in fact seek the truth will over time have better opinions about such things).

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  2. These are both good points. The post shows the overall picture of growth, but this of course is consistent with local areas of stagnation or even regression, even over relatively long periods of time.

    In regard to sexual ethics, as I said in the post Beati Mundo Corde, the desire for sexual pleasure leads people astray in their judgments, but this is nothing new in itself. If things have gotten worse (in terms of people’s opinions about this), the most likely reason is technology that reduces the physical dangers of sex, as well as contraception. However, since the physical dangers are only reduced and not eliminated, since the emotional dangers are not even reduced, for reasons of natural selection, and for a number of other reasons, it is likely that the present situation will not be stable over extremely long periods of time. One sign of this is that the condemnation of pedophilia has gotten stronger over time, rather than weaker. Even if the situation is stable, however, this only implies stagnation, rather than regression, over the long term, and only in this particular area. Of course there may be other reasons that would apply to certain other areas.

    Regarding progress in knowledge translating into progress in practice, there is an art of getting yourself to do what you believe is right. This is a part of the art mentioned by St. Gregory Nazianzen: “For the guiding of man, the most variable and manifold of creatures, seems to me in very deed to be the art of arts and science of sciences. Any one may recognize this, by comparing the work of the physician of souls with the treatment of the body; and noticing that, laborious as the latter is, ours is more laborious, and of more consequence, from the nature of its subject matter, the power of its science, and the object of its exercise.” This is, as he says, an extremely difficult art, but it is indeed an art, and there is no special reason to doubt that it can be improved over time like other arts. Insofar as this is true it would be possible to improve the translation of knowledge into practice.

    It is true that the sorts of progress mentioned do not necessarily cause progress in desiring to know the truth, as you say. The reason for this is that how to learn the truth, how to transmit the truth, and even how to to translate knowledge into practice are themselves arts or sciences which can be improved, but a desire is not. Instead, the desire to know the truth is a part of human nature, and so it is relatively stable. And indeed, it is not a very strong desire in human beings compared to many other desires. Thus Ian Morris says in his book “Why the West Rules” that “change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things,” not by people looking for the truth.

    The desire to know the truth could change over geological timescales by way of natural selection, but it is unlikely to change much over historical timescales, and in any case it could just as easily decrease as increase by this kind of selection, depending on what was useful at the time. It can also differ by individual personality or by contextual reasons, but this will not lead to an overall increase or decrease of such desire. It could also be changed in the future by genetic modification or similar technological means, but currently it is not clear that this would be a good idea.

    The ultimate consequences of the limitations of people’s desire to know the truth is not yet clear. It is true that it differs by subject area, and particularly when there are other desires which are opposed to knowledge of the truth in some matters, but there is also at least a little bit of tendency for truth to spread from one area (where people want to know the truth or at least do not mind knowing it) to other areas (even if they would prefer not to know the truth in those matters.) So it is possible that over the longest time periods, people will be forced to recognize the truth even in those areas where they would prefer not to do so. This of course is rather speculative.

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  3. […] Perhaps you know a little about the general circumstances of your family two hundred years ago, or even three or four hundred years ago, based on historical records, rather than personal reporting, but it cannot be very much, and it would have been even less for those in the past, due to progress in the science of history. […]

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