Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (Groundhog Day edition)

9 February 2008

N.B. Must remember not to strive for so many details per post. Caused me to miss this date by a week and subsequent intended Chinese New Year/Tet festival post on lunar calendars. Oh, well. Next time.

Reading about collapses of civilization with presentations ranging from essentially ineluctable (Scaramouche) to nearly apocalyptic (The Handmaid’s Tale) to somewhere in between (The Dream of Scipio) highlights many differences of opinion and of history. All authors seem to agree, though, with Robert Wright’s description of civilization and its attendant technology. Put succinctly, they are sort of like the gophers in Caddyshack. Just when you think they’ve been eradicated somewhere, they pop up in another spot altogether.

This analogy (or at least, its desired thesis) is sustained by Dick Teresi’s book Lost Discoveries. Teresi goes further, however, in describing how Islamic, Central Asian, and Chinese cultures not only succored the gophers of knowledge after they were driven from Europe, but aided their growth and encouraged them to reproduce. One might even stretch the analogy so far as science fiction, seeing Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as an immense, ideal habitat for space gophers.

However that may be, transmission of knowledge and values seems always to have been an individual, rather than an institutional activity. Though seemingly a fragile state of affairs, this isn’t necessarily a lamentable one, as it has a perfect record of success so far. Also, the continued emphasis and even reliance on personal responsibility are good things. It does make the study of the gopher trails more difficult, however. Since we can’t say how, when, or by whom the magnetic compass or the drop spindle were invented, it is pretty tough to vigorously promote like developments, or even pin down the process involved.

A further difficulty that results is that the waters become muddied for the provenance of knowledge. For instance, if the Kensington Runestone is legit, what about the 1763/1418 map? Or, once we have admitted that we can’t prove, in a logical sense, that the moai of Rapa Nui weren’t built by aliens, how can we still contend that the Cahokia mounds were built by hand? It is just such an epistomological condition that makes a great market for profiteers of many sorts. And it is an area where aspiring historians and philosophers of science would do well to understand some of the work done to demarcate good knowledge from bad. By far the best essay into this craft I’ve come across, bar none, is Deborah Lipstadt‘s first two chapters in the book Denying the Holocaust. The rest is no less powerful, but she sketches early on how each of us, through the rigor of our own minds, can help save civilization.

Here / the lesson.



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