NOTE: I am trying to fix the links in a number of old posts, and have reproduced a number of essays from my now defunct blog in order to allow myself to create working links to them.
I was reading a new blog today, when I ran across a very common mistake. The author, a dedicated liberal, raised the familiar objection that conservatism is founded on "19th century ideas". Not only is this a familiar complaint against conservatism, but it is raised against a number of other theories. For example, when the gold standard is mentioned one will often hear it maligned as a 19th century idea.
My question is this: What does age have to do with validity? Why should an old argument be considered less true than a new one?
The problem, I think, comes from an essential misunderstanding of how science works. It is true that science builds upon old ideas to establish new truths, and that sometimes the new truths prove old beliefs false, but that does not in any way show that new ideas are better than old. For example, the theory of the aether, the medium through which light travels was established some time later than the theory of the conservation of momentum, yet the aether has been proved false, while the conservation of momentum is still true.
Of course, we could argue the opposite just as easily. For example, Newton's mechanics was modified by Einstein's transformations, though Newton is still close enough to the truth at speeds not approaching that of light. Likewise older models of the atom have been disproved by newer models. But that does not hold in every case. Sometimes newer theories are true, sometimes older.
And that is my point. There is no clear correlation between age and truth or falsehood. Old theories can be true, so can new, there is no relation between the two.
But there is another issue here which does not apply in most of the physical sciences. Social sciences, being interested in human nature are reflective. Yes, we now conduct experiments, but, for the most part, human nature can be divined through thought alone, and does not require complex experiments, elaborate tools, or even difficult mathematics. So, while in the physical science we have been limited in divining the nature of the universe by our tools, both physical and mathematical, in the social sciences, we have been able to examine human nature just as well as long as we have possessed the language to do so. Aristotle's insights into human nature are just as valid, maybe more so, than the best psychological researcher of today.
And that is true of politics, economics, philosophy, all the sciences which interest themselves with human nature and the interaction of man.
If Ovid or Dostoyevsky or Rumi or Saint Augustine can have insight into man equal to any thinker today, why does it matter when a theory was developed? Has human nature changed since the 19th century? Have we started to interact in ways we did not during the 19th century? (And, no technology does not really change the way we interact, just the medium.) So, if man is the same, and we do the same things, why do we dismiss theories based on no more than their age?
The reason is simple, it is the age old argument of liberals, not heard so often any more, that liberalism is "scientific" while conservatism is old fashioned and primitive. While they no longer explicitly say it, this still is behind a lot of liberal thought, and this absurd theory, which I have dealt with elsewhere (and here as well), is part of why they so readily dismiss conservatives as "stodgy" and "behind the times", and why they see "old" as a sufficient argument.
However, the truth does not care when it is discovered, and, once discovered, it does not get any younger. So, unless you are willing to give truth a shelf life, and say a truth, once discovered eventually spoils and needs to be discovered again, at some point all truths will be "old". The only way to avoid "old" truths is never to discover any at all, otherwise, after they are found, all truths will eventually become old.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/08/27.