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Ancient Wisdom Improves Science and Increases Knowledge


There’s strong evidence suggesting that the first step in any endeavor to better understand human behavior and find solutions to wicked problems should always be to look to ancient wisdom (e.g., theology, philosophy, history, and the collected wisdom of traditions, customs, institutions, etc. In short, experience), and to ask “Has anyone before us ever considered this issue?  What did they learn?” as Jonathan Haidt did in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.  It is ironic that our fixation on science as the only, or even the merely the primary, legitimate source of knowledge discourages this, and thus often harms the quest for knowledge.  The following three quotes help to make this case:

Theologians generally are delighted with the proof that the universe had a beginning, but astronomers are curiously upset. It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence.” (Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 1978, p. 16.)  Jastrow went on to say, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” (God and the Astronomers, p. 116.) It seems the Cosmic Egg that was the birth of our universe logically requires a Cosmic Chicken. (From All About Science: Second Law of Thermodynamics).

Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4). Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systemizing in chapter 6). Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapters 8 and 11).

Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital. ( From The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, pages 336 – 343.)

The irony is that it has taken a century for sociologists like Haidt, et al, to only begin to understand what the Founders already knew and applied so well in their statecraft. The Founders were haunted by the long history of brittle Republics of the past as chronicled by the likes of Livy and Tacitus. Indeed, if you were to read Haidt’s text then venture to read Madison’s Federalist 10 you would realize there is very little that Haidt learned in his extensive sociological studies that the Founders didn’t already divine from their deep reading of history.  (From Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump, and the Perils of Unexamined Political Rage by ForeFare Davis, National Review, August 20, 2015)

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