When I was a kid, I scored fairly well on IQ and aptitude tests. I have an extensive education. I’ve got 51 years under my belt (I've got a lot of belt), twenty years of marriage, four kids, and I’m an avid student of philosophy.
And I’m an idiot.
I’m not talking false modesty here. Most of you know exactly what I mean. For all my intelligence, experience, and education, I’m clueless about an awful lot. I know nothing about military history, or most of economics … heck, there are libraries of philosophy (my supposed specialty) that I’ve never studied or even read. I’ve utterly missed tons of literature, plays, poetry, essays, novels, and so on. And that’s just the written works in English. I know almost nothing about literature of other languages. I couldn’t name a single Chinese author, except for Confucius and I never actually read anything by him. I studied Spanish and German, and yes, when they sent me to Central America and Germany, I could actually speak it – after being there for a couple months. (I forgot it all within a week of coming back to the US.)
I’m not sure, but I think I took calculus in college. I don’t know a volt from a watt, a boson from a bison, and the inside of the human body is too disgusting to identify, never mind what to do with any of it. Engineering? Kidding me, right? Physics, schmysics.
Socrates taught that wisdom is knowing that you don’t know. I suppose that being more and more conscious of my ignorance fits that criterion. When I watched Thomas Sowell on the recent Uncommon Knowledge talking about the arrogance of experts, I was delighted. He made perfect sense to me.
You see, if I’m still an idiot with all my advantages in education and experience, then how can all these pundits, social observers, media analysts, editorialists, and the army of self-appointed experts be any less idiot than me? They’re just as dumb as I am, if not worse.
A classic example, that just happened recently … Linda Greenhouse and Jeffrey Toobin (both of whom have law degrees, I believe) have covered the Supreme Court for years, and yet they were flabbergasted that the justices might object to the argument that Congress has no regulatory constraints. Their surprise was genuine. In other words … for all their education and experience (and they are smart people, give them credit) they didn’t know what they thought they knew.
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You knew that, of course. No individual can know everything. And it’s no surprise that in the modern world, with its torrent of information overload, no one expects any individual to have a grasp of more than a fraction of it all.
But for the moment, I’d like you to take a moment to reflect on something that struck me today. Consider this:
- Today, Barack Obama claimed that his opinion on same-sex marriage had “evolved.” Sure, he was trying to frame it politically, but even so, he framed it as an "evolution." As if he's smarter and wiser now about the issue ...
- Shep Smith of FoxNews said that he was glad the president had come into the twenty-first century.
- More than a few pundits have claimed that it’s about time we finally “achieved” a little maturity on this issue.
But if Socrates is right, and true wisdom is accepting one's own ignorance ... what does that say about "progress?" As individuals, of course, we recognize our personal idiocy. But the arrogance of progress is that no matter how stupid individuals are, progressives have confidence that society (as a whole) is on a one-way trajectory toward comprehensive wisdom. Progressives trust that society is growing collectively smarter and wiser.
Those who claim that same-sex marriage is an “evolution” make the implicit argument that society is growing wiser because it’s more “experienced.” But what counts as experience? Does the mere passing of time make experience?
There are other issues where time has passed and values have “evolved” away from centuries-old traditions. Sexual ethics are a case in point. Time has passed. The majority now commonly accepts divorce, and as the newer generations come along, they’re more tolerant of hooking up, friends with benefits, and treating sex as fun. Tradition treats it as sacred, but sanctity is apparently for the birds.
Does anyone want to argue that we’ve become “wiser” sexually?
Progressives take it for granted that even though individuals are ignorant, society is on pace to achieve more and more wisdom. But society isn’t some magical beast apart from individuals. Society is just the sum of individuals. And if individuals are idiots (and as we grow older we’re more conscious of our idiocy), then from where comes the confidence in the wisdom of progress?
A question, therefore: what guarantees (or even serves as evidence) that the 21st century is wiser that the 20th? Who says we’re getting wiser? And why?