Ora Et Labora
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Ramblings on Epistemic Conservatism

The last few years should have finally laid to rest the idea of progress, but, I am ashamed to report, it is still doing as well as ever. Knowledge is inseparable from sensation, said the empiricists, and forever secured in the popular mind the idea that by increasing the number of exeperiences we are exposed to, by expanding the data points available to us, we will become wiser, that is, better able to discern between what is true and what is false, between fact and hearsay. And yet there is more division now about the basics of human life than ever before. What even constitutes a good human life? What measure of success should we apply to our lives? Do we know better the answer to these questions than in the past? Everyone says that we do, but no one can agree, so on aggregate, what progress is there? A society in which everyone smugly knows better than everyone else, actually knows nothing at all.

The old is/ought problem rears its head at every turn. It is virtually impossible to get from an account of what is to how one ought to behave, or what is right and wrong, without some sort of presupposed, undergirding system to interpret the facts presented to us. And when, in our information age, there is such a great quantity of facts that the context is impossible to find? The facts recede into darkness, and no interpretation of them can be found.

Perhaps this desire for complete knowledge, complete integration of all facts, is laudable. Perhaps there is something in it reminciscent of God, in whom all things cohere. But it is not human. No human can take up the divine mantel of coherence. We humans can judge only a few things at a time.

What I’m then presenting is an epistemic argument for conservatism. We know nothing. The (human) choices are nihilism or conservatism. I believe the information age has made it clear that the third choice, pressing boldly on into the future confident that we will eventually gain the ability to discern meaning in the noise, while perhaps laudable, is also laughable in the same way every utopian vision is.

I grew up, more or less, with the idea that conservatism is valuable because we know better than the moderns, because we have the knowledge of the past. In the war of the two truths, the past had won. Christian fundamentalism had a similar forward-facing model, in which the good of the past was presented rather as a stick to spank the future with. I sympathize with this point of view, because like many people, I like to think that I have all my intellectual ducks in a row, and that I’m better than others at herding them across the busy streets of modernity. But that doesn’t make it a particularly defensible position. It assumes that the knowledge of the past was something we knew “immediately,” for sure. On the contrary, the knowledge of the past doesn’t even exist, except to the degree that it represents the shared experiences of our ancestors. We have a duty to follow because we know nothing. Not because we know better, because we know nothing. So we take the duties that have given to us, and the burdens we carry, and the precepts of our forefathers, and carry them forward, adding to them a bit with our own experience. That is what it means to be human, and what it means to know.

“The progressives are wrong because they have departed from the truth.” I’d like to rephrase that. The progressives are wrong because they, in their pride, believed that the truth was fundamentally knowable outside of human ways of approaching it. Truth is a wonderful thing, but in itself, completely unknowable to mediate beings, and so as a result, the only thing to do is press forward doing human things. Don’t be a conservative because you know the teaching of the past to be true in itself: you don’t know what is true, you know only your own mediate state, and so the most human truth you have is what you have been given, what your fathers have imparted to you. Discovering what we can, passing it along, ackowledging our place, raising children, farming, giving birth, dying. This is the truth that we have: the life that we have been given. That life takes place in a history, and we ought to respect that history as our only real source of truth, because it is, and what is, is good.

To know truth is simply to live, for what is is true, and to live is to float in the stream of the past. Don’t try to get out of the stream, or you will die, just try to swim a little better than the man behind you, and day by day you will get a little further. This is what you were created for.

Welcome to the valley of the shadow of death, child. No one here knows the way out, but a path has been past down to us from our ancestors. It is your duty to walk it, so that the sunrise, in whatever manifestation it chooses, will meet you ready, and walking. Honor your father and mother, that you may live long in the land.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet, have believed.

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