Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What Does Longevity Tell us?

There’s a response that you see fairly often when discussing Science or Politics: Someone eventually says something to the effect of “We've been doing it this way for years,” or “well this has always been the case.” And this is supposed to settle the matter. But what is this sort of argument really saying? At best, it seems to suggest that a large group of people, or at least the ones in power, have agreed about something for a good length of time. Which is certainly impressive given the wide array of opinions in the world. But at worst, it says next to nothing about the quality, utility or rightness of the longstanding argument or activity.
In Philosophy, this sort of argument is referred to as an “Appeal to Tradition.” It is a fallacy (an invalid argument) that most philosophers will dismiss immediately because by itself, tradition, says nothing about quality. A number of things have withstood the test of time before. It was widely held that the Earth was flat, for instance. Racism and slavery had existed for thousands of years before people realized that they were wrong. Certainly, good things have lasted lifetimes as well. Art, Theatre, Mathematics, Philosophy, etc.But simply existing, or being practiced for a long time just does not say enough about the quality of these things or practices.
The Appeal to Tradition Fallacy has been used for years. It comes to mind again now that Gay Marriage has been legalized in Minnesota. It comes to mind because opponents of Gay Marriage have deemed their view of marriage as “Traditional Marriage.” Which it is, sure. Traditionally, marriage has been only legal for Heterosexual couples. But proponents of Traditional Marriage will often use this phrase as both the title and body of their argument. Thinking that because theirs is the view that’s been held for years, that makes it more likely to be the correct view. And it very well may be the correct view, but they would need to provide a great deal more evidence to support that assertion than just pointing to its longevity.
The other main stage I’ve seen this sort of reasoning used is in Science vs Religion debates. A stock argument against Science is that it is not constant. It changes its views so frequently that it can’t be trusted. “First, the Earth is flat, then it is round? Now it’s billions of years old...? etc.” Whereas religion has held the same beliefs and opinions, more or less, for thousands of years, and therefore, it must be more correct about the state of the Universe than Science is. Clearly, the same arguments can be made to show why this is not a reliable way to reason as well.
So why continue using this widely unreliable type of argument? Well I think there’s a certain intuitive nature to it. We are a tradition centric people. Even within familial units. We traditionalize everything, from holidays to Tuesday night game nights. But as any person whose familial status has changed will tell you, sometimes traditions change or get replaced by new traditions. And more often than not, the new traditions are better than the old.

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