Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Dark Ages Versus the Age of Discontent

Because I am somewhat of a "non-traditional student," my class schedule this semester would not immediately lead one to believe that I am an astronomy major. My classes are:

Astr 121 - Introductory Astrophysics II - Stars and Beyond

Phys 373 - Mathematical Methods for Physics II

Phil 233 - Philosophy in Literature

Phil 245 - Political and Social Philosophy I

Hist 111 - The Medieval World

You'll note the surprising dearth of astronomy courses. There are reasons for this, but detailing said reasons would make for a damn boring blog post, so I'm going to talk about something else (hopefully less boring) instead. (Worry not--the next two semesters will be as dense with astronomy courses as neutrons stars are with, uh, neutrons.)

Instead this post is about an interesting juxtaposition of beliefs I encountered in my fellow students. Both my medieval history and political philosophy instructors began class the first day by directly challenging the beliefs held by their students about a relevant subject (a surefire way not to convince the students of anything).

You can probably guess the common misconception in medieval history: the middle ages were a stagnant "dark age" where European savages meekly held onto life, all the while having any hint of progress quashed by the oppressive, aggressive ignorance of the Church.

So, that's false, of course. And I'm sure I'll learn a much more nuanced notion of what the medieval world was like during the next 13 weeks. But the idea that the middle ages were "dark" is a pretty commonly held belief, or at the very least the idea that people believe the middle ages were "dark" is a pretty commonly held belief.

My political philosophy instructor came at us from a different angle, however. He began the first lecture by presenting us with the idea that, compared to the societies in which the famous philosophers we're going to read about lived, we basically live in a utopia. Violence worldwide is lower than it's ever been at any time in history. GDP is leaps and bounds greater than it ever was in history. Yadda yadda.

This notion received a much cooler reception than the notion that the medieval period was not a dark age. I'll get to the difference between these two reactions in a moment, but the interesting point to me is that the default position to both ideas is one of disbelief. People do not believe the middle ages weren't hopelessly terrible; people do not believe now is (relatively) awesome.

At first blush, these two points of view would seem to contradict. How can we simultaneously believe that the medieval ages were terrible but that now is not terrible in comparison? We might believe that both periods were equally terrible, but that's not the general view held by my fellow students. To make the argument for the "dark ages," many pointed to the religious oppression that used to exist, but does no longer; to the authoritative regimes that used to rule, but do no longer; to the diseases that used to be so deadly, but are no longer. So they do not believe that each period is equally terrible.

Another possibility is that my fellow students have a nuanced position: that things used to suck really badly, but now suck only somewhat badly. But again, I don't believe this matches the professed opinions of my classmates. They were aggressively opposed to the notion that things don't suck now. They offered relatively little opposition to my history professor's arguments but jumped on everything my philosophy instructor said. Clearly, my fellow classmates feel very strongly that things aren't much better now. And that, I suspect, is the difference.

Daniel Kahneman and other psychologists have argued that when we are asked a difficult question, our brains take a shortcut by providing an answer to an easier question. We mentally change the question we are being asked to something that has a readily available answer.

So if the question we are asked is, "How good is civilization now compared to the way it used to be?", that's a relatively difficult question to answer. 7, maybe? A much easier question to answer, and one that is vaguely similar, is, "How do we feel about civilization now?" And we all have readily available opinions on the current state of things.

One of the reasons why the second question is easier to answer is because it doesn't ask us to evaluate the past. We haven't been to the ancient past; we don't know what it was really like. Unless we ourselves are historians, we're unlikely to have strong opinions about the past. And without strong opinions, we don't have easy access to "data" on what the past was like.

The other reason why the second question is easier to answer is because, of course, we have "data" about it. We don't necessarily have good statistics about what society today is like (although we might, and college students taking government classes and reading their preferred websites are likely to think they do), but we do have feelings about the present. I don't want to get particularly political here, but we're all inundated with news everyday telling us how terrible things are now, about racist cops, or the rape culture on college campuses, or the decaying moral fabric that holds America together, etc.

I have no desire to deny there are bad things now, that racism and sexism still exist, that our privacies are being eroded, that morally ambiguous wars are being waged, that much of the world still lives in abject poverty, or anything like that. Modern problems are real and worth dealing with, no doubt. What I'm getting at, however, is how those problems make us feel. They make us feel terrible, and we confuse that terrible feeling with what actually is.

Few of us feel terrible about the atrocities committed one hundred or one thousand years ago, however more terrible they may have been than atrocities committed now. You can argue, of course, that there's no reason to feel terrible about the past, because there's nothing we can do about it. We can change the world now, so our emotions do us some good in motivating that change. (The counter to this is something like the Holocaust Museum, which makes us feel absolutely awful on purpose so that we ensure nothing like it ever happens again.)

That's a valid argument, but it misses some nuance. Let's say that the world today is only half as bad as it was a hundred years ago, by some measure of Objective World Awesomeness (OWA). Do we think, then, that the feelings people had about the world a hundred years ago were twice as powerful as the feelings we have today? I sincerely doubt that. We feel to the maximum extent that we are capable about whatever we experience that we feel is deserving of the most emotion. Our feelings are characteristically not objective, essentially by definition.

The roundabout point I'm making here is that it is no surprise that we can believe the world today sucks while simultaneously believing that the world of the middle ages sucked, even if we don't believe they sucked equally or that today sucks only slightly less by comparison. The space for this seeming contradiction in our head comes from the fact that we evaluate world sucktitude by distinctly different measures--the present with emotions, the past with factoids. Our brains dispense with this cognitive dissonance by categorizing the past and present differently.

This isn't an unfounded hypothesis, and it's not untestable. To be sure, I suspect that the vast majority of students who come out of my medieval history class will do so saying, "Actually, it wasn't a dark age at all, because blah blah blah." But I suspect that while my fellow classmates may come away from the philosophy course knowing a good deal more about Locke, Hobbes, and Marx, few will leave it saying, "Actually, now doesn't suck quite so bad, because blah blah blah."

And I think this is a problem. I think we as humans too often substitute our feelings about a subject for objective evaluations of a subject. I say this from experience. To make this blog uncomfortably personal again, this is one of the big lessons I have learned in therapy: that the way I feel about something is not necessarily indicative of the way something actually is.

For a very long time, I believed I was incapable of change. This belief came from me having experienced superficially similar feelings for the last 10 or 15 years: loneliness, despair, self-hate, etc. And if my feelings were the same, that must mean I was the same, right? Well, no. I believed I could use my feelings about myself as an accurate measure of myself, but that belief was wrong (and kept me from combating my depression for a long time).

I suspect that most people fall prey to the same kinds of erroneous beliefs. (Most people don't go through a good chunk of their life depressed, though, and I suspect the difference there is that most people's erroneous, feeling-based beliefs aren't negative and inwardly focused.) And a good deal of psychological research backs me up on this. The beliefs we hold most strongly are not the ones backed up by the most evidence, but those associated with the strongest feelings.

What's the solution? Well, we could just make sure we brainwash people to believe the right things, but I don't think that tackles the central issue. I think a short-term solution is teaching people to be more critical of their own beliefs from a very early age, teaching people not to accept blindly what they feel to be true, perhaps even teaching people to actively distrust that which they feel most strongly about. The long-term solution is to modify human nature so that we no longer make this substitution error, but I have a feeling that's crazy.

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