Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Cultural influences

This post was prompted by the excellent BBC Drama "The Last Kingdom" which is a fictionalised account of the struggle between Alfred (The Great) and Danish invaders of England in the late 9th Century. The TV series is based on the books of Bernard Cornwell who, apart from many historical novels, has also written some non-fiction history books. So far as I can tell he makes a careful effort to portray the times he writes about -- in which case England in the late 800's AD was a violent age where life was cheap, the people used to brutality, and everyone lived in the hope of eternal life and the fear of damnation.

Of course some parts of the world could also be described in those terms but England and much of the Western World is a very different place. As someone who grew up in England I began to speculate how my life would be if I had instead lived there 1100 years earlier. In some ways I would not have been very different since human biology has hardly changed in that time span; so, presumably, my cognitive power would be much the same and my physical strength would have been about the same (until accident or disease brought me to an earlier end). But in almost every other way my life would have been completely different.

Now that may seem so obvious as to be hardly worth saying but I state it anyway because I think I am prone (and perhaps others too are prone) to an arrogance that needs to be reined in from time to time. In this arrogance I survey the world believing myself to be a thoughtful person, well read, capable of reaching conclusions stemming from an unbiased interpretation of what I assiduously try to find out about the world. I have opinions that I can defend and a naturalistic world-view which hangs together in a coherent framework. In other words, even though I am a card-carrying Skeptic, I believe that I have a good handle on what is real, what is important, and what can be dismissed as nonsense.  Most of all I think of this unified personal experience of the world as being of my own construction.

So, for example, I have a certain view about freedom of speech. I'm extremely liberal to the point that I would not ban anti-semitic opinions no matter how poisonous. And I hold these views because I have carefully considered as many implications of them as I can. To me they seem robust and defensible and they stem from some intrinsic part of me. My freedom of speech views are also coherent with many other views I hold - enlightened, informed and intelligent views.

But now comes the point. If I had been born, physically and mentally the same as I was born in 1946, but 1100 years previously I would certainly not  have grown up to be anything like the person I am today. Even if Dark Ages me had been educated as well as those times would allow, my intellect would more likely be engaged in the subtler aspects of Christian theology. I would accept without question that men should have greater societal privilege and power than women. If I ever thought about it all I would most likely share the then prevailing condemnatory views of homosexuals. And in many other ways I would have a totally different outlook on the world than 21st Century me. But one thing might not be different: I would still have an underlying certainty that my views were coherent, defensible and right.

I find this thought experiment somewhat alarming. It indicates that so many opinions that I thought were really my own are actually the product of the times and society in which I live. Should I conclude that these opinions are completely untrustworthy because, rather than having been reasoned through by me, they are as ephemeral as the current times and society?

Luckily I think that the answer to that pessimistic question is "No" (but I had better be much more humble about where my opinions come from). The first thing to say is that the times one lives in do not completely determine ones set of opinions; one only has to look around to see a great variety of different world views in the same society. Therefore if one has been careful and honest in working through all the facts available one may perhaps be in possession of a set of views that are pretty good compared to other world views around. Maybe that has happened in my case; I hope so but cannot be certain.

The second thing to say is that, despite many setbacks along the way, cultures do tend to evolve in the direction of most of the things I value: liberalism, secularism, skepticism, and scientific understandings. So even though there is no God to tell us that those values are absolute values, we might hope that humanity is selecting them in Darwinian fashion as conducive to the flourishing of our species.