Why Appeals To “Progress” Are Empty

If these “new advances in the field” are so obvious, it should be easy to defend them.


Here is a type of argument I do not like, but seem to be greeted with a lot:

Your position is so dated. Nobody thinks that anymore, it’s based on premises that were discredited years ago. You’re clearly unaware of recent advances in the field. We have progressed so much since then. 

At first glance, this looks like a somewhat legitimate line of response. After all, if my premises have been discredited, my arguments certainly collapse. But it should go without saying that the assertion that my premise are discredited is not, in itself, proof that they are discredited.

And yet, statements like these seem to occur a lot. I recently wrote an article defending the idea that absolute free speech should be guaranteed in common spaces. In response, a commenter told me that I was relying on an “outmoded epistemology.” But, as usual, asserting that the epistemology is outmoded was treated as sufficient, with no necessity of explaining why it is actually so.

My complaint here is that “datedness” is not justifiable as a criterion for evaluating anything. It may well be that, when someone tells me I am just rehashing 1920s positivist dogmas that have since been disproven, that is exactly what I am doing. But for anyone to be persuaded, we need to know how they were disproven so we can evaluate whether they were correctly disproven.

When I issue a statement on a subject in which I am not a specialist, it is perfectly possible (in fact, even likely), that there are recent advances in the field of which I am unaware. Work by specialists takes some time to diffuse to a broader public. But “new discovery X disproves your assertion because of Y” is a different argument than simply stating “there are new discoveries that disprove your assertions.” The latter does not consist of actually showing why an argument is incorrect, but posits a form of secret knowledge, that one insists would prove the argument incorrect if it were revealed (but which is not revealed).

One of my favorite phrases, which I can’t remember the source of, is “arguments so old they’ve forgotten all the answers to them.” I tend to think that, often, we’re told that a position is false and outmoded, but are never told why it’s false and outmoded, thus the only thing we know is the bare unsupported assertion that it’s false and outmoded.

Acknowledging this should bring discomfort. It means that frequently, we know what we think without knowing why we think it. We know that the theory of evolution is accepted, but if we were asked by a skeptic to prove it, many of us would struggle. Or we know that the theory of gravity is true, but if Aristotle asked us why his own theory had been discredited, we would have a hard time arguing the point with him.

“We have moved on” simply isn’t much of an argument. That’s because it could be used to justify any status quo, however pernicious. The Khmer Rouge could explain that all knowledge was outmoded, that a new historical era had begun, and that those who dissented were simply ignorant of historical progress. Stalin could say that bourgeois democracy was a discredited concept, and Hitler could say that racial equality was a long-discarded fantasy.

The weakness of appeals to progress should unsettle “progressives.” After all, the remaining opponents of gay marriage are told that they are “on the wrong side of history” and that “the debate has been had.” But the fact that a consensus has been reached does not mean that it can be rationally supported. Sometimes history creates nightmares. Nothing is justified by the mere fact that it happens to be what history has spat out at that particular moment.

But this type of argument upsets me for another reason: it deliberately sets out to make other people feel as if they are so stupid, so totally out of the loop, that they don’t even merit a response. Every time I am told that I have some sort of “totally discredited epistemology,” I start to question my entire worldview. I wonder whether I am just dumb, and have missed something obvious and huge. After all, the argument is essentially that everyone now knows this is false, so much so that there is no need even to explain it.

All my life, the intellectual tendency I have hated the most is the tendency to treat knowledge as the privilege of the few, and to sneer at people who supposedly do not have it. Frequently, this involves berating people for not knowing things, even as you refuse to actually explain what the things are. Richard Dawkins does this, scoffing at religious myths while being totally uninterested in presenting the basic philosophy of science in a careful, compassionate, and thoughtful way (one that treats objections seriously instead of writing them off with a snort of derision). Leftist activists do it, chastising people for offenses, and then telling them that it is “not the job” of the activist to explain why the person is wrong. Relativists do it, scoffing at old-fashioned “scientism” without actually explaining their objections. Anyone who invokes a consensus in order to silence questions, while being unwilling to actually justify the consensus belief itself, is both asking people to believe things for irrational reasons (believe it because it’s what we think nowadays) and making people feel excluded for having “missed the boat” on whatever the new intellectual fad is.

I also don’t like the rhetoric that condemns “dated” and “long since discarded” beliefs because there’s always a chance (just a chance) that the discarded beliefs were gotten rid of for no good reason, and that by now nobody really remembers why the decision was made. I tend to be “old-fashioned” in my thinking sometimes, in that I believe many widely-held contemporary beliefs among my peers on the left (disdain for “reason,” skepticism of “free speech,” rejection of “The Enlightenment,” etc.) are wrong-headed, and that people of previous generations had better conceptions, to which we should return.

But these points are frequently brushed away with appeals to historical progress. Old ideas are bad ideas, they are stale and therefore need replacing. But the fact that a broad consensus has developed against a notion is not proof that it’s false or worthless. At the very least, the claim needs to be justified with something beyond “the debate is settled, you’re discredited, the end.” If there have been recent advances in the field, you must say what they are, and whether they were any good.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.