And God Said Unto Moses, Planck, and Churchill

One question I just don’t get asked often enough is, “Ryan, what is your favorite Bible story?”  In complete seriousness, I would have to say for the past few years it has been that of the Hebrews wandering in the desert:

10 The Lord’s anger was aroused that day and he swore this oath: 11 ‘Because they have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of those who were twenty years old or more when they came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob— 12 not one except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they followed the Lord wholeheartedly.’ 13 The Lord’s anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the whole generation of those who had done evil in his sight was gone. –  Numbers 32:10-13

Not a common answer, for sure, so why is this such an instructive passage?  First, the modern attitude towards the Old Testament tends to be that of wry amusement at the story of God repeatedly smiting people who don’t learn their lesson.  This is in (justifiable) contrast to the understanding of the New Testament as the story of God loving, redeeming, and providing moral guidance.  In convenient bullet point format:

  • Old Testament: Smiting God
  • New Testament: Loving God

The mistake here is that this perspective focuses on both sections as stories about God.  While the above observation isn’t wrong, I think the more useful divide is to realize that the New Testament is, in fact, about a loving God, and the Old Testament is actually a story about people that features God in a supporting role (doing the smiting.)  In bullet point:

  • Old Testament: Sociology-Centered
  • New Testament: Theology-Centered

Now, viewing the OT as a study in sociology, let’s focus less on what God does and what he says about human nature:

he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the whole generation (everyone over 20 at the time of rebellion) of those who had done evil in his sight was gone

God essentially wrote off every adult living at the time of the rebellion.  This is more insightful and specific than the similar story of Noah and The Flood, which can be broken down into the culling of the evil and the salvation of the few righteous.  The Wandering is a less cut-and-dry separation of the evil from the righteous and rather of the recognition that the adults were set in their ways and the only way to “reset” the society was to allow the old habits to die out and raise a generation of children in new circumstances to yield different outcomes than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

A very similar, much more concise version of this lesson was spoken by German physicist Max Planck when he said:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. – Max Planck

For those unfamiliar with Planck, probably his greatest contribution was the discovery that would lead to quantum theory.  In attempting to understand the radiation of heat, he discovered that energy exists in discrete levels, and his work yielded the Planck Constant, which helps describe those levels.  This radically altered the field of physics and has created many of the problems modern scientists still work to understand and explain.  The takeaway?  The man has some credibility when it comes to speaking about the difficulty of introducing new ideas to smart people.

Planck spoke here about science rather than sociology, but the point remains the same.  In any generation of adults, few people are likely to have genuine changes of heart or mind.  Their experiences have worn deep (and legitimate) ruts into their thinking and world view.  Their emotions are too entwined with their thoughts.  Very few people are willing or able to adjust their point of view as the world changes around them.  (In my terms, they are unwilling/unable to correct for their intellectual parallax.)

As Louis CK explains (17:00-18:35) (and here), there are still people alive today who remember when segregation was the law of the land, and it is very difficult for people who grew up before and after the peak of the Civil Rights movement to comprehend one another’s experiences and worldview.  It’s why young people cringe when their grandparents use outdated terms that, while not considered racial slurs, occupy a very awkward place in our lexicon.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has not seen fit to change its name, even though the use of the phrase “colored people” would be a faux pax.  (Interestingly, “people of color” is acceptable, but usually only when used by “people of color”).  Same goes for the United Negro College Fund.  The people using these terms aren’t really going to find themselves back in the workplace where they have to change their ways…they will eventually pass on and the linguistic tendencies will end as well.

So, with all that in mind, it’s time to tackle this popular Churchill quote:

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else. – Winston Churchill

There is a sort of gallows-humor optimism to this quote that runs in the same vein as the Hebrews in the desert and Max Planck’s quote.  It is also the reason that, despite appearances to the contrary, I consider myself an optimist and view The Revolution as a positive thing; society as a whole tends to learn only from experience, which is why the various quotes on the importance of remembering our history and learning from it cannot be overstated or repeated often enough.

While I won’t take this train of thought too much farther tonight, I will add that this is why it is enormously important that America both simplify its legal code and improve its education.  People who don’t understand that paying into Social Security is not analogous to paying into a personal account like a 401(k) or an IRA (ie it is not “your money” any more and you will never “get it back”) will not understand that the current system is not sustainable.  You can’t understand the future if you don’t understand the present.  Similarly, voters who aren’t aware that ObamaCare and the Affordable Care Act are one-and-the-same cannot possibly be evaluating and voting on it in any meaningful way; they will only be able to form a realistic opinion after experiencing both its positives and negatives.  To tie back to my point about experience; until we have a system people can understand conceptually, we will continue to learn only through trial and error, and the occasional smiting by the consequences of our mistakes.

3 thoughts on “And God Said Unto Moses, Planck, and Churchill

  1. Pingback: Reality Is Not Mocked | iParallax

  2. Pingback: Reading Roundup: 2013-11-03 | iParallax

  3. Pingback: Reflection on Moldbug’s “Open Letter” | iParallax

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