The Value of Human Experience & The Test of Time

The modern worldview has little need for human experience as a means of knowing truth. At best, the human experience is second class, it is enjoyable and personally enriching but is not considered a reliable method of determining objective truth. However, humanity managed to survive and even thrive before the development of science. How can human experience be insufficient and unreliable, yet has been the principal guide through humanity's chaotic history which has included war, famine, disease, and natural disasters for millenia?

The elevation of science and reason has demoted the value of literature, music, the arts, tradition and religion. While the humanities are typically viewed as enriching to human life, they are typically no longer regarded as the basis for rational, reasonable decision making. The humanities have almost entirely given way to scientific analysis and reason in public debate. This is largely the product of enlightenment thinking and is widely regarded as progress.

However, the relegation of human experience to second-class knowledge is anything but progress. At their best, the humanities represent a condensation or preservation of truth discovered through lived experiences, tested against time. Works that endure haved found relevance from generation to generation, a testament to their value and the truth within. Though the humanities are not likely to give much insight into how an engine works or why a stone falls to the ground, they do shed light on how people should live and relate to each other.

Consider the writings of William Shakespeare who authored 39 plays in the 16th century. Obviously his plays and poems have had a huge cultural impact in the English speaking world. Many historical and contemporary books, plays, and films have direct references to his work. As English playwright Ben Jonson stated Shakespeare was "not of an age, but for all time." Such an impact is not by chance but from the insight his works provided. Some quotes that capture the wisdom of his writings are "All that glitters is not gold," "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings," and "Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head." There were many other playwrights at his time and since, many were gifted and well educated. However, Shakespeare's influence has continued to persist, eclipsing his peers and remaining relevant to people today. To claim that literature and the human experience in general is not an avenue to pursue truth would be to deny Shakespeare's long enduring insight.

William Shakespeare

In addition to literature, religion has revealed truth to humanity as well. This claim may seem dubious to the irreligious or the skeptic, but there are values that almost every religious and irreligious person agrees on. One such value is the Golden Rule, which as stated in the Bible, Matthew 7:12 "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." This idea is found in almost every religion around the world including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. It is a principle that most everyone across cultures and time would agree is true and worth living by. A guiding principle independently produced by cultures around the globe must in some way reflect the truth of how to rightly live in a society.

Another contribution from religion is the value of the individual. Although not always realized historically or currently, the principle that each human life is sacred and precious arguably has its roots in Judaism. In Genesis 1:26 it says, "Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness...'" the idea that each person contains some divine quality is not unique to Judaism, however the universality of it is. Christianity popularized this idea throughout Western Civilization which culminated in the statement in the United States Declaration of Independence "...that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..." This concept that each individual has inherent rights started as religious doctrine, it was not born from scientific rationalism. Individual rights is an assertion, a belief, a statement of faith, not objective fact. It is a place to begin reasoning from, not the conclusion of any such reasoning.

Sistine Chapel

Now it is clear that modernity and the advancement of science have pushed technology to new heights. Humanity's ability to control and manipulate the physical world is now at the point that it would appear to be magic to people from hundreds of years ago. Science's strength is the use of data with repeated testing to determine truth. That means science exceeds at studying phenomena that are objective and repeatable. However an individual's life and their experiences are subjective and singular. Scientific study is inherently problematic, it requires a reductionist view on the individual, breaking them down based on demographics, genetics, or some other objective qualities. This is self-defeating since what makes an individual unique is the complex, chaotic combination of subjective experiences and objective characteristics. Reducing an individual to their parts destroys the individual. Further, there is no way of repeating an individual's experiences since they are deeply tied to a particular time, place, and other people. As for the field of psychology, which aims to understand the individual scientifically, it is going through a crisis of replication. Many of the results of the field are now being overturned because scientists cannot reproduce them. Science has improved humanity's technology, but not necessarily improved our understanding of people or how they live.

Benoit Mandelbrot

The human experience is inherently valuable and does contain truth, though is difficult if not impossible to understand scientifically. It is also true that human experiences are limited to the perspective of an individual, can be misleading, and they are anecdotal and may not generalize. The bridge between the experience of the individual and truths found in literature, religion, and tradition is the refinement of time. People and culture tends to filter out what is and is not useful over time. Just as Shakespeare emerged as the great playwright of his age despite all the other authors of his era, time has a filter for what is useful and true. This tendency holds true in other areas as well such as music. What is referred to as classical music is just a small list of composers from the last few hundred years. Most composers have been forgotten, leaving us a collection of those who made great contributions to the field. The same effect can be seen more recently with classic rock i.e. rock from the 1970's. Commonly when a person says they are a fan of classic rock, they mean they enjoy a list of about 200 songs at most. Much more music was produced at the time, though only the best remains. This filtering is part of the "Lindy Effect" which was identified by Benoit Mandelbrot and Nassim Taleb.

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb describes the Lindy Effect as a tendency for a non-living thing to last as long as it has lasted thus far. Essentially, ideas age differently than living things, as they get older they improve their odds of surviving. For example a book that has been in print for forty years will likely be in print for forty more. If it survives for fifty, it will likely be in print for fifty more. Since Shakespeare has been reprinted for about 400 years, we should expect people in 400 years to still be reading his work. Mathematically, this is described as a Pareto distribution which is popularly known as the "80-20 rule." Many natural and artificial phenomena are well described by a Pareto distribution including, the size of trees, the size of cities, the number of books an author sells, stock price returns, male dating success on on-line dating apps, and more. These are all examples of success creating success which has been called the Matthew Principle after the passage in Matthew 25:29, "For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away." The filtering of the Lindy Effect is really the compounding of success. Ideas that are useful or true tend to be successful which in turn makes them even more successful, that is, these successful ideas tend to persist. In some sense this is almost a "natural selection" of ideas, people create a lot of different ideas, but the useful ones are "selected" to survive and propagate.

A tradition is really a collection of ideas put into practice by a group of people over time. As Taleb points out, the true strength of science is that hypothesis, i.e. ideas, are repeatedly tested over time. The longer a hypothesis survives testing, the more reliable hypothesis is and how likely it is true. Like a hypothesis, a tradition is tested, but in the lives of the individuals that practice it. Tradition acts as an aggregation of human experience, continually branching, adapting, and reforming. It is an adaptive guide to a complex, chaotic world. If the tradition is useful, it must align with reality in some way. If a population following a tradition flourishes, the tradition it follows must contain some truth. The longer a tradition lasts, the broader the diversity of contexts it flourishes in, and greater the number of challenges it has overcome, all indicate the tradition's strength and point to the truth it must contain.