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Friday, March 26, 2010

Factually Unprecedented

I was listening to a speaker the other day and they kept refering to past times and speakers as authorities.  They refered repeatedly to the founding fathers and the constitution repeated and to the 'original intents'.  I realized something that I had been harping on for a while, but suddenly made sense.  We base our entire informational lives on 'precidents'.  The american legal system is based on previous decisions, previous interpretations of laws and the constitution.  Our entire science system is also based upon 'standing on the shoulders of giants'.  We use what other people have said in the past and turn their interpretations of life into 'fact'.  When someone quotes 'Sir' Thomas Paine, what does that mean?  Does it mean that an idea is automatically a good idea?  Perhaps it was and is, but it also could not have been and is not.  I see no authority in the individual that spoke and/or the concreteness of time in regards to an idea, but think that ideas should stand on their own merits given current contexts, times and places.

Think about the US constitution.  It is one of the great documents of human history, but so were many other doctrines and legal foundations.  Slavery, Colonialism, Manifest Destiny.  Every society seems to have its reasons/rationales for doing what they think is/was right or wanted to do.  Yet customs and acceptible principles always change with time.  It was just over 50 years ago that  various races were legally different and people of some were seen as inferior to others - this still goes on in many places, legal or otherwise.  On top of those social implications, one look at the technological changes that has happened in our lifetimes - the internet for one - and nothing more needs to be said about changing contexts. 

We live in a highly fluid world and with each moment a new idea or technology changes the way the world acts and sees itself.  So why then must we hold so much faith in our 'precedents'?  Why is it that we think that a good idea yesterday is automatically a good idea today?  The constitution was revolutionary, but the founding fathers were living in a completely different world than we are today.  Do we really want to go back and live 250 years ago?  Do we want to give up all the trappings of modern life - transportation, medicine, food, shelter, security (if it is safer today) - and go back to a time without all of the 'luxuries' of today?  To forget all the lessons learned up to today?  No, I think most people do not.  As times change, so to must ideas and so to must our concepts of what live is and should be.

The US constitution was written for different times, just as Locke, Hobbes and all those great thinkers of the past were.  This does not make their ideas rubbish, but it also does not make them sacrosanct.  Every day should usher in a new day, and with this new day we should take nothing for granted - no matter how dear it is to our hearts.  Even the US constitution has its flaws and its areas of misinterpretation in current day.  No precedent is 'fact', and should never been seen as anything more than the current days 'most likely' scenario, or even better yet, as today's 'most educated guess'.

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