Harvey Whitehouse:

Imagine you are a five-year-old being led into a small office. A woman with a warm smile shows you an assortment of strange objects. Some of them are shiny. You feel like playing with them. That’s OK, that’s allowed. Soon the friendly lady takes the objects away and says she wants to show you a video. On the screen is another woman. She has an identical set of objects lined up neatly in a row and she’s doing odd things with them — she lifts one and taps it on another, then puts it back and takes something else, twirling it in a peculiar fashion before replacing it. This goes on for some time. Then the strange objects are pushed back towards you and the lady says: ‘It’s your turn.’ What would you do?

If you were a five-year-old, you would imitate at least some of the actions you observed in the video. No instruction would be necessary. And yet, the behaviour doesn’t appear to achieve anything. The psychologist Cristine Legare and I have been working together for several years trying to understand why young test subjects bother to copy it. Our starting point is that they treat it as a convention of some kind. That is to say, they adopt what we call ‘the ritual stance’, imitating without questioning the purpose of the actions.

In our experiment, however, the behaviour of the woman in the video is ambiguous. Children can’t be sure it if is oriented to a goal or not. A surprisingly simple shift helps them to decide: we just alter the last move in the sequence. If the woman puts the last object into a box, it looks like the whole procedure was just a ‘funny’ way of putting an object away. We call this the ‘instrumental condition’. On the other hand, if the objects all end up back where they were originally placed, the whole action sequence appears not to have any tangible purpose. We call this the ‘ritual condition’. When the start and end states are identical, children are more confident that the demonstration on the video should be interpreted as a kind of ritual. And guess what? They copy it much more faithfully, and are less inclined to try out variations on their own initiative.

My dad told me that when he was a kid, he complained to my grandfather about having to attend what he saw as pointless religious services. The answer he got was to the effect of, “Look, we do this because the way of life that goes along with it is the best one people have yet come up with.” This is just the way we practice the rules, basically. On the practical level of lived philosophy, the basic answers don’t change that much. Even if Thales and Anaximander don’t have much to teach us about science, Socrates and Chuang-tzu are still worth engaging with. Like John Gray said:

History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.

The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.

My sorta-noospheric-pantheist friend might despair at hearing that, but I think it’s true. We might be able to live comfortable, productive lives by simply parroting the rules that others handed down to us, but much of what we call ethical wisdom is the ability to fully realize those precepts within the unique circumstances of our own lives, to transform them into more than trite platitudes by virtue of encountering the perennial ethical conundrums that originally gave rise to them. Jiddu Krishnamurti said that truth is a pathless land. I think what he meant was that, having attained ethical wisdom, I can’t simply instruct you to read these books, watch these films, contemplate these sayings, and expect you to take the exact same lessons from them that I did. Those footprints don’t necessarily lead to the exact place where I’m currently standing. That sort of wisdom isn’t the end result of a diligent accumulation of facts or mathematical accuracy. It’s hidden in plain sight.