In our everyday lives we often resort to simply repeating what has been said or done before. But not everything that is old is authentic or correct. When we refer to tradition with full confidence that the way it was understood and acted on in the past is self-evident, we are committing the logical error of appealing to tradition, or false induction.
Our choices or approach to an ideology or way of thinking require a set of reference principles for what we decide. We reach any decision, however big or small, either by new reasoning or some older ones, verified, or by habits—that is, by resorting to the simple repetition of what has been said or done before. It is impractical, if not impossible, to repeat the past reasoning behind every small decision, just to make sure that we are not wrong in the present. But is it possible to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and at the same time avoid the gruelling continual questioning of the past or a perpetual re-verification?
Doing something or thinking in a certain way just because it has always been done so indicates behaviour based on quite a common logical error. Such behaviour starts from premises that can prove doubtful or even false: if X / Y is old, traditional, then X / Y is good, correct.
The fact that something has been thought of in a certain way in the past does not necessarily mean that its initial rationale was correct. Hence there is a need for effort to be made to verify the initial way of thinking, to identify the reasons that generated that way of thinking.
The fact that for a long time women and slaves were considered a commodity owned by the man or the master does not mean that this way of thinking was correct. Something considered good or allowed in the past is not necessarily the recipe to follow in the present.
An important question arises from the need to establish the practical value of expressions such as: “in the old days” or “in the time of our forefathers”. These expressions suggest not only nostalgia but also the need to reform the current ideology and practice according to a model established in the past and invested with authority. How far into the past is it necessary and good to go? For example: “Before Luther, starting from Luther or…?” In this context, other questions arise: How do we check? What will be the source? The reference? Just like in the past, even now references are chosen or assumed, either by consensus or personally: in the Luther example above, the reference is the Bible.
In addition, the validation received in the past by what we now call tradition is not necessarily justified today, especially if circumstances have changed decisively. If the ability to ride a horse was considered a real benefit in the past, even for women (until the first half of the twentieth century), now it is more of a hobby. The principles were: developing a practical sense and ensuring mobility and independence.
The previous example emphasises the need to distinguish between the general valid principle and the contextual application of the principle (distinguishing between the principle and the rule). Currently, the updated implementation of the principle of developing a practical sense and that of ensuring mobility and independence requires that a woman obtain a driving license rather than learn to ride a horse.
About argumentum ad antiquitatem in pure form
The argument of the appeal to tradition, in pure form, boils down to stating that something is right because it has always been done so.
This wrong type of argument is a strong enemy of new discoveries — to argue that one’s idea is wrong only because it has no precedent in history could deprive the world of great inventions that defy the conventional (or smaller inventions with great effects). Examples of such inventions include the radio with a clock mechanism, by Trevor Baylis, designed for poor countries in Africa, or the electric shoe, which charges the battery of a mobile phone while walking.
How do one become barricaded behind the call to tradition? First, it is very likely that social inertia, in its forms and subforms, is largely responsible for this resistance to the new and the reluctance to objectively evaluate the present.
If we think of inertia as the resistance of a body to change its rest state or uniform rectilinear motion, in the social and ideological realms — because they both have multiple variables — it is difficult to approximate when a social mass will stop its inertial motion, regardless of the forces acting on it.
Moreover, we are dealing with the spirit of self-preservation of the individual and with the psychological comfort that the continuation of life brings him on the coordinates that he has already chosen in the past. Shaking the psychological nest (i.e. the need to re-evaluate the paradigms of thinking) is a change that, of all the other forms of change, implies the highest energy consumption. Out of the desire to keep our peace, we often give up the need to constantly check our way of thinking, our beliefs and convictions in relation to the new information that reaches us.
Questions like, “Why do I do what I do?” or “How did I get here?” are therefore essential, but not sufficient. The desire to objectively evaluate novelty, looking at it in terms of the sound and up-to-date application of the principles we value, is also of the utmost importance.
But for a change to take place, the effort required to achieve it must be considered to be less than the damage caused by remaining in the old paradigm of thinking. The appeal to tradition remains one of the easy ways in which a person can justify their refusal to update themselves and to be brought into congruence with the best and up-to-date information available on objective truth.
Florin Iacob serves as a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.