The Long White Beard Fallacy

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Introduction:

There are few fallacies as prevalent as equating age with wisdom. This false assumption is predicated on the belief that age tends to correlate with the accumulation of life experiences. Conventional wisdom would dictate that a prudent mind would be able to formulate deep insights based upon these plentiful experiences.  However, this presumes that the individual of advancing age is capable of shrewd judgment. Much like another demographic of people, some older people are not.  This error in thinking has been enshrined in the mythical image of a sagacious prophet or philosopher. A Socratic or an Aristotelian figure radiating the mystique of lost ancient knowledge. While imagery plays a powerful role in our perception, picturing every individual with a long white beard as being wise is an illusion. Simply confuses correlation with causation. The reality reduces the saying of being “another year older and another year wiser” to an empty statement.

Believing that every older individual has amassed a stockpile of knowledge ignores several prerequisites that make an individual inclined to become a wise person.  These characteristics include intellectual curiosity, the ability to learn from experiences, and the capacity for sound reasoning. Without these attributes it doesn’t matter if a person is twenty-five or ninety-five, they cannot be wise! To credulously accept conventional wisdom without any forethought makes an individual nothing more than a passive fool. To only continue to do so for decades on end is antithetical to wisdom. It is quintessentially spending an entire lifetime relying on lazy thinking, which will not lead to acquiring any knowledge. Claiming that such an individual is wise or knowledgeable irrespective of their chronological age is borderline criminal.

Intellectual Curiosity:

Encapsulated in the words of the wisest man among the ancient Athenians, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Arguably one of the most cited quotes in Western Philosophy conveys a lot of the nature of knowledge and wisdom. If one is not inclined to pursue the knowledge they cannot become wise. This is regardless of how many years they have spent living on this planet. Most true knowledge generally needs to be pursued, not passively obtained. The thought process of an individual content with accepting the superficial appearance of the world is not one who is going to explore ideas or the nature of the universe. Rather have their beliefs bequeathed to them.  Versus actively discriminating between two choices based on acquired knowledge. To merely accept the status quo for decades on end without any deeper contemplation is the opposite of being wise. This person has only spent their life regurgitating the ideas that have been inculcated into them since childhood. Instead of thoughtfully engaging with ideas to acquire knowledge.

Spending a lifetime staring at the surface deludes people into thinking they understand how the world works. Creating the erroneous belief that they can easily formulate solutions to problems or have a firm grasp of the nature of reality. Unfortunately, they have only been gazing at shadow puppets on a cave wall for all these years. Attempting to derive a complete understanding from such an inadequate foundation is impossible. Further substantiating the importance of having a thirst for knowledge to achieve the coveted status of a wise person.  A wise person does not succumb to the illusion of having the complete picture when all that is available are thin silhouettes. They have a firm understanding of the limitations of knowledge and acknowledge that learning is a continual process, not a destination. They echo the sentiment of the Socratic profession of ignorance keeps themselves open to accepting new information. Through remaining humble and reminding ourselves that there are severe limitations on our breadth of knowledge we allow ourselves to broaden our horizons.  If we assume that due to our age we automatically have a thorough understanding of the nature of the world, we are only fooling ourselves.  Such self-deception does not amount to wisdom.

The Ability to Learn from Experiences:

It is easy to assume that because we lived through an experience we truly have a strong comprehension of how to handle it if it reoccurs in the future. Once again, this is an attribute that is tantamount to self-depiction. Making matters only worse, our elders feel so confident in their abilities to draw meaningful inferences from these anecdotes they firmly distribute this advice to younger generations. Creating personal allegories that become imperative that younger folks learn from. However, how are these sage individuals so sure they have pin-pointed the precise source of the issue? Narrowing it down to one salient detail is an oversimplification of a complex situation. There could be multiple issues resulting in the problem at hand.  The specific contextual details of the current issue may differ just enough from the situation experienced by the older individual that their remedy may not be applicable. Dismally, even after all of these years, they have never been able to accurately determine the source of the problem. But have spent the past number years under the false impression that they know the correct course of action. People have the unfortunate propensity to conflate and transpose details that lead them astray. Rendering the solution to being ineffective. Attributing the issue to a salient detail rather than the true cause of the issue. A confusion that can lead a litany of personal fables and longwinded tales resulting in faulty advice.

It should also be noted that if an individual lacks intellectual curiosity, the aptitude of them ever getting down to the heart of a problem is slim. The capacity to learn from experiences is an attribute that dovetails to tightly with intellectual curiosity.  Those of an inquisitive nature are much more likely to weigh all the variables and then cautiously attempt to conclude. Resulting in sound retrospective analysis. While those accepting a crude and rudimentary version of the truth are prone to devise a solution from incomplete information and half-baked premises and reasoning. When examining experience and only accounting for an incomplete depiction or inaccurate assumptions about the scenario, it is impossible to learn from that experience.

Capacity for Sound Reasoning:

You can possess the learning capacity, applying information, and drive to acquire knowledge. None of this will make you wise if your thinking is plighted with biases and fallacies. To have all of the information but no means of interpreting it essentially makes this knowledge useless. What good is information if my interpretation of it is clouded by my prejudices. Capacity for sound reasoning is so integrally related to learning from experiences, it could be argued that without sober reasoning skills we would not be able to draw meaningful lessons from our past experiences. Odds are we would again resort to spouting the convention wisdom specific to our generation. Following the crowd does not lead you to the truth. Conforming for the sake of conforming is nothing more than a flaw in reasoning. Cemented and immortalized in the appeal to popularity fallacy. Popular consensus can lead us down some dark and treacherous roads. One only needs to be reminded of Nazi Germany to witness the grisly ultimate consequences of this fallacy. A genuinely wise individual would be able to recognize the danger in mindless acquiescence. Versus firmly leaning on the thoughtless cliché of referring to “back in my day”. However, times have drastically changed since the youth of well-meaning elderly folks.  Espousing outdated platitudes for fifty years ago (that most likely were even incorrect back then) is not equal to disseminating wisdom.

Assuming that advanced age automatically is equal to wisdom presents another fallacy in reasoning in its own right. That is the appeal to authority fallacy.  Utilizing age as an indicator of wisdom is setting that up as a social signaling mechanism. We hold an authoritative reverence for the advice provided by an elderly person, even though that advice could be flawed. We are allowing the variable of age to obscure our better judgment.  If we truly thought about it, only a small minority of people under the age of sixty-five are truly wise.  Do these individuals all of a sudden alter their habits and adopt a proclivity for sound reasoning magically after reaching this arbitrary age of retirement? No. Odds are as we get older we tend to become more rigid in our thinking and set in our ways. This may not be true of all individuals, but it does tend to be true for most people.

We are all Ignorant and That is Okay- Wise Words from Socrates

 

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One of the oldest epistemological problems is how do we obtain true wisdom. To reach a state of wisdom we must amass a substantial amount of knowledge. How do we distinguish true knowledge from misconceptions and opinions in our pursuit of the virtuous ideal? I have often asked myself what is the difference between common sense and ignorant old “wives’ tales”?  Same principle different wording. Both inquiries reflect the larger premise. How do that the knowledge I have obtained is true knowledge?

 

The renowned classical philosopher Socrates believed he had the answer. That was to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge. However, he did this to the extreme. This principle has been enshrined in the Socratic Admission of Ignorance. Professing to know nothing being of the highest virtue. This is counter intuitive considering we would expect a man anointed as the father of Western Philosophy to have answers. Certainly, a man proclaimed by the oracle at Delphi as the wisest man on the planet would know something? (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [1]. Conversely, maybe it takes a supremely wise man to see his knowledge deficits. Rather than blithely putting on the pretense that he knows more than what he does. Reflecting upon the Hayekian Pretense of Knowledge. The hubris that has consistently foiled the plans and aspirations of central planners. Would Hayek have ever formulated such a concept without any Socratic precursors?

 

Perhaps, a truly wise individual sees the process of learning as a continual process. Not a linear destination, that once reached it cannot be expanded upon. It is an ongoing search. Especially when we are confronted with the fact that there is too much knowledge for one person to possess. Making education a lifelong process. We need to be open to this fact of reality. To some capacity, we need to humble ourselves and be honest about what knowledge we lack. In the example of the central planner, admitting that they do not know what the long-term impact of rent control will be on the housing market. Here is where the Socratic omission comes into play, acquiesce the fact that you truly do not know. Socrates claimed that we do not possess any precise knowledge other than that of our ignorance. This may seem somewhat gratuitous. Isn’t it enough to admit our ignorance on topics that we do not have any expertise?  Socrates was arguably an “expert” when it came to virtue yet he still claimed to be ignorant true virtue.

 

“ “I am wiser than this man,” as Socrates says of one of Athens’ respected politicians, “for neither of us knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do, either” (Apology 21d). (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [2].”

 

This does seem like an outlandishly absurd thing for a man who has decided his life to morality to claim. It is important to note that while the truth isn’t fluid, what our perception of truth is. Old scientific theories are often debunked by new evidence. Social norms change in-lock step with the evolution of our social morality. For example, it is the abolition of slavery. A practice that was at one time viewed as being appropriate. Then years later was viewed as being immoral. However, was it ever truly moral? Through admitting to being ignorant of everything Socrates sidesteps this fatal error. Through claiming ignorance we have the freedom to reevaluate social practices without being labeled as a hypocrite. Beyond our reputation it also enables us the foresight to examine and abolish moral practices. If we believe we are on the moral high ground we are less apt to be critical of our current customs. By place an air of doubt around all knowledge we are enabling the flexibility for necessary revisions. Doubt is what gives malleability to the scientific claims. It also is what makes the U.S. Constitution a governing charter that grows with the country. Rather than keeping the U.S. held captive by the sins of the past. In my estimate, both the scientific method and the founding principles of the United States owes gratitude to Socratic thinking.

 

Socrates questioning the validity of everything helps delineate true knowledge from opinions (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [3] In our mind, we often conflate opinion with fact. How often is advocacy for political policies based on facts?  Infrequently. In the mind of the advocate, their position on the issue is the only correct stance.  This separation is an important one to make. It is a common fallacy to combine facts with opinions and to present opinions as facts. An increasingly prevalent problem in the area of news reporting. Whether a news outlet is right-leaning or left-leaning they do more editorializing than presenting the information. Making it impossible to be informed after watching the evening news. Rather we are inculcating ourselves with partisan talking points. Providing another modern example of why the Socratic Admission of Ignorance is still pertinent.

 

Over the years, people have taken liberties with ethics.  Some could argue since the advent of modern philosophy pragmatism has slowly come to supplant true ethics. People are starting to see morality from more of a subjective point. Per a 2015 survey, 74% of all millennials surveyed agreed with the only true truth is doing what works best for you (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [4]. Rejection of there being a true morality or ethics is profoundly problematic. Naked pragmatism can lead to a litany of reprehensible policies. Past regimes have utilized pragmatism to justify genocide. Morality is far from being black and white. However, that does not mean morality is relative. Treating morality as relative can be calamitous for humanity as a whole.