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Tradition is Truer than Truth
Survival of the fittest, extended to ideas
In this piece we’ll look at tradition, and seek to explain its staying power and its relationship to truth more broadly.
Let’s start with a simple truth: ideas and behaviors that have existed since forever are here for a reason. Not some pre-ordained reason, but a practical one: they outcompeted other ideas. They exist because they’re effective. Ineffective ideas don’t last. So, if an idea or behavior has existed for a long time, there’s rationale to believe that it *works* in some fundamental way. You’d have a hard time getting rid of it by reasoning it away.
Bret Weinstein famously called religion “literally false but metaphorically true”, meaning that acting in accordance with religion gives you better outcomes as a result than if you didn’t. And since religion has lasted for millenia across cultures and generations, he seems to have a point.
You may not like religion. You may not like religious ideas and practices and wish they didn’t exist. But before you dismiss them entirely you should stop and consider the value of the evolutionary process that made them exist in the first place. This is the idea of Chesterton’s Fence: before tearing down the fence, understand why it was originally built up.
Of course, we boot out old ideas and introduce new ones all the time. That’s the marketplace of ideas at work. That’s what we call progress. But what then happens to the booted ideas? Sometimes they leave forever. Other times, they re-emerge. For the ones that re-emerge, there must have a practical reason for their re-emergence. Even the ideas that are illogical yet somehow stubbornly persist. Especially for those ideas, given we’re always trying to eliminate them.
What happens to the new ideas and changes we introduce? Sometimes the changes stick. Sometimes they don’t.
For example, there are civilizations that have tried to end the concept of the family structure and have even had some initial success. But over time, evolution eventually brought the family structure back. The change didn’t stick. It can be destroyed for a while, but it’ll inevitably come back.
Another example is that child sacrifice used to be a big deal. Then it got eliminated by a subsequent civilization that decided to stop sacrificing children. After that, child sacrifice didn’t re-emerge. The new change stuck.
So the nuance here is in understanding which ideas and behaviors have true staying power such that even if they were removed, they’d still re-emerge. But in order to understand that we need to first gain a sense for why they even exist in the first place.
Tradition is truer than truth
On Sam Harris's famous series of interviews with Jordan Peterson a few years ago, Jordan was trying to explain how truth existed pre-science — and how sometimes such truths are “deeper” than provable scientific truths.
Nassim Taleb popularized this concept “Lindy” which gets at this idea. Think of it like this:
Imagine you’re a person pre-science, pre-technology, pre-math, pre-writing, pre-most modern things. It's your family and tribe against the world and Mother Nature — and both the world and Mother Nature want to kill you. All of your mental processing is spent figuring out how to keep yourself, your family, and your tribe alive.
Remember, there’s no writing. So oral stories are the only way you can learn from the people who came before you. So only the most important truths — not empirical truths, not truths the way we understand science and math, but deep truths nonetheless — got passed down from generation to generation.
And they didn’t transmit as literal statements — they transmitted as stories, songs, sagas, and myths. And they get distilled over the generations such that only the really important ones survived.
When writing came along, these aforementioned stories, songs, sagas, and myths were the first ones to get written down. Think Homer, Herodotus, and the Bible.
So what's in those stories, those songs, those sagas, and those myths are the most important lessons that hundreds of generations that came before us were able to learn. Those are the truths Jordan was talking about. Sam dismisses this however, emphasizing the negative aspects that came with these traditions as well.
So when Jordan says that some things are "truer than true", he means that these deep truths may be more true than the empirical facts that we think we know today based on modern scientific methods. More true and more important.
It turns out that our modern scientific methods are actually quite bad at producing truths that endure. After all, we seem to have a massive replication crisis in the social sciences. Nearly half of biomedical research doesn’t replicate. Many science-adjacent fields are hopelessly politically corrupted now: Epidemiology (adjacent to virology), economics (adjacent to mathematics), climate science (adjacent to physics), etc. If religion is literally false but metaphorically true, we could say these fields are theoretically true but practically false.
The replication crisis more broadly has shown us that our grip on knowledge is more flimsy than we thought. The situation has shown us that it’s hard to trust ideas which haven’t stood the test of time since they’ve not been around long enough to prove themselves out.
That’s the main appeal behind the concept of Lindy: survival of the fittest ideas, facts, and truths.
You can take the position that by being the latest person to come along, you are the smartest, and you can draw up any new set of theories and ethics from scratch and they will be better than those conceived by the people who came before us. This is undoubtedly true in some areas. But for the many other areas where the scientific method doesn’t seem to be sufficiently comprehensive, this justification doesn’t carry much weight.
Maybe these old ideas — the ones that have survived centuries — have more staying power than our newest ideas, even if we can’t “prove” them (yet).
There are deep truths that can’t be explained with rationality. That pre-scientific cultures were well aware of, and had to try to put a name to. That still exist today. But that our system of modern scientific rationality seems less intent on explaining them and far more intent on explaining them away.
Reconciling Tradition and Truth
So, how do we reconcile old ways of knowing (tradition) and new ways of knowing (science, truth)?
Jordan Peterson does something fascinating in the above interview with Sam: he tries to redefine our idea of truth so that it also includes tradition. He tries to combine the scientific method and Lindy.
He’s trying to help us internalize the importance of tradition in terms we understand. But in doing so, he’s committing the error of the behavioralists. They too recognized the staying power of traditions—so they just tried to change them by implementing new ones. Didn’t work. It’s not that easy.
In our last piece we criticized the hubris of the rationalists, but in this piece we’ll criticize the naïveté of the behavioralists.
Behavioralists take the opposite extreme of the rationalists. If rationalists say everything is about first principles, behavioralists say everything is about social conditioning. Plenty of people, most famously communists, have used behavioralist logic to argue that if you change peoples’ environment, you change everything. George Orwell made this point when O'Brien forced Winston Smith to say that 2+2 equals 5. Does 2+2 = 5? Well, your brain doesn’t contain numbers when you’re born. 2+2 is just a social construct. A Harvard professor famously argued 2+2=5 last year and was celebrated for it.
Their mistake is thinking traditions are arbitrary or entirely socially conditioned. They aren’t. There are limits to how much you can change them. They have to make evolutionary sense — enough sense that even when they’re eliminated, they re-emerge. Like the family structure. But not like child sacrifice.
So yes, 2+2=4 is a social construct. But it’s an evolved one. It evolved in every culture that has math all over the world. If you remove math from a civilization, the next civilization will likely reinvent it. Just like they’ll reinvent the family structure.
So when Jordan Peterson said that the concept of "truth" shouldn't be confined to objective reality and instead should be expanded so as to aid the flourishing of human existence, he's proposing we change language—the definition of “truth”, which usually means legible conformity to external reality.
But the problem with science is not that it insists on analyzing objective reality. That’s precisely the benefit of science. The problem of science is that it’s limited: it only works when observation is reliable. Which worked just fine for early physics and biology. But the prestige of science led us to come up with things that can't be measured with any reliability: Psychology. Sociology. Economics. How brains work, how groups of people work, how economies work—It's just too complicated to get any reliable data on much of any of it. And we refuse to admit that we don't conclusively know much about it, that we have natural epistemological limitations. So traditions are good approximations for things that are too complicated for us to understand.
I understand that Jordan wants people to stop using “science” to justify insane things that tradition would easily dismiss as foolish or evil. But that’s not a problem with science itself — it’s just bad science.
The fact that over much of these modern sciences do not replicate is a problem of our modern scientific establishment — not of the scientific method itself. And most certainly it isn’t a problem with the idea of "truth". It’s a problem of science overstepping its boundaries. And it’s a problem of the scientific method being the only way we legitimize knowledge in society. Even if we did expand the definition of “truth”, people would soon enough invent another word to refer to that which does not depend on our subjectivity (i.e. truth).
Now, I understand why Jordan Peterson wants to include tradition in his definition of truth. Because, as Alex Kaschuta put best: “time-tested heuristics are robust. Through millennia of iterations, selective pressures have created equilibria that account for unknown unknowns that, as the name implies, don't - and possibly, can't - show up in the models.”
Tradition gives you a blueprint. And perhaps that blueprint includes some fantastical stories, but the point is that as a whole, religion conveys lessons about life that you wouldn’t necessarily derive from being in a laboratory. Peterson is attempting to mold tradition into something the scientific establishment can understand on their own terms. But changing the definition of truth won’t work. What might work however is having a better scientific understanding of tradition itself.
The Science of Tradition
The science of cultural evolution sheds some light on the staying power of traditions.
“Let me give two examples that should help to clarify [why tradition is so important] The first comes from the water temples of Bali. Some Balinese rice farmers have an ingenious method for managing irrigation. There is a hierarchical system of temples that ensures water is managed properly. This system comes with its own set of mythologies and rituals which, to the right-thinking modernist, may appear to be “irrational”. What could praying to the water spirits possibly have to do with proper water management? That is what the Balinese government seemed to think in the 1970s when they implemented a more “scientific” and “green” approach to agriculture, dismantling the system of temples. The result was a disaster. Pests invaded the crops and within a decade they were back to using the old system.
The Balinese system of temples was not invented by a single person. Nobody designed it. It evolved over hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, with small changes being adopted from time to time. From our blinkered perspective, the mythologies and rituals associated with this system of agriculture may seem irrational or inefficient. And yet they may serve a real function that we do not currently understand. Either way, the attempt to design a new system from the top-down failed miserably. The tradition was better than the rational replacement.
The second example is monogamous marriage. Joseph Henrich and colleagues published a paper in 2012 in which they put forward a potential solution to the “puzzle” of monogamous marriage. It’s a puzzle because most societies do not enforce monogamy. That is, most societies allow for polygamous marriage (one man with multiple women). The minority of societies that do enforce monogamy, however, have had massive success in terms of growth and expansion. Is the monogamy related to the growth? Henrich and colleagues say that it is. Monogamy reduces the pool of childless, unmarried men in the population. The thing about childless, unmarried men is that they tend to be a lot more violent and reckless than their domestic counterparts. The more men you can get to be married with children, the more tame your population of men becomes. Tamer men commit less crimes. Less crime means that the society functions more smoothly. Smoothly functioning societies are able to wage war more effectively and engage in expansionary practices. That’s the argument, in a nutshell. I find it convincing, but I never would have thought of it on my own.
In both cases (Balinese water temples and monogamous marriage norms) we find a tradition that has functional utility, but is causally opaque to the people who engage in it. That is, the tradition’s causal mechanisms are not known to the people who engage in the tradition. Presumably, the people who carry out the rituals associated with the Balinese temples don’t know the precise function of those rituals. And most people couldn’t articulate monogamy’s role in promoting social stability. Despite the fact that nobody understands why they work, the traditions still have a useful social function. Blind adherence to these traditions is not irrational. It’s how we were designed.”
This extends far beyond these two examples. We often engage in adaptive practices that are the products of cultural evolution without having a causal understanding of why the practice works. We can prove why 2+2=4. We can’t prove why monogamy is better.
“Many traditions are like this: we didn’t originate them so much as evolve them, we don’t know how or why they work, and they are passed down through blind imitation rather than rational reflection.”
As Joseph Henrich put it in his 2016 book The Secret of Our Success (emphases mine):
“The point here is that cultural evolution is often much smarter than we are. Operating over generations as individuals unconsciously attend to and learn from more successful, prestigious, and healthier members of their communities, this evolutionary process generates cultural adaptations. Though these complex repertoires appear well designed to meet local challenges, they are not primarily the products of individuals applying causal models, rational thinking, or cost-benefit analyses. Often, most or all of the people skilled in deploying such adaptive practices do not understand how or why they work, or even that they “do” anything at all. Such complex adaptations can emerge precisely because natural selection has favored individuals who often place their faith in cultural inheritance—in the accumulated wisdom implicit in the practices and beliefs derived from their forbearers—over their own intuitions and personal experiences. In many crucial situations, intuitions and personal experiences can lead one astray… (pp. 99-100)”
In the same post, Brett has a personal reflection on the topic that is so good and reminiscent of my experience I’ll end the piece with it:
“When I was younger, I’d occasionally say something idiotic like “just because it’s been done a certain way in the past doesn’t mean we should keep doing it that way”. I might have even uttered the words “tradition is stupid” at some point. I have now become less of an idiot by reversing this attitude. The fact that something has been done a certain way for a very long time is a good reason to keep doing it that way. And tradition is not stupid. It’s much smarter than you and me. The fact that our ancestors adhered to a particular tradition and simultaneously survived/reproduced constitutes some initial evidence that the tradition has functional utility. This is not to say that we should always adhere to tradition. It is only to say that we should not deviate from tradition without having good reasons to do so……
And one last quote I found interesting:
People who are temperamentally conservative (i.e., low in the Big Five trait openness and high in the Big Five trait conscientiousness) seem to implicitly get this. They naturally (and blindly) adhere to tradition. Temperamentally liberal people like me (who are high in openness and low in conscientiousness) have to learn the value of tradition the hard way. It goes against our nature.”
Now, inherent in the idea of cultural evolution is the experimentation with traditions, evolving existing traditions or replacing them altogether with new ones. How do we know which traditions can be improved upon and which can’t? How do we know which experimentations will lead to improvements and which will be disastrous? We can’t. The closest thing we have to controlled experiments is comparing across civilizations. But there is no precise criteria that will give us confidence in predicting. We’ll just have to see which traditions win out. As the concept of Lindy demonstrates, the only true litmus test is time.