Law of Unrecognized Novelty

I. “Nothing new under the sun.”

I think that any sufficiently new idea will be confused for a repudiated old one.

Nuance regularly dies in-transit from speaker to listener, due to lack of a shared episteme (and the social pressure to properly understand in the first place may not be there either).

An idea cannot be so freakishly new  that nothing can describe it. Probably, the new idea is shaped something like an existing idea, although maybe from a different discipline or with a discovered caveat. Often, the new idea is drawing from just one serendipitous connection between two established ideas. X is like some previously-distinct Y, with some new implication.

New ideas are also implied repudiations of an established idea, one that is either incomplete or incorrect in some way. If the correction is subtle enough, the new idea will merge into the old one, which will correct itself accordingly (the “incomplete” scenario). If the correction is not subtle, the challenging new idea will have to be identified. It will generally be compared to whatever other idea share’s its rough shape closely enough. Naturally, since the comparison-maker isn’t likely to subscribe to the belief the new idea is being compared to, she will likely already have stock arguments against the new idea.


II. Present-Centric Myopia

On a human timeframe, many established ideas can appear to be ancient and unchanging (and I shouldn’t have to say it but no, none of them are). Most ideas as we understand them are not really as homomorphic to the idea’s supposed founder’s conception as we think.

The shape of Darwin’s “Darwinism” is not the shape of contemporary “Darwinism”. Epigenetic inheritance as a process was totally alien to Lamarck, but we might hail new findings along those lines as being Lamarckian because of the nature of the change it makes to the shape of Darwinian thought- in a Lamarckian-seeming direction. The idea is only reminiscent of Lamarck’s ideas to us, and a contemporary of Lamarck might be baffled that we made the connection that we did. There is a Ship of Theseus-style concern with our memeplexes.

I think it is difficult for people to work out why anyone would have believed older iterations of the old ideas. Isn’t our version obvious?

Our conception of history is fraught with this present-centric myopia. Old ideas, ideas with the same names, were not understood in the same way then as they are now.

I think that we can fairly argue that the ‘resurrected’ American founding fathers do not need to travel as far as our decade in order to “turn over in their graves” as some political commentators would have it – in fact, honestly, they were bewildered enough by the system as it existed when they were alive, for varying reasons depending on who we’re talking about. There was complexity and confusion then and now, and there’s little sense in fetishizing the old confusions. This is the simplest reason why judicial Originalism is sort of a joke from the get-go. Although I suppose I mustn’t stray too far from the idea I’m sketching today.

In short: Old ideas are newer than we think, and new ideas will be confused for old ideas.


III. “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it”

This all creates an odd difficulty with ‘learning from history’. If new ideas can look so much like old ideas, perhaps even ideas that are associated with disaster, then we have what the psychometric folk might call a validity problem. What are we measuring, exactly? Are we not really learning anything from history? How can we empathize with older ideological regimes if we can’t even properly understand their context in the first place? Do we have no choice but to stay the course with variants of current ideas?

It gets worse. “Current ideas” means something different to different tribes (let alone individuals). To the modern Christian fundamentalist, “evolution” as an idea is tarred by its [erroneous] use as a justification to pursue unsavory social agendas. To them, current understandings of evolution are seen as descendants of that whole mess, whereas the majority opinion generally sees “Social Darwinism” as a bastard cousin idea, and not really related at all- not proper science, no direct line of narrative descent. [Note: I had other examples, but I feared that because of their contentious status, my point would be lost.]

Narrative history drawing isn’t just done by the opposition. (See “The Party Line” in this post from two weeks ago).

Somewhere, some tribe is manufacturing a history that will become the official story, no matter what happens. And it will involve new ideas that smelled like old ones. And once comfortable hindsight biases are in place, we have a beautiful pattern to admire.

If every new situation resembles old ones on the surface, we will see patterns where they do not reliably exist. From the point of view of some future ‘present’, we were doomed to repeat history in some sense.

Note: I don’t mean to argue that cyclical views of history are useless. There are some interesting and compelling views in that category.

I would suggest that all histories (at best) straddle the line into fiction. Though you can learn a lot from a good work of fiction, especially if you don’t take it as literal gospel.

More on learning from fiction, later.