In his exuberance for the progress of scientific knowledge, Francis Bacon coined the paradox, antiquitas saeculi, juventus mundi—“Antiquity is the youth of the world.” By this he meant only the now commonplace view that human knowledge progresses. What we commonly regard as ancient is so only according to a backward reckoning from the present. By the forward reckoning of the world itself, however, the present age qualifies as the eldest of epochs. Therefore, the views of the present—not those of the remote past—ought to enjoy the prestige and deference ascribed to hoary old age.
At least on occasion, however, it seems that Bacon got his age typology backwards. The most recently founded fields of study, for instance, often show a peculiar and youthful zeal for proving the obvious. Their charming penchant for independently verifying—usually through costly trial and error—what their elders have long known and taught is a trait that we normally associate with adolescents.
Take, as a case in point, the findings of a recent psychology experiment on children, as reported in the New York Times. I don’t think it too simplistic to summarize the findings as follows: guilt and self-control are socially useful. The method used to prove the daring hypothesis is, happily, quite accessible to scientific laymen as well. After rigging a toy to fall apart, a team of psychologists gave it to a small child and watched his or her reaction to the “accident.” The scientists, no doubt after passing their data through complex statistical filters and formulating a rigorous metric to scale guilt feelings, managed to show that
2-year-olds who showed more chagrin during the broken-toy experiment went on to have fewer behavioral problems over the next five years. That was true even for the ones who scored low on tests measuring their ability to focus on tasks and suppress strong desires to act impulsively.
Other profound insights gleaned from the same experiment: the intensity of guilt varies with temperament and upbringing, and high levels of “effortful control” can compensate for the behavioral problems accompanying low levels of guilt. A child is bound for trouble, though, if he lacks both guilt and self-control.
Such controversial conclusions are almost certain to make a “bloody entrance.”
Admittedly, some behavioral studies are more interesting. Recent research at Harvard, for example, seems to have rediscovered the notion of virtuous habits. This experiment required no less than an MRI to monitor the control centers of participants’ brains whilst they attempted to predict a series of coin tosses. Correct predictions earned money. The prediction was not divulged until after the toss, though, so the participants were free to fib about their forecast. Those who predicted a statistically improbable number of correct tosses were classified as “dishonest,” and those within the normal range were classified as “honest.” The upshot: “dishonest” participants showed more activity in the control centers of their brain when reporting the truth, whereas “honest individuals showed little to no extra brain activity.” Hence, “Being honest is not so much a matter of exercising willpower as it is being disposed to behave honestly in a more effortless kind of way.”
So it seems that Aristotle was right after all when he claimed that one could be the sort of person for whom telling the truth is second nature. Whether such an “honest” individual would have worked his way up to this effortless veracity by “exercising willpower” from an early age seems to be a question beyond the scope of the experiment. Alas. A truly scientific answer would demand a decades-long longitudinal study, a raft of MRIs, and a kibbutz of children who agreed to grow up inside them.
This is tall order—even in the world’s maturity. We may just never know.