Shelf Life

Michael Miller
 
Issue XXVI - September 10, 2004
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A sample imageKnowledge is power; it says so right here on the label. 

Some knowledge should also be stamped with a "best before" date! It dies, expires, loses its value, becomes worthless and powerless with the passing of time. 

"It's raining." is a good example of short shelf life knowledge. If it is true when said, it remains true for all eternity (it will
always be true that it was raining then), but in a matter of minutes or hours it loses its power to tell you whether to carry an umbrella. 

In today's bubbling, churning, boiling torrent of change, some say that
all knowledge has a short shelf life, that all knowledge is out of date and out of power. 

They're wrong, of course. They're spouting a view similar to
skepticism, the view that knowledge is impossible. But how can skeptics know that knowledge is impossible? 

They commit a fallacy best named as sawing off the branch you're sitting on. This leaves them open to devastating logical retorts, to the great glee of bystanders!(1)  

Activists and reformers
need long shelf life knowledge. Movements are based on ideas, and you cannot build a long-term movement on short shelf life ideas. 

Knowledge spreads by contagion; from one man to many men, and from each of them to still others. This process is exponential; it grows like compound interest, doubling and then doubling again. It is the fundamental mechanism of political and cultural change. It is immensely powerful. 

But
it takes time! Political and cultural trends move on a time scale of decades. If a movement's ideas expire before they have reached a significant audience, the embryonic movement collapses. This is the penalty of starting a vast project with half vast ideas! 

Still, men
will attempt it. In the 70s, gun owners came under attack by gun controllers. Most gun owners argued that this or that specific make and model should be exempted from the controls. This is a classic case of fighting with short shelf life ideas, and they lost as they deserved. 

Today's gun owners seem to have learned the lesson; they're fighting on the basis of property rights, specifically the right to arms. They will not win tomorrow, but these long shelf life ideas give them a chance. 

You often hear "conservatives" argue that some proposed tax is a few percent too high, or would worsen "the current recession." Short shelf life ideas: lost cause. 

Try this instead: Taxation is robbery, and robbery should be outlawed. Long shelf life ideas: hope for the future. 

But that's
radical! Sure. Radicalism is the price you have to pay for the advantages of new long shelf life ideas! 

Radicals are usually thought of as impractical dreamers. (And they usually think of "practical" men as short sighted fools.) But when you look at the broad sweep of history, one startling fact emerges: radicals win!(2) They break the power of the monarchy. They establish individual rights. They create free markets. They write the US constitution. They abolish slavery. The practical men of every age are swept along by uncontrollable trends set in motion by the radicals of the previous age. 

On the other hand, the market for new long shelf life ideas is only a tiny minority. Career radicals tend to die broke.(3) 

The difference between radicals and practical men is largely in the shelf life of their ideas. There is a division of labor between them; they have different jobs. But it is nowhere written that they must sneer at each other. Everyone needs both kinds of knowledge.
Every movement needs both radicals and practical men! 

Short shelf life knowledge is best called
ephemera. It's power is ephemeral; here today and gone tomorrow. The "dirt" you dig up on some politican may be potent, but it becomes useless when the politician retires. 

So, what are we to call long shelf life knowledge? It is knowledge which retains its power over decades, centuries and, in some cases, millenia. It's the sort of knowledge you can pass on to the kids, and it will serve them as well as it has served you. It is the sort of knowledge that wise elders have always made a point of teaching to the young. 

Long shelf life knowledge is wisdom. (Long shelf life error is another matter!) 

There has never been a surplus of wisdom. How can
you improve the general level of wisdom in the world? Judge each idea that comes your way by the twin standards of truth and shelf life, and make a special point of passing on those ideas which qualify as wisdom on both counts.

Filter out most of the ephemera: don't bother relaying it.(4) Strive to relate the remaining ephemera to wisdom, new or old. 

This means judging ideas against the whole sweep of human history and knowledge; you must do that to estimate their shelf life. An idea cannot have a longer shelf life than its "parent" idea, so this means knowing which ideas depend on which other ones. True or false, knowledge or error, ideas which have been around for millenia definitely have a long shelf life—so this means taking an interest in the age of the ideas you encounter. 

It means becoming a lover of wisdom.

A tough job? Well, at first. You'll get exponentially better at it with practice. Wisdom compounds! Long shelf life knowledge hangs around long enough for you to build other knowledge on it. 

You'll notice a funny thing happening as you focus on wisdom, and filter ephemera out of your speech and writing. You will draw other lovers of wisdom to you like bees to clover! 

Today's lovers of wisdom are drowning in ephemera! They flounder in a sea of short shelf life knowledge, but yearn for lasting wisdom on which they can build a life. Once you learn the trick of filtering out ephemera, you'll be the hit of the party where such men gather! And you can learn from them. 

Where can you find lovers of wisdom? In principle, anywhere. But they're a bit thin on the ground these days, so you'll have to cast a wide net.
Get an internet account. They'll find you.

By the way, the traditional name for a lover of wisdom is "philosopher." 

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1 If someone tells you that all knowledge is out of date, tell him that that knowledge is out of date! 
2 Actually, their grandchildren-in-spirit win. 
3 Help me avoid that fate! Help Quackgrass Press! 
4 Some ephemera is vital: if the house is on fire, for heavens sake, tell the kids! 
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You needn’t despair at today's dearth of lovers of widsom—you can become a Quackgrass activist! Copy this article! Keep the original for future copies. Paper meetings with it! Paper your office! Leave a stack on your business counter! If you expect hostility, use stealth and cunning—it’ll drive your opponents wild! Be ingenious! Have fun!

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA Statement of Policy.

Click here to return to TRA's Issue XXVI Index.

Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.