Problems with Declinism (part 4)

History and Psychology

There are two straight-forward attempts to refute declinism, in its cultural form or otherwise. The first is historical, the second is psychological. The historical argument simply points at the long history of doomsayers. Cultural decline has been constantly predicted and proclaimed—so why believe it now? Once you place declinism in its historical context, the thought goes, we can see it for what it is: a reflection of the particular anxieties of the here and now, but little supported by the evidence.

The historical argument only carries us so far, however. First, its rhetorical power is limited. Declinism is like impostor syndrome: even if all the declinists in the past were wrong, the declinist believes, it’s true now! You can always find something which is historically different, and changes the case fundamentally: It’s the growing deficit! It’s neoliberal capitalism! It’s the internet! These, or any other number of stories, will be told be the declinist.

Second, like all inductive arguments, what the historical argument can show is limited. Our current moment might just as well be the one which is different. Inductive arguments cannot rule this out. In fact, an inverse historical argument might lead us to the opposite conclusion: all great civilisations have eventually declined, so there must be some truth in declinism. (The tricky bit, of course, is getting the timing of decline right.)

An alternative attempt to take the wind out of declinism is to look for various psychological biases which explain our tendency to accept it. One such bias, mentioned by some, is the “reminiscence bump”, the ability to remember one’s adolescence more vividly. Another is the “negativity bias”, the tendency to perceive losses more strongly than gains. And lastly, declinism might be grounded simply on confirmation bias: once you’re committed to declinism, you’re more likely to find decline all around you. That last and simplest explanation seems to me the most powerful.

These various biases tell an important part of the story why declinism is mistaken. But this reply is, again, not conclusive. First, we might readily admit that we are subject to various psychological distortions. Surely, however, this does not fully do away with the perception that our culture declines? Biases, after all, are tendencies for our perception to be distorted; they do not entail that it is altogether mistaken. Hard-core declinists will insist that, even once we have corrected for these distortions, their case persists.

Furthermore, psychologizing declinism also fails to take intellectually serious whatever evidence the declinists might have. If you psychologize your opponent, you already presume that they’re mistaken. Sometimes, that’s a good move, especially if your opponents believe the obviously absurd. But declinists are not so trivially mistaken that we should immediately switch to the mode of psychological diagnosis.

Both the historical and the psychological argument can at best establish a presumption against declinism. This is as it should be. Neither historical induction nor an anatomy of our psychology could conclusively establish anything more. For that, we still need to look at what our culture is actually like—we would need to engage in a wide-ranging consideration of the historical evidence. Still, these two arguments provide important sources of doubt. They put, I think, the burden of proof firmly on the declinist, just like we think it’s the apocalyptic preacher’s responsibility to convince us of the World’s end.

In the next post, I will pile onto these problems for the cultural declinists. None of this conclusively establishes that they are mistaken. Again, specific, localised claims of declinism might well be convincing. But establishing the case for global cultural declinism faces several problems.

(continue to part 5)

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