There are two primary impulses that guide the course of human social evolution:
- The conservative impulse — The urge to stay, protect, retain the past. The urge to not go wandering in strange directions. The tendency to be suspicious of acts and practices that put the individual’s interest over that of the collective.
- The liberal impulse — The urge to explore, grow, and expand. The desire to understand, act, and shape the future. The rejection of the dogmas of the past and the influences that suppress individuality in favour of the collective good.
Is one of these impulses better than the other one? Of course not. A completely conservative society will stagnate and die. A completely progressive society will wither away into the nothingness of extreme individualism. The best societies manage to strike some kind of a balance between the two extremes. They allocate safe spaces to the things of the past while at the same time assigning importance to the exploratory side of human nature.
Myths and superstitions are one manifestation of the conservative impulse. They represent, on one level, a faulty understanding of the world as humanity saw it once. On another level, they represent the best efforts of our ancestors. There is meaning inherent in them and it has to do with the shape of the world, the human condition, and ways of dealing with the forces that they thought affect our lives.
The best way to appreciate the fact that our past is coded into myths and superstitions is to appreciate the fact that they are myths and superstitions. When we fail to do that and fall upon assigning value to myths that they do not possess, we make a category error. We say that just because things have been a certain way for a long time, they need to continue that way.
In truth, despite our best efforts, the future is unknown. And the only way to know it and prepare for it is by exploring the forces that shape it. It can’t be done by an over-reliance on the past. The past is a well-hardened shell and it can protect you in hard times. But progress requires coming out of it and moving in strange directions.