Hic Sunt Dracones

On the one hand, the maker of this globe in 1504 was woefully ignorant about the world.

It looks like South America was torn off roughly at the equator, and where the North American continent ought to be there are only a few scattered islands. The coasts and boundaries of Europe, Africa and Asia are, at best, crude approximations.

But on the other hand, this may be the oldest globe to depict the Western Hemisphere. While it’s far from perfect, it represents a huge leap forward in human knowledge and understanding.

Whoever made this globe knew things that people a generation earlier did not know. Given when this globe was made, and given the extremely limited resources available to whoever made it, it’s a remarkable achievement.

This is how science and learning and human progress works.* The leading edge of learning one day is bound to appear vague, partial and inadequate 500 years later.

We can make maps today that are clearer, more accurate and more complete than this old globe, but we do so mindful that 500 years from now, our best efforts may appear as sketchy as this beautifully carved artifact from 1504. We go about our learning mindful that our best knowledge may, someday, be improved upon in ways we cannot imagine by people with resources we cannot imagine that will enable them to see further and clearer and deeper than we are able to see now.

That’s both humbling and inspiring. Let’s do our best, like this anonymous globe-maker did, to impress our heirs 500 years from now. They will surely notice whole continents of knowledge missing from our best efforts, but let’s try to dazzle them with our care and craftsmanship and our painstaking effort to put together the best of what we know, pointing the way to something better.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The sentiment in this post is all quite welcome — even if it’s a bit overly sentimental — as long as the subject is cartography, or astronomy, or physics, or medicine or other fields where dramatic progress over the centuries is obvious and celebrated. But it’s mostly unwelcome if the subject is theology.

This little cartographical object lesson contradicts the mythological narrative we tend to construct around the study of theology, which regards the past as a Golden Age of perfect, complete, wholly accurate knowledge that has gradually been lost over the ensuing centuries. It’s a myth of regress just as powerful and potentially misleading as the myth of inevitable progress I flirt with in the first seven paragraphs of this post.

But it has the opposite effects. The ideal of progress is both humbling and inspiring — reminding us that our best knowledge is always incomplete and pushing us toward further inquiry and perpetual curiosity. But the ideal of regress warns against inquiry and curiosity as dangerous activities that threaten the precious remnants of the truths we have inherited. And rather than encouraging humility, it encourages arrogance — telling us that we may be worse than our ancestors, but we’ll always be better than our descendants.

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  • “it encourages arrogance — telling us that we may be worse than our ancestors, but we’ll always be better than our descendants.”

    Some people want “The Truth” to be permanently settled. something that was perfected either in the golden past or in whatever the norms and level of knowledge of ones own youth happened to be. The desire to have one’s children forever hold the same awe for their towering wisdom that they held as toddlers is a big part of various anti-intellectual attitudes. Everyone says they want a better future for their children, and I’m sure they’re sincere. But many people also have a streak of Pa Finn inside of them, dreading a future that sees them as fools who suffered through primitive hardships for no good reason. It’s an attitude that can take some weirdly petty forms, like a belief in one true holy format for a high school basketball tournament, http://www.news-sentinel.com/article/2012120719817, or the belief that the teaching of cursive is absolutely necessary for moral development because………?

  • “it encourages arrogance — telling us that we may be worse than our ancestors, but we’ll always be better than our descendants.”

    The myth of progress has pretty much the exact same problem though:

    “Learn from the past? Why would we need to do that? People in the past we stupid and bloodthirsty. Whatever problems they had are no longer relevant to our situation because everything is totally different. We are so far beyond them we’ve already learned more than they could teach us.”

    A lot of the praise of our moral progress (I’m thinking specifically of Steven Pinker) is predicated on the assumption that progress is to be measured according to our current ideals (mostly mushy utilitarianism), and whatever ideals people had in the past aren’t worth considering at all.

    For that matter, stagnation theory is also bad because it leads to complacency.

  • Jurgan

    “Good,” said the First Speaker. “And tell me, what do you think of all this. A finished work of art, is it not?”
    “Wrong! It is not.” This, with sharpness. “It is the first lesson you must unlearn. The Seldon Plan is neither complete nor correct. Instead, it is merely the best that could be done at the time. Over a dozen generations of men have pored over these equations, worked at them, taken them apart to the last decimal place, and put them together again. They’ve done more than that. They’ve watched nearly four hundred years pass and against the predictions and equations, they’ve checked reality, and they have learned.
    “They have learned more than Seldon ever knew, and if with the accumulated knowledge of the centuries we could repeat Seldon’s work, we could do a better job. Is that perfectly clear to you?”
    The student appeared a little shocked.

    -Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation

  • I love that. :D Very a propos. :D (and I wish I could “Like” it a million times.)

    Here’s a related one:

    “So he created his Foundations according to the laws of psychohistory, but who knew better than he that even those laws were relative. He never created a finished product. Finished products are for decadent minds. His was an evolving mechanism and the Second Foundation was the instrument of that evolution. We, First Citizen of your Temporary Union of Worlds, we are the guardians of Seldon’s Plan. Only we!”

  • Jurgan

    Yeah, I was looking for that one, too, but I couldn’t find it.

  • connorboone

    And what, pray tell, is mushy and wrong about utilitarianism?

  • Tom Vinson

    From the sermon I heard this morning, quoting Jaroslav Pelikan:
    Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
    @Jurgan:disqus: nice to be reminded of Hari Seldon.

  • Taking a moment to love the fact that I was able to translate the title…

    Suddenly getting to the point when learning a language starts working is SO COOL…

  • Jurgan

    I think he is saying that most people are sort of utilitarian in their morality but unwilling to follow through on its implications. For example, “We should tax the rich because they don’t need their money as much as poor people need food stamps, but I shouldn’t have to give up my flat screen TV because I earned it.” I admit to being guilty of this myself, and I don’t know if that is a character flaw.

  • Derek

    For what it’s worth, I think John Stuart Mill did a pretty good job balancing between the progressive and regressive views in his On Liberty. In the end he gives perhaps too much credence to the progressive narrative, but he’s aware that progress is always partial and incomplete.

  • dr ngo

    Were you by any chance in Duke Chapel? Or is Pelikan just the flavor of the week everywhere?

  • It seems like your example would make more sense if the speaker suggested that they should not be taxed. But I suppose it would be a more transparent fabrication then.

  • Tom Vinson

    I was actually at St. Dunstan’s, Tulsa. The gospel was Luke’s account of healing the deformed woman on the Sabbath, and the synagogue leader’s reaction, which led to the Pelikan quote.

  • Given “Dracones”, I suspected it was “Here There Be Dragons”. Correct?

  • J_Enigma32


    Of course, “HIC SUNT DRACONES” is relatively new. The original used by Romans and Medieval cartographers was “HIC SUNT LEONES” – Here be lions.

  • This is off topic, but if you’re really curious…

    Utilitarianism is appealing because it’s so simple: there’s some good (probably pleasure) and you just maximize it. What could be simpler?

    Except that:

    1. There’s no good reason to believe that pleasure is the good instead of a good.

    2. There’s no good reason to think that pleasure is a scalar value that can be maximized, particularly with regards to multiple individuals or even for one person.

    3. Peter Singer’s brand of utilitarianism further requires the unsupportable premise that more intelligent animals experience more pleasure/happiness/well being than less intelligent ones.

    4. There’s no way of actually practicing utilitarianism absent the ability to make perfect predictions.

    5. Even if perfect predictions were possible, no one has the willpower to practice utilitarianism.

    6. Utilitarianism leads to many obviously absurd conclusions, e.g. Omelas is a great town to live in; it’s better if serial killers are happy about their work than unhappy about it, ceteris paribus; surgeons should secretly assassinate healthy people and harvest their organs for others &c. &c.

    7. Utilitarianism requires the end of human rights (why bind in advance the hands of government if it might in individual cases be more expedient to torture?), the family (why put the interests of a half dozen people in front of others?), promise-keeping (why keep your promise if it turns out you could go and do something else that would create more happiness?) &c. &c.

  • That’s a pretty nice strawman you’ve beaten up there. You forgot to address the happiness of the nuclear weapons specialist who just wants to see the entire planet glow a nice shade of chartreuse.

  • J_Enigma32

    Well, hold on now. Let’s look at some of the ideals they held in the past. We know this because there are some backwards people who hold them today.

    – Women are not human. Women are property; they are to be owned by their fathers and then their husbands. Their only worth is to carry on the (male) family name.
    – Women exist as a temptation to destroy men and lead them down the path to sin.
    – Africans are not human. They’re savages that require the civilizing influence of Europeans.
    – Africans are not human. They’re property, but for purposes of representation, they’re 3/5ths of a person.
    – Africans are closer to chimpanzees and other savage animals, whereas the noble, graceful European (northern, or British ONLY) is a superior human being
    – War is a sport practiced by aristocrats
    – There can only be one state religion – he who rules, his faith.
    – Secular governments are sinful and dangerous to society
    – Democracy means mob rule
    – If you’re poor, it’s because of moral flaws, not because of some kind of flaw in the system
    – To have sex with a woman is an admission of weakness; it’s better to have sex with young boys than it is women
    – Complete castration is a suitable punishment for betraying the state; not only yourself but of your sons, your grandsons, and your parents, and maybe even your great-grandsons.
    – Great men should be allowed to have as many wives as they want; the opposite is not true.
    – Gay males are sinful and dangerous and need to be stoned for being an abomination
    – Gay women need to be raped in order to realize they’re not gay
    – Kings have a moral right to rule and nobody has any right at all to criticize the king, or the Church, and those who do are asking for abuse by the Inquisition

    These are just the first thoughts to spring into my mind. If you want to hear more of that “past morality”, I suggest listening to Brian Fischer, Tony Perkins, or any number of men on the Religious Right, since the Past is what they push, and they push it like crack dealers to an audience that’s hooked on every word.

    Does this mean we can’t learn anything from the past? No. We’re building knowledge off of what was learned in the past all the time. I’ve heard your quote before. I’ve said your quote before. But it’s not a derision of the past; it’s a derision of the fools who want to bring the past back, who think it’s a golden age or bygone era of perfection that we’ll never have back, who are consistently pining for those forlorn days.

  • malpollyon

    You seem deeply confused about Utilitarianism. Perhaps you could try reading what actual utilitarians have written about these issues before claiming that Utilitarianism is obviously faulty based on a ludicrous strawman. For a start your claims about Singer are trivially false.

  • Hexep

    Hic jacet Arcturus rex quandum rex futuram.

  • Madhabmatics

    I blame surveyors for there being no dragons in the forest. Those jerks mapped the entire state!

  • Matthias

    Well this raises the question why the did not in fact repeat Seldon’s work, doesn’t it? And if they did why is his work still revered to such an extent if there are obviously better versions of it?

  • malpollyon

    They don’t need to repeat his work, merely improve upon it, in the same way that Einstein didn’t need to reinvent the calculus when he discovered relativity. Similarly, just because Newton didn’t get everything right doesn’t mean his accomplishments aren’t worthy of respect.

  • J_Enigma32

    Novus sidus oritur


    I think you were aiming for:
    Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus

    Although an interesting fact: Google Translate translates your statement as “Here lies Arthur, King when the future king” (literal translation).

    Arcturus is a rendering of Arthur’s name I’ve never seen before, but it must be an acceptable one. Arcturus is Greek for “Guardian of the Bear.” Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon hero of the epic poem bearing his name, is kenning for Bear. Could there be a connection?

  • The_L1985

    I don’t mind the teaching of cursive. What I do mind is the lack of some form of handwriting-improvement course that encourages students to take pride in what they write, print OR cursive, and make it legible.

    Yes, we can type things all the time, but sometimes you just want to use a pencil and paper, or your phone’s dead and nothing else is available.

  • The_L1985


    I learn from the curiosity of people in the past. I can believe that Ptolemy’s model of the universe is wrong and still recognize that it was an OK model for the time, when people didn’t have all the astronomical data that we did centuries later.

    I also feel that there are some things we need to start doing again, like practicing proper crop rotation instead of relying on county-sized monocultures of corn and wheat, because in this case the old way was more resource-efficient and would be even more productive with modern tech thrown into the mix.

    I believe there are some good things that have been lost, but that we can always progress. I believe that our moral views are probably limited in ways we don’t even recognize, but that people 200 years from now will find ridiculously narrow-minded. I believe that the past holds its wisdom, and the future its potential, and that we should not forget either while striving to improve the present.

  • The_L1985

    Wow, you need to read some Stuart Mill, stat. That is NOT how utilitarianism works at all.

  • The_L1985

    I always saw it as “rexus quondam, rexque futurus.” But then, most of the Latin I know is church Latin…

    Let’s see.

    “Quius custodiet ipsos custodies?”

    “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”

    “Sola lingua bona lingua morta est.” :)

    Also, I’d learned that Beowulf = bee + wolf. Implying he was fierce as a wolf in battle, and industrious/clever/stinging like the bee.

  • The_L1985

    Well, yes. We’re imperfect beings and never will be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to asymptotically approach perfection.

  • Matthias

    But no one would say that Newtons law of gravity is a “finished work of art” everyone would say “Its a useful approximation, but does not contain relativity”.

    And for his improvment of the newtonian model of Gravity Einstein is just as known as Newton. Which is to say if anyone did in fact do a similar improvment to Seldons work as Einstein on Newtons, then he or she would be as famous (or more so) as Seldon himself. But this has evidently not happened in the books.

  • Hexep

    Well, my favorite book ever written is the Once and Future King, by TH White, and that’s the final line of the book. I was doing it from memory, though, despite having a copy of it in my peripheral vision.

  • Dorfl

    I thought bee-wolf was a kenning for ‘bear’?

  • themunck

    “Fabricati Diem, Pvnc”

    “Nvnc Id Vides, Nvnc Ne Vides”

  • Hexep

    The Age of Heroes truly is finished; in overcoming it, no human wrong truly nourishes the spirit so dearly as do the travails of the very Gods.

    My new apartment is altogether more pleasing to me than was my old one, but I can’t deny the fact that my old one had a better refrigerator. There’s no shame in admitting that some things were better in the old days.

  • Hexep

    Thank you, Sam. Nobody has ever even raised the question of my needs before.

  • Jurgan

    The problem with that is that Seldon’s Plan was not a purely abstract experiment. It had been tested and applied for four hundred years at that point. If they were starting over, they could do a better job in the abstract, but to apply it would require rewinding civilization back to before it started, which is obviously impossible. So they stay within the framework of what has already been done and make changes to it as necessary. Actually, after The Mule wrecks the galaxy, they pretty much do remake The Plan, allowing the First Foundation to believe the Second Foundation has been destroyed. There’s a lot of improvising to correct for the unpredictable, but they stay fundamentally within his vision.

  • Jurgan

    I thought the “bee-wolf” thing meant “wolf of the bees,” as in something that destroys bees homes, i.e., bear. The idea being that if you spoke the word “bear,” there was a danger you could summon a bear. And I see below me that Dorfl heard the same thing.

  • Donalbain

    “Quius custodiet ipsos custodies?”

    Nescio. Custodae Orea?

  • For hundreds of years, right up until quantum mechanics exploded on the scene, famous scientists were saying things like “new discoveries will be at the sixth decimal place”, implying science was in a stage of refinement rather than new startling discoveries.

  • Trivia: There are actually two versions of this, and one of them completely omits one of my favorite chapters; it’s when the snake named T. Natrix tells Arthur about evolution, although not in so many words.

  • Anton_Mates

    Hundreds of physicists and mathematicians improved on Newtonian mechanics before Einstein revolutionized it–some of them almost as famous (Euler, Lagrange), most of them less so. They didn’t change the fundamental form of Newton’s laws, but they refined the values of his constants, derived consequences of his theory that he hadn’t anticipated, and developed new mathematical tools for working with it. As a result, any physicist from 1900 could do a better job of designing an automobile or planning a rocket voyage through space than Newton himself could. But that doesn’t mean they’d get more respect or name recognition than Newton, and they’d still be working in the arena of Netwonian mechanics.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    +1 for SMBC, but minus about a billion for presenting one of its most blatantly absurdist strips as any kind of rebuttal. Though given previous comments you seem to think it’s a serious critique of utilitarianism, to which I can only suggest you look up the definitions of satire, humor, and exaggeration.

  • A lot of people have told me that I am making a strawman argument or that the various criticisms of utilitarianism don’t apply, but no one has explained why the criticisms don’t apply.

    In the specific case of SMBC, yes, it’s a humorous parody, but utility monsters are a serious problem for classical hedonist act utilitarians. Even if you don’t believe it would be possible for one person to have enough utility to act as a utility monster, it would be possible for there to exist a planet full of utility monsters (let’s say there are 100 quadrillion of them on the planet Algebra) who get pleasure when life on Earth goes badly. Obviously, it’s absurd to think we on Earth ought to behave badly to please the planet of Algebran utility monsters. But how can we deny it from a classical hedonist act utilitarian framework?

    For that matter (more down to Earth), in the surgeon variation of the Trolley Problem, why not have secret organ harvesters who distribute organs from one healthy person to many sick people? Why keep a promise if it looks like there’s something else you can do with more utility? Why care for your own children instead of many other people? Etc.

    There are many, many flaws with classical hedonist act utilitarianism, and one very big advantage of it: it is a very simple, intuitively approachable system of ethics. You can fix most of the flaws by switching to non-hedonist, rule-based systems, but as soon as you do, you lose the simplicity that made utilitarianism appealing in the first place.

  • Because in each of your examples, you present utilitarianism as being blindly in support of making someone happy by increasing the suffering of someone else. That’s not utilitarianism. Furthermore, if you think the appeal to utilitarianism is that it’s simple, you’ve never been in a situation where you had to come up with a solution that appealed to everyone.

  • All ethical systems agree that win-win scenarios are best if possible. What makes different systems different is how they handle unavoidable win-lose scenarios. If you don’t believe in the in principle possibility of hedonic calculus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_calculus that’s fine (I don’t), but you’re not a classical utilitarian anymore.

  • To approach your repeated example of organ harvesters, let’s presume that someone did pursue the idea of secretly taking organs from people in order to promote the greater good. In the best case scenario, we’ll say that every organ and tissue can be harvested and put to immediate use, saving (or at least substantially enriching) the lives of many people — heart, lungs, two kidneys, digestive tract, gallbladder, skin tissues, etc. Sacrificing one life to promote several others seems like a good deal if you’re not concerned about the cost to that single life.

    Until the secret gets out.

    What happens to society when it discovers that any person who visits a doctor or hospital has a chance of being killed for their organs? Faith in the medical system is going to plummet. People will look upon doctors and medical scientists with deep suspicion. Any vehicle bearing their logo—or merely deemed suspicious—will inspire paranoia of bloodmobiles on the lookout for easily kidnapped victims. People will self-medicate, or even perform their own surgeries. Overall health will drop like a stone as people refuse to go in for vaccinations or treatment of contagious illnesses. Society decays.

    Utilitarianism is not served.

    The problem with deontological ethics is pretty simple. We see it every single day when someone quotes the Bible. Rules tend not to encompass all possible circumstances, interpretation of their meaning varies overmuch and many come across as purely arbitrary if they ever served a purpose at all. Furthermore, it is my suspicion that by the time you finish writing a rule which addresses any possible circumstances and exceptions to its enforcement, you would actually wind up with utilitarianism – a set of rules whose purpose is to increase overall welfare and minimize suffering.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    Obviously, it’s absurd to think we on Earth ought to behave badly to please the planet of Algebran utility monsters. But how can we deny it from a classical hedonist act utilitarian framework?

    Well what if you get hit by a car when you leave your home in the morning? In that case your personal suffering increases dramatically, not to mention the psychological suffering of the person who hits you (plus any damage to their car), so obviously you need to hide in your home for the rest of your life to maximize your happiness and that of drivers everywhere!

    That’s literally the quality of argument you’re making. Sam addressed the “organ harvesting” issue quite capably as well, so I don’t need to add on to that. Your hypothetical scenarios are either so blatantly absurd they’re Not Even Wrong, or show a complete inability to follow through because the actual conclusions (endemic panic, distrust, and social decay) aren’t conducive to your point. Your understanding of utilitarianism is so painfully, nakedly shallow that it is on its face a ridiculous strawman that barely merits further engagement.

  • Hypotheticals aren’t meant to be realistic; they’re meant to tease out where a theory breaks down. There’s no doubt that someone using utilitarianism as a life philosophy would be fine. The question is if classical utilitarianism is the right theory overall. The existence of these breakdowns in extreme situations suggests that it is not.

    I’m done with this thread because I keep being told that I don’t “get” utilitarianism without actually getting replies to my objections, just explanations for why those situations empirically won’t happen. In addition, I find the tone in your last comment rather insulting, and I don’t want to engage with you anymore.

  • For the record, I’m also against deontology. The binary between deontology and consequentialism is overblown because it’s just a verbal dispute, and you can easily redescribe the one in terms of the other: “Utilitarianism is the deontological theory that we have a duty to maximize pleasure, and Kantianism is the consequentialist theory that we must maximize the amount of goodwill.”