Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Paradox of Historical Reconstruction

In many historical disciplines, from archeology to geology, cosmology to biology, the further away, temporally speaking, from an event one is, the less accurate and detailed a description one can give of that event. This is for many obvious reasons: For example, the ocean floor moves away from divergent tectonic plate boundaries, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and towards subduction zones, such as those along the western coast of the Americas. This conveyor-belt motion is cyclical (every several billion years, I think) and, therefore, as the oldest part of the ocean floor is subducted, geological evidence of the past is lost forever. This applies, of course, to nearly all historical records, be them archaeological, paleontological, anthropological, etc.

In another -- and
paradoxical -- sense, though, sometimes greater temporal distance from an event actually results in more accurate and detailed descriptions. Indeed, even as evidence, for example, of long deceased life is permanently expunged through natural (and non-natural -- i.e., anthropogenic) processes, the total quantity of discovered fossils continues to increase, thereby enriching our understanding of the biota of past epochs. Furthermore, as scientists develop theories into increasingly sophisticated models or accounts of natural phenomena, lacunae in our knowledge (due to gaps in empirical data) can be "filled in" through rational extrapolation. In this way -- again, paradoxically -- greater distance along the diachronic axis can actually yield better knowledge of an historical event long gone.

Indeed, we can look forward to a more accurate theoretical understanding of the origin of the universe in the
future, which upon reflection seems (at least to me) to be an oddity.

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