Would Erasing All Human Knowledge of History Be a Good Thing?

Thanks to Maddy R. in Ithaca, NY for this week’s topic:

Maddy sent us this interesting topic, which she said came from the podcast Hello Internet. In addition to being a cool question, I ended up getting hooked on Hello Internet through this, which is totally my kind of podcast—so thanks Maddy.

The podcast features discussions between C. G. P. Grey and Brady Haran, and in the episode Maddy pointed me to, Grey poses the question:

If you had the power to erase all human knowledge and documentation of history, would you?

The question is a bit vague, so to further clarify:

Today’s world would be the same and people would still have the basic understanding of it—i.e. I’d know that I’m an American, that the US is one of many countries, that Barack Obama is our president, etc., but the knowledge of what it means to be an American or the history of how America came to be would be gone. In other words, the historical baggage of each country, religion, ethnicity, etc. would be gone. (It’s not a perfect thought experiment, but you get the point.)

On the podcast (episode 29, starting at 54:30), Grey says unequivocally that he’d do it. He points out that there are so many places in today’s world where many people in one place hate the people in a place very close to them (i.e. India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, South Korea/Japan etc.), but that the reasons for the hate often either stem back to things that happened hundreds of years ago involving people that are all dead now, or they stem from things that happened recently, but that those things only happened because of other things that happened in history. In other words, relations all over the world are fucked up because of things that people did in much more barbaric times. Grey thinks that in a world without history, we’d simply ask the question, “Where in the world do people need the most help right now?”

Haran strongly disagrees with Grey, suggesting that A) Without history we’re likely to repeat many of the worst parts of the past, and that erasing history would make the world a worse place, not a better one—i.e. it might eliminate hatred but it would also eliminate wisdom, and B) Regardless of whether erasing history would make the world a better or worse place, it would be a bad thing to do since history is the great story of our species and that stories matter a lot in life—he asks, “What is the point of life if it isn’t stories?”

What do you think?


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