In the classic film, Back To the Future, Marty McFly walks into Lou’s cafe and orders a Pepsi Free. Two aspects of this make me laugh. First, the brand “Pepsi Free” is a caffeine-free relic from the 80’s that lasted just 5 years (1982-87). Second, Marty, a time-traveler from 1985, was ordering in 1955. The guy behind the counter, clearly confused, replied, “You want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it.” This is an anachronism, which is “a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other.” Sometimes, anachronisms make us laugh or entertain us, as with the Society for Creative Anachronism. Sometimes, anachronistic thinking leads to what I’ll call the McFly Fallacy.
The McFly fallacy occurs when we inappropriately apply categories or standards from one time to another time in the distant past. I love this Deep Thought that seems to capture the idea:
We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can’t scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me.
Here, humorist Jack Handey (intentionally) commits the McFly fallacy by applying modern standards of knowledge to an ancient context. We shouldn’t look down our noses at ancient people for some of the things they believed, such as the universe’s being situated on the back of a giant turtle. They weren’t dumb. They lacked the modern technology and accumulated knowledge that we take for granted. Aristotle had some crazy beliefs, such as the idea that eels generate spontaneously from the mud, but his genius is clear in his scientific and philosophical innovation. Some credit him with the invention of science!
McFly Off the Handle
We often make this mistake with moral judgments. I rationally accept the idea that certain moral truths are timeless. For example, if torture is always wrong, then it was wrong in 1000 BCE and it will be wrong in 5000 CE. But making moral judgments about people is another story. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which slavery was never questioned should not be judged in the same way that we judge a 21st century American. I grant that a 17th century person who owned slaves was doing something morally wrong, but they have more of an excuse than I would have today, resulting in a more lenient moral judgment for them. To equate a 17th century slave holder and a 21st century slave holder is to commit the McFly fallacy. Moral knowledge comes to us slowly sometimes, creeping along over centuries.
The tendency to stumble into the McFly fallacy can also be understood as a kind of cultural bias. Some call this “presentism,” or “chronological snobbery.” We think of our own time, our modern culture, as superior to those in the past. Not simply in the sense of technological advancement or political progress, but we think that had we lived in the Middle Ages, we would never have done those sorts of things! We see ourselves, not merely as the beneficiaries of centuries of study, struggle and research, but as intrinsically better.
McFly In the Ointment
Sometimes the McFly fallacy happens due to sheer ignorance, as when we read ancient texts. We read an ancient narrative or poem, and expect that it should follow the style and conventions of modern narratives and poems. Ancient biographers would probably flunk out of our prestigious School of Journalism, here at Mizzou. They routinely used compositional devices like inversion, substitution, and spotlighting to craft their biographies. In our day, the idea of intentionally changing the order of events (inversion), putting words in a different mouth (substitution), or omitting certain people from a story for effect (spotlighting) would be considered dishonest!
According to New Testament scholar Dr. Michael Licona, these compositional devices account for most of the differences between the Gospel accounts. Rather than errors or disagreement, they were stylistic choices that would be easily understood and appreciated by 1st century readers. For example, Luke tells the story of a Roman centurion sending messengers to Jesus (7:1-10). But Matthew, in chapter 8 of his gospel, tells the same story with a change: the centurion himself goes to Jesus. Is this error or simply a compositional device? It is arrogant to think we can waltz right into these ancient texts, without any guidance, and interpret them correctly. We need experts, teachers, who understand ancient biographers like Plutarch, to help us avoid this bad reasoning. To simply characterize the ancient use of compositional devices as fabrication or distortion is to commit the McFly fallacy.
So, as you read history and learn about ancient cultures, avoid the McFly fallacy. Judge their actions, texts, art and culture in the context of their own time and place, unless otherwise specified. (Some ancient texts do claim to be timelessly true!) Moreover, don’t automatically dismiss ancient people as stupid and backward. They didn’t have iPhones, but their knowledge of art, politics, mathematics, and ethics, for example, continues to fill modern textbooks. And if you ever travel back in time, don’t get mad at the waitress if she doesn’t know what avacado toast is.