Between Possibility And Inevitability

One of the notable asymmetries between looking at current events and history is the way that current events seem full of possibilities while history seems full of historical inevitability. As is often the case, there are errors looking both ways. It is not hard to see why this is the case. When we are experiencing events in the moment, it is hard to realize that some decisions that are made by people and institutions and societies will have inevitably negative consequences but may appear to offer benefits that simply do not exist in any reality but only in the demented imaginations of those who make predictable historical errors. In less serious cases, even in cases where there are genuine options, we may not always be aware of what is possible at a given time and in a given situation, and there may be aspects of divine providence or probability weighting that are simply not possible to understand for observers at the time.

The same is true when we look back on history with the benefit of hindsight. It is easy to see the way that things happened and to think that this was inevitable, but there are often moments where things could have gone differently if different conditions had existed or different decisions had been made. Much of the value of studying history and in examining current events is to ponder what sort of factors are present in making certain things possible, certain things impossible, certain things more likely, and even certain things inevitable (or at least almost so, eventually). History amounts to the record of different experiments with given results, and should be understood with as full a knowledge as possible into what were the controls and what were the independent variables that were varied, and under what conditions those variables were changed from other similar experiments.

In understanding this process we must be aware that history does not present the sort of picture that we might wish it would. History is messier than the ideal, and frequently those who want to deny the verdict of history are quick to pounce on this messiness as demonstration that “true ___________ has never been tried, and therefore no past experience is final.” We do not need the ideal to have ever been practiced if there are good reasons for believing based on historical example and a sound knowledge of human nature that such an ideal is never likely to exist and does not exist in misguided contemporary examples that seek to confirm the error of similar past examples, to the wasted suffering of contemporary people whose lives should have been improved by sound historical understanding. We know that certain possibilities do not exist if the ideal conditions that are required to bring such possibilities into existence deny fundamental realities about how human beings behave. The most robust decisions are those which do not depend on humanity being wise or perceptive, but at times the lack of wisdom and perception allows for grave and costly mistakes to be made.

How do we correctly understand the pressures that people deal with in the context of making choices? All too many people have greatly erred by overestimating the importance of the free will of leaders or the determinism that exists from a society that is blindly resistant to change. It is easy enough to understand that we want to simplify reality to something that is easy to model, but the models we make are seldom even remotely robust enough to deal with reality nor do they tend to include all the relevant factors, and their blind spots tend to leave them unable to explain reality. Perhaps it would be wisest to maintain a perspective of humility about our understanding of reality, our identification of all that is relevant to understanding the past, present, and future, as well as our ability to conceive of what will result from what we do. To the extent that we remain humble, we remain open to learning, to growth, and to change ourselves, and often we need to change far more than the societies and institutions we tilt against so often in our lives. We cannot make a better world than we ourselves are, and this fact is forgotten all too often in our calculations and our prognostications.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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