It’s astonishing how little history tells us about the future. At first glance, this might seem like an obvious fact. History is the study of the past. But every science is a study of the past: in physics, chemistry, biology, linguistics, climate science, one looks at what has happened in order to learn how to predict and shape the future. It’s strange, then, that no one has been able to reliably predict the rise and fall of nations, cultures, economies, the ebb and flow of war and peace, on the time scale of decades and centuries; it’s astonishing that every Nostradamus is a fraud or operating on blind luck.
One could argue that history is a social science that tries to understand phenomena that are a good deal more chaotic than, say, a chemical reaction; but this casts doubt on our understanding of the past. It’s said that everything is obvious in hindsight. Today, we can list a number of factors that seem to be sufficient and necessary in order for, say, World War II to occur. But these factors don’t seem to be time-reversible: we can’t reliably predict that a disastrous worldwide war is going to occur whenever these factors are present.
The link between prediction and explanation is absolutely essential in science. The laws of nature stay constant over time and space; they function the same in 7th century Africa as in 21st century North America. If the laws didn’t stay constant, we couldn’t use them to predict or explain anything, since we couldn’t trust that our experiments here and now tell us anything about yesterday or tomorrow. This is something we take for granted, as David Hume pointed out, and we must, because otherwise we couldn’t live. And so if a physicist wants to explain, say, a 17th century astronomer’s observations, he must appeal to eternal laws of gravity. He can point to factors that would cause certain celestial objects to appear in certain positions; those same factors, when present, would give rise to similar observations in the future. If the physicist insists that even if the exact same conditions occur in the future, we might observe something entirely different, we have good reason to suspect that his explanation of the past is false.
Yet in history, we talk as if we know why empires rise and fall, why wars break out and why they resolve themselves into cold wars or proxy wars or genuine peace. But we still can’t take these same explanations, recognize them in the present, and reliably project into the future. This suggests that maybe cultural, political and economic history doesn’t have the requisite regularity in order to be a real science—how can one have a science that can’t predict anything? And if that is so, it means that we don’t understand the past nearly as well as we think we do.
It could be argued that historians rely on information not widely known in the present, intel on backroom negotiations that wasn’t common knowledge at the time the events happened. But this violates the intuition that hindsight is 20/20 and is undermined by the fact that many historical explanations depend entirely on common knowledge at the time. It is not simply the case that we need temporal distance to understand cause and effect.
This train of thought was spurred on by an advertisement I stumbled over—I’ve since forgotten where—about a book on Beijing. The ad posited that Beijing was the definite capital of the 21st century. And that got me thinking. It seems awfully bold to declare already what the shape of the 21st century is going to look like down the line. Let’s pretend we’re in 1912, a hundred years ago. Could anyone have predicted how the 20th century would turn out?
In 1912, the British Empire was near the height of its power. Africa was still almost completely colonial. India was British. The world wars had yet to roll around. Paris was the capital of the art world. New Mexico had just become the 47th US state, and the US still maintained a largely isolationist foreign policy. The Ottoman empire was still around, and ruled Palestine, where there were very few Jews. Russia’s imperial anthem was “God Save The Tsar”. China was in the process of dismantling its monarchy. The United Nations and its predecessor, the League of Nations, didn’t exist. The European Union and its predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Union, didn’t exist. And that’s not even touching on technological advances like the invention of computers and atomic bombs. All that would change. No one saw it coming. Not even close to all of it, anyway.
If you’re reading this in the future, know this: we had no idea. That thing that happened in 2033 that changed everything? No clue. Here in the early 21st century, we were still laboring under the misconception that the defining moment of the century happened in September, 2001. We were talking about the embarassing details you, dear Future Reader, would find on Facebook, as if Facebook would be around forever. We were at what we thought would be a defining moment in the history of “intellectual property”. It looked like copyright might go away forever, or alternatively, it would cement itself as an institution that cannot be questioned, like prisons. We had no clue. We thought maybe video games could be, or were, or would be art. No idea. The Middle East? Yeah, we thought that would never change, either. Moscow, Beijing, DC? Nope.
But the salient point here isn’t that we didn’t know about the future. Everyone knows you can’t predict the future. (Except the end of the universe, of course. It’s easier to tell what the world will look like in a hundred billion years than in one hundred.) The point is what this says about our understanding of the past. And not just the global past, but our personal pasts, too. If history isn’t cyclical enough to sustain predictions about the future, is it robust enough for us to ever really explain the past?
Malcolm Gladwell might have convinced some that he knows what it takes to be an outlier, but does anyone really think he could have picked out Steve Jobs in that garage where he and Woz assembled the first Apple I’s? Venture capitalists put their money where their mouth is, but they usually fund many projects to see some take off, and even the most successful tend to restrict themselves to projects with expected profits within the next few years.
We all have those moments, I suspect, where we think back and imagine where we would be today if we took the other lemma, if we chose to chase the other horizon. Or if what happened to us on a faithful day didn’t, or if what happened to others because of us had never been. But if we can’t trust that, if we make the same choice in the future, things will unfold in the same way, can we really believe the choice was why things unfolded as they did in the first place?
Yes, dear Future Reader, we couldn’t imagine there would ever be a time when we could establish an experimental history. It seemed impossible to us that one might simulate the trillion-year life cycle of a universe in order to see what might happen to countries or individuals when you tweak the spatial positioning of a lover or the angle between a human bone and a hovercar.Apr 14, 2012