Sunday, November 13, 2011

Over-determined History

I don't believe in pre-determination. I reject the idea that the future is already written, that we are powerless to change it, and that it cycles forward on its own. Free will is--in my opinion--not only one of the best Rush songs, but also the essential component of life, of civil society, and of liberty.

That said, there is a notion--in reference to understanding history--that I very much do accept: major events are over-determined

How many times have you played the game of wondering how a subtle--or not-so-subtle--change to the past would impact the present? Wondered how a time traveling assassin could change the course of the modern world by going back to 1936 and killing Adolf Hitler? Or perhaps going back even farther and taking out Brutus  and company before they left for the Roman Senate on the morning of March 15th, 44 BC?

Could the Holocaust and WWII have been averted? Might Rome have never fallen? 

Some might posit more obscure moves, perhaps sinking the ships of Columbus, thus delaying the exploration and colonization of the New World by decades or more. Or going back to Athens and talking the Greeks out of War with Persia, thus creating a completely different line of demarcation between the Orient and the Occident. 

Roger Zelazny wrote a short story on this subeject in 1975. Entitled "The Game of Blood and Dust," it was about two aliens that traveled into Earth's past changed things, then came forward in time to see the results. Each was allowed three moves. One played the role of "Dust," whose goal was to have a lifeless present Earth, while the other played the role of "Blood," whose goal was a present earth full of life and civilization. A couple of games were detailed, with the first being won by Dust and the second being won by Blood (and being our actual present Earth). Wonderful stuff and very thought-provoking.

But in my view, ultimately meaningless. Despite the specific roles of specific people in history, the path of history itself cannot be so easily manipulated to achieve drastically different results. World War II--for instance--was coming in the late 1930's. Killing Hitler would not avert it, nor would have a host of other actions.

The War was a consequence of factors that were truly legion. Like strands of a great tapestry, they were drawn together and woven to lead to that moment. Cutting one would have little impact in the whole.

Strictly speaking, an event is over-determined if there are two or more sufficient causes for that event. Consider a pot of water on a stove's burner. Assume the burner is turned to "hi." The water will soon boil, right? But if the burner is turned of, it will not. But assume that the temperature in the room is also being steadily increased. And assume a plug-in heating element has also been put in the pot. Now, there are three distinct potential causes for a boiling pot of water. Cancelling out one of them will not stop the water from boiling. Thus, the event--when it happens--is over-determined.

Free will and choice are still present, it's just that the choices have already been made to set the stage for some events. Too many choices by too many people across too much time. That's an over-determined event in history.

And we may be on the cusp of another such moment, as concerns the EU in particular and European civilization in general. Recently, I noted a piece by Niall Ferguson, wherein he suggested that Europe was doomed to collapse and that the collapse--the end--would happen quickly when it came. Ferguson is at it again, with this piece that outlines where he sees the EU crisis going:
As a result, according to the new president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, a “double dip” recession in Europe is now all but inevitable. And that’s lousy news for U.S. exporters targeting the EU market. 
But there’s more. Europe’s problem is not just that governments are overborrowed. There are an unknown number of European banks that are effectively insolvent if their holdings of government bonds are “marked to market”—in other words, valued at their current rock-bottom market prices. In our interconnected financial world, it would be very odd indeed if no U.S. institutions were affected by this. Just as European institutions once loaded up on assets backed with subprime U.S. mortgages, so most big U.S. banks have at least some exposure to eurozone bonds or banks. One institution—MF Global, run by former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine—just blew up because of its highly levered euro bets. Others are biting their fingernails because it is suddenly far from clear that the credit default swaps they have bought as insurance against, say, a Greek default are worth the paper they are written on.
Ferguson sees bad news for the U.S. too, this is true, but not nearly as bad as what may be in store for Europe.

Currently, EU leaders are frantically looking for ways to avert this crisis, to save Italy and the Euro, even as Greece seems to have been--for all intents and purposes--written off. And if they can't, the shockwaves of will reverberate through other nations, including France and Germany, and may bring down their economies and governments, as well.

I hope they find a workable solution, I really do. But suppose this collapse is simply over-determined?

Cheers, all.

No comments:

Post a Comment