The ‘What If’ Questions That Shape History

The legendary philosopher and promoter of Secular Humanism Paul Kurtz died last October. He was someone who always cared less about God’s existence and more about what we ought to do with our lives after we’d figured out that God didn’t exist.

His final book, published yesterday, is called The Turbulent Universe. In it, he lays out his vision of a global ethics based on universal human rights, free inquiry, and living with exuberance.

Below is an excerpt from the book in which he questions the improbable events in our life:

The occurrence of the improbable in the universe is especially evident in the biosphere, which is more like a gambling contest than a well-designed formal plan. In the biosphere species emerge and become extinct. Contingencies are evident in the physical universe; turbulence is all the more evident in the arena of human affairs where uncertainty is invariably present. The human lebenswelt is replete with indeterminacy and chance; good and bad luck can enhance or wreck our lives.

The question has been raised: Is the uncertainty principle only due to our ignorance of the underlying causes at work, or does it have a real foundation in nature? Is the natural world unfathomable because we cannot fathom all that is at work, or is nature itself uncertain? All the crows that we have encountered thus far are black, but perhaps a pink crow may appear, or a real mermaid. We need an open mind. Our knowledge is surely fallible and subject to self-correction. A pink crow may appear some day as a mutant. The existence of lovely mermaids (half-woman/half-fish creatures in the realm of fantasy) is highly improbable, though we may encounter a persistent sea captain like Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick who will not give up his quest for the white whale. Do we need to drain all the seven seas to find out finally if mermaids exist?

There are, of course, singular, bizarre, totally improbable events that do occur. Are they that way because nature is that way? True, in human affairs, almost anything can happen overnight, and we are dumbfounded when it does. The twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in 2001 in New York City. It was an improbable, unlikely event that burning fuel emitted from two 747 airplanes was hot enough to melt the supporting columns and that the buildings would collapse pancake-style. Some speculate that perhaps it was due to a conspiracy by the Pentagon and/or Massad (the Israeli intelligence service) to catapult the United States into a new war on terror. There is little concrete evidence for this conspiracy theory, though it is widely held.

Was the tsunami that suddenly struck the Indian Ocean in December 2005 and killed two hundred thousand innocent people a random event? Science tells us that it was caused by Earth’s shifting plate tectonics, which caused an earthquake that resulted in a tidal wave. So there is a causal explanation that geological science provides to explain this event, which seemed so unpredictable beforehand, though other earthquakes have been explained by the shifting of tectonic plates. That all of those people trapped on the beaches and shores of the Indian Ocean would be drowned was totally surprising and unexpected. This tragic event was due to the impact of the tidal wave on human affairs, and here the contingent seems like a genuine explanation. We do encounter flukes and accidents, and luck and chance do their work in the affairs of human beings and other life forms of the biosphere. The hypothesis that we have considered in this book is that contingency is real; that is, it occurs outside the biosphere in the nonorganic world. It surely occurs in human affairs and is virtually the central feature of the human drama, which novelists, poets, dramatists, and cinematographers have long explored. It is clear that truth may at times be more bizarre than fiction or fantasy. I have maintained that contingency is indeed a generic trait of nature.

It surely is intrinsic to the human condition. Steve Allen, the famous American TV personality and author, was driving home on October 30, 2000, bringing with him the galleys of his latest book Vulgarians at the Gate, which was on the seat by his side. Meanwhile, a car suddenly veered into the path of his vehicle and struck it. This caused Allen to lunge forward and stop hard, his seat belt restraining him from going through the windshield. The man who struck him got out of his car, recognized Steve Allen, apologized, and asked for his autograph. Steve Allen smiled wryly in his typical way and responded, “Wow, that is the best attempt yet to get my autograph!” He proceeded home, told Jayne Meadows, his wife, that he did not feel well, and took a nap. An hour later, Jayne tried to awaken him and could not. Frightened, she called 911 for help. He could not be revived. An autopsy performed later indicated that he died of an aneurysm in his heart, most likely caused by the impact. There are causal processes at work here. Two motorists have an accident and the laws of physics apply: the rate of acceleration of one vehicle hitting another. There is also a biomedical explanation of his death.

Thus, there are two intertwined causal sequences: (a) the laws of mechanics enable physicists to estimate the acceleration and force of the impact; (b) the biological science of cardiology is able to locate the place of the aneurysm in the heart and postulate that it was most likely caused by the sudden pressure of the seat belt. There are also, of course, human explanations. The offending motorist was not attentive enough to guard against hitting Steve Allen’s car; nor did Allen see him coming. These are generally known as intentional explanations. Here we need to move on to the ethical level in order to interpret behavior and perhaps affix blame. Were the actions of the motorist intentional or unintentional? This is important in the social context in order to ascertain liability by the motorist and his insurance company.

Here there are causal sequences at various levels, drawn from different kinds of explanations: physical, biological, psychological, and motivational; and these sequences interact at one moment in time, converge and collide. Perhaps it was an improbable event, unexpected surely, a freak accident. Was it due to real chance? There are many factors that are relevant in interpreting events in the context of human behavior. I have called this general mode of explanation coduction, since in any complete explanation we coduce, or combine, many kinds of explanations from many levels of analysis, and we do so all the time. So a single cause may not be sufficient by itself to provide a full explanation. The tsunami, in which thousands were killed, can be explained by geological causes — an earthquake and a tidal wave. But the subsequent catastrophic mass drowning was also due to sociological and economic causes, which motivated people to build homes and hotels on the beaches. It was also due — in a negative sense — to the failure to establish a warning system and the lack of public education about the dangers that such tidal waves could have to life and limb.

There are abundant illustrations of coductive explanations that apply to historical events. As we have seen, the emergence of Nazism in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was due to many political, economic, psychological, and sociological causes: the Versailles Treaty, which exacted what many Germans thought were excessive reparations; the resentment built up because of defeat in World War I; the desire for revenge; the fear among many industrialists of communism and socialism; runaway inflation; and so forth. A key factor was also the appearance on the scene of Adolf Hitler, an impassioned orator who shared all of these sentiments. And added to the goulash was virulent anti-Semitism.

Noted American philosopher and social critic Sidney Hook has written about the Hero in History, pointing out that many decisive historical events were due to charismatic individuals who used the power of the state to fulfill their ambitious, sometimes idiosyncratic goals, rather than attributing them to underlying historical causes and trends.

In an ultimate sense, the role of chance, personal miscalculations, and psychological factors may be crucial. Thus Alexander, Napoleon, Lloyd George, Hitler, Stalin, de Gaulle, Kennedy, and other powerful leaders played causative roles, and we can always reconstruct historical events and ask, “What if particular historical events had not happened?”

We can repeat the exercise: What if the French fleet under Comte de Grasse during the American War of Independence had not blockaded Chesapeake Bay in 1781, which led to the defeat of the British Army and the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown? Would defeat of the American Continental Army at Yorktown have precluded the founding of the United States?

What if the French had decided not to defend Indochina in 1945? Would this have helped France to remain in Algeria, and would it have allowed the United States to avoid the costly Vietnam War?

What if President Kennedy had not been assassinated by a disgruntled malcontent named Oswald? Would the Vietnam War not have been escalated? This tragic war killed 58,000 American GIs and two to three million Vietnamese.

What if Joseph Stalin had not seized power as general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union? Would the tyranny that developed not have led to the near-total discrediting of the Russian Revolution of 1917? If Lenin had not died (or been poisoned), would Stalin have been thwarted in his ambitions?

Here is a line of hypothetical questions relevant to the late Cold War period: What if Mikhail Gorbachev had sent Russian troops to quell the uprising in East Germany in 1989? Would this have forestalled the collapse of the Soviet empire?

What if George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq for a second time in a debilitating war? Would an estimated fifty thousand US casualties, hundreds of thousands of deaths of innocent Iraqi citizens, and millions of refugees have been avoided?

Accordingly, human affairs are contingent — often dependent on singular events or personalities — and there are thus plausible countervailing hypothetical explanations. It is clear that human history involves not only economic, political, social, religious, scientific, and intellectual influences and trends in history but also unique events of real individuals, obdurate historical processes, and recalcitrant facts. So there exists brute facticity in human affairs, and que sera sera is not binding: “What will be, will be” is not necessarily the case, for it also depends on what human beings do. And the role of other unexpected singular events, odd personalities, strange quirks, and bizarre happenings may not have led to what eventuated. All too often bizarre happenings intervene: the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! series applies so graphically to history and life.

An especially dazzling illustration of this is the role of scientific discovery and the unpredictability of technological inventions and innovations that issue from it. Thus there are “intellectual” causes at work in human history. Marx’s economic (or sociological) interpretation of history emphasizes the central role that the forces and relationships of production in the base play as the decisive causal factor in social change. He places in the superstructure religious, political, moral, intellectual, and cultural factors. He said that it was the economic factor that was most pivotal. Yet scientific research, which is dependent on intellectual discovery, is surely a “force of production” and indeed along with technological innovation should be part of the base.

There are some telling illustrations of the role of scientific discovery in technological and economic changes: What if Alexander Fleming in 1928 had not accidentally discovered penicillin while working on a mold of staphylococcus bacteria and observing a bacteria-free circle? The cure of infectious diseases might not have been developed until much later, with many more people dying in the interim.

What if Galileo had not made his discoveries in astronomy and physics? The science of mechanics, which subsequently led to changed principles of warfare and the Industrial Revolution, might not have developed until much later.

What if Nobel Prize–winner Herbert Hauptman had not codiscovered the structure of crystals in 1985 on which a significant part of the pharmacological industry has based so many effective medicines and therapies?

What if Darwin had not gone to the Galapagos to lay the foundations of the theory of natural selection? Well, you may respond, it can be argued that Alfred Wallace had also discovered it. Yes, but it might not have had the profound impact that it had, especially if a remark by Bishop Wilberforce had not mocked evolution and if T. H. Huxley, the bulldog defender of Darwinian theory, had not put him in his place. This had a major impact on our understanding of human nature and has helped to undermine religious doctrines of creationism and intelligent design.

Perhaps more pointedly: What if Karl Marx had not written the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital and other tomes found in the British Museum? Would communism not have developed the way it did?

And what of the later development of powerful religious institutions? What if the camel herder Mohammed (who perhaps was suffering from depression and hallucinations) had not considered his “visions” of the angel Gabriel as genuine revelations transmitted from Allah, and had not gone on to raise an army to conquer Arabia and thus fulfill divine commandments? If not for Mohammed’s subjective experiences, Islam might not have developed as a world religion.

What if Jesus had not believed that he had a special mission and had not died on the cross (perhaps he never lived in the first place), and what if Saul of Tarsus had not thought that he had a message from Jesus on the road to Damascus (was it due to an epileptic seizure?) and had thus not become St. Paul, the key founder of Christianity?

As can be seen, contingent historical events often lead to totally unanticipated consequences, much to the surprise of everyone, and after-the-fact reconstruction of origins leads to a second astonishment at the powerful developments that simple beginnings may, over time, accrue. It is difficult to predict where a human invention, discovery, or random event will eventually lead. Que sera sera will not necessarily be; it depends on accidental historical facts and chance at any one moment in time.

If you’d like to win a free copy of The Turbulent Universe, just leave your best “What if…?” historical question in the comments (e.g. What if Lee Harvey Oswald had misfired?). Just use the hashtag #Turbulent after your comment and I’ll contact one random winner next week!

(Excerpt reprinted by permission of Prometheus Books.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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