Embedded in… history

Of all the issues EIA tackles: philosophy, politics, corporate corruption – history is the most important. History is the fundamental basis for everything else. The present and the future are both determined by history. For those reasons, history and perception of history, both on a macro and a micro scale, will be frequent topics of EIA posts. EIA admits and in fact, is proud of, the fact that our philosophy surrounding history is ever-evolving. We encourage and solicit intelligent comment that contributes to this philosophy.

To diverge for a moment, let us consider something that quantum theory postulates: reality is not real until someone observes it. (It’s said that if you think you understand quantum theory, then clearly you don’t – this statement is one of those reasons.) The eye has color receptors only in the center of the field of vision. The brain paints the rest of the picture in color for us. The point here is not about the brain, but rather how reality is colored, literally, by perception. If reality doesn’t exist until observed and then the observation itself is constructed rather than observed, how far is the reality we think we see from what is real? And if this one theory – quantum mechanics – and this one fact – the lack of color perception outside the center of what the eye observes are how we record the world – then how different are the realities each of us experience?

There’s two basic statements made about history: either that it repeats itself or something to the effect that we live in unique times. Everyone has, at one time or another, said both.

History, on the macro scale, does not repeat itself. It is linear. Further, it’s causal and cumulative. So at least one of the two basic statements is true – every day is unique.

At the same time, on a micro scale, history indeed repeats itself. Yes, history repeats itself if you consider breathing in and out, then in and out again, to be history repeating. Spring flows into summer into fall into winter and back into spring in a repeating cycle. And presidents and leaders are elected and reelected. Bell-bottom jeans even made a brief comeback.

But each repetition is unique. Each has had the benefit or hindrance of the previous repetition to build on.

The concepts that are important here are truly simple and moreover, truly important: History is linear. It builds on itself. History does not repeat itself and most important – the present is unique.

The Importance of Studying History

If those statements are true, why would a study of history be important? Some people, even while believing the other, older maxims of history, did not believe in the importance of studying history. So if the present is unique – why study history?

The answer is simple and powerful and shows the ignorance of the question itself. The study of history is crucial because history is cumulative. The present is the result of history. No event, not the next spring thaw, not the next breath you take and certainly not the next presidential election, is without the influence of history.

Studying – and understanding, both the events themselves and their impact – of history is the only way to understand the present and predict the future.

To illustrate, let us imagine taking a segment of a man’s life – an hour, a day, a year – to try to understand the man. Or take the same segment of a nation’s life and doing the same. Could you understand America by studying how it behaved in the days following 9/11? In the days preceding it? Could you know a man watching how he made his coffee this morning? Obviously not. And while the last suggestion is an absurdity, often those are needed to break out of long held beliefs. The concept of history repeating itself is said so often as to be accepted without examination. In an episode of the animated series “Li’l Bush”, a young George W Bush repeated over and over through the half hour how Al Gore was fat. At one point, the school-aged Gore says he’s not fat (he isn’t) and asks why Bush keeps saying he is. Bush replies that, if you say something enough times, people start to believe it. For the rest of the episode, characters exposed to the recitations of the young Bush begin seeing Gore as fat. For a poorly produced cartoon, the observation is keen – and correct.

This didn’t work on the question of WMD’s, naturally. A statement of this kind only works on perceptual truths. Even if there is a physical entity (Gore himself) involved, if there is a subjective piece, opinion can be shaped. Created things out of thin air, like those WMD’s, well, that takes a lot more faith.

Before we get too far off the point of this section, without historical perspective, much of the observation of the present is without context and can be rendered without meaning.

An illustration EIA likes to use is one where a dead body is laying in a park, behind bushes. As two park visitors pass, one throws an empty can of soda over the bushes, only to come lie on the body. Inspectors note the can and assume the killer left it. Let us suppose both the can-thrower and the corpse had gloves on – would the police then assume the can was the property of the victim? This is a problem often faced by those who expect to construct the past (or desire to understand the present) with only the present to guide them.

History is essential to the formation of opinion about and understanding of the present. With that as a truth, then prediction of the future is only possible with both an understanding of the events and outcomes of history, along with a clear understanding and grasp of the present.

The prediction of the future is often done with the knowledge of the future but must include history to have a chance of success – and even then most often fails. Even weather science, with it’s terra and peto bytes of historical data, massive amounts of processors and ram, seldom predicts the weather accurately.

The present is unique – and so is the future. Since the present is the creation of the past, with influence of the participants existing now, it’s difficult to predict the outcome of every moment and its impact on the participant’s actions in the next moment and the moments leading up to the time of the prediction. Along with the concept of cumulative actions forming the future is the randomness (or seeming randomness) of some events and the addition of chaos.

If, at the sub-atomic layer, chaos and quantum mechanics are the reality, prediction is a task that approaches the impossible. And that has been proven. “Dewey defeats Truman”. Yes. Difficult indeed.

I repeat, History does NOT repeat itself!

Again, this is so often stated that people not only believe this statement, they use it In their understanding of the present and predictions of the future. With dire consequences.

A question may have arisen in the more astute reader. If the present is always unique, yet based on history, how can we use history to understand the present? After all, since history repeats….ah. Nevermind.

When we talk of generalities, there are basically two types of situations: micro and macro. When we talk of macro, we talk of large groups of people or large portions of the planet or groups of planets or even groups of galaxies. When we talk about the micro, we talk of single people or even single events of a single person – or even smaller. These are relative to the overall discussion. If the talk is of cosmology, then even the discussion of millions of stars is a micro topic. When we talk of populations, the discussion of millions of people, a macro topic.

Can we predict the future? Taking the cosmos again, it’s possible to predict the orbits of planets and stars and galaxies accurately. But along with scales of size comes the increase of scales of time. Can we accurately predict the future of the solar system billions of years from now? No. If we take the life of a man and knowing his past and therefore at least some of the options to events contained in it, can we predict his future? If we are asking to an event: spilled milk on the counter, for instance, perhaps. Do we have some instances of spilled milk in the past? Do we know his constraints at the time of the incident? Then yes.

In other words, if we know the past of a subject, we may be able to, in response to specific events and in a period of time relative to the subject, predict the future. We can predict the orbits of planets – for a given time. We can predict orbits for longer periods than we can predict human behavior or weather because planet lifecycles are longer and events take more time to play out. We can predict, to a degree, what a man will do when he spills milk if we understand both his past responses – his history – and the current situation. Is he late for work? Someone right there to handle it for him? Is he in a restaurant, his friends’ house, a bar? Context is everything in asking these questions and a huge part of context is history.

As EIA posts, history and the value of history as well as the concepts surrounding it and perception will be key subjects. It’s simply impossible to interpret the world around you without the framework of a knowledge of history.


~ by Mad Prophet on December 3, 2012.

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