The Ecology of History: Time, Contingency, and Substance

We think intuitively in linear terms: it limits us.

One of the key questions in philosophy is whether or not we (each of us) have free will. It is often referred to as the problem of determinism: are our actions pre-determined? Alternatively put: do we in the exercise of our will define our lives, and change the world? The knee-jerk reaction for the post-modern reader of this essay will invariably be ‘yes’! So let’s take two examples of me having exercised free will, determining my own future, one big and one small. I chose to go to college, and as a result I got a good job and had a successful career. And for the small example – I just lifted a pen from the desk. Are these choices entirely made by me?

The Macro-Context

I would argue that the extent to which these choices are ‘free’ is predicated on a set of historical and contemporary circumstances and factors, without which each choice would have been impossible. A College is available to me because I live in Ireland with reasonable access. My family could afford it at the time – and government grants helped. My school teachers all encouraged it. I had studied in school and had grades that would likely facilitate my admittance. There are additionally socio-psychological factors. My society values learning and education. My parents were well-educated; not university educated, but better educated than most of their peers would have been growing up. Going to college would make them proud. Similarly there were forces ranged against any other decision: for example, non-college educated jobs were limited, and didn’t pay well. The colloquial expression, given all of these positions, was that ‘I had no choice.’ The phrase suggests that there had only been one viable option, the alternatives being so poor. However, in some sense it was literally true: my whole life had led up to that position; the society in which I found myself compelled me to take that path. These same vectors had shaped my very identity; who I was, at that point, was a young man who would go on to study at University. To have chosen anything else would have been to deny my own identity, which is a little like forging your own signature: it’s not really possible.

The Micro-Factors

Examining the small example – lifting the pen – can reveal ‘micro-factors’. In some sense, this is a far more difficult problem to solve. Clearly my action in lifting the pen was determined by my own mind, there were no obvious externalities influencing both the decision and the act itself. However, let’s dig a little deeper. Why the pen, and not a pencil? Why the red pen, and not the black one? Was it to write a note, or simply to prove a point for the purposes of an article on determinism (further: I did not in fact lift any pen, I merely imagined it for the purposes of this piece)? If it had been to write a note, perhaps I would not have chosen the red one. How high did I lift the pen? Let’s assume that my clear intention – and clarity of intention is itself a nebulous idea – was to write a note, to remind myself to buy milk in the morning. I have options: I could open my laptop, type it up, and print it out. But that seems like overkill. There are post-it notes on my desk, and I can easily stick one onto my computer monitor to remind me. In order to do that, I need a pen. Had I only a ring bound notebook, it would be less easy – I may need to find some tape. All of these conditions feed into the decision to lift the pen, which colour to select, how high to raise it. The lifting of the pen is for a purpose; it needs to be combined with a thought (to remind me to get milk) and other external entities (the post-it note) in order to realise the purpose.  We can trace these factors back further, potentially ad infinitum – why is there no milk left? Who invented post-it notes? The decision to lift the pen from the desk is therefore a contingent decision, and the attendant action can only be effected in the context of all of those other historical and contemporary circumstances and factors.

An Aside: Aquinas’ Proofs of God

This is one of Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God, the ‘first mover’ proof. Essentially it goes that everything in the universe is moving, including time, each thing moved by something else. In the beginning, some unmoving thing must have kicked everything off – otherwise there was no beginning, and no end; therefore God was the first mover.

Men Make Their Own History…

Now, these may appear relatively trivial observations. The world is as it is, and we make decisions in the context of that world. Karl Marx is often quoted as saying that ‘men make their own history’, but it’s an incomplete quotation. The quotation continues as follows: ‘[T]hey do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ (Marx & Engels, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) It is important to think about this as we credit the actions of people – that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, or that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Think further of the athlete who claims some exceptional capacity, or of the murderer caught standing over the body with the bloodied knife: none deserves a dedicated personal attribution. Their actions, their capacities are entirely contingent, on history, training, privilege, deprivation, geography, weather, social influences or lack thereof. They their physical presence on this earth happened to coincide with notable events – the freeing of the slaves, or the ‘shot of a lifetime’ to win a major sporting trophy – and that their hand last touched the ball, or their pen signed the act into law – these are mere coincidences, or short-event concentrations of decades of connected events and actions, maybe even centuries. It all led up to this: the signing of the act, the shot that won the trophy, the ‘murder’ of the victim, the fiddling as the city burned.

Greatness and History

Greatness courses through history, which itself ages poorly, in that we forget quickly, concentrating on moments and figures and places, and ebbing as quickly as it had flowed. Yet this is the narrative structure of our reality. It is how we see the world. We see things in order through time, as sequential, and we see actions as consequential. That word – con-sequential – suggests that the regular sequence was changed by an impactful intervention of some kind, that the regular sequence (whatever that means) was interrupted. When American Republicans objected to the Obama White House taking one liberal or progressive path or another, Obama’s team was fond of the phrase ‘elections have consequences’. So new laws were introduced, or old laws repealed, changing the established order in some way, ending the previously established order.

The Imperative of Categories

One of the reasons for this is the imperative of categories. I’ve spoken about this previously on the blog, it’s an important concept. Spinoza speaks of substance in his Ethics, that there is only one substance, that he calls god (small g, a kind of existential rather than theological god), that includes the world, us, time, history, everything. There’s one ‘category’, and it is god. It’s a counter-intuitive idea, because we all think we’re independent of one another and sovereign beings in our own right. Similarly we form categories to order our reality – trees, buildings, stars, chemicals, biological genera, and so on. Yet these categories have essentially blurred edges. There are no crisp lines, no binary segmentation (as insisted upon, for example, by AI machines). Even for us personally – we have a clear superficial view of our own integrity as persons; but we don’t necessarily include our hair or fingernails in that, nor the meal I just ate. That part’s not me, it’s just transitory. Similarly, trees as we perceive them are not merely tree ‘stuff’ but full of non-tree-stuff like birds nests, farmers nails from old signs, fungus, lichen, and other plants. But generally speaking if you point at a tree and say ‘that’s a tree’, I’ll agree with you. Because we have to compromise at some level in order to have some kind of civil politics going on.

Categorical Events

This imperative of categories moves beyond things into events, and into history. We approximate, we aggregate, we summarise. Henry VIII had six wives and split from Rome because he couldn’t get a divorce. That’s not untrue, but just as the categorisation of the tree hides the nests and the nails and the lichen, so the historical narrative hides the strongly Catholic theology that persisted in Tudor Reformation England, even if it’s essential state posture had to be anti-Rome. These larger narratives combine with our essential object classifications to produce history and intellectual order, necessary for science, communication and the foundational structure of civil society. These categorical events assume neat edges, and separate from their contingent essence; it was Henry’s decision to split from Rome, just as it was mine to lift the pen, and go to College. It is acceptable in most pedagogical settings that the Henry narrative is shorthand, and people appreciate that; his advisors and other influencers were important elements in the decision, and it was the Crown, the sovereign that made the order. But even that wider allowance pays little respect to the vast ecosystem of historical and contemporary forces that rendered the decision to split from Rome the only decision.

The Ecology of History: Time, Contingency, and Substance

And it was absolutely that – the only decision. Time, as we spoke about recently on this site, has no options. Things happen, and they only ever happen in one way. Whether they were pre-ordained or not, there are no alternative histories to which we have access. History and historical events have their vast contingent scaffolding, like the mycelial network connecting trees under the ground. Everything in history is connected at the time of the event; it is connected through contingency to historical events; and it drives the future through its own contingent force. The implications for this kind of perspective are as profound as they are unthinkable. Science is entirely reconsidered. Crime and punishment are fundamentally reassessed. The function and purpose of history and politics are re-evaluated. Intuition forbids, however; it is difficult to escape that strait-jacket of the observed and socialised real (whichever came first!). Perhaps this is a kind of post-postmodern theology more than it is an academic or scientific investigation.

One thought on “The Ecology of History: Time, Contingency, and Substance”

  1. The nature of cause and effect as generally understood means that we live in a deterministic world. At least, I can’t see how not. And yet whosiwhat is right about the first mover. In this scenario there has to be a first cause and yet there can’t be, not even god, because something has to cause the first cause…. So to me, a deterministic universe isn’t logically possible unless it is also a cyclic universe.

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