Is the living world more a result of happenstance or repeatable processes?

Zachary D Blount writes: Amazon’s television series The Man in the High Castle, based on the classic novel by Philip K. Dick, presents a nightmarish alternative 1962 in which the triumphant Nazi and Japanese empires occupy a fractured, defeated United States.

This alternate history is spun from the imagined consequences of a minor change in a real event. On February 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara opened fire on president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami, Florida. Zangara was only 25 feet away, but his attempt failed because he shared the wobbly bench on which he stood with a woman who, as she strained to see, jostled the bench at just the right time to spoil his aim. The show’s version of history did not include the fortuitous jostle. Although the result of such a change might not have been the dystopia the show envisions, history would have been quite different had Roosevelt died that day.

Human history has been wrought from the particulars of unique events and personalities. Indeed, the historical record is rife with instances like the attempt on Roosevelt’s life, where even slight changes could have dramatically altered the course of events. These instances illustrate how the existence of the current world depended on the process of history, linking past to present in a complex web of causality. In other words, human history is contingent. Contingency, philosopher John Beatty has written, essentially means that history matters “when a particular future depends on a particular past that was not bound to happen, but did.” It arises because the future flows causally from the past, but many futures are possible at any given time, and which one comes to pass is determined by the precise, chance-laden way in which a complex tangle of improbable events interacting in improbable ways plays out. Contingency is why we can more or less explain the past, but the future is unpredictable. [Continue reading…]

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