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A thought experiment creates the intellectual conditions of playing out the consequences of a situation that need not be possible to construct in reality. In the case that the hypothetical situation is not possible to engineer, the conundrum is profoundly felt. There is no way to verify your stake, and any conclusions drawn are met with the caveat of fundamental uncertainty. The experiment develops only so far as the imagination is willing to play.

This holiday season, I have indulged in the secret pleasure of Stephen King. His new novel, 11/22/63, takes time travel as its premise and explores the effects of both intimate and large-scale alterations to the course of history. In the first case, you can try to imagine the grand discrepancies between your life having met your lover and your life had you not. In the latter case, you can try to imagine a world with atomic weapons and a world without. While I can easily entertain the idea that my life has been radically affected by certain people and events, it is harder to imagine a world markedly different than the one we’ve got because, at a social level, major transformations seem inevitable. Had Einstein not articulated that E=mc², then certainly some other brilliant mind would have, and still we’d be living with the sick threat of atomic warfare. It’s harder to imagine changing the course of the world than it is a single life if only because the zeitgeist of an era is dispersed, and though history attributes certain findings or events to individuals, I can easily imagine that the intellectual, political and cultural conditions of the time make these findings or events, in a certain way, inevitable.

But like all good thought experiments, I only get more wrapped up in the seeming contradictions of these questions the more I consider them. Surely some historical events are the product of a singular mind, and the awful, easy example to consider is the Holocaust. If it were possible to travel back in time and murder Hitler as a small child, it might be possible to avoid the Holocaust. But, if the Holocaust was as much a product of bureaucracy as it was a demented and hateful individual, would some other horrific genocide occur, an inevitable result of bureaucracy run amok? There’s no way to know these other worlds, only the weight of knowing that given what we’ve got, there is a moral obligation to reflect and act accordingly for the future. And yet, I wonder, do some lessons really need to be learnt? Could we not just avoid the whole mess altogether? And yet…

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2 thoughts on “

  1. Lazer says:

    It seems like there’s always a problem with perspective when contemplating changes to the course of history. We could dispassionately view the Holocaust as just one in a contemporaneous series of bureaucratic, ideology driven genocides now associated with a single historical figure (Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Ze Dong), and in doing so make the claim that eliminating the Holocaust would have the same sort of effect on mid-twentieth-century genocides as eliminating the Exxon Valdez oil spill would have on late-twentieth-century anthropogenic environmental disasters. It would be a good thing to eliminate the Holocaust, obviously, but the later half of the twentieth century would still be notable for these types of genocides. The “course of history” as a narrative of grand generalizations would likely remain relatively unchanged.
    The way we assign the entirety of these genocides to single personalities speaks to both our desire to see individuals as powerful and influential, and our fear of that sort of power.

    Which of these statements is more desirable:
    A) The course of human history is outside your influence, you are like a single drop of water in a flowing river.
    B) The fate of humanity is in your hands, you are either saving the world or destroying it (or perhaps failing to live up to your great power…).
    ?

    • Well, neither of those options are desirable, but the first seems more likely. People often dream of leaving an impression on the world–I just wanna make a difference!–but it is glaringly clear that history saves but few from annihilation. But this points to that difference in scale again: intimate exchanges, for instance, can alter completely the life of the lover or the beloved, but not so much the world. To change the world, to affect the course of our social, political, economic or environmental affairs, is a less maleable matter, at least at the scale of the individual. Or so it seems.

      Which is more desirable? To me? Can I choose neither, or both, and ask for a compromise between the two? I have very few pretensions to greatness, but I would be thrilled to know that, say, some project I concocted resonated with some other person in a way that productively shifted their perspective. I don’t do these funny art things for just my own amusement. I hope that they contribute to conversations larger than my own.

      But let me ask you something. Consider your statement that, “It would be a good thing to eliminate the Holocaust, obviously, but the later half of the twentieth century would still be notable for these types of genocides.” How can we learn the lessons of history in a way that might curtail some of the horror? Do you think humanity is doomed to repeat its awful mistakes again and again? Can you imagine any way that some of the atrocity might be avoided through critical reflections that resulted in actions that might make change?

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