The efficacy of Counterfactuals in Historical discussion.

I think that they are of limited utility. Perhaps in some econometric models they are useful, but based on the current economic crisis I am rather skeptical of all such models.

However, in this thread, we have been debating the value of counterfactuals. Measure for Measure asserts that they can be useful. I am taking the extreme position that they are never useful. Bryan Ekers has been trying to get me to consider that Christianity in Europe was not inevitable. I think it was inevitable, because it happened, if it happened it was inevitable. What it SEEMED like before it happened is irrelevant, because if it happened it happened.

Just think how different the world would be if a single event had not happened. Imagine that George W. Bush was never elected. How different would the world be today? That to me is a far less significant change than asking what the world would be like 2000 years later if Christianity had not taken hold in Europe.

So we might not have gone to war in Iraq, we probably wouldn’t have Barack Obama as President-Elect, some things would likely still be true, Hillary Clinton and John McCain would both likely be running to take Al Gore’s place, but so might Jeb Bush. Neo-Conservatism wouldn’t be a household word, the Project for a New American Century might still be the fever dream of Washington think-tanks.

And in my opinion this is far less significant than the rise of Christianity in Europe, and because of its temporal proximity to the President and localized and specific nature, it is easier to discuss what might have happened, even though we’d never know for sure.

There is no way to prove a Counter-factual so it is all really just speculation on fictitious events. I am not qualified to discuss its econometric value because I barely understand macro-economics, or maybe don’t understand it. However, I am going to refer to Nassem Taleb on that one.

Nonsense. To pick a much more mundane topic, I’m currently writing a series of diaries in Latin, which I never would have done had I not posted a comment about the essay I wrote for Latin on another site, and someone encouraged me to post the essay itself. It wasn’t inevitable at all, but it happened.

To me, it doesn’t make sense to assert that everything that happened HAD to happen. It’s just another way of saying there’s no such thing as free will. So when Oswald goes up into the book depository, there’s no way he could have missed. It couldn’t have happened, because it didn’t happen. Or when a gambler goes to Vegas and puts his last $100 on 35, he’s already won or lost before the wheel has spun because the wheel WILL land on just one number, he just doesn’t know what that number is. Every roll of the dice, every cut of the cards, every spin of the wheel, every flip of the coin, all preordained and predetermined.

There are plenty of historical events that hinged on outcomes as random as a roll of the dice. People on a battlefield where the bullet misses them by a fraction of an inch. People on the battlefield who get hit by a bullet and die, but if the bullet had hit them a fraction of an inch to the left it wouldn’t have severed the artery and they would have lived. Now, suppose Hitler’s great-great grandfather had been hit by a bullet that in real life missed him. No more Hitler. And while we might have had WWII, it wouldn’t have been exactly like our WWII without Hitler’s particular obsessions. If that WWII doesn’t go exactly like our WWII, then lots of kids who died in our WWII might be alive, while lots of kids who lived might be dead. And on and on.

Unless you believe there is no such thing as true randomness?

Then please define your criteria for inevitable.

I think you’re taking too determinist a position. I believe that free will is real and that people are able to make choices so history is not fixed.

I also feel that counterfactuals can be a useful tool in studying real history. They can bring focus to a historical debate. For example, if you’re arguing whether Gorbachev or Yeltsin was a more important figure in the break-up of the Soviet Union, you could create two counterfactuals about what would have happened if either man had not existed and compare them.

Lemur866 I disagree. It isn’t inevitable as long as choices remain open. When the choices close then the result is the consequence of all the events that led up to it. So if all of the events that did occur occured in the same way, then the result is inevitable as a consequence. The future is not inevitable, but the past where all the choices have been made, the outcome is a result of those choices.

Little Nemo It’s not fixed going forward, but is fixed after it has occurred.

But you cannot prove a single thing you have stated in your counter-factual.

No, of course a counter-factual can’t be proven, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless.

I think the main use of a counter-factual is to look at something from another perspective. Of course that perspective will be biased and speculative, but then so is history.

I think Lemur866 has it and the OP is missing it.

“Inevitable” implies something had to happen the way it did. This would imply all things are destined to happen. The OP is confusing after-the-fact appraisal of the facts as “inevitable”. While the past is locked and unchangeable (as far as we know) that does not make it inevitable.


I am about to roll a six-sided die. Is the number that shows up inevitable before I roll the die? To say after-the-fact when a “4” shows that the four was inevitable is wrong. It is just a fact now but it was never inevitable.

I don’t think I’m seeing the distinction you’re amking here. Obviously whatever happened in the past happened. But you seem to be agreeing that it wasn’t inevitable and something else could have happened. Nixon might have been elected in 1960 instead of Kennedy (to give one example). Creating a counterfactual saying how different a Nixon administration would have been from a Kennedy administration would be useful in determining how important the individual in the Oval Office is in influencing events.

Obviously you can’t prove a counterfactual is correct. But history is like that; you can’t prove a lot of theories that people have proposed regarding real historical events.

Indeed. And what would have happened at the Bay of Pigs with that eventuality?

Why isn’t my name in the title of this thread? I demand a recount!

Your ego knows no bounds sir. One multi page thread on the front page is not enough to sate it? :stuck_out_tongue:

The affront to my ego was obviously inevitable, because that’s how it happened!

Just like the rest of us, historians make many unspoken assumptions. The value of a counterfactual is it can bring those assumptions out into plain view.

Tapioca Dextrin’s point is well taken: the counterfactual can be a useful analytic tool.

I may have implied that the legitimacy of the counterfactual approach in historical research in uncontested and uncontroversial: I don’t believe that is the case. Indeed, I’m a little leary with taking alternative history too far into speculative territory, but I also believe that logically a counterfactual is the only way to hammer down issues of significance in history.

Economists, business analysts and many casual users of spreadsheets are all familiar with What If analysis, so these techniques can be done with rigor in certain contexts.

That said, I recall rolling my eyes at some of Robert Fogel’s treatment of railways in 19th century America.

I’m pretty sure that I don’t understand this matter fully and that there are some key distinctions that I can’t quite get a hold of. For example, though Alternative History, Counterfactual History and What If analysis are overlapping concepts, I suspect that they are actually different animals. Also, I’d like to have a clearer set of definitions for significance.

Counterfactuals have inestimable value.

What makes you so sure that it was never inevitable? Common sense? Intuition? A whisper from your soul? Or perhaps a deterministic and completely inevitable series of synaptic interactions in your brain? :wink:

It doesn’t seem to me that this is something that we are in any position to prove either way at the present time. I think that most people assume that nothing is inevitable until it is history, but they have no rational basis for believing this. For myself, it seems to me reasonable to imagine that the universe is deterministic, and thus free will does not exist, but I acknowledge that I have no empirical reason to believe this either. :stuck_out_tongue:

BTW, mswas, the word “efficacy” does not mean what you think it does; it means “effectiveness,” not “utility.”

Probably the word “inevitable” is not a particularly good one to use when discussing/writing history, since it is either true by definition or else unknowable.