I recently dug up old family photos, in what I hope is the beginning of a long digitizing project. In those glossy pictures, the past appears far more inscrutable than the future. There we are: my wife and I, looking like lost children, hairy and happy, utterly unaware of what lies ahead. There they are: our three offspring, babies, toddlers, chirpy little kids, the way they really are, utterly unlike the hairy, happy beings they have become.
If one squints, one can discern the seed of the future person: the coming children, the job decisions, the mortgage payments, the growing wrinkles, even — alas — the lost hair. Certainly, that’s what one prefers to believe: long ago, I decided to turn into the person I now am. It transforms me from an accident into an accomplishment, and reassures me about my place in the kingdom of cause and effect.
Then that lost boy’s face stares at me from the old photo, and I know, without a trace of doubt, that he was clueless about direction, mindless of cause and effect — and would feel astonished at best, and at worst horrified, to find in me his inescapable fate.
The past can’t be predicted from the present. Every moment of each human life moves in a tangled contextual web, which is torn and altered irremediably by every action and every failure to act. Because context is all, I can’t reconstruct the twentysomething I was from the rather more experienced person I am.
I can, with a little effort, recall that young man’s tastes and beliefs; not a few of these are my tastes and beliefs today. But even if we grant that the character was the same — an identical me, then and now — the play was different, and so therefore were the speeches, the actions, the objects of emotion and desire, the expectation of the future, and the store of memory, not to mention the costumes, hair styles, jargon, and the set.
Human life is irretrievable. It’s impossible to flit with mathematical certainty from cause to effect, back and forth in time: yet, to explain who and what and why we are, we must somehow come to grips with the past.
History, rightly understood, is more about context and character than cause and effect. Its subject is the play between lost environments and recollected actions. Facts play a part, as do science and reason. But facts are infinite in number — causes and effects, also infinite in number — and choices, based on something, must be made.
The moral dimension of past time thus becomes inevitable. This is simply a matter of finding some facts to be transcendentally more important than others, and of crafting a narrative suitable to such facts. Often the result is the opposite of Pharisaic posturing or self-justification. The prophets of Israel interpreted history as punishment. Lincoln did much the same in his second inaugural.
The honest mind attempts to reconstruct a context now gone forever, and the actors once caught in that context, then asks: what peculiar nobility or evil, intellect or art, does their struggle reveal to us and about us, who are caught in our own struggle in the inescapable now?
The human past, like the world itself, is profoundly irrational. The shifting web of events is unpredictable on principle. This rubs against many cherished assumptions. If today the conversation about great matters sounds impoverished, it’s because most thinkers have declared the world to be a rational place, and Newtonian billiard-ball causation the only possible expression of the world’s rationality, even when it comes to understanding human action.
In a Newtonian universe, everything must be reduced to external forces acting on bodies. The system leaves no room for actors who pursue their inward aims within a web of events: all it needs is an initial impulse — a push by some Prime Mover who then discreetly disappears from the scene.
The flow of time, and thus the causal importance of context, are also anihilated, as Alicia Juarrero has observed. If we are all bodies acting on bodies, it becomes possible to flit, with mathematical certainty, from cause to effect or from effect to cause, until past and future lose themselves in a two-lane highway to nowhere.
The Marxist doctrine of “dialectical materialism” and the class struggle was an attempt to reduce history to impersonal contending forces. Jared Diamond’s belief that geography is destiny reflects the same aspiration. Sociologists of the “resistance is futile” school bend a knee before the altar of billiard-ball causation.
This quarrel with the moral dimension of history can be easily explained. Like the rest of us, the rationalist craves certainty where none can be found. No less than the religious believer, he longs for universally valid formulas to account for and organize his existence. All things contextual, being local and transient, nauseate him. The moral valuation of the past, being contextual, must from his perspective be dismissed as irrelevant or attacked as gross superstition.
The rationalist equates mechanics with science, and — in the way of certain South Sea natives — science with the voice of God. But the Newtonian universe he has embraced, writes Jarrero, leads directly to an intellectual “paralysis,” void of “a satisfactory theory of how causes cause and how explanations explain.”
Bizarrely, given his cult of science, he can’t account for natural selection, which is entirely driven by local, contextual, and unpredictable factors. Questions of motivation and character, of subjective causation, lie wholly beyond the reach of his system. The poor rationalist can compute the orbits of the planets, but lacks the language to describe something as simple as me.
The young stranger in the old photos, happily ignorant of mechanical forces, dealt with his circumstances the best he could. I deal with mine. If I feel proud of him, it’s in a remote and impersonal way, as I might feel pride for the behavior of a distant ancestor. After all, that young man passed a test — really, an endless series of tests. He couldn’t command cause and effect, but he became himself under their power.