Making History Available

There is a habit of thought which I call the log­i­cal fal­lacy of gen­er­al­iza­tion from fic­tional ev­i­dence. Jour­nal­ists who, for ex­am­ple, talk about the Ter­mi­na­tor movies in a re­port on AI, do not usu­ally treat Ter­mi­na­tor as a prophecy or fixed truth. But the movie is re­called—is available—as if it were an illus­tra­tive his­tor­i­cal case. As if the jour­nal­ist had seen it hap­pen on some other planet, so that it might well hap­pen here.

There is an in­verse er­ror to gen­er­al­iz­ing from fic­tional ev­i­dence: failing to be suffi­ciently moved by his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence. The trou­ble with gen­er­al­iz­ing from fic­tional ev­i­dence is that it is fic­tion—it never ac­tu­ally hap­pened. It’s not drawn from the same dis­tri­bu­tion as this, our real uni­verse; fic­tion differs from re­al­ity in sys­tem­atic ways. But his­tory has hap­pened, and should be available.

In our an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, there were no movies; what you saw with your own eyes was true. Is it any won­der that fic­tions we see in lifelike mov­ing pic­tures have too great an im­pact on us? Con­versely, things that re­ally hap­pened, we en­counter as ink on pa­per; they hap­pened, but we never saw them hap­pen. We don’t re­mem­ber them hap­pen­ing to us.

The in­verse er­ror is to treat his­tory as mere story, pro­cess it with the same part of your mind that han­dles the nov­els you read. You may say with your lips that it is “truth,” rather than “fic­tion,” but that doesn’t mean you are be­ing moved as much as you should be. Many bi­ases in­volve be­ing in­suffi­ciently moved by dry, ab­stract in­for­ma­tion.

When I fi­nally re­al­ized whose shoes I was stand­ing in, af­ter hav­ing given a Mys­te­ri­ous An­swer to a mys­te­ri­ous ques­tion, there was a sud­den shock of un­ex­pected con­nec­tion with the past. I re­al­ized that the in­ven­tion and de­struc­tion of vi­tal­ism—which I had only read about in books—had ac­tu­ally hap­pened to real peo­ple, who ex­pe­rienced it much the same way I ex­pe­rienced the in­ven­tion and de­struc­tion of my own mys­te­ri­ous an­swer. And I also re­al­ized that if I had ac­tu­ally ex­pe­rienced the past—if I had lived through past sci­en­tific rev­olu­tions my­self, rather than read­ing about them in his­tory books—I prob­a­bly would not have made the same mis­take again. I would not have come up with an­other mys­te­ri­ous an­swer; the first thou­sand les­sons would have ham­mered home the moral.

So (I thought), to feel suffi­ciently the force of his­tory, I should try to ap­prox­i­mate the thoughts of an Eliezer who had lived through his­tory—I should try to think as if ev­ery­thing I read about in his­tory books had ac­tu­ally hap­pened to me.1 I should im­merse my­self in his­tory, imag­ine liv­ing through eras I only saw as ink on pa­per.

Why should I re­mem­ber the Wright Brothers’ first flight? I was not there. But as a ra­tio­nal­ist, could I dare to not re­mem­ber, when the event ac­tu­ally hap­pened? Is there so much differ­ence be­tween see­ing an event through your eyes—which is ac­tu­ally a causal chain in­volv­ing re­flected pho­tons, not a di­rect con­nec­tion—and see­ing an event through a his­tory book? Pho­tons and his­tory books both de­scend by causal chains from the event it­self.

I had to over­come the false am­ne­sia of be­ing born at a par­tic­u­lar time. I had to re­call—make available— all the mem­o­ries, not just the mem­o­ries which, by mere co­in­ci­dence, be­longed to my­self and my own era.

The Earth be­came older, of a sud­den.

To my former mem­ory, the United States had always ex­isted—there was never a time when there was no United States. I had not re­mem­bered, un­til that time, how the Ro­man Em­pire rose, and brought peace and or­der, and lasted through so many cen­turies, un­til I for­got that things had ever been oth­er­wise; and yet the Em­pire fell, and bar­bar­ians over­ran my city, and the learn­ing that I had pos­sessed was lost. The mod­ern world be­came more frag­ile to my eyes; it was not the first mod­ern world.

So many mis­takes, made over and over and over again, be­cause I did not re­mem­ber mak­ing them, in ev­ery era I never lived . . .

And to think, peo­ple some­times won­der if over­com­ing bias is im­por­tant.

Don’t you re­mem­ber how many times your bi­ases have kil­led you? You don’t? I’ve no­ticed that sud­den am­ne­sia of­ten fol­lows a fatal mis­take. But take it from me, it hap­pened. I re­mem­ber; I wasn’t there.

So the next time you doubt the strangeness of the fu­ture, re­mem­ber how you were born in a hunter-gath­erer tribe ten thou­sand years ago, when no one knew of Science at all. Re­mem­ber how you were shocked, to the depths of your be­ing, when Science ex­plained the great and ter­rible sa­cred mys­ter­ies that you once revered so highly. Re­mem­ber how you once be­lieved that you could fly by eat­ing the right mush­rooms, and then you ac­cepted with dis­ap­point­ment that you would never fly, and then you flew. Re­mem­ber how you had always thought that slav­ery was right and proper, and then you changed your mind. Don’t imag­ine how you could have pre­dicted the change, for that is am­ne­sia. Re­mem­ber that, in fact, you did not guess. Re­mem­ber how, cen­tury af­ter cen­tury, the world changed in ways you did not guess.

Maybe then you will be less shocked by what hap­pens next.

1 With ap­pro­pri­ate reweight­ing for the availa­bil­ity bias of his­tory books—I should re­mem­ber be­ing a thou­sand peas­ants for ev­ery ruler.