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Suppose . . .
But don't suppose too much
In the field of cosmology there is a concept known as the anthropic principle, which asserts that the properties of the observed universe are constrained by the simple fact that there are observers to observe it. We humans happen to be the observers, and therefore the universe must have properties that allow humans to exist.
For example, the temperature of the entire universe could not be equal to the temperature of the surface of the sun, because humans cannot exist at that temperature. The universe has to contain carbon, because we humans, like all life on Earth, are based on carbon. The universe cannot be brand new, because we humans required a certain amount of time to evolve.
It is possible to imagine different universes–hot, carbonless, young. But we cannot logically imagine ourselves existing in them.
Not all cosmologists and related scientists put store in the anthropic principle. To some it sounds too much like a tautology: We are here, therefore we must be able to be here. Nor does the principle explain anything that can’t be explained otherwise, they say. They prefer to leave such airy speculation to philosophers.
And to historians, if the historians have even heard of the anthropic principle. Likely most have not, but in fact the concept is a useful one for historians or anyone trying to imagine a world different than the one we inhabit.
Everyone, or nearly everyone, asks "what if?" at least occasionally. Often this is done prospectively. What if I take this job I’ve been offered? What if I marry this person? But sometimes it is posed retrospectively–that is, historically. What if I had taken that other job? What if I had married someone else?
A few historians actively embrace counterfactual history, but most treat it gingerly if at all. Explaining what did happen is hard enough without getting mixed up in what didn’t.
Yet every time a historian, or someone else, renders a judgment on the past, counterfactualism rears its head. Whoever asserts that Brutus and his buddies went too far in slaying Caesar implies that Rome would have been better off had Caesar lived. To say that Harry Truman was wrong in dropping atom bombs on Japan is to argue that the world or some substantial part of it would have been better off had he heeded the minority of his advisers who argued against the bombs’ use. These counterfactual assertions are plausible, but they have to be argued rather than simply taken for granted.
And whenever a person makes a counterfactual argument, that person can run up against a historical version of the anthropic principle. To take another example: Some people believe that humans took a wrong turn when they traded hunting and gathering for agriculture–that the evils of civilization had their origin in that Neolithic misstep.
Possibly. But supposing Eve had rejected the apple, the population of the world today would be very much smaller than it is. And the odds would be very much against the present existence of those rooting for Abel over Cain.
This would seem to raise logical problems of the kind associated with the anthropic principle. Can one assert one's own non-existence? And it raises moral questions too. Can one fairly criticize actions that allowed one to come into being?
We don’t have to go so far back on the human family tree; our much smaller individual trees will suffice. Children invariably find fault with things their parents do; blaming comes with the territory of adolescence. But how far can the blaming reasonably go? Presumably not so far as to wish that one's parents had never met. In that case the child wouldn't exist to make the wish. So far as to wish that one's mother or father had not been so busy at work? But what if that work was what allowed the child to survive and thrive?
These kinds of questions, translated to shared history, are blithely ignored all the time. For almost anyone in the United States to wish that Columbus had never landed in America–an increasingly popular position, by the evidence of attacks on Columbus Day and Columbus statues–is tantamount to that person’s wishing not to have been born. The only Columbus critics who can avoid anthropic contradiction here are those wholly descended from people who were in America before 1492.
The emotional heart of the 1619 Project is a wish that the Virginians who accepted the first slaves from Africa had refused them–that they had sent the slave ship away and denied landing to all such vessels afterward. The appeal of an America without African slavery is obvious. But an America without African slavery would have been an America without Africans, until very recently, and without their descendants. Presumably this isn’t what the fans of the 1619 Project, including many of those very descendants, have in mind.
So what’s the upshot of all this?
First, remember that our past is made of whole cloth. We can’t pull out a stitch here or there without possibly unraveling the entire thing.
Second, be humble in judging the past. Take it for what it was, not what you wish it had been. You might wish yourself out of existence.