Saturday, March 11, 2006

Prediction and History

Edie at Annotated Life has gotten me interested again in historicism and prediction via her recent articles titled A Scientific Historical Perspective.

What is prediction, in general, though? Let’s offer a preliminary definition. Prediction is merely a set of propositions about what will be the case in the future. That might seem good enough to define prediction, but let’s add some meat to the bones, while avoiding the minutiae of the philosophy of science.

One can make all kinds of predictions that are neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Predictive propositions should be sufficiently detailed, so as to settle whether they have come true or not. A good example is my wager on the Chelsea versus Tottenham football match today. My bookie and I both agree on what counts for my prediction to come true.

When it comes to predictive propositions, one should be able to frame a wager about the future. This does not go far enough though. I have all kinds of 25 cent bets with the guys at the bar about the outcome of this year’s baseball season. Is that a real wager? Or am I just having fun, rather than predicting those events?

A wager must be significant if a prediction is to be taken seriously. Evidence continues to mount that the garden variety TV political pundit’s opinion of the future is no better than the average citizen’s, whose expertise is not in matters political. Why might this be? Well, the TV political pundit has no stake in the game. If he’s wrong, he either qualifies his prediction after the event, or, most likely, no one remembers what he predicted. Because the TV political pundit is so often wrong, no one cares about his prediction in the first place. One must have a dog in the fight if one is really predicting an event.

Should one give reasons for one’s prediction before an event, or should one simply state a proposition about an event, and leave it at that? Yesterday, I published my wager and prediction of today’s Chelsea versus Tottenham match. I gave no reason why I wagered on Chelsea to win, even though my thinking went like this: Chelsea is the best team in the league, and Tottenham has yet to win a match against a top five team this season. Chelsea is also playing on their idiosyncratic home pitch called the potato patch. However, to be taken seriously, my reasons should have been given at the time of the wager, rather than after, if I claim to have an explanation for why Chelsea won, which they did. Prediction requires explanations and reasons prior to the event if one claims to understand the causal relations leading up to the event.

Have we really gotten to the heart of the matter regarding prediction? No. The things we really care about, such as the future state of society and culture, do not lend themselves to these kinds of clear cut propositions and predictions. We gather the facts of history, analyze them, try to find reasons for believing certain propositions, and make some very broad predictions. One prediction might go like this: if we invade Iraq on the basis of poor or neglected intelligence, do not possess a good plan, and execute poorly, we will create a disastrous situation that will cost a lot of lives and money. That is a loose prediction, but one that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to war.

We make these kinds of predictions all the time in our personal and public lives. Some people do it very well. That is why Adam Smith and Karl Marx are still read today. People disagree over whether history has causal laws, ones that we can use to predict the future. What gets lost in the debates is the powerful pull and sway of ideals.

The way we want the future to look counts toward the way the future will look; what we want to happen counts toward what will happen. Ideals influence events as much as events influence ideals. When ideals clash, faith and will often determine which ideals will be realized. The person who gives up loses. People of many different political persuasions admire Marx for his insights into how the world works. But his ideals have also driven historical change. Historical conditions may set the stage for change and progress, but the ideals people hold and their willingness to work toward those ideals also create progress, for good or ill.

Historical laws, should there be any that predict the future, are held hostage by individual beliefs and wills. Does collective action determine individual action, or is it the other way round? It's both. That is one reason why historical prediction is so damnably difficult.

What is a revolution without its Paine or Lenin? Who are Paine and Lenin without conditions ripe for a revolution?


At 1:57 PM, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

See comments on Chelsea game. I posted on the wrong comment section.


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