PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, March 31, 2017

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Events that change history + NEWS

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Events that change history.

But first of all, I have now registered the PhiloMadrid group with the
MeetUp website which I hope you will have time to visit at: . We already have
51 members subscribed to the group at the time of writing which I
understand is not bad for a new group on the site.

Talking about history changing events, events that change history must
surely have certain features that make them so prominent in our society
and social identity. But where is the philosophy in all this? In my
short essay I try to address this question.

Events that change history

The problem with history is that it all happens in the past. This means
that we are conscious of history changing events after the events
happen. It also means that those who can best benefit from this
foresight are probably the ones to benefit the least. So by definition
if an event is powerful enough to change the course of history, it is
also powerful enough to affect most people. Of course, some events are
for the better of society, but history is also full of disasters.

Our everyday understanding of what is history is enough for our purpose.
History can be the story of a local society, our national narrative or
international relationships. Today we accept that by history we first
and foremost think of political events related to the distribution of
power and wealth. From here we can then affect how society functions,
how ideologies emerge and how progress is achieved.

So what kind of events are we concerned about? Our perception of life is
one of a steady linear movement over time punctuated by unusual or bumpy
events. We get up in the morning, go to work, on weekends we go shopping
and try to relax. Sometimes, we have a holiday, sometimes we have to
change the old car. But sometimes we experience a serious accident or
our employer goes bust. These two last events are life changing events;
the equivalent of history changing events in society.

Looking at the 20th century we can easily identify some of these history
changing events: the first world war, the Russian revolution, the great
depression, the Donoghue v Stevenson case (Scottish case), the second
world war, discovery of DNA, the digital revolution, the fall of the
Berlin wall, and the EU. These events more or less shaped the 20th
century and today's politics and society are the product of these
events. Some might disagree with the importance of these events others
might want to add other events. It does not matter, what matters is that
these are the type of events we are interested in.

From our perspective we might be interested in two questions: what are
the necessary and sufficient conditions for an event to qualify as
history changing? And the second question is whether history changing
events are a natural phenomena or random events?

Let me qualify the second question: do history changing events occur as
a natural process? For example, was the Russian revolution in 1917 a
natural phenomenon; many nations have ended up revolting against their
masters after a period of abuse. Hence, social and political turmoil
seem to be part of human nature. This implies that a propensity of
human beings to address any inequities. And by the same token any
advances by humans are advances made because of a need to improve our
lot. The Donoghue v Stevenson case is one such event of improvement that
established the principles of consumer rights even though the customer
does not have contractual rights with the manufacturer or producer. The
case was about a snail in a drink that made the plaintiff sick; this
created the concept of negligence and duty of care to third parties.

Are events such as the Russian revolution events that happen within a
short period of time; do they just happen? I don't think the idea of
"things just happening" is a solid one. We need to distinguish between
"things just happening" and things we are unable to predict. The idea of
"just happen" cannot in all reality be uncaused. What we think might be
a cause of an event might very well be something else. But, also, just
because events are caused it does not mean that we can trace all the
causal steps backwards. This is well demonstrated by mathematical Chaos
and fractal theory.

But if we cannot in all reality trace the whole causal chain of
historical events does this mean that history is determined to repeat
itself? At least, to the extent that we cannot prevent history from
repeating itself. Well events will reoccur if the right causal chain of
events take place; earthquakes a case in point. But events will also
occur because they are built or conceived with a weakness in their
design. A family car going at 270km/h is bound to end up crashing, these
cars not built for such speeds. See the debate between Nassim Taleb
(Black Swans) and Prof. Didier Sornette (Dragon Kings).

Moving on to the first question, what are the necessary and sufficient
conditions for an event to be history changing? Although this question
might seem a matter of empirical measurement it does not exclude a
discussion on what makes a condition. The idea of "change" carries with
it the idea of something stopping to be the case and something new
assumes the function of what had been stopped. In many cases change also
have unintended consequences: but are unintended consequences foreseeable?

The Second World War was a case of peace amongst countries replaced by
conflict and death and destruction. So one of the conditions history
changing events must be that what was true once is no longer the case,
but, of course, the change must affect everyone or potentially affects
everyone. Furthermore, changes happen in a context. For example, the
sequencing of DNA happened as a first-event in the context of biological
science, but such fundamental knowledge affected the human race to such
an extent that today, due to this knowledge, we have extended human
rights, improved the judicial system and criminal jurisprudence to the
extent that many decisions by courts are much safer than before. The DNA
case seems to suggest that unintended consequences are unforeseeable;
but are unforeseen events the same as unpredictable events?

I would therefore argue that a history changing event directly affects
how other parts of society function beyond the original context of the
event. For example, the Donoghue case was a legal case of injury under
Scottish law. But this was quickly adopted by other jurisdictions and
now applies to every conceivable product or service throughout most of
the world. Again after the 23 June referendum in Britain to leave the EU
a new thinking has emerged in that politicians should be held
accountable for any lies and misinformation they give to influence the
opinion of voters. We know that politicians can be very economical with
the truth, but so far they do not seem to have a duty of care to tell
the truth unlike a showroom salesperson selling second hand cars. Nor
are they legally liable for any damages caused by their negligence of
their rhetoric. The present situation is that politicians can lie or
misrepresent reality but they are not liable if their policies cause us
material damage.

The TTIP proposed agreement between the EU and USA does introduce the
idea that governments are held liable for any loss of profits by
companies. But this is more like an oppressive clause on the sovereignty
of states rather than an advancement of the Donoghue case. However, by
demanding that the principles of the Donoghue case also apply to
politicians it seems like this is an unintended (but welcome)
consequence of the case. In other words history changing events seem to
have the sufficient condition of over reaching the boundaries of the
event and seem to have immunity over time. The 1932 case that originated
in events in 1928 is valid today as much as it was then.

The irony of history changing events is that they happen in the past but
have great effect in the future; and in our case future generations.
And, moreover, from a localised contextual event, these tend to spread
beyond the confines of a single context.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813 <>
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Events that change
history + NEWS

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