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Historiography

E. The Approach of Philosophers to the Issue of Causation

▪ The three positions you read about on the previous page are sandwiched between two extremes which reject the idea that human beings can influence the world around them in any meaningful way, whether they try to learn from the past or not.

▪ Read through the following information, then answer the questions which follow.


(a) Chaos theory
The idea that everything is simply down to chance events which we have no control over.

Example : The French Revolution occurred because Queen Marie-Antoinette told the French people to eat cake when they said they had no bread, because she was in a bad mood with an upset stomach, caused by a fly leaving germs on her food. So, the French Revolution was caused by a fly.

Key Quote: "Nothing is inevitable until it happens" (AJP Taylor).

Details

This is known as the "Cleopatra's Nose" theory after the French historian Pascal, who attributed the development of the Roman Empire to the failure of Mark Anthony to defeat the Romans in battle, because he was infatuated with Cleopatra, and in particular her distinctive nose. Similarly, a well respected historian such as AJP Taylor made a whole career making statements such as "World War One was the result of bad railway timetables"; again, the division of the Christian Church into Protestant and Catholic – with all that this has entailed – can be pinned on the revolt of Martin Luther against the Pope, and Luther himself only became a monk after pledging to devote his life to God after being caught unexpectedly in a terrifying thunderstorm. According to this interpretation, the Northern Ireland Conflict was caused by a thunderstorm in 1517.


(b) Determinism
The idea that everything is the inescapable result of what went before.

Example: The French Revolution occurred because King Louis refused to give power to Parliament, because he thought he was appointed by God, because that is what the Bible said, because that is God’s will. Therefore, he was killed because it was God’s will.

Key Quote: “What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we cant decipher. There is no free will. There are no variables. There is only the inevitable.” – Chuck Palahniuck

Details

Although individuals think they have freedom of action, this is only because they are ignorant of how the various forces acting upon them (climate, society, family, upbringing, previous experience, genetics, and so on) have led them to make decisions. A man on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic ocean may congratulate himself on having the free will to paddle this way or that – or not to paddle at all. His ripples, however, make no impact upon the waves and the tides he remains at the mercy of. For example, I could claim to have the free will to go next door and punch Mr. Bowles violently in the face. However, we all know that this is not going to happen – society has taught me that this is unacceptable; my knowledge of Mr. Bowles tells me that I would end up in hospital if he retaliated; and genetically I am not an 'Alpha Male' who sees violence as the solution to problems; and I have no argument with Mr. Bowles anyway. On the other extreme, even if I made the point of acting in a deliberately "random" fashion, my actions merely appear "random" because I am not consciously aware of how my background, upbringing, genetics and so on led me to choose that particular way of expressing my "free will" (in just the same way, a computer is impossible of generating truly random numbers). A simple ignorance of those factors does not mean that they do not exist; they merely lead you into a fool's paradise of thinking you have free will.


Questions

Read through the information on this page and then answer this question:
How would (a) A chaos theorist and (b) A determinist explain the way in which your parents conceived you?!

 

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