The current state and character of our existence can be explained by our history: the collective choices, events, and happenings of the past have produced the world in which we live. The world which we are familiar with is the product of a singular course of events and a single set of decisions. Almost all aspects of our civilization – our culture, our beliefs, our morals, our laws – have resulted from this course of events. The implications of this are enormous: any change in the past could have transformed our civilization into one which holds radically different beliefs or has been organized in a completely different way. This realization becomes even more profound when the manner in which the past could be so drastically changed becomes apparent: because history is a web of decisions and events building off each other over time, any single different decision or event could have exponentially an increasing impact on the direction of history as time goes on.
Everything about our world is the product of the past. Western civilization and thought, for example, has its roots in the thought of the Classical era: Roman and Greek law, culture, and philosophy. The current geopolitical environment, in which the United States of America is the world’s superpower existing in a system organized by international institutions such as the UN, is the result of the Cold War, which in turn is the result of the Second World War, which in turn is a product of the First World War. So much that makes up our world, such as our current technology (such as the atomic bomb and the internet), our cultural perceptions (such as our reverence of capitalism and individualism and our regard for the Enlightenment-era ideas of liberty and freedom), and our country’s position in the world is the result of these past happenings. Yet what if the past had been different? Where would our world be now?
On August 2nd, 216 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who was ravaging Roman territory in Italy during the Second Punic War, stood proudly at the plain of Cannae in Southeast Italy. He had just utterly defeated the opposing Roman army in something which was no ordinary victory: the Romans suffered over 40,000 casualties, losing their entire armed forces and much of its leadership structure. The road to Rome was open and if Hannibal chose to follow it the city would very likely fall, along with it the Roman civilization. He did not seize the opportunity, however, and instead the Romans bounced back, defeated him, and later burnt Carthage and the Carthaginian civilization to the ground. History progressed as it did, and we now live in a civilization built using the Roman civilization as its fundamental foundation. But what would have happened had Hannibal captured and burnt Rome? What if Rome never developed? What if we lived in a civilization where instead of Rome as a foundation it was Carthage? Absolutely everything about us would be completely and totally different, and only because one man decided to follow through with a victory instead of hesitating.
While serving as a young corporal in the trenches of World War 1, Adolf Hitler was almost shot or blown up a number of times. He could easily have been one of the countless casualties in the mass slaughter of trench warfare. Yet he did not die during his wartime experience, and went on to become the dictator who plunged the world into another, even more destructive war. What would have happened to our world had Hitler been killed during his time in the trenches? What if a single bullet, aimed at him and missing him in our history, had moved its flight by only so much and changed the entire course of human history in the 20th century? Again, everything that shaped our present culture and society since the war, such as the experience of the Cold War and the ideological struggle against communism and the technology, ideologies, and events it produced, would be entirely and completely different.
It is apparent that even minor changes, random events, and small decisions in the past can have major impacts on history and, in turn, our world. What are the implications of this, then? One major realization from this understanding is that our own choices, the events happening in our lifetime, and the state of our own world will have profound impacts on the future of human society. As time goes on and future decisions are built upon past decisions, the impact of the first choice setting that course grows more and more powerful. We do not yet know the long-term importance of the events happening in our world right now, nor do we know how our own decisions might impact our life, our society, and our species’ history. Yet, as we have seen, in many ways they truly and profoundly do. Every time we make a decision we impact the far future of humanity in enormously profound ways. Though they might seem incredibly insignificant at times, our present choices and direction are absolutely world-changing.
There is also a philosophical ramification of this recognition: if everything that we hold as true and self-evident, such as our beliefs, values, and worldviews, are shaped by the events of the past, then are they really ‘true and self-evident’? We only believe what we believe because those beliefs grew, developed, and persisted in our timeline of events. Yet an infinite other possible ideas, beliefs, and values might have been produced by any other combination of events, choices, and happenings. Our beliefs are only ours by virtue of the fact that the events and choices that produced them are the ones that actually happened, instead of any other possible choices that could as easily and equally been made. There is thus no inherently ‘true’ philosophy or belief, only those that exist because of the way the world developed. Though we can and should hold our beliefs and philosophies as correct, it is only because they are the ones that exist in our version of history. We can never say things such as ‘I would never support slavery’ or ‘Racism is an inherently terrible thing’, because we could just as easily have lived in, been shaped by, and thus believed in the ideas of a society which, because of a different course of history, was fiercely racist or in which slavery persisted. It does not mean these things are right, but it also means that they are not by their nature wrong. This is a troublesome and scary thought, but it is also really powerful, and draws into question everything we believe.
Are we who we are, only because of the way the world developed? Had any small change in a decision or choice or event changed our history, could we believe things diametrically opposed to what we believe now? Yes, and the implications of what that means about who we are and what we believe are enormous.