Where is history trending?
How you answer that depends on your ideology. A Marxist will answer that question differently than compared to a technologist, or a Christian. But the one thing they all have in common is this…
Each of their views of historical trends are impossible to prove.
We don’t actually know whether history is moving toward the dissipation of private property and the tyranny of the proletariat. Nor can we know if history is progressing or devolving.
That’s the fatal flaw of what’s called historicism, the belief that history is determined by fixed laws and trends.
Historicism fails the falsifiability test, which states that a theory can’t be accepted as fact or science if there’s no way to disprove it. Historicism isn’t falsifiable because each different view of historical trends has its own explanation for every situation. There’s no way to show that “if x happens, it would show demonstrably that theory y is not true.”
Even if your theory is always confirmed in every situation presented, it doesn’t mean it’s true, much less scientific. If your theory requires an exhaustive search of all possibilities to disprove it, then it’s not falsifiable and therefore not scientific.
The idea of using falsifiability as a determinant for what’s scientific was introduced by the scientific philosopher, Sir Karl Popper. His criticisms of historicism were grounded in this idea of falsifiability.
Sir Karl Popper’s Criticism of Historicism
Popper introduced the idea to use falsifiability as test for what’s provable and what’s unprovable, including what can be accepted as scientific theory.
Historicism received the majority of Popper’s attacks because of the steam that worldview was gaining during his time. In a lecture, he describes those main worldviews and his skepticism with them…
It was during the summer of 1919 that I began to feel more and more dissatisfied with these three theories–the Marxist theory of history, psychoanalysis, and individual psychology; and I began to feel dubious about their claims to scientific status. My problem perhaps first took the simple form, ‘What is wrong with Marxism, psycho-analysis, and individual psychology? Why are they so different from physical theories, from Newton’s theory, and especially from the theory of relativity?’
The main problem Popper saw in these psychoanalytical theories is how quickly they created confirmation bias in their believers. Once they accepted the theory as true they started to see evidence everywhere they looked. Everything was explained by their theory of choice.
“Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory.”
“Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ‘un-analysed’ and crying aloud for treatment.”
No theory could be disproven. Every theory could describe why something did or didn’t happen. Historicists had answers for everything. Popper highlighted this fact by comparing the reasons for why one man would save a child from drowning and another would push a child into the water to drown them.
“Each of these two cases can be explained with equal ease in Freudian and in Adlerian terms. According to Freud the first man suffered from repression (say, of some component of his Oedipus complex), while the second man had achieved sublimation. According to Adler the first man suffered from feelings of inferiority (producing perhaps the need to prove to himself that he dared to commit some crime), and so did the second man (whose need was to prove to himself that he dared to rescue the child).”
In comparison to these psychoanalytical theories was Einstein’s theory of relativity. Popper was uncomfortable with grouping Freudian and Marxist theories in with the theory of relativity.
Unlike the first two theories, Einstein’s theory “made specific, verifiable predictions, giving the conditions under which the predictions could be shown false.” It was thanks to this risk of being proven wrong that Einstein was eventually proven right.
This distinction is what led Popper to label psychoanalytical theories like Marxism and Freudianism “pseudoscience.” From this, Popper came up with his checklist for people to figure out whether their theory belongs in the scientific realm or not.
Popper’s Checklist for what’s Scientific & what’s not
- It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory–if we look for confirmations.
- Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory–an event which would have refuted the theory.
- Every ‘good’ scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
- A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
- Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
- Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of ‘corroborating evidence’.)
- Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers–for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by re-interpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a ‘conventionalist twist’ or a ‘conventionalist stratagem’.)
One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability. (source)
Historicism is a Cognitive Trap (don’t take it for Universal Law)
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ― Albert Einstein
Historicism isn’t reality. It’s our biased attempt to understand how history unfolds.
We humans like to see patterns in everything. We like to explain why things happened or didn’t. We like to have understanding and wisdom of how the world works. But too often, we push this to the extreme. Instead of looking for the answers, we create a narrative that gives us a predefined answer for every situation.
If you’re a Marxist, you’re understanding of the 2008 recession will be alien to a follower of Austrian Economics, and even neo-socialists will have problems understanding your point of view.
Our worldviews define how we see reality, but our worldviews aren’t rational. We like to think they are, but more often they’re faith-based.
It’s easy to take each situation as a piece in a larger puzzle, where they’re all connected, inter-explanatory, and obvious.
It’s harder to go through history on a piece by piece basis.