The "What If" Game / by Michael Jin

I dislike playing the “what if” game. I feel that I have spent a good amount of my life speculating on the various “what if” scenarios associated with every decision that I have made. In the end, I have found that the value of spending time speculating on the various paths that history could have taken should different choices have been made to be limited. After all, we cannot change the past and even if we were to use it as a mental exercise in trying to predict the course of events that might have followed, there is simply no way to account for the myriad of variables that factor into the events of life as they actually play out.

While I believe in the “Butterfly Effect”—the theory that a small and seemingly insignificant action such as a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet can compound into a major effect such as a hurricane forming on the other side—to an extent, there is simply no way to prove it as the energy exerted by that butterfly represents only a fraction of the energy that goes into a hurricane. The major event in question is often a confluence of numerous little things rather than something to which we can trace a direct cause. People are often asked the question of whether, if given a chance, they would eliminate baby Adolf Hitler. The inference is that doing so would stop World War II from ever occurring. While I can agree that World War II would not have occurred in the manner that it did without the man named Adolf Hitler, Hitler was merely the focal point that galvanized many points of deep resentment following the first World War. Without him, it’s completely plausible that war might have still broken out under different leadership because every other factor that led to the conflict would have still been in play and festering beneath the surface.

Be it Abraham Lincoln, Sir Isaac Newton, Ghengis Khan, or Socrates, we have a tendency to lionize figures and attribute the great deeds and advancements of mankind to them. Socrates, as the father of Western philosophy, is certainly no exception in this regard. But who is to say that history would not have followed its path if not for these people? How much of the energy contributing to the winds of change belonged to these individuals and how much to countless others? Perhaps we may one day develop the means to accurately simulate alternative timelines to discover this, but until this happens, I think that it is presumptuous to assume any individual’s impact on the course of history however tempting it may be.