for want of a hoagie

It is not easy to appreciate how delicate our lives are. Not the simple physical body, but the actual entire experience of our lives. They are comprised of moments formed by random events and the quantum fickleness of human choices. There is serious science that suggests that every choice is played out every possible way throughout infinite parallel universes; whether or not this is the case is irrelevant to us because the only lives we have now are these, but the idea serves to underscore the importance of choice.

After the initial bomb attack on Archduke Francis Ferdinand failed, the Archduke kept his appointment. The attempt was tragicomic; the bomb bounced off the Archduke’s convertible, the would-be assassin vomited up his cyanide pill and threw himself into a river that was four inches deep from which he was pulled by the crowd who then severely beat him before the authorities could rescue him. His collaborators lost their nerve and left. The Archduke made his speech while his advisors dithered about what to do. Their major modification to his security detail was for a Lt Colonel to ride on the running board of the car. On the way out of the city, the driver made a wrong turn, losing the security detail; he then stopped to reverse the car directly outside of the deli where Gavrilo Princip had gone to have a sandwich after the failed assassination attempt of a few hours earlier. Princip suddenly found a deadly competence within himself and fired the first shots of World War I.

Until the last sentence, the whole thing reads like a description of an episode of Seinfeld. The course of human events is a study in tragic absurdity because the supposedly obvious truths and of the present are the inevitably ironic lessons for the future. Occasionally, the actions of a single individual obviously shapes events disproportionately, but all events are comprised of the actions of all individuals, and the details of those actions comprise the shape of the event. If Princip hadn’t gone for a sandwich at that particular shop or if the driver had followed the route or hadn’t stopped 10 feet away from the assassin at the exact moment the assassin was exiting the deli, it’s entirely possible WWI might not have started at all. While it is true that Europe was a powderkeg at the time, there still needed to be a spark. Even if the spark happened later, specifics would have been different; the deck would be reshuffled in terms of particular events which means that the shape of later events would be different. In any case, the choice Princip made set into motion events beyond the imagination of anyone alive at the time.

What would have happened if Princip had wanted a taco rather than a hoagie that June afternoon? It is impossible to know what other outcomes would have played out from that reshuffling of history, (if what the mathemagicians and scientologers tell us is true, everything that could have ever happened happened) and although it can be a pleasant enough parlor game to play ‘what if?’, for all pragmatic purposes we live in only this universe. What the question does pragmatically mean is that our future is more unpredictable and unknowable than we could know or acknowledge. It means that our individual choices carry more weight and have consequences reaching farther than can be imagined while also meaning that our individual choices and plans are  made in blindfolded ignorance. Every moment becomes a leap of faith into the irrational future.

2 Responses to “for want of a hoagie”

  1. I’m really sick so I can’t make a very cogent comment. But if he wouldn’t have gone for a Hoagie, 8.5 million soldiers and untold numbers of civilians would have still died. Really that is all that matters and that is what we need to focus on to figure out how to stop war.

    As far as your cosmological argument, “Every moment becomes a leap of faith into the irrational future.” Does God set up the alternate universes and then we choose which one we fall into?

  2. […] Sitting shivering in the rain by myself just wasn’t something I was up for today. However, your response to yesterday’s post very nearly makes up for all of […]

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