The Lost World
According to a Haggadic legend, when God decided to create the world he said to Justice, “Go and rule the earth which I am about to create.” But it did not work. God tried seven times to create a world ruled by Justice, but they were all failures and had to be destroyed. Finally, on the eighth try, God called in Mercy and said, “Go, and together with Justice, rule the world that I am about to create, because a world ruled only by Justice cannot exist.” This time, apparently, it worked, more or less. Nor was the God of the Hebrews simply a Divine Engineer, an empiricist tinkering with the machine until it worked. He was, rather, a Celestial Scientist whose experimental failures and successes served to reveal a general law of the universe, a principle of constraint on how worlds can be put together.
The freedom to create worlds to order, ab initio, is given to few. The social revolutionaries of 1789 and 1917 tried to make new worlds while steeped in the collective consciousness and economic institutions of the old. They were, as Tolstoy said, “in bondage to history.” The Constituent Assembly was filled with lawyers and petty aristocrats. The Soviets were forced to keep the former managers of industrial enterprises in place during the New Economic Policy for want of any competent replacements, and the demand of peasants was for their own land, not for collectivization. Even divine coups d’état may have to assimilate the personnel and attitudes of the old regime, as the Olympians found when they had to keep some of the Titans on, partly for technological work like holding up the world and partly as allies in their own family squabbles.
Nor does one experiment with history. The Soviet agronomist T.D. Lysenko was accused by geneticists of ignoring the necessity of controlled experiments to validate his claims of the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a method for plant improvement. His response was that controlled experiment might be fine for the detached world of the laboratory, but that the task of feeding the people left no such leisure. Should Comrade Lenin, he asked, have left the anti-Bolshevik hetman Skoropansky in power in the Ukraine in order that a controlled experiment in socialist revolution could be performed?
One can, then, understand the hubris of natural scientists who, like the Haggadic God, are able to create experimental worlds at will, and when, after many replications, the experiment fails, can change the rules and try again. Moreover, like Jehovah, they, too, are superior to more empiricist engineers, for they derive general laws of the natural world from their constructions. The situation of the historian or social scientist, on the other hand, is even worse than that of the revolutionary, for the social scientist has no power at all to remake society along radically different lines in order to test hypotheses about the forces of social formation. At best, there are the “natural experiments,” the multiple …