I am reading what someone in the local newspaper hailed as last year’s most important book; Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (and for the record, I started on it before the newspaper brought it up, but progress is as always painfully slow). It is great, really great (and not a footnote in sight!), penetrating deep in to the human condition. It might well be last year’s most important book, indeed. In an odd twist, he ends up discussing the role of unpredictable luck, or rather unluck, in how Hitler came to be what he became. The discussion came up in a chapter entitled The Illusion of Validity, which opening paragraph is worth quoting:
System 1 [thinking fast] is designed to jump to conclusions from little evidence–and it is not designed to know the size of its jumps. Because of WYSIATI [What You See Is All There Is, a central concept in Kahneman’s work], only the evidence at hand counts. Because of overconfidence by coherence, the subjective confidence we have in our opinions reflects the coherence of the story that System 1 and System 2 [thinking slow] have constructed. The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous–and it is also essential [p. 209*].
I am not sure what Kahneman has in mind with the last remark that confidence in our beliefs is essential. He did not return to it in the chapter, but perhaps he returns to it later in the book. What he do discuss in the chapter are how humans think they understand the past and why things happened while pure chance, unpredictable luck, is not an essential or sufficient part of the understanding.
The often-used image of the “march of history” implies order and direction. Marches, unlike strolls or walks, are not random. We think that we should be able to explain the past by focusing on either large social movements and cultural and technological developments or the intentions and abilities of a few great men. The idea that large historical events are determined by luck is profoundly shocking, although it is demonstrably true. It is hard to think of the history of the twentieth century, including its large social movements, without bringing in the role of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. But there was a moment in time, just before an egg was fertilized, when there was a fifty-fifty chance that the embryo that became Hitler could have been female. Compounding the three events, there was a probability of one-eighth of a twentieth century without any of the three great villains and it is impossible to argue that history would have been roughly the same in their absence. The fertilization of these three eggs had momentous consequences, and it makes a joke of the idea that long-term developments are predictable [p. 218].
*Page numbers refer to the first British edition (Allen Lane).