As I proceed deeper into Popper, I have pondered his ideas on ‘historicism’, the idea that one can define a set of laws of history. Within the context he is arguing I must say that he is correct. Popper argues such laws are unscientific because they are not falsifiable. This is true for the case of all of which I am aware, whether several millinnia ago or within recent memory. But is it a true statement or is it an over-application of inductive reasoning?
I do not think we know enough to make that general of a statement about the possibility of historical laws. With the knowledge at hand we are probably on safe ground to agree that racially based, class-based and simple projections of past events onto future history are non-starters. So what would it take to really have a ‘Seldon Theory’?
Science requires data. Hypotheses must be based on data and should be falsifiable by uncovering new data or effects which are sufficiently counter to the predications of theory so as to bring its viability into question. To do that with history we need not one history but many. True, we can analyze numerous Earthly civilizations from different times and places, but that is not enough. We simply do not have enough detail about many of them. Perhaps new developments in Archaeology will one day make such data available, but for the present we have only a small number of historical, independent civilizations from which to work.
Even worse, were we to generate a theory that was applicable to such pre-technological societies, those theories would still fall upon the same problem when looking at what comes after, because once technology arrives on a planet, the boundaries become fuzzy very quickly and you are back to having only one data point. You cannot build a theory on a single data point. Even worse, we are in a technological civilization in which the rate of change grows more rapid with each passing year. How can you generate any sort of prediction about a world with wildly different characteristics from your own, none of which are knowable to you? How could a Scientific Historian of, say 1950, predict much of anything about a world with global access to virtually all of human knowledge, blogs, twitterers, computerized phones more powerful than Colossus and a third world that is not quite so third any more?
The simple answer is: “They would not have had a prayer of being right.”
So have I proved a Theory of History is impossible? No, far from it. I have simply framed the obvious limitations of the data available to us. It is insufficient to allow anything like a hard science of history to develop. That does not mean such data will never be available. Let us posit one possible future in which there might be true scientists working in such a field…
It would be some hundreds if not thousands of years hence. Humanity has gone to the stars and we have studied the histories of hundreds of other sentient races. We have put our AI’s to work for some decades to analyze and categorize; we have looked at vast amounts of cross-galactic statistical data; we have framed the areas where mathematical Chaos reigns and know the likely set of outcomes. Our learned future historical scientists are arguing over what experimental data is required to falsify their theories: ie, can we find a civilization X in which Y occurred?
Then and only then could we say that history is a science. Of course we still do have a problem. Unless we run across an elder civilization willing to talk to us, we still cannot predict our own future at all. We can only do so for civilizations at earlier stages of development than our own.
Thus Popper still wins the argument against Historicism as a self-analysis tool even in the far future.