History Bends Toward Chaos

Many people say that “the arc of history bends toward justice.”

Pardon my French, but ce n’est pas vrai: It’s not true. It’s the opposite of the truth.

If there is going to be justice in our world, we have to make it happen — and we also have to get lucky. Very lucky.1

Sure, everyone wants to believe that justice will prevail. And once in a while, it does.

But there’s a reason why most countries today and throughout history have been s-holes. There’s a reason why Western countries are now headed in that direction.

What’s the reason?

Consider a deck of 52 playing cards. If you throw the cards onto the floor, there is only one way for them to fall so they’re in order by suit and number. But there are 52! (52 factorial) ways for them to fall out of order. How big a number is that? It’s this:

80, 658, 175, 170, 943, 878, 571, 660, 636, 856,
403, 766, 975, 289, 505, 440, 883, 277, 824, 000,
000, 000, 000

So if you had to make a $10 bet on how the cards would fall, which way would you bet? Unless you wanted to lose your money, you’d bet on the cards falling out of order. That’s as close to a “sure bet” as you’re ever likely to see.

You could improve the odds a little — but not much — if you had a trick to increase the probability of the cards falling in order. Then you would be applying intelligence and knowledge to reduce the chance of a chaotic result.

But your trick itself would face the same problem: there are more ways for it to go wrong than to go right. If the trick could work, and you did it perfectly, and there wasn’t an unlucky gust of wind, and the carpet wasn’t uneven, and a million other factors that depend on pure luck — then maybe you’d have a chance. It could happen.

Most likely, however, you’d still end up with the cards out of order. Your best hope would be for them to be a little less disordered than if you hadn’t used your trick.

If you take countries as analogous to decks of playing cards, then you might say that:

  • The Russian Revolution (1917) applied mostly-incorrect beliefs ruthlessly and made the Russians worse off.
  • The French Revolution (1789) applied mostly-correct beliefs fanatically and made the French worse off.
  • The American Revolution (1776) applied mostly-correct beliefs correctly, got very lucky, and made the Americans better off.

In the real world, every country will have flaws. That’s inevitable. But if its people are lucky, it might be less disordered — and more just — than most other countries.

People who want to tear down America and replace it with an imagined utopia need to ask themselves a question: “Do I feel lucky?


  1. Defining justice is a book-length project, so I won’t try it here. Justice should at least include a stable and predictable social order such that (1) People know what to expect in various situations; (2) they know what is allowed or forbidden; (3) they know what they are expected to do for each other; (4) they know what they are expected to get from each other, and (5) they usually do it and get it. Another problem is that groups of people define justice differently, depending on their histories, dominant personalities, and genetic proclivities.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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3 Responses to History Bends Toward Chaos

  1. glensketch says:

    Far too many people are numb between the ears for humanity to do well. That, together with the idea that runaway population growth is a wonderful thing, will doom humanity. The Earth will abide, its seen worse than us. Sorry I can’t root for the home team.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      History is full of surprises. I do not know if humanity will survive as a species. The extinction of other animal species suggests not, but for all our shortcomings, we are qualitatively different from other species. I think we’ve already done pretty well, though far from perfect. I don’t know of anyone who thinks runaway population growth is a good thing — of course, given the adjective “runaway,” it’s almost bad by definition. As for earth, I don’t think it cares one way or the other. We’ll see, I guess.


  2. Pingback: Looking at an Utopism which has not ended | From guestwriters

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