Did Arthur Balfour Predict Facebook a Century Ago?

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Did Arthur Balfour Predict Facebook a Century Ago?

Did Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, and twice the giver of the Gifford Lectures,  stumble upon the idea behind Facebook–that it can collect data on people and try to predict their behavior–nearly a century before its advent?

The region where these uncompromising doctrines show to least advantage is human character. I do not propose to discuss causation and free will; but I may with advantage say something on a less hackneyed theme, namely, negligibility and foreknowledge. The thesis I desire to maintain is that, in dealing with a human character, full foreknowledge is theoretically impossible, even though free will be wholly absent, and the succession of psychic states be completely determined. Practically impossible we know it to be. But most determinists would hold that this impossibility is due partly to our ignorance and partly to our incapacity. We know too little either of the general laws of mind, or of individual character, or of surrounding circumstances, to make accurate forecasts; and, even if we possessed the requisite information, we could not use it, owing to the irremediable weakness of our powers of calculation. It is this contention that I wish to traverse. I hold that, had we the supernatural powers of Laplace’s calculator, armed with a knowledge of the human heart which supernatural powers of observation could alone supply, we should still fail, because we are face to face with that which is inherently incalculable.

The contrary opinion is due, I think, to an imperfect comprehension of the doctrines I have touched on in this lecture. All human foreknowledge depends on detecting old sequences in a new context. The context, of course, is always new. There is never full or complete repetition. But, unless there be partial repetitions embedded in the universal flux, prescience is impossible. This is the doctrine of “negligibility.”

Now consider two illustrative examples. First, imagine yourself standing on the edge of a valley down which a landslip has just let loose the waters of some great reservoir in the hills. The catastrophe is sudden in its onset, brief in its duration, wildly irregular in its character. Even the most tumultuous cataract retains a certain steadiness of outline: and few sights are more impressive than the stationary waves in a great rapid. But there is here no trace of order imposed on disorder, fixity on motion. The rushing wall of water, spouting into foam over every obstacle it encounters, the tossing flood that follows furiously behind, seem in their brief violence to present the very ideal of incalculable confusion. But we know it is not so. In the presence of such a spectacle our calculator would not feel a moment’s embarrassment. He could forecast without difficulty the whole scene down to its minutest eddy; the motions of each drop obey laws with which he was perfectly familiar; and the total effect, catastrophic though it be, is but the sum of all these component examples of natural uniformity.

Turn now and contemplate a calmer scene. Consider the commonplace life of a commonplace man as it develops in the untroubled prosperity of a steady business and a quiet home. Such a career seems as orderly and uniform as the flood I have been describing is terrible and strange. Surely no supernatural calculator is required to cast the horoscope of its hero: for he does, and leaves undone, the same actions, he thinks and leaves unthought the same ideas, as thousands of his contemporaries; and, so far as outward appearance goes, he is an indistinguishable member of an undistinguished crowd.

Yet, in spite of this, we know him to be unique. There never has been before, nor will there ever be again, another individual exactly like him. A similar statement, it may be urged, can be made about our catastrophic flood. Though this has plenty of parallels, none of them, strictly speaking, are exact. Where, then, lies the distinction on which I am trying to insist? Let me endeavour to mark the contrast.

If the material world be conceived as a mechanical system, the flood in my illustration may be regarded as a piece arbitrarily cut out of it at the whim of the spectator. It possesses no natural unity; and, like the whole of which it is a fraction, the moving particles which compose it do each obey laws which are (we assume) perfectly well known, and have been endlessly exemplified. Its behaviour is the sum of the behaviour of these several parts; and it is by estimating their movements that our imaginary calculator can prophesy its course with absolute exactness. He is never perplexed by the problem of negligibility; for negligibility in such a case can be accurately measured, and our calculator possesses all the data required for its measurement. In short, the principle of regularity may here be applied in its most uncompromising form; it requires no qualification, nor can it be pressed too boldly or too far.

–Balfour, Arthur James. Theism and Humanism: Being the Gifford Lectures. NY: Doran. 1915. p.  207–11.


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