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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Against Prediction as Control: Of Boulders and the River

The times recently have witnessed a dizzying flurry of predictions about whom President Obama might next nominate to the Supreme Court and about how that someone might interact with, affect, and be affected by the Court's current denizens over time.  In one of the comments to Hillel Levin's posting, Christian Turner offered the highly evocative image that attempting to predict who will influence whom, and in what ways, is like choosing among boulders to throw into a rushing river in order to give it, over time, the proper shape.  Making these types of predictions -- about how the boulders will respond to one another as the river courses on for years and decades -- is a nearly impossible task.

I agree with Professor Turner, but I want to make a different point here that nevertheless draws from his metaphor.  Whether or not it is actually impossible, or nearly so, to make these sorts of predictions about influence and the effects that one boulder may have on another or on the shape of the river over time, I think that it is a mistake to want to do so. 

It is a mistake of overconfidence in one's ideas about what the river ought to look like 5, 10 or 20 years in the future.  Time passes and people's lives change and are affected by those other folks that they encounter and the enormous variety in the quality of their lived experiences.  Why should Supreme Court Justices be any different?  One of the most suggestive aspects of Professor Turner's metaphor is its naturalism.  Over the long run, the river is not subject to human artifice or other mechanisms of control.  It is shaped as much by serendipity and the vagaries of time and experience as anything else.  It might be different if we were designing a golf course, for example, where we could control more intimately each detail of the landscape.

But human relationships are not like that -- they are not subject to clever controls and calculations.  They are messy and unpredictable.  And one should not wish that they were otherwise.  How one feels now -- today -- about the shape that the river ought to take may not be how one feels 10 or 20 years down the road.  For myself, I hope very much that I do feel or think differently about this or that issue, this or that constitutional question, in 10 years, or 20 years, than I do now.  I don't mean that I anticipate with relish some sort of violent about face or radical crisis of conscience in my views as time rolls along.  I do mean that I remain very much open to the possibility that I will think very differently about things during the course of my lifetime.  And I think that an over-eager zest for prediction about these sorts of things bespeaks a kind of calcification, almost as if one hoped very much that one's present thoughts and hopes about the "direction the Supreme Court ought to take" (as if this could ever be a single direction, or one which would not perpetually deviate here and there) ought to be fixed in amber for eternity -- or, at least, for the decades that are the object of one's predictions.  

Naturally there is nothing wrong with making guesses about who will be the lucky contestant.  But predictions about who is likely to affect whom years or decades into the future, and in what ways, are not only unavailing.  They betray a desire to control what cannot, and should not, be controlled.  It may be better to sit and watch as the river runs its course, flowing over the Court and the rest of us.     

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on May 21, 2009 at 04:33 PM | Permalink

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