On Alternate History and Free Will

By Alexander Wallace


A simplified taxonomy of philosophical positions regarding free will and determinism by Richard Bruce Baxter and shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

The very notion that the universe is a clockwork contraption with subatomic particles as the cogs can send shivers down the spine of the veteran alternate historian. The bedrock of our entire genre is based around the notion that history is malleable, that the world that surrounds us is a heaping pile of coincidences that through dumb luck gave us an environment understandable in historical and alternate historical terms. The notion of all things being foreordained with sufficient knowledge renders alternate history not even a parlor game.


This essay will not go too in depth regarding the philosophy of free will; most of this can be learned in an introductory philosophy class (as I took when I was an undergraduate). What this piece will hinge on are two seemingly opposed conceptions of the choices that actually can be made.


They are:

  • Libertarianism: not the political ideology, but rather the idea that human beings are really capable of making choices and do so on a regular basis.

  • Determinism: The notion that all events, human actions included, all flow in a single chain of causes that could not have occurred any other way; history in this model is preordained.

In addition to these, there exists the position of compatibilism which argues that free will and determinism can coexist (a somewhat twisty concept, whose argument is ultimately that if we had wanted to do something else, we would have; we do what we will, but we can’t will what we will), but that will not have much bearing on the arguments made herein.


Alternate historians would argue that, for the preservation of the genre if nothing else, that free will is legitimate. I’m guilty of that; partially for that reason, and partially because the notion that murderous butchery of the Holocaust and other such atrocities is written into the law of the universe is one that I find to be existentially depressing in a profoundly demoralizing way.


When we make our speculations, alternate historians tend to play fast and loose with what conception of free will we are using (usually without knowing it). Consider the following alternate historical question:


“What if Abraham Lincoln were not assassinated?”


Lincoln’s survival would have had some predictable effects on his immediate political circles that could be discussed in a conventional allohistorical manner. However, when dealing with the rest of the world, there are two traditional options:


  • Assuming that the rest of the world proceeds according to our world until the author decides that the butterflies from the initial change are sufficient to have effects outside (this is usually later than such effects happen in our world).

  • Act as if all the dice governing every decision of every person have to be rerolled; this is the more laborious option and is therefore an unpopular one.

The first of these options grants free will to the maker of whatever decision causes the initial point of divergence and on hard determinism for everything else. It is the narratively convenient way for a writer, as it allows everything to remain within controlled boundaries. Depending on your philosophy, the latter may be more accurate, but it is a form of chaos that most authors would find intimidating (and narrative is ultimately forcing order onto chaos).


But it is a choice to use either of the above approaches; in this regard, alternate historians generally have a ‘selectively determinist’ approach to the question of free will. We grant free will (or randomness) to that which we want to change and to center, and impose determinism on those we have pushed aside (consider the fate of Europe in Turtledove’s Southern Victory series, where its history diverges from our own only when he finds it to be narratively compelling). In some ways, this is deeply confusing, but without it we could not have a coherent genre. It is on this issue that we have compromised, and will likely have to continue to compromise unless we get extremely detailed historical simulations.

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