The fallacy of the “It never happened ...” argument

Zeitgeist nowadays is not an easy thing to keep up with. All the information flowing around about technical unemployment, automation, Artificial Intelligence, genetic engineering, the possibility of a nuclear war, singularity, curing aging, the future political system, fusion, and many, many more just do not make things any easier.

As expected, now and then, there are debates. They are usually very shallow, but, again, we cannot complain — at least there is something, and something is definitely better than nothing.

And, in almost every one of these futuristic debates, there is an argument: “It never happened in history, and that is the reason it will not happen.” Even more disturbing is that this type of the argument is coming from the mouths of well-educated people: famous philosophers, thinkers, people who have a proven technology background.

Every time I hear that argument, I start constructing a scenario in my head — one in which those debaters, similarly to politicians, are not on opposite sides, but, instead, they are on the same side trying to create a “fake” debate — in order to gain popularity, fame, or just to prepare people for what is coming next — gently trying to check the pulse of the masses.

Why “It never happened (before)...” is not an argument?

Several reasons:

  • We never had cars, but we have them now.
  • Before 1768, when the first steam-powered automobile capable of human transportation was built by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, people thought it would be impossible to have a carriage without horses or some other animal.

  • We never had aircrafts, but we have them now.
  • Before December 17, 1903, when brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first flight, people were saying that it would be impossible to fly a machine, but it did happen, and — even more amazingly — we are now flying metal airplanes with hundreds of people in them.

  • We never had satellites, but we have them now.
  • Before October 4, 1957, when Sputnik I was lunched, people also though that it would be impossible to keep the object in space, but we have done that also.

  • We never had metal boats, but we have them now.
  • We never had phones, but we have them now.
  • We never had television sets, but we have them now.
  • We never had computers, but we have them now.

This list goes on and on and on …

Nearly 90% of the things we have now did not exist 200 years ago. If we go back in history, just few thousand years ago — which, for our universe, is just a blink of an eye — we will find out that we have not had many things to begin with.

As a general rule of thumb, if we are not talking about violations of fundamental laws of physics, and if it is more or less an engineering problem — or the matter of human behavior — do not use the “It never happened...” argument.

Creating an animal with two heads by genetic engineering or having a human being with three hands could be possible; having bacteria that will produce electricity or recycle nuclear waste by “eating” it is also probably possible.

What about Artificial Intelligence or longevity?
For any problems that looks a bit harder to solve, we need to just remember one thing and ask one question: Is there something in nature that can think and have consciousness, or is there a creature that can live for a very long time? If the answer is yes, then it is possible.

Nature has created us, and we are living, breathing machines. If we can think, there is probably something else that can think too. That being said, we can probably create something that can think similar to the way we can.

In terms of longevity, there are many species that live longer than humans. Giant Tortoises can live up to 250 years, and a Bowhead Whale can live up to 170 years. What’s even more amazing is that there are living beings like “immortal jellyfish” that can revert to its youngest age when forced with stressors — basically being able to live forever.

Regarding human behaviors, such as unemployment, wars, human extinction, and many others are subjected to the same principle.

In conclusion, “It never happened...” is not a valid argument, and you should not use it as such.

If you need an opposing argument, please find a better one.