Risk, in modern terms, can be seen as the ‘approach to foresee and control the future consequences of human action, the various unintended consequences of radicalised modernisation. It is an (institutionalised) attempt, a cognitive map, to colonise the future’ (Beck, 1999:3). There is a modern day tendency to view present day concerns about risk in an ahistorical context. It has come to be widely recognised that risk, as defined in terms of how it is recognised today, was born during the seventeenth century and the emergence of modernity through the Enlightenment period of the Renaissance in which mysticism yielded to science and logic.
However, this essay sets out to argue that notions of risk and probability are by no means rooted in the onset of modernity. It is argued that such notions are even as old as the human race itself, stemming from the ideology that all life is subject to the risk of death. Since then these notions have been ever progressively developing, and it is the seventeenth century, in juxtaposition with the Renaissance movement and the Protestant Reformation, that their popularity and sophistication reached an unprecedented stature.
Such notions have continued to progress and mature right up to modern day where they are now both intricate and complex, and have come to be synonymous with social developments such as capitalism. It has also become apparent however that parallel to these developments has been the advancement of the converse ideology that these processes of risk management, and the tools and skills we have developed for so many centuries which sanction them, contain the ‘seeds of a dehumanising and self-destructive technology’ (Bernstein, 1998:7) capable of being a serious threat to society.
Risk in some form has always been fundamental to human society. Around 3200 BC, when human settlements began to grow in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, trade and travel became commonplace on the highways of the rivers and this eventually lead to travellers exploring more distant reaches meaning that ‘calendar time, navigation and geography mattered a great deal and these factors required ever more precise computations’ (Bernstein, 1998:29). The element of risk was recognised, albeit in a very crude and simplistic manner, and the Ashipu group of people served as consultants for risky, uncertain, of difficult decisions.
Covello and Mumpower acknowledge that the Ashipu’s role served three fundamental purposes in connection with the theory of risk. Firstly they identified ‘the important dimensions of the problem’, they then identified ‘alternative actions’ and lastly they would ‘collect data on the likely outcomes… of each alternative’ (no date:519). They did this by looking for signs of the gods and were believed to have a priest like status empowering them as qualified to divine. For Covello and Mumpower, this marked ‘the first recorded instance of a simplified form of risk analysis’.
In order to bear any resemblance to risk in the form we understand today however, mathematical notions of probability, expressed quantitatively, had to come into effect. Within the realm of ancient Greece simple building blocks of probability theory came to light subsequent to the Greeks’ love of gambling combined with their ‘skill as mathematicians, their mastery of logic, and their obsession with proof’ (Bernstein, 1998:15). Bernstein depicts how the Greek word ” (eikos) ‘which meant plausible or probable, had the same sense as the modern concept of probability: “to be expected with some degree of certainty” ‘ (1998:16).
Furthermore, a quantitative outlook of probability, though not discovered by the Greeks, was close to being so through the Greek creation of an alphabetic numbering system, developed to help people with building, travelling and time-keeping effects. These letter-numbers however had serious limitations and provided ‘nothing more that a means of recording the results of calculations performed by other methods’ (1998:30) such as the abacus, and this is perhaps the single reason why the Greeks failed to discover the laws of probability, and calculus, and even simple algebra.
The next significant advancement towards the objective goal of modern forms of risk and probability came with the birth of Christianity and its rapid growth across the western world. Christianity began to serve as ‘the belief system by which threats and dangers were dealt with conceptually and behaviourally, allowing people to feel as if they have some sense of control over their world’ (Lupton, 1999:2). Also with the onset of Christianity, Covello and Mumpower illustrate that the early religious ideas about the probability of an afterlife was ‘an important thread leading to modern quantitative risk analysis’ (no date:520).
They make reference to Arnobius who lived in the fourth century A. D. He was a major figure in a Pagan church and led a decadent life compared with the competing fledgling Christian church members. After a revelatory vision, Arnobius attempted to convert to Christianity but the bishop of the Christian church was suspicious and doubted the sincerity of his conversion. To demonstrate his authenticity, Arnobius’ wrote a monograph, Against the Pagans, which included an argument for Christianity that is particularly relevant to the history of probabilistic risk analysis:
‘Arnobius proposed a 2 x 2 matrix. There are, he argued, two alternatives: (1) “accept Christianity” and (2) “remain a pagan. ” There are also, he argued, two possible, but uncertain states of affairs: (1) “God exists” and (2) “God does not exist. ” If God does not exist, there is no difference between the two alternatives. (With the minor exception that Christians may unnecessarily forgo some of the pleasures of the flesh enjoyed by pagans. ) If God exists, however, being a Christian is far better for one’s soul than being a pagan. ‘