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Monday, 1 February 2016

The "what if" question

Yesterday evening I was talking with my new best friend and suddenly the notorious "what, if" question popped up again during our conversation. I ducked answering her innocent hypothetical question as the "what, if" question has the potential of devastation while its hypothetical answer is often politically correct and also incomplete, and thus irrelevant. At least in my view.

I realised that this notorious question has been mentioned in several of my blogs. Yet there was no separate blog. The blogs that mention this question share some similarities though: Wasted Time, Polyamory (2), Words, Addicted to Love, Falling in love is the easy part (1), What if dreams come true, The racism card, Modern Family, How pain defines us.

The "what, if" question makes us wonder how life could have evolved if we would have made other choices (eg, health, love, regret, remorse) in the past, and/or how our life could evolve if certain events (eg, dreams, health, lottery, love) would happen in the future.

Asking "what, if" questions about our past may easily become devastating in our current live when such questions deal with serious issues like regret and remorse. Important issues like accountability and responsibility easily get confused, ignored or neglected. Future "what, if" questions relate to (day) dreaming and simulation (eg, forecastingscenario planningwar games).

Our biggest mistake is treating "what, if" questions about the past as relevant. Hypothetical questions - and answers - about our past are not relevant as we cannot undo the past. We can only act now. This act would never change our past but could - and probably would - change our future.

The biggest pitfall with respect to "what, if" questions about the future is in the probabilities of our assumptions. Each assumption has a certain chance (eg, x%) and the reciprocal of that assumption must have a (100-x%) chance. Adding further assumptions (with their individual % of likelihood) can and will only decrease the probability of the outcome of any scenario.

Most of us apply "what if" future scenario planning although we may not even fully realise this: What would (s)he do/say, if I would do/say this? The better we know our partner, the better we can predict her/his behaviour: Better information = higher probabilities = more reliable outcome. Essentially, this is common sense, a concept by Aristotle. Also see my 23 January 2015 blog on common sense.

A more elaborate and eloquent description comes from Nicholas Rescher in his book "What If?" which includes an "elaborate analysis of the appropriate conditions for philosophical thought experimentation. Its cardinal thesis is that there indeed are limits to the appropriateness of this important methodological resource and that transgressing these limits destroys the prospect of drawing any valid lessons for the philosophical enterprise". Note: Italic markings are mine.

The limits to the appropriateness of the "what if" question can be illustrated by this personal example. Some time ago, I sincerely regretted my marriage and the "what if" question entered into my mind. Fortunately, I soon realised that not having been married implied not having had my two children. It's impossible separating both past events. Regretting having been married in the past automatically implies that I would be regretting having children right now. So I stopped regretting.

Coldplay - What If (2006) - artists, lyrics, Wiki-1, Wiki-2


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