Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

In praise of counterfactual thinking

with 2 comments

We should all spend more time thinking about things that aren’t real. Take a vacation from the usual human fixation on the truth, and start wondering about the consequences of some possible reality that you know isn’t true. Stop thinking about facts for a bit, and think about counterfactuals.

Why should you do this? Well, it’s fun and it costs practically nothing. But it’s also a great way to train your mind. It takes creativity to think counterfactually, and it takes careful analytical reasoning to evaluate the counterfactual scenarios that your creative mind comes up with.

Here’s one: how would our world be different if next year scientists announce that they’ve figured out how to slow down the aging process by a factor of two? In other words, what if human beings were suddenly able to live about twice as long as they do, so at 100 we have about the same physical and mental vigor that we currently do at age 50?

The first step is to define the details of the scenario.

How is the slowing of aging accomplished? Let’s say it’s done with a pill that people have to take regularly. Once a day may seem like a bit of a pain, but I bet most people would do that if it would extend their life. Heck, a lot of people put themselves through an aerobic workout every other day, and I don’t think that prolongs physical vigor quite by a factor of two.

How much will the pills cost? There are some interesting variations on the scenario here, depending on whether the life extension is available to more or less everyone, or whether it’s a privilege only of the wealthy. But even if it starts being expensive, I bet that most of the high cost is recouping of R&D costs and taking advantage of how much people would be willing to pay for something so desirable. Patent protection would run out in less than 20 years, and if the manufacturing cost isn’t super-high, generic versions would then be reasonably cheap. And in the meantime, you just know that other pharmaceutical companies will rush to develop copy-cat drugs based on the same physical principle. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the pills would cost little enough to make them widely available, either right away or in the near future.

Which parts of the normal human life cycle will be extended? I’m assuming most people won’t want to extend childhood and adolescence, so let’s say people start taking the drug as young adults and cut the rate of aging in half starting around age 20. That would make 60 like today’s 40, 80 like today’s 50, 100 like today’s 60, and so on. Premature deaths would still occur, but the risks associated with heart disease and cancer would be pushed back to later ages with the slowing of the aging process. Breast cancer rates typical of 70-year-old women today, would in this imagined future be typical of 120-year-old women. The only exceptions would be accidents and violence, unless of course people changed their behavior in this imagined future.

So think about it—what would be the consequences of this one change to our world? I bet you can come up with some interesting ones in just a few minutes. But if you keep thinking about it, you’re likely to experience two very interesting processes.

First, more and more consequences should keep coming to you, affecting more and more different aspects of our world, including some that you probably wouldn’t have initially thought would be affected by this one change.

Second, you should find yourself second-guessing some of the ideas you came up with at first. Either you’ll decide that your first ideas were unrealistic once you’ve had more time to think about it. Or you’ll decide that while a particular change may start to happen, people will respond to that change in a way that neutralizes it or takes our world in another direction altogether.

The first process is your creativity at work, spinning out more and more imagined consequences of this one counterfactual scenario. The second process is your analytical mind at work, subjecting your creative ideas to a kind of counterfactual reality testing, accepting some, rejecting some outright, and accepting some only with modifications.

If you’re not too busy, give this scenario a shot and see how good you are at developing this sort of scenario. Get some of your friends involved. Think it through together, or work on it separately and then trade notes and argue about the points you disagree on. Please feel free to include any ideas you have in comments on this post.

Counterfactual thinking can be a blast, if you go in for that sort of thing.

© Joel Benington, 2011


Written by Joel Benington

August 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] counterfactual thinking? It’s thinking about things that aren’t real. I introduced the idea in my last post, and proposed an interesting counterfactual scenario in which people all of a sudden start living […]

  2. But can you still earn a living at 150? Will there be enough jobs? And who is going to pay for the medical bills……


    November 12, 2013 at 9:36 am

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