Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

Using counterfactual thinking

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What is 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 about twice as long.

Thinking about counterfactuals may seem silly or strange, but in fact we do it all the time. Any time you imagine having a conversation with someone so you can prepare for how they might react to something you’d like to say, you’re engaging in counterfactual thinking. The same goes for any future thinking, whether it’s disaster preparation or wedding planning. To do that well involves imagining possible futures to anticipate the consequences of possible events and actions. When we do that, we’re thinking about things that are not currently, actually real. The military does this in deadly earnest all the time, as does the Center for Disease Control in developing strategies for dealing with possible epidemics.

We also apply counterfactual thinking to the past, as part of reasoning about causes and effects. Whenever you’ve regretfully thought, “ If only I hadn’t…,” you’ve thought counterfactually. Lawyers do it all the time when questioning witnesses, and to persuade a jury that one person’s actions were or were not to blame for something that happened. Historians do it too, spinning scenarios like How would World War II have played out if the US hadn’t entered the war? Some historians are disinclined to take this approach seriously, but others have argued that historians actually deal in counterfactuals all the time, often without even noticing that they’re doing it, and that counterfactual thinking is unavoidable if historians want to draw conclusions about cause and effect.

Of all the courses I’ve taught at St. Bonaventure University, my personal favorite is a seminar in our Honors Program that’s called Counterfactual Thinking. I developed the course a few years ago because I’m convinced that counterfactual thinking is a powerful vehicle for seminar discussions.

The great thing about counterfactual thinking in a seminar course is that it forces students to think creatively and independently. So much of college learning involves mastering facts and concepts that other people have already worked out, and that are widely considered to be true. When teaching that sort of material, we’d like students not only to learn an idea but also to see why it makes sense, but most of the time students just learn that an idea is true and are happy to take that fact for granted.

How do we figure out why an idea makes sense? For practical problems, it often involves imagining how the system (physical, logical, etc.) would work differently if a different idea were put in its place, and that is thinking counterfactually. Why do scientists perform controlled experiments? Why do accountants use double-entry bookkeeping? Why do we have trial by jury? We can justify those practices by showing that the systems they’re used in wouldn’t work as well in their absence.

But while counterfactual thinking can be used to make sense of real-world practices like these, that’s still well-worn ground. Students wouldn’t have to work terribly hard to find pre-existing justifications for such practices, which means they’re letting “experts” do the counterfactual thinking for them. The best way to force (!) students to think for themselves is to jump out of the real world altogether, and preferably in ways that haven’t already been done to death. There’s no point thinking counterfactually about time travel because whole books have been written about different ways it could be done, paradoxes that would result, ways around those paradoxes, etc. Only new and different counterfactual scenarios will get students thinking without a net, as it were.

In my course, I use a blend of “realistic” counterfactuals that sensible people will have already thought about (what is needed to develop driverless cars and how would that change our world?), and more bizarre, otherworldly counterfactuals (how would human life and society be different if there were three different human genders rather than the existing male and female, and what might the third gender be like?). The more realistic scenarios let students see other intelligent people thinking counterfactually, which gives them a jumping off point for their own further explorations, and gives the seminar ideas either to agree or disagree with. The more bizarre scenarios give students the ultimate hallucinogenic counterfactual experience, forcing them to start the thought process pretty much from scratch. They also give students an opportunity to question things that are such fundamental parts of the real world that we almost always take them for granted. The discussions that develop out of these scenarios can be exhilarating as well as sometimes hysterically funny.

Really and truly—you should try this yourself and with your friends. It’s best when it’s not an anything-goes discussion but when each counterfactual possibility is critically analyzed, questioned, second-guessed. Some of the best ideas come not from the initial inspiration, but from the alternatives or modifications that come out of this critical process.

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

August 12, 2011 at 9:59 am

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