If only I had gotten that surgery years ago. What if I hadn’t seen the child run into the street? Human minds love to imagine a past or present world much like the real one, with one key element changed. It’s one way we learn from experience. It may also mire us in remorse or self-pity, unable to move forward.
Over a balmy California outdoor dinner, a philosopher and a brain scientist discussed David K. Lewis’s classic example: "If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over” (Counterfactuals, 1973). What does it mean to make a factual statement about a situation that is contrary to fact? Why do we so often describe the world we know by comparing it to one that doesn’t exist?
In a recent thought experiment, I’m trying to replace negative statements like “It isn’t cloudy or cold” with affirmatives that mean the same thing: “It’s sunny and warm.” The editor in me tweaks “I can’t get that app to load” into “How to load that app is a mystery to me.” With each switch, my spirits lift. It’s as though the negative wording suggests an imaginary, alternative, cold and cloudy world in which apps load easily every time. In the affirmative, the only world I need is here and now.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.