When we make claims about things that could have been—what philosophers call counterfactual statements—we are, in some sense, sliding between different worlds.
Our topic this week: What Might Have Been! Many things that did not happen, might have happened. For example, if John hadn’t been such a procrastinator, he might have written more in his career. Of course, since John has really had a highly distinguished and productive career, that’s sort of a frightening thought. Similarly, many things that did happen, might not have. I went to Notre Dame, for example. But I might not have. I might have gone to MIT or Case Western Reserve, where I was also accepted, instead. On the other hand, some things are bound to happen. Unless you’re immortal, you are bound to die. They say that taxes are inevitable too. But that’s probably not true. If you’re rich enough and you’ve got good enough lawyers and investment counselors, you can probably get around that one.
All kidding aside, the distinctions among what actually happens, what might or might not happen, and what is bound to happen are what philosophers call modal distinctions. And in this episode, we’re going to explore the role that modal thinking plays in our lives. For those of you who know a bit about the history of analytic philosophy, you know that that means we’re going to ignore the advice of that sage philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. He said, “Ask not what a thing may or must be, ask only what it is.” And don’t forget Sgt. Joe Friday’s mantra -- “Just the facts, ma’am.” We're going to ignore their advice because both Friday and Quine got it wrong, Contrary to the good detective, talking about what might have been is a way of sticking to the facts and not just idle speculation,as he seemed to believe. And that’s just because, contrary to the sceptical philosopher, in addition to facts about what is, there are also facts about what might be, must be, or can’t be.
Now I can hear a modal sceptic like Quine objecting that facts about what actually happened are perfectly intelligible. But facts about what might have been – well, that’s another matter. I am a philosopher. That’s a fact. What makes it a fact? Well, the fact that I went to a fairly reputable university, got a degree, got a job teaching -- things like that. But now, what about the supposed fact that I might not have become a philosopher? What makes that true? Some concrete property that I actually have? Doesn’t seem right. Some concrete action that I actually took? Doesn’t seem right either.
This sort of worry about the provenance of modal facts seems to be motivated by the desire to reduce facts about the possible to facts about the actual. But part of me thinks that that can’t be the right approach. There isn’t enough room among the actual for everything that’s possible. That is, since what’s possible far outstrips the actual (contrary to Kant, who thought that this was a mistaken way of thinking about the possible in relation to the actual) it’s hard to see how the possible could just reduce to the actual.
On the other hand, it seems equally problematic to hold that facts about the possible are just brute further facts, above and beyond facts about the actual? That can’t be right either, it seems. How could we even know any such facts? The world confronts us with a stream of actualities, not a stream of brute possibilities.
I know I may beginning to sound a little like Quine, but unlike Quine, I’m willing to admit that we confidently and coherently talk about things beyond the actual all the time, especially when we engage in counterfactual reasoning about things that are contrary to fact. I once thought about becoming a lawyer. But I didn’t. And I am glad, because if I had become a lawyer, although I would have had a lot more money than I now have, I wouldn’t have been as happy as I now am.
If you’re a sceptic you might want to challenge the claim that my counterfactual is true. What makes me so sure of that, you might ask. For all I know, you might say, if I had become a lawyer, I might have been one of those crusading do-gooders in it more to save the world than to make a buck.
But I think I can answer that challenge pretty easily and in a way that shows something about the nature of counterfactual reasoning. I know my counterfactual is true because I know that in general lawyers are richer than philosophers. Plus I know that ideas matter more to me than money. My becoming a lawyer wouldn’t change that. Ergo, if I had become a lawyer, then I’d probably be a lot wealthier than I am now but not nearly as happy as I am now.
See how I just reasoned? I went from a premise about the way things actually are to a conclusion about the way things would have been had I become a lawyer. So our thinking about the possible is more tied to the actual than our imagined sceptic might imagine. And that also suggests that it’s probably wrong to think of facts about the possible as brute facts, above and beyond all facts about the actual.
Of course, thinking about the possible isn’t strictly and entirely limited by our thinking about the actual either. We can imagine remote possibilities far removed from the actual. Even remote possibilities are still possibilities. And it often takes a real visionary, with a rich imagination, to look beyond the actual and find the outer limits of the possible.
Of course, we have to be careful here. Just because we can imagine something, doesn’t mean it’s really possible. We can imagine all sorts of things that will never be and could never be -- faster than light travel, magic wands, frogs that turns into princes upon being kissed.
Obviously, there are lots of challenging questions to dig into here. Just what are facts about what might have been and how do they relate to facts about what is actually the case? How can we know anything about what might have been, given that the world confronts us with a stream of actualities and not a stream of possibilities? Clearly our imaginations play some role in allowing us to think about possibilities. But if there are possibilities that we can’t imagine and things we can imagine which are not possible, how can we ever use the imagination to distinguish genuine possibility from mere figments?
Perhaps with the help of Laurie Paul, our listeners, and you, dear readers, we can find a few answers – at least possible answers.