What Might Have Been!

20 August 2014


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.

Photo by timJ on Unsplash

Comments (10)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, June 10, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Have not heard from you for

Have not heard from you for awhile, Professors Taylor and Perry. Good to see a new post and prelude to a new show. What might have been is a thorny issue. I, for example, thought it might be fun and profitable to be either an architect or meteorologist. These were youthful aspirations, you see. For the former, my thinking was connected with the continuous need for housing and business accomodations. The market seemed unlimited.
For the latter, the logic was less altruistic:forecasters got paid, whether they were right or wrong. What a great job! But, history and fate intervened. I did not get that bachelor's degree---and by the time I figured it all out, I had neither the inclination, energy, nor money to get it all done.
I've had a better life than many people I know---or know of. Not many regrets. "You can't always get what you want....": but if you try (sometimes), You might want what you get. And, just so.

Guest's picture


Monday, June 11, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Jung's ideas must have been

Jung's ideas must have been getting to this issue. Otherwise, his notion concerning synchronicity would have been meaningless. I have heard it said that we create our own destiny---some unknown, pseudo-philosopher said this a half dozen or more years ago
You can go to school until you turn blue---graduate, and go broke trying to pay for it all. But you will not attain wisdom or fame, unless you are "darned lucky"---to paraphrase a remark offered to me by another pseudo-philosopher (published, by the way) quite a few years ago. It did not take me long to understand that "darned lucky" meant being a member of academia, with minimum of a master's degree---kissing the right behinds and, well, being, uh, academic. Forever. Oh, and supporting the instituion(s) monetarily couldn't hurt.
So, excuse me while I laugh at what might have been. There are some truly smart people out there, whose ideas will be unlikely to be noticed because they did not adhere to the requirements of the club. Success is a lot like politics---isn't it?

MJA's picture


Monday, June 11, 2012 -- 5:00 PM


Had we not eaten from the tree of knowledge perhaps we would still be living in the naked paridase of truth.
For surely underneath it All... simply is

Guest's picture


Tuesday, June 12, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Check your spelling. Michael.

Check your spelling. Michael. I believe it is p-a-r-a-d-i-s-e, if memory serves. Anyway, spelling aside, we do know the difference between what is and is not, and whether this is better, in some theological sense, is open to discussion. Or not. I recall a sweet line from an obscure duo who wrote and sang quite a few years ago. When they, too, were caught up in a 'new' faith that offered hope to a decaying world: "...feed the hay of havoc, to the mouths that starve for such, and milk the cows of gladness, with a firm but gentle touch..." I must sadly inform you that the simplicity your belief(s) appear(s) to embrace does not now manifest itself in the complex world we inhabit. Therein lies the problem---seems to me.
The duo mentioned was Seals and Crofts---the song excerpted and every other tune on their first album exuded
hope. The faith their early music extolled offered a foundation, Islamically-related to be sure, for those who were weary of the theocentricity of the various forms of Christianity. In my disoriented youth, I tried to adopt it. I knew many other disoriented youth who tried to do the same.
The last time I looked, Catholicism rules the civilized world, while the original Islam is nipping at its heels. Not so much different from 1066, and the current denial, by diplomats of both political and religious stripes, that there is a war between Christianity and Islam. Realists (yours truly included) know better. And we are not afraid to say so. Those of us who want a simple life can go live in a monastary (or is that monastery?---or something different? I'm not so good with spelling either...)
Best To You and Yours,

Guest's picture


Friday, June 15, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Arthur C. Clarke opined that

Arthur C. Clarke opined that our failure to foresee the future stems either from a failure of nerve or a failure of imagination. Perhaps the same could be a limitation on how we think of what might have been. I think we all have been at several crossroads and made our decisions (or had them made for us). If we are happy, bully for us; if not, we live at a time when a plenitude of options are available.

Guest's picture


Sunday, June 17, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

A lot of this seems a lot

A lot of this seems a lot like a computer simulation. You set up rules and you set up laws. These are the things we base all our decisions off of. This lead me to the conclusion that our brains are complex simulators calculating probable outcomes. So what might have happen are alternative outcomes of the simulation that is reality.

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, August 23, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Is the existence of  God as

Is the existence of  God as generally imagined by the Abrahamic faiths consistent with the possibility of there being other possible worlds, or must we say with Pangloss (in parody of Leibnitz) that God's will being supreme, we are living in the only possible world (and so, of course, the best).
More recently,speaking as a physicist and without, I hope newage woo-woo, every single observable thing in the universe appears to have been possible to some extent, but slight differences away from them are also possible:  the reality we see is the path that minimises a particular function (the 'action') dependent on those probabilities (the 'classical path'), but deviations from it are possible.
Sometimes I see opposition to the notion of their being alternate histories generally being associated with people who need to believe that the world were somehow just and their lot entirely deserved, and those worse off's definitely so; this attitude is common both among many in the embattled middle classes and the callower of the wealthy.  Successful actors are generally not so; in fact, I think they tend to be liberal because of old prejudices of the First and Second Estates against actors (e.g. denying them Christian burial) but more so because any sane actor knows that for any big break or series of significant breaks there easily could have been ten other actors who could have got the rôle.
More amusingly, there are Edmund's lines in "King Lear":
Fut, I should have been that I am,
Had the maidenliest star in the firmament
Twinkled on my bastardising.
---amusing for us, though not to Shakespeare his audience, because he rejects the determinism of astrology even as he accepts that his illegitimacy made him evil.

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, August 23, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Our naï?ve perception of the

Our naï?ve perception of the universe (using the adjective non-pejoratively) is in fact very good at judging the rules of one particular world: the Serengeti some hundreds of thousands of years back.  For a simple example, we are, at least most of us, easily swayed by photographic fakes (e.g., a bunch of bikini models showing up at an average working-man's bar because a particular brand of beer were on tap) because back on the Plains not believing your eyes meant might mean your genes would propagate no further than the belly of a leopard.

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Monday, June 13, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Hi all, hopefully we have

Hi all, hopefully we have always given a blessing in this holy month of Ramadan;)Cara Mudah Menghilangkan JerawatCara Menghilangkan Lemak di Rahim

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Thursday, September 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Hopefully today you are given

Hopefully today you are given a smooth live activity. Cara Membedakan Sakit Pinggang dengan Syaraf Kejepit