What if John F Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated in Dallas in 1963? What if Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated in June 1914? What if the Roman Empire hadn’t collapsed in the West? What if the Americas had ‘discovered’ Europe? What if Harold Godwinson had defeated William Duke of Normandy in 1066? What if Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had lived happily ever after? Exploring counterfactual historical scenarios became vogue in the late 20th century. They can be entertaining academic exercises, but what use are they in the real world? Afterall, we live in the world where these things didn’t happen. But asking these questions highlights a couple of issues. One is about turning points and decision making. Another, slightly deeper point is about freewill and the nature and structure of reality. And what applies on a macro scale also applies on a micro scale. What are the significant turning points in your life? What would your life be like if you had chosen a different path? What if you had called him or her? What if you had taken that job? What if you had gone to that party? What if you had worked harder or less hard? Thinking about this can make your decision making better in the present.
Imagination and flexibility are key tools in the toolkit of a decision maker. People often scoff at imagination because it’s not real. But everything in the world that has ever been created was created twice, once in someone’s imagination, and then again in physical reality. When faced with a choice or decision, fire up your imagination and pace through the consequences and how these might play out. To do this you do need to be flexible. Break free of your self-imposed limitations, societal expectations, and fear. The more choices that you can create in any situation the more able you will be to find one that works out well for you. As an exercise to help yourself do this, choose a significant historical turning point, and imagine what would have happened if…?
The second point we can learn from counterfactual history is about freewill and the nature of reality. The idea of what freewill is and whether we have it or not is a fiercely debated subject in religion, philosophy, and science. My own experience is that most of the time I feel like I have freewill, and at other times I feel compelled to do things, positive or otherwise. Personally, I favour the idea that we do have freewill. What I think follows is that we live in a multiverse. Though not a mainstream scientific view, there is science that supports this perspective too. Living in a multiverse means whatever you can imagine is somewhere, somehow real. And what that means is that we can solve all of our problems, individual and collective. But to do so we still have to believe that we can.
Take items making the news recently, male violence against women, and racism. Often anthropologist and historians will tell us that violence is just a part of being human. You may have seen a story, also this week, of a mass grave, in eastern Croatia, of 41 men, women, and, children who were violently murdered 6,200 years ago. Human history is continuously punctuated with acts of extreme violence and cruelty. To accept violence as being part of human nature on this basis alone, is simply lazy thinking. The past can inform us about ourselves now, but it doesn’t define who we are. Can we imagine a world without violence and racism? What does that world look, sound, and feel like? Would this world have separate countries? Would it have many religions? Would this world have an economic system that produces poverty? Would we build nuclear weapons through taxation, whilst supporting children through charity? If we can imagine a new world, then we can live in it. But that doesn’t mean that it will just magically happen. We all need to take individual and collective actions that will make it happen. And the best place to start is always within yourself. So, once more to echo the words of Mahatma Gandhi, if we want change in our world then the surest way to make that happen is to be that change. But straight away you might think “Well I’m not racist, or violent, and I’m not even a man. What can I do?” Or even if you are a man you might think “Well I’ve never been violent towards a woman or anyone else, and never would be.” Good, and now support the resolution of conflicts through means other than violence. Help people to understand that force is the least imaginative and least effective form for the expression of personal power. Support political movements that encourage the free expression of who you are. Imagine what if…? I’m not saying that a world without violence and racism is easy to achieve, all I’m saying is that it is possible.
“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper and reimagines the world.” Malcolm Gladwell