Imagination and counterfactual thinking: our most advanced technologies

Alberto González Pascual

The ideal technology is not found in a piece of software, a platform or an AI algorithm, but rather continues to reside in our minds. Human beings first began to use it millions of years ago. We know its essence by the term ‘imagination’; we qualify the more sophisticated cognitive process that takes place within that as ‘counterfactual’.  

Imagination is the adaptive ability we engage in to create a mental pattern for something that does not yet exist. The stimuli we pick up on through our senses and the neural connections they trigger within our brain are what allow us to create, imitate or distort objects or realities in the plane of abstract thought, objects and realities that need not be mimetic representations of what the outside world is like. Hence, imagination fairly seamlessly blends the scientific world and the world of fantasy.  

Imagination becomes the sweet sap, the piquant spice or the salty blood that courses through our being and sets in motion the engine of creativity and innovation in any type of social organisation. It is also a protohistoric phenomenon with respect to the moment of culmination of discoveries or inventions of products or services, as it has the generative potential to transform or evolve the mindset with which a human group operates. Imagination allows us to ask ourselves an unusual question that transcends the nature of any machine (which can only correlate data to draw conclusions): why do things happen the way they do?  

It is a language that aspires to full objectivity, focused on learning that things happen a certain way based on the frequency with which they are repeated

Our evolutionary advantage has always been the ability to ask ourselves why, an ability that not long ago gave rise to a scientific process still under improvement today: causal inference, something we begin to practice biologically as children, when we realise that certain circumstances cause others, and that any alteration in the former, no matter how slight, will also change the latter. As societies have progressed, this causal inference mechanism has given rise to a highly original mathematical language: probability. It is a language that aspires to full objectivity, focused on learning that things happen a certain way based on the frequency with which they are repeated. But what about the exceptions, the surprises, the utterly unexpected?  

This is where we enter into the terrain of counterfactual thinking: a deadly desert for some, yet a life-giving Eden for the most gifted students. It is an ability that statistically germinates only in us, flesh-and-blood people: we are capable of thinking or imagining that we can change our reality, both past and future.  

What would my life have been like if I had studied something else, if I had sat that competitive examination, or if I had not been so quick to break things off with that person I still remember? We can likewise construct what is to come: what would my life be like if I were to achieve career success? What decisions would I have to take to make that happen or how should I prepare myself to achieve the goals that will lead to happiness? A universe of multiple scenarios unfolds before us, in which every detail is reconstructed and given a place and meaning. We are constantly going over what we did yesterday in everyday conversations with our superiors, peers or loved ones, and we mentally generate new stories about what we should have said or done.  

Counterfactual thinking does not allow laziness or giving up in the face of uncertainty

Therefore, counterfactual thinking does not allow laziness or giving up in the face of uncertainty. It is a superhuman effort to find purpose in the vicissitudes of life, even though life is, by definition, chaotic and uncontrollable. In short, it is a discipline to continually learn from our mistakes and try to make our deepest desires happen, no matter how unlikely they might be.  

The method of counterfactual thinking corresponds to a well-known language construction that everyone uses, albeit probably without sufficient conviction or ambition in terms of what it can afford us. It consists of mentally writing a type of sentence that combines a subordinate antecedent clause introduced by ‘if’ (‘If X...’) with a consequent clause expressing the result that would follow from that prior condition (‘then Y’). This formula allows for myriad syntactic and grammatical variations. The classical Greek authors liked to distinguish within this simple structure between the moment of protasis and that of apodosis. The former consists of recreating reality based on the ‘If X...’; it is the instant in which the world is replaced by another possibility that has yet to be explored, as when a door opens. In the apodosis, we have crossed the threshold and taken our first steps into another world, constructing what might causally happen, even if it consists of forbidden possibilities, taboos or actions well beyond anyone’s reach. 

Many centuries later, the brilliant and controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger illustrated his sympathy for counterfactual presuppositions by posing a seminal question: why is there something rather than nothing? His next logical step was to hypothesise what the world might be like if there were nothing in it. An undeniably intriguing way of revealing what each thing is at each point of its existence. This was his recipe for testing a feasible solution to the question of what is truth. Imagination thus becomes the cutting-edge technology for revealing what lies in the depths of the mind, a top-notch scientific tool for psychologists, sociologists and any researcher needing to unravel the whys and wherefores of human behaviour at any historical moment. A magnificent assumption to motivate a group of sufficiently prepared and engaged people to solve problems initially deemed impossible to address.  

Emily Dickinson wrote a poem that exuded a genuinely counterfactual voice: ‘What I can do—I will— (...) That I cannot—must be / Unknown to possibility—’. We could interpret this as meaning that what is truly unknown to us is not unknown because it is not to be found where we are looking, or because we have adopted the prior belief that it does not exist, but because it remains invisible to our perception. Indeed, if we accept that what we do not see may nevertheless be there, before our mind and body, then we have no choice but to let subjectivity come into play in order to recreate remote possibilities. Or, to put it more simply, in words that any self-help author would endorse: do not close the door to any path, because if you set your mind to it, you are capable of going quite far.  

What happens in a situation that affects us is only one possibility amongst all those that could be happening

For science, this statement means accepting the Bayesian connection: a statistical model of causal inference that calculates all the exceptions to the rules (everything that has a marginal chance of happening). Building on a network of probabilities in which a given belief is considered (the one that strikes us as most plausible), this model encourages us to consider other variables and the dependencies arising from them. To this end, we need to be open to collecting new evidence, which, in turn, allows us to revise the very foundations of our beliefs. It is a type of reasoning that will not be satisfied with simply obtaining the cold facts about an event, finding the initial causes, or imagining the future consequences, but rather aims to tie it all together in order to then accept an essential principle, which will come as a shock to anyone hoping to understand how the world works: what happens in a situation that affects us is only one possibility amongst all those that could be happening.  

Counterfactual thinking is the most decisive human technology for progress simply because it makes room for tension between what is a given and what might be, regardless of the infrequency of what is not there or whether or not we have been able to decipher the message. Putting our imagination to good use allows us to set aside the ‘I believe’ in order to make decisions based on ‘I know’.  

What does counterfactual thinking give us? Freedom. The original seed of optimism and innovation. It is high time for both academia and the business world to systematise this type of thinking as a basic mental habit, as the most prized professional skill for the new economy.

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