Saturday, August 27, 2005

choose your own counterfactual adventure

I was up at the office until 3:30, and now I can't sleep. Instead, with time travel and counterfactuals having been the topic of my latest posts, I'm re-mulling over a thought exercise I play from time to time.

The way it works: you are given the use of machine that is a combination time-travel-biographical-VCR and universe-splitter-and-splicer. The machine allows you to rewind your life to any point. Then, the world-splittler creates two parallel universes: in World One, your biographical tape plays itself out as originally recorded, in World Two, you are re-given control of your body at that point on the tape to do anything you want differently for one hour. Your self will not remember the reasons it did the things it did in that hour. World Two will then proceed to play itself forward to the present with everything happening as it would have had the actions you done in that hour been the actions you had done in the first place. In the present, you are allowed to splice your views of World One and World Two together and see the ways in which the two worlds are different.

The three variants of the game are: (1) you get to choose whether you want to experience the remainder of your life in World One or World Two; (2) you have to leave World One and resume yourself in World Two, regardless of how things have turned out for you there; and (3) you get to see what happened to you in World Two, but you don't have any choice of having that be your life (you have to stay in World One).

For each variant, the game of course is: where in your life do you rewind the tape to, and what is it that you do?

For Variant 2, I have an obvious answer. I should go back to some weeknight evening in July 1998 and spend the hour making telephone calls to both my sister and my mother convincing them that, despite whatever my sister is being told by her practitioners in the lame and borderline-sinister rural health care system back around the family farm, she must go and insist that they give her a CAT scan* because she is presenting what even an idiot whose only knowledge of medicine is from watching ER can tell are the classic early warning signs of a brain tumor. For if this is discovered in July instead of, say, September, the chances are extremely high that she gets to be one of those brave cancer survivors wearing around a yellow livestrong bracelet instead of being, say, dead.

Especially since I'm not all that close to my siblings, one thing about this choice is it actually has very little implications for my own day-to-day life: the best guess for where I would be right now in World Two is right here on my laptop, typing a different answer to conclude this post. So in my most ridiculously self-absorbed moments, I imagine doing something different with Variant 2 than using it to save my sister's life. And then, of course, I immediately feel profoundly guilty, like some kind of counterfactual cretin. I think this is really the signal feature of what little mental games make the cut of being those I choose to play regularly: not only must they offer the possibility for all kinds and angles of speculation, but they seemingly must also allow the opportunity for me to go down cognitive avenues that then make me feel guilty or wallowy.

* Instead of their recommending that she go see, say, a freaking chiropractor, which is what happened in World One.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is no color of green that you do not embody.

Absolut said...

Wow, that's pretty intense. Would it be cheating to think that perhaps if you went back to a different point in time _before_ that conversation with your mother and sister and changed something on your own path then perhaps that conversation would've changed as well? So this way you get to change something on your own path, see how that plays out, while also assuming this family event turned out differently. Of course, this puts constraints on what part of the timeline you choose (has to be pre-1998), but hopefully perhaps you can let go of this guilty element.
By the way, I hate it when I work so late that I can't go to sleep afterwards. This used to happen in grad school. I would usually go for a ride when I left the office at 2am exploring the neighborhood. That sort of helped to calm me down.

Anonymous said...

what if we live in a universe ruled by the law of averages and our individual history, as we experience it, is in fact an average of all the possible choices we had (thought we had)? this still leaves room for "choice" but not that much choice. in other words, even if we had a machine as you suggest, my suspicion is that our new choices would not be that much different from our original ones. so, stop fussing about your past choices, live with them and move on, there really wasn't that much more you could do.

jeremy said...

Absolut: Yeah, I usually come up with some alternative of the game that lets me continue with the game without letting the family event be the showstopper. The conversation with my family isn't really a fair thing to go back and rewind anyway, becuase it's me intervening in something that didn't involve a decision or lack of decision on my part at the time.

Anon 9:34am: You may live in a world like that, but if you do, you are posting from some world other than Earth. Here on Earth, we make all kinds of decisions over the course of our lives, and they vary greatly in terms of their ultimate consequentiality for our lives (although in unknowable ways).

Anonymous said...

For a revolutionary leader, this sounds rather too counterfactualist. Perhaps it is just a set up, so that you can now deliver the superior postcounterfactualist vcr?

Is it perfect foresight, or would that be exantecounterfactualism?

jeremy said...

Seriously, given the current terrain of my proximate intellectual circles, you might as well classify me as a Hypercounterfactualist or a Counterfactualfundamentalist. Only after you completely accept the counterfactual way of thinking can you start to see the path beyond.

Anonymous said...

What you postulate is exactly the world you are in right now. Careful.

Anonymous said...

Let me go at this in another way . . .

Let's consider two possible worlds: (1) I have never heard of counterfactualism, and in fact I believe in the basest of form counterfactal-less causality in which a demonstration of dependence is causation; (2) I know as much about counterfactualism as you do.

By your reasoning, a counterfactual move from world 1 to world 2 should make me more amenable to conversion to your postconterfactualist vision.

Do you agree? If so, have you yet made the leap to postcounterfactualism?

Rhymes With Scrabble said...

And to think, when I play this game, I date the guy in the laundry room my freshman year. Now I feel self-absorbed.

jnsys said...

I believe that in my case, I would make pretty much the same decisions. For all of the problems and mistakes I have made, I am happy with my life, for the most part. But yes, the overriding mantra would be, second-opinions for everything - the health care there does suck, I can testify to that. These were the same people who misdiagnosed my son's pneumonia with nearly disasterous results, yet accused me of breaking his collarbone because it showed up crooked in the x-ray (when he hadn't ever so much as bumped his head or even fallen yet). I guess one thing I would change is to maybe try harder to stop my mom from starting to smoke, although we tried very hard as it was when we were kids... She's quti, and is fine now, but it just worries me.

Your sister's case was very sad, and I wish you could go back and change what happened. They should have caught that one. <3

jeremy said...

As soon as I rule out the sibling-life-saving-possibility, I end up dating the guy in RWS's laundry room as well. Time travel is full of strange turns of events.

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