Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Uses of Imaginary Worlds

A new book, from the venerable Cambridge University Press, wonders why we are interested in imaginary worlds. That is, in fictional worlds. 

It is a good question, but the answer falls flat. Apparently, the authors believe that we like imaginary worlds because we have a yen for exploration. Perhaps they mean that reality is too much for us, but this is not very much better. As I say, this makes no sense.

If you think I am exaggerating, here is the synopsis, from the website:

Why so much attention devoted to nonexistent worlds? In this article, we propose that imaginary worlds co-opt our preferences for exploration, which have evolved in humans and non-human animals alike, to propel individuals toward new environments and new sources of reward. Humans would find imaginary worlds very attractive for the very same reasons, and under the same circumstances, as they are lured by unfamiliar environments in real life. After reviewing research on exploratory preferences in behavioral ecology, environmental aesthetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary and developmental psychology, we focus on the sources of their variability across time and space, which we argue can account for the variability of the cultural preference for imaginary worlds. This hypothesis can therefore explain the way imaginary worlds evolved culturally, their shape and content, their recent striking success, and their distribution across time and populations.

Can we do any better? Allow me to try.

Consider this, if you are planning for the future, especially if you are making policy, you will naturally want to imagine the possible outcomes of your possible actions. These possible outcomes are not real. They are imaginary or fictional. To some extent you will choose what to do based on the likelihood or desirability of different imagined outcomes. 

It is nice to talk about Odysseus and his journeys, but when you are making policy or are playing chess you will always, if you have any idea what you are doing, consider the possible countermoves to your possible moves. These moves are not real until you make them. They are, strictly speaking, imaginary. It's called planning.

It is one thing to rant about China and to slap sanctions on the nation. It is also one thing to indulge in hostile rhetoric toward the Chinese Communist Party. But, if a policymaker is doing this, he should certainly consider the possible countermoves that will constitute a response to his rhetoric. If he has imagined these moves and planned accordingly, that is one thing. If he has failed to imagine countermoves and gets blindsided, then we should recommend that he find another job.

Imaginary worlds involve what might happen, but they also involve what might have happened. They do not just involve planning for an uncertain future; they help us to learn from past errors.

I have long been intrigued by a remark made by Winston Churchill after World War II. Churchill asked whether anyone could have stopped the horrors of the two world wars before they had gotten out of control. And he suggested that only one man could have, with a timely intervention, changed the course of history. In the case of World War I, the feckless Woodrow Wilson, the man who declared himself to be too proud to fight, is the only man who could have stopped the carnage before it metastasized.

In another, possible world, for example, the 1912 election might have installed Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. If it were TR and not Wilson, the assumption goes, there would not have been a WW I. We choose this example knowingly because throughout WWI, Roosevelt was writing op-ed columns explaining how the government should be conducting foreign policy and military policy. In relation to what happened, the TR proposals, two per week, constituted an imaginary world, one that did not really happen, but certainly one from which we can learn-- and avoid similar calamities in the future.

If you wish, you can examine the consequences of World War I, from the Spanish flu epidemic, to the rise of fascism and Nazism, to the advent of Russian Bolshevism to World War II and imagine how the world would have been markedly different if Wilson had not been president during World War I.

The same applies to World War II. We in America are thrilled by the fact that FDR led America to victory in the second world war. And yet, how many of us have noted that we only had one president during the time of Hitler? And how many of us have noted that for the first eight years of the Hitler regime the United States did essentially nothing to stop the dictator. So, we are within our rights to ask what the world would have looked like if there had been an early bold decisive action against the fuhrer? Only FDR could have led the charge, and he did not. One notes that his opponents did not propose an early intervention. They wanted to stay out of it altogether.

So, the political stars were aligned against intervention. Still, if we want to learn from history we can ask what the world would look like today if FDR had addressed the threat of Nazism more forcefully and directly-- and earlier.

At the least, we are dealing with a fictional world. 

So, we can only learn from the past and plan for the future if we can access imaginary worlds, that is, worlds that are decidedly unreal.

Today, the most important imaginary world in politics and in common discussion is the one whereby the end is nigh because the climate apocalypse is fast approaching. The world is going to end, we are told, by a bunch of children and by a bunch of people who think like children. These people and their ideological forebears have believed, since the eighteenth century, that the Industrial Revolution was a mistake and that we should repeal it and return to a state of nature. Clean, wholesome and fun-- with a life expectancy of 40.

The power of the fiction of imminent climate change has overtaken much of the politics of the Western world. It is a fiction, in the sense that it has not yet happened. And it is never calculated against the cost of shutting down the power grid, closing nuclear energy plants or refusing to compete militarily or industrially with the rest of the world.

Surely, we have the right to project an apocalyptic future, but the chances are good that the more apocalyptic the prediction, the less likely it is to happen. Even if we know that the Industrial Revolution had contributed to our everyday lives and even if we imagine what it would be like if we returned to living in mud huts without running water, sanitation or electricity, we must decide how much credence we should invest in a fictional climate apocalypse. And whether we should take drastic and radical action in order to imagine that we can stop it. After all, we do not know whether or not the most drastic Green New Deal will in any way change the temperature in Seattle or whether it will cause the oceans to ebb? Let’s say that it is one possible outcome, but that it is certainly not the only one.

So, thinking in terms of imaginary worlds is basic to the way we conduct ourselves in the world. And yet, this exposes a flaw in the reasoning about imaginary worlds. If we are talking about a purely fictional world, its value is not determined by any actions outside of its construct. 

If a detective investigates a crime and creates a hypothesis about who did what to whom, his hypothesis-- which is originally a fiction-- will be proved or disproved by the facts. If he believes that Col. Mustard killed Mr. Boddy in the library with a candlestick, he might have a very good reason for his opinion. He might know that Mr. Boddy was having an affair with Mrs. Mustard and that Col. Mustard threatened Mr.Boddy. He might even discover the colonel's fingerprints on the candlestick. So, he has reason for constructing a narrative fiction wherein Col. Mustard is the perpetrator.

And yet, if further investigation shows definitively that Col. Mustard was in jail at the time the crime was committed, his fiction becomes consigned to the realm of disproved hypotheses. It shows how we think empirically.

And yet, if the hypothesis takes up residence in a fictional narrative, its value will not be determined by real evidence, but will be determined by the coherence and consistency of the narrative. In a Sherlock Holmes detective story, we do not need to know whether Moriarty really committed the crime-- because the crime is not real in the first place-- but we do want to know whether the explanation offered by the story makes good sense. If it does not, then we will consider it a failed short story, but not because its hypothesis has been disproved by the evidence.

When we are planning for the future and when we are considering the moves we might make on the chessboard of foreign policy, we will eventually need to decide what to do. Then we will see the reaction and the response. Thus, our policy ought in the best of cases to be judged against the outcome produced. Again, we can say that this is empirical or even pragmatic thinking.

And yet, if we are learning from the past and we imagine what the world would look like had Teddy Roosevelt been elected in 1912, we cannot judge our fictional world against reality. We cannot test our hypothesis. And thus, we are left with faith, until such time as a similar crisis arrives and we either repeat the same errors or try another way. Evidently, when it came to WW II, our leaders failed that test.


David Spence said...

"Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to a new square by the sly; if your bishop, at your castling, could wheedle your pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden. You might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with the game a man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for his instruments."

(from Felix Holt: The Radical)

Christopher B said...

Regardless of who claimed it, thinking Wilson or FDR or anybody else occupying the Oval Office could have stopped WWI or WWII respectively is, bluntly, ahistorical wishful thinking that doesn't tell us much. Churchill had reasons for advancing that argument in the post-WWII world whether or not it was grounded in any kind of realistic analysis.

Accomplishing the objective would require a credible threat of military intervention. Without a significant change in public opinion, given the resistance of the American public to military expansion and intervention in either conflict without a firm casus belli, there was no credible threat. Both men were well known to have pro-British sympathies, and did as much as neutrality would allow to aid the British, but both men still used strident anti-war rhetoric in their re-election campaigns immediately prior to intervention. Bellicose public statements would have sunk their chances, and back-channel threats lacked any credibility without American public engagement.

More importantly, all three of the aggressive powers were well aware of the possibility of US intervention and chose to start or continue the wars anyway. The German High Command knew that when they restarted unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 that it would likely draw the US into the war. They did it anyway rather than seek terms from France and Britain because they thought they could use the tactic to win decisively before the US could intervene effectively. Similarly, the Japanese could have had no doubts that attacking Pearl Harbor would being hostilities with the US but again made the calculation that they could put themselves in a position to prevail in negotiations before an effective US response. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would reportedly write in his diary, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The only leader of the three that seems to have been caught wrong-footed was Hitler, who had no good reason to declare war on the US after the Pearl Harbor attack. Even so the German General Staff likely wasn't stupid enough to think history wouldn't repeat, especially since the US and Germany were already involved in an undeclared war in the Atlantic by 1940.

You can imagine that those wars could have been avoided by a single man but to do so you have to endow that person with almost super-human powers of persuasion, as well as ignoring that the US was already stretching the bounds of neutrality in the periods leading up to the official start of hostilities.

Sam L. said...

As I keep saying, the CLIMATE has been changing ever since our planet had an atmosphere (since without an atmosphere, there would not be a climate.)

Illuninati said...

In my opinion, this article is a home run for Schneiderman. It is very well written and well thought out. Thank-you.

markedup2 said...

How do people get paid for such drivel? Imaginary worlds from alternate history, through pure fiction, to the projected future are SIMULATIONS.

Just as we train AI neural nets with data sets, we train our own neural nets with imaginings. There is a reason we are wracked with "what if?" guilt after a tragedy: It is an attempt to retrain our brains to react better next time. It's often futile and causes much emotional pain, but that's the point of it: Simulate it until an optimum outcome is achieved. (Unfortunately, finding a solution only turns "what if I had..." into "why didn't I...")

We like stories about intrepid heroes facing off against great evil for both the entertainment value and the ability to see what others do in such situations and weigh their choices against what we would do in their stead. That is why there is no story without conflict. If there are no hard choices to be made, it's not an interesting story because we look to stories for insight about how to make choices. If the choices don't matter (what shall I have for breakfast, today?), the story doesn't matter.

This has only been known for millennia, although the "simulation data sets" concept is phrased in 21st century terms.