In the science-fiction movie, The Time Machine (2002), lead actor Dr Alexander visits in the year 802701 AD.
Alexander wanted to save his fiancée, who was murdered by a robber. He made a Time Machine and goes back in the past and prevents her murder. Soon he realises that Emma’s death is inevitable. She will die through other circumstances. Devastated, he travels far in the future for scientific answers to how can he save his beloved’s life. Here he encounters a new species of men, Morlocks, whose leader coldly tells him that changing the past is impossible:
I can look inside your memories, your nightmares, your dreams. You’re a man haunted by those two most terrible words: ‘What if’?
Uber Morlock’s reason is apparent:
You built your time machine because of Emma’s death. If she had lived, it would never have existed, so how could you use your machine to go back and save her? You are the inescapable result of your tragedy, just as I am the inescapable result of you.
Morlock insists that saving Emma would be virtually impossible for him. Alexander reaches this understanding, but it costs him dearly.
But we love ‘What if.’ Because it gives us freedom from the shackles of linear fashion of events, at least in our mind. We almost believe that if that hadn’t happened, this could have happened.
We dream of alternative past, alternative realities of surviving the unwanted and unwished present.
We strongly believe in alternative timelines.
So, does it help us in the navigation through the present?
Should we use our time and energies on some remote wishful thinking which did not happen because it couldn’t have happened?
You can not alter the course of the history of your life. You can only affect the course of future events, if you use ‘What If’ wisely.
Speculation is Our Escape from the Present
‘What if’ is generally used in two situations — speculation about past or a suggestion/proposal about a future event.
‘What If’ offers a different set of possibilities when we define past, and it relieves us from the unsurmountable burden of our helplessness against natural laws.
It is often the basis for counterfactual historical interpretations.
Ultimately, we want to escape from the reality of history. We want to rewrite it.
History Defies ‘What if’
Historians find ‘What if’ propositions irresistible because this suggests dramatic possibilities. You can imagine doing away with certain disgraceful/shameful events that mortified humanity or erase dictators from the history timeline altogether.
Moreover, ‘What if’ is selective thinking of an event that happened, not a complete rehash of the past.
‘What if’ tweak a bit of an event in our mind, warrant few permutations and many combinations or vice versa.
It is probable reality against the reality which we did not desire in the first place.
Now, back to The Time Machine, and listen to those final words of Uber Morlock -
We all have our time machines, don’t we? Those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward are dreams.
Grandfather Paradox of Time
It leads us directly to the court of Physics and hardcore scientific reasoning.
In the film, Morlock told Alexander that saving Emma would be a virtual impossibility due to temporal paradox.
Physics suggests us that temporal paradox or time paradox or Grandfather Paradox presents a logical contradiction in thinking.
It means, a time traveller can do anything that did happen, but can’t do anything that didn’t happen.
In an entry of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Grandfather Paradox means-
To kill grandfather would be to change the past, and no-one can do that (not to mention the fact that if grandfather died, then Tim would not have been born). So, we have a contradiction: Tim can kill grandfather and Tim cannot kill grandfather.
It also suggests that past remains as it was because of real actions and the reactions related to them. Every move is intertwined with other activities. Thus it generates a chain of actions and reactions, causes and results.
We Are ‘What if’ Obsessed
Even that clear message doesn’t stop us from thinking otherwise. You can find a list of ‘What If’ scenarios in our collective cultural produce.
· Marvel Studios is coming with a very ambitious series ‘What if’…? in the summer of 2021. It is animated American web tv series based on the Marvel Comics series of the same name.
· WHAT/ IF is an American thriller web television miniseries, created by Mike Kelley, that premiered on May 24, 2019, on Netflix.
· BBC Future wrestles with a wide range of questions covering past to future on its page ‘What if’.
· Even Computer programmers have a ‘What if’ Tool. It challenges programmers that you could inspect a machine learning model with minimal coding required.
· Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. He answers absurd hypothetical questions in his unique comical way.
· Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation treats innovation as its central idea. They say — America’s greatest innovators ask big ‘What if’ questions — and answer them in even more significant ways.
· Finland’s Aalto University runs a ‘What if’ project ‘where science and art meet technology and business.’
· UK based firm What if! (now acquired by Accenture) uses an experimentation-driven approach to help clients incubate new products, services and organisational cultures.
All these endeavours tell us an important thing. We wish to see our past present and future in a different light.
‘What if’ is an Answer to Creativity
Though ‘What If’ can’t provide alternatives to history, but it can undoubtedly spark creativity in the area of science and innovation.
Scientists use the power of ‘What if’ for brainstorming to determine what can go wrong, in case of future events and experiments.
Warren Berger, the author of A More Beautiful Question, collected these ‘What If’ questions and pitched them to top designers, tech innovators, and entrepreneurs.
He explains that there are three critical stages of problem-solving — Why, ’What if’, and How. And ‘What if’ can provide a way forward to your questions.
He explains it further -
‘Why’ questions are ideal for coming to grips with a current challenge or problem–helping us understand why the problem exists, why it hasn’t been solved already, and why it might be worth tackling. ‘What if’ questions can be used to explore fresh ideas for possible improvements or solutions to the problem, from a hypothetical standpoint. When it’s time to act on those ideas, the most effective types of questions are practical, action-oriented ones that focus on ‘how.’
Speculation is Useless and Takes Us Nowhere
In his book ‘What if’?: Thought Experimentation In Philosophy, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh Nicholas Rescher shows that this kind of thought experimentation can lead readily to a paradox in a way that increasingly diminishes its usefulness.
He gives an example that questions like ‘‘If Hitlerite Germany had developed an atomic bomb by 1943, World War-II would have taken a very different course’’, are counterfactual conditional.
Nicholas argues that it becomes pointless to push speculation after a certain point.
It seems Nicholas is right.
‘What if’ sounds sexy to us because it promises us an alternative reality according to our wishes. It has the power of ‘altering the past’ as it pleases us. Except it leaves us with nothing concrete.
If we want to harness the power of ‘What If’, we should include it in questioning our choices, we make every second of our life.