Whenever an excuse or a wimpy explanation was offered to my Dad for anything adequate or less than adequate he would mumble in an aside… “If-shit-rabbit.” My brother and I went years well into adulthood before coming to know he was expressing exasperation with his unique short-hand version of a counterfactual:
“If the dog had not stopped to take a shit, he would have caught the rabbit!”
But he did stop… or X, Y, or Z and he didn’t catch the rabbit… or make sales numbers, the team, the appointment, etc.
Counterfactuals are a form of prediction without parameters because the conditional statement is illusionary. There is no way to prove or disprove the counterfactual so the provider takes on a psychic persona of knowing what didn’t happen.
We see it all the time… John Madden says knowingly, “That missed extra point will come back to haunt the Packers in the forth quarter.” The fact that between the missed point and the last two minutes of the forth quarter there were 51 offensive plays, 2 interceptions, 2 bad calls, two fumbles and one player (no one knows which one) has a concussion doesn’t come into Madden’s NFL game perspective. He like so many other fans says what he says because they collectively have seen a game lost by one point in this way. Making the declarative if erroneous counterfactual statement pointing to one and only one play is fun but it is also preposterous.
Sometimes they involve category errors which is logical mumbo jumbo for a change in assumptions similar to metaphors and similes. This can happen when there is some type of anthroporification assigned to the game, or when playing it seems to be unnecessary as when Terrell Owens says that
“losing this game was never an option” as if to defy by some Zeus entitlement or some magic of ‘willing’ a win to happen. While that makes sense in street vernacular it is not ‘common sense” and it does a real disservice to the beauty of what is going on for real and in the lesser constraints of what is going on in a dynamic game (soccer) or even a collective discrete game like American Football.
Counterfactuals are very mechanical in the Newtonian sense of ‘cause and effect’ and maintain the common sense and common illogic of single causality for things that happen. This gives them their simplicity and also their poor logical construction.
They generate a lot of tangentials that take focus away from lines of development. People start studying the ‘mind’ to figure out about behavior even thought the mind can’t be measured or falsified as existing without a courtyard of assumptions, presumptions and other postulates. All the while behavior is occurring without sufficient understanding to allow us to understand how to pick up an egg.
Then again, their use has consequences whether we recognize it or not…
- Help maintain superstitions and myths and urban legends
- Keeps individuals and the media from having to be accountable for whatever they say
Of course this too is ironical in that the subsequent variability leads to some interesting investigations of relationships as well as sink holes of vernacular pop science that dilutes the resources of trying to figure out what the heck is going on “out there.”
Counterfactuals are also the basis of a lot of interesting “leap frog” research in that the concept of counterfactuals generates some non-linear questions about relationships between objects and events with other objects and events. This is best seen in the cases of “Freakanomics” by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt as well as what is presented in the 2007 book “Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to mention but two prime examples where counterfactuals work as a literary hook.
Knowing about them will provide a way of using them as needed and not making the mistakes we all make from their misuse. Besides, did any of us really need to know that that pop-logic had a name before reading this slice of verbage?