Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Power of the Hypothetical

ResearchBlogging.org"So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth..."

In science, an hypothesis is a wonderful thing. It is the glimmer of imagination and possibility that can give rise to years of research and fascinating advances in our knowledge of the world. But it is still just the preliminary stage - when people say something is "just a theory", they are thinking of the colloquial meaning which is more analogous to hypothesis. It's a weak form of knowledge, little better than conjecture.

But the power of the hypothetical goes beyond that. In philosophy, hypothetical scenarios are often (or indeed exhaustively) used to examine arguments, beliefs, and assumptions - of which the subject is sometimes previously unaware of using / having / making. I'm currently leafing through a book full of such hypotheticals - called The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten. The title is perfectly demonstrative of the kind of thinking contained therein - thought experiments which are often semi-nonsensical, but which nevertheless challenge us to examine our underlying reasons for what we believe. IS it immoral to eat a pig that wants to be eaten (assuming it is immoral to eat one that does not)? And if so, why?

This is one of the reasons I so enjoy science fiction - there is such an immense crossover with so many areas of philosophy, and there is no better arena for bringing thought experiments and hypotheticals into the mainstream consciousness. Just look at The Matrix - how many people had questioned the very nature of reality, and the evidence of their senses, before watching that film? Every philosopher was familiar with the idea, of course - as it was an imaginative adaptation of Descartes' hyperbolic doubt and evil demon hypothetical. But it wasn't well-known, in the public sense of the phrase.

Now it seems the hypothetical has been given yet more power - or rather, yet another facet of its power has been discovered. Previous to this recent research, people were often encouraged to promote a positive outlook in themselves by focusing on the good things in their lives, "counting their blessings", as it were. However, studies into this method returned mixed results at best, and a new hypothesis was tested - that, rather than simply thinking about the positive aspects of one's life, one should imagine what one's life would be like had those things never happened at all. The contrast this creates between the present and the parallel (and negative) "possible presents" reinforces the positivity of one's life.

So next time, instead of just thinking "it could be worse", perhaps you should actually think about exactly how it could be worse. And how easily it might have turned out that way.

Koo, M., Algoe, S., Wilson, T., & Gilbert, D. (2008). It's a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1217-1224 DOI: 10.1037/a0013316

1 comment:

Lost Reverence said...

Considering what life could have been like if certain things had never happened is somewhat reminiscent of the film It's a Wonderful Life. James Stewart (I can't remember the name of the character he played) was shown how everyone's lives would have been different had he never been born, and this showed him how significant he was in his community and prevented him from committing suicide.

Just on a side note, to look at it from a Nietzschean point of view, it would be very difficult to imagine your life with various things never happening because as everything is contingent on everything else, EVERYTHING would have changed. Plus, you would not be imagining 'your' life as your present 'I' is contingent upon everything happening the way it has. If things had happened differently you would be a different 'I' - that's probably more of a linguistic niggle though. :).