From the chapter ‘All Is Foreseen Yet Freedom of Choice Is Given’, from the book ‘Games of Awareness‘.
… A slightly different topic, yet related to our current conversation, is the old debate about ‘What if…’. In many cases, this phrase is used innocently, replacing future tense by past tense: Instead of asking: ‘What will you do if you find a million dollars?’, one may simply ask: ‘What would you have done, if you had found a million dollars?’ – This is not the case we are dealing with.
The specific question of ‘What would you have done if you had found a million dollars in the age of ten’, however, carries a completely different nature (assuming the reader is older than ten). Since you didn’t really find a million dollars when you were ten, this question carries a hidden assumption about the possibility of such a thing happening. For such an event to occur in the past, one of two things must happen: Either our reality is not deterministic and enables two different events to occur at the same time (both the event of finding the dollars and the scenario of not finding them), or determinism still exists, but the question discusses a ‘parallel universe’ in which determinism led to a different scenario – much like ours – but slightly different in finding the said dollars. From here, the road is short to promoting the common idea of a universe splitting endlessly, upon each event and decision point.
Suppose I am walking in the street, passing by a large stack of bills without noticing it. Someone else picks up the money and takes it, while I am left frustrated, thinking: ‘What would have happened if I had noticed it and had taken it myself’. Perhaps the right answer is that if I had practiced a different state of attention, then the circumstances leading me to that moment would probably have been totally different, and then perhaps the event that caused the money bills to be there in the first place – would have occurred differently, and they wouldn’t have been there at all.
In a deterministic world, a good answer to the question ‘What would you do if you were now served frog legs for dinner’ could be: ‘I would finish eating and would cross the road in order to climb the Eiffel Tower’, since the question probably discusses a totally other world, in which I am currently in France. The English comedian Benny Hill was once asked (in his TV show) what he would do if he came home and found his wife with a stranger in bed. He answered that he would hit the stranger with the stranger’s white cane…
During the soccer world cup game between Germany and England in June 2010, the referee disallowed a clear goal by England. Later Germany won the match 4-1, much to the English disappointment. As a result, many claimed that retroactively, disqualifying that goal didn’t change much. Didn’t it really? One may argue that had the goal been awarded, the English team would have been in a totally different psychological state during the rest of the game, which might have crucially influenced its proceeding. Still, the more interesting claim is that had the referee allowed the goal, the game would have proceeded differently even before the controversial moment. For the sequence of events to lead to a different decision by the referee, the sequence itself had to be different from before. Maybe the game would have been stopped by some reason, or maybe it wouldn’t have taken place altogether, or perhaps all of us would not have been here at all.
The genre of ‘What if…’ is tightly coupled to the philosophical discussion of ‘time travel machine’, especially the theoretical ability to travel back in time and change things, or decide differently. A famous ‘time travel machine’ paradox discusses the outcome of going back in time and killing, say, your grandfather before the time he met your grandmother. In a deterministic world, the paradox is found in the very ability to decide or do something different than what’s been done.
Given the theoretical existence of a time travel machine, the paradox may be found in the very decision to go back in time and perform the change. ‘The End of Eternity’ by Isaac Asimov elaborates on this specific issue.
The American comedian George Carlin (1937-2008) joked about the contradiction between supposedly having a ‘Divine Plan’ and praying to God with requests whose significance is changing that plan.
‘What if…’ questions may apply to reality changes in different times, but also to changes in place and in awareness. The Israeli singer Yehuda Poliker said in a TV interview (Israeli channel 2, September 9, 2011): ‘No one asked me whether to bring me to this world’. Suppose Poliker had been born one hour later – Besides the usual questions about the effect on his character and destiny, would this have been… Yehuda Poliker? Someone else carrying Poliker’s awareness? Someone else altogether? The Israeli politician Ehud Barak (Israel’s defense minister at the time of writing this) once said: ‘If I were a Palestinian at the right age, I would – at some stage – join one of the terrorist organizations’. This immediately generated some political excitement. The more interesting mind challenge is not associated with joining or not joining some terrorist organization, but with the essence and the meaning of the phrase ‘If I were someone else’, and its implications.