If, like me, you are a football fan, then you will have listened to some of the outpourings of the football match commentators which, if they were to be taken seriously, even analysed, would prove to be ridiculous, illogical, biased, irrational and, sometimes, just plain stupid. Over time, most commentators are guilty of this, and not only when they are covering a match involving a team for which they have may have played during their playing careers.
One of the comments that most irks me occurs when a team scores a goal and the commentator says that the team should be several more goals to the good – if only they had converted the chances missed earlier in the match. On suitable reflection, the commentator may come to realise that this kind of comment is nonsense. The reason I would suggest this conclusion is the fact that, if a goal had been scored earlier in the game, then that would have altered the way in which the rest of the match would have developed.
Opportunities for further goals may not have come. Depending on whether or not these opportunities came, and, if transpiring, were taken, would further determine other match outcomes. The outcome of a football match may also be dependent on a bad or an exquisite pass, or the dubious decision of a match official, or a moment of individual football genius.
Such forms of reflection aren’t confined to football. There have been a number of recent television programmes and newspaper articles in which historians, and others, have speculated on what would have happened if the United Kingdom had not entered the First World War in 1914.
One viewpoint was that, had the United Kingdom had not entered the war at all, then Germany would have crushed Europe under what the historian described as “the iron heel of proto-Nazi dictatorship”. Another historian took what seems to be an opposite view in saying that “the British empire would have been safe for another century, as the Germans settled down to creating something rather like the European Union of the present day.”
So too, there are other view, perhaps as many as there are writers on the theme. What each has in common, however, is that each perspective is unprovable. Each is hypothetical speculation. One might even say that each and every viewpoint contains a certain amount of fantasy. Just like a football commentator expressing his or her thoughts on what would have happened if other patterns and events in a match had been different.
One of the intriguing things about watching and listening to the pundits comment on football matches, or historians talking about events such as the First World War, is that they stimulate the mind without demanding a firm conclusion. The outcome of a football match or a war may have been determined, but intrigue comes from speculating on what may have happened if various aspects of the event had been different. This may well be a source from which conspiracy theories are generated.
I believe that the word used by aficionados to describe this kind of speculation is “Counterfactuals”. This term refers to “what-if” forms of speculation. What-if the UK had not entered into the conflict between Germany and other European powers in 1914? What if a Manchester United player had not missed that open goal in the recent European Cup match with Bayern Munich? What would have been the outcomes of both events?
This kind of fantasising goes on all the time – and not only for events such as wars and football matches.
What if I had not passed that examination or had been more successful with that job interview? What if I had won the lottery instead of my neighbour? What would my life be like if my parents had not gone to live in Australia when I was a boy or I had stayed a single person and not married? What would be my beliefs and life-style if my social and cultural background had been in a country of the two-thirds world rather than an advanced industrialised democracy? The speculation could be endless.
“Counterfactuals” are claimed to have the power to “open-up the past by demonstrating the myriad possibilities, thus freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism and restoring agency to people.” The idea is that human beings can believe that they are able to realise all of the possibilities in their lives. We can be what we believe we can be, or want to be. I have heard the same said by head-teachers when trying to inspire students at school assemblies. It is a form of positive thinking.
However, this can work in the opposite direction. We have no ultimate control over what happens outside of our own lives and circumstances. This is similar to a footballer having no control over what team-mates do, or cannot do as may be the case, no matter how thorough the match planning may have been!
Historians interpret the past; they do not predict or determine the future. They may speculate on what would have happened if different strategies had been planned or decisions made, or if different people has been in charge of the planning and decision-making processes. But they do not have the power to change what has actually happened – as if they could go back into the past in order to change the future. History, as with personal circumstances, does not afford human beings this luxury.
So, it will be seen that “Counterfactuals”, the form of thinking that says “what-if”, may in fact be seriously constraining. They encourage us to think that our lives progress without the constraints of the larger forces that operate in them. “Counterfactuals” encourage unreality.
That is not to say that reflection, in contradistinction to counterfactualism, has no value. Indeed, it has much value. Apart from football in particular and sport in general, I have an abiding interest in classical music. With such, I occasionally think about what it was that caused the transition from the baroque period in music to the classical, and from the classical to the romantic and then on to the modern and contemporary periods in music.
The more I contemplate musical history the more I realise that there were myriad reasons for the transitions and no single, all-pervading reason. Amongst these reasons would be motive, opportunity, circumstance, taste, personality, invention and technology. Personal life is the same. At any one time there are a variety of influences affecting our lives and some of these are beyond our control.
Why is it, then, that counterfactual thinking seems to be so popular today?
Perhaps it is because we live in uncertain times and desire to have more control over our individual lives. Perhaps it is because life moves and changes too fast and we want to circumscribe movement and put a break on change, in order to ensure that progress does not confuse or leave us behind. Perhaps it is because truth and morality have become, or seem to be, subjective and we wish to have greater moral certainty and a more objective understanding of our existence.
There again, with the apparent decline of formal religion, we may wish to find a substitute in the Harry Potter world of magic and fantasy and see this as an alternative way of interpreting the past and offering salvation for the future. However, as with all things in the counterfactual way of thinking, we may need to be careful with what we wish for!
With respect to counterfactualism and the start of the First World War, perhaps we should concentrate not on the “what-ifs” of that war but on what factors actually caused it. It might well be the case that, in understanding the reasons behind the events of the past and the mistakes made, we will learn from them and not repeat them in the present and future. This will facilitate a measure of personal and community freedom and power to shape the future
As far as Manchester United missing that open goal against Bayern Munich is concerned, as a West Ham United supporter I am most happy to completely ignore the “what-if” way of thinking. Such thinking might encourage the fantasy that Manchester United, had they scored at the time, may well have gone on and won the game!