The history of human progress is often viewed through significant events, movements and achievements. But what if we look at it as a story of how we think about the world?

Counterfactuals are the building blocks of moral behavior as well as scientific thought. The ability to reflect on one’s past actions and envision alternative scenarios is the basis of free will and social responsibility. The algorithmization of counterfactuals invites thinking machines to benefit from this ability and participate in this (until now) uniquely human way of thinking about the world.

I came across these sections in the early parts of The Book of Why by Judea Pearl. It’s a book on the science of causality. Here he’s exploring some of the differences between humans and the current crop of “thinking machines” – artificial intelligence and other algorithmic “learning” from data.

I’ve always loved counterfactuals as a rhetorical device, sort of a stripped down model. We can play with what if’s and construct something together. Try to tease out causality and significance, however elementary.

But it’s interesting to consider this as a driver of human evolution. As a methodology for iteration that doesn’t appear to be possessed by other animals or modern computer models.

Within 10,000 years after the Lion Man’s creation, all other hominids (except for the very geographically isolated Flores hominids) had become extinct. And humans have continued to change the natural world with incredible speed, using our imagination to survive, adapt, and ultimately take over. The advantage we gained from imagining counterfactuals was the same then as it is today: flexibility, the ability to reflect and improve on past actions, and, perhaps even more significant, our willingness to take responsibility for past and current actions

Many of us have a tendency to favour the concrete and eschew the hypothetical. But risk aversion, imagination and learning from experience – among other drivers of progress – by necessity recognise the possibility of other outcomes. They are built on counterfactual thinking.

And, maybe more interestingly when we compare human intelligence to that which we try to create, it may be somewhat innate?

…Counterfactual reasoning, which deals with what-ifs, might strike some readers as unscientific. Indeed, empirical observation can never confirm or refute the answers to such questions. Yet our minds make very reliable and reproducible judgments all the time about what might be or might have been. We all understand, for instance, that had the rooster been silent this morning, the sun would have risen just as well. This consensus stems from the fact that counterfactuals are not products of whimsy but reflect the very structure of our world model.

As always my emphasis