Thursday, January 30, 2014

It's Fischer Time!

Seriously, what was Lucasfilm thinking?

It's that time again! You know, when I relate something I read online to something I learned about in David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies.

In today's episode, we consider the fallacy of fictional questions (pp. 15-21), where otherwise serious people examine what might have been had pivotal episodes in history had different outcomes.

Fictional questions, also called counterfactual questions, are actually pretty fun to engage in, and perhaps that's what makes them so tempting to "answer." We can show much erudition on a topic, and ponderously deep thinking, by showing how things might plausibly be had past events just happened a little differently.

For instance, what would the world be like today had the Nazi's won, or imperial Japan, or the Soviets? Or "what if the South had won?" as was posed on a Khan Academy discussion board, "What do you think would have happened?"*

Our hero David Hackett Fischer would say that it's impossible to answer such questions empirically because all historical "evidence" for what might have happened if, say, the South had won the Civil War is necessarily taken from the world in which the South lost.

Enter Boston Globe journalist Alex Beam, who excitedly discusses
one of [his] favorite counterfactual scenarios: Suppose Romney, the first Mormon to be a major party presidential nominee, had won the White House? Would the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have welcomed his ascendancy? Or dreaded it, for subjecting a difficult-to-fathom religion [. . .] to unwelcome scrutiny?
Well, what if? No doubt everyone is dying to know.

(Just in case you don't read Beam's article, he thinks a Romney presidency would have ultimately been an unpleasant experience for Mitt's fellow Mormons. I'm not so sure I agree.)

"There is nothing necessarily fallacious in fictional constructs," notes Fischer, "as long as they are properly recognized for what they are and are clearly distinguished from empirical problems."

Fictional questions, Fischer continues, "prove nothing and can never be proved by an empirical method."

And so, we might conclude, fictional questions are best reserved for the venue where they are most useful: Fiction.

*My own favorite fictional questions include, but are not limited to, what if George Lucas hadn't written and directed Episodes I-III? or what if Jar Jar Binks had never been created? or what if Darth Maul hadn't been killed at the end of Episode I? or what if Hayden Christensen hadn't portrayed Anakin Skywalker as such a wuss? or what if Disney decided to scrap Lucas's Episodes I-III entirely and instead allowed J. J. Abrams to truly reboot the franchise? These are, you can tell, very serious questions, whose answers are excruciatingly tantalizing to consider with as much erudition and ponderously deep thinking as we're capable of. Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

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