Hypotheticals, counterfactuals and probability

This essay considers the notion of events occurring that we do not know to either have occurred, or to be almost certain to occur in the future. Imagination of such events is everywhere in everyday speech, but we rarely stop to consider what we mean by it, or what effect imagining such things has on us.

It is dotted with numbered questions, so it can be used as a basis for a discussion.

Counterfactuals

A counterfactual is where we imagine something happening that we know did not happen.

This is fertile ground for fiction. Philip K Dick’s acclaimed novel ‘The Man in the High Castle’, written in 1962, depicts events in a world in which the Axis powers won World War II, and the USA has been divided into parts occupied by Japan and Germany. The movie ‘Sliding Doors’ is another well-known example, that imagines what ‘might have happened’ if Gwyneth Paltrow’s hadn’t missed a train by a second as the sliding doors closed in front of her..

When something terrible happens, many people torment themselves by considering what would have happened if they, or somebody else, had done something differently:

  • What if I had been breathing out rather than in when the airborne polio germ floated by? (from Alan Marshall’s ‘I can jump puddles’)
  • If she hadn’t missed her flight and had to catch the next one (doomed to crash), she’d still be alive now.
  • What would life have been like if I hadn’t broken up with Sylvie / Serge?

We can also consider counterfactuals where the outcome would have been worse than what really happened, such as ‘What would my life have been like if I hadn’t met that inspirational person that helped me kick my heroin habit‘. But for some reason – so it appears to me – most counterfactuals that we entertain are where the real events are worse than the imagined ones. We could call these ‘regretful counterfactuals‘ and the other ones ‘thankful counterfactuals‘.

Then there are the really illogical-seeming ones, like the not-uncommon musing: ‘Who would I be [or what would I be like] if my parents were somebody else?‘ which makes about as much sense as ‘what would black look like if it were a lightish colour?

Here are some questions:

  1. why do we entertain counterfactuals? What, if any, benefits are there from considering regretful counterfactuals? What about thankful ones?
  2. given that for many counterfactuals, consideration of them just makes us feel bad, could we avoid entertaining them, or is it too instinctive an urge to be avoidable?
  3. Do counterfactuals have any meaning? Given that Alan Marshall did breathe in, and did contract polio, what does it mean to ask ‘If he had been breathing out instead, would he have become a top-level athlete rather than an author?‘ Are we in that case talking about a person – real or imaginary – other than Alan Marshall, since part of what made him who he is, was his polio?

That last question can lead in some very odd directions. My pragmatic approach is that counterfactuals are made-up stories about an imaginary universe that is very similar to this one, but in which slightly different things happen. Just as we make up stories about non-existent lands, princesses and far away galaxies, we can make up stories about imaginary worlds that are very similar to this one except in a handful of crucial respects.

Some philosophers insist that counterfactuals are not about imaginary people and worlds but about the real people we know. My objection to that is that, for example, the Marshall counterfactual cannot be about the Alan Marshall, because he had polio. It can only be about an imaginary boy whose life was almost identical to Marshall’s up the point when the real one contracted polio. My opponents (who would include Saul Kripke, that we mention later) would counter that polio is not what defines Alan Marshall, that it is an ‘inessential’ aka ‘accidental’ property of that person, and changing it would not change his being that person. Which begs the question of what, if any, properties are essential, such that changing them would make the subject a different person. Old Aristotle believed that objects, including people, have essential and inessential properties, and wrote reams about that. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas picked up on that and wrote many more reams about it. The ‘essential properties’ of an object are called its ‘essence’, and believing in such things is called ‘Essentialism’. That is how certain RC theologians are able to claim that an object that looks, feels, smells, sounds, tastes and behaves like a small, round, white wafer is actually the body of Jesus of Nazareth – apparently because, although every property we can discern is that of a wafer, the ‘essential’ properties (which we cannot perceive) are those of Jesus, thus its essence is that of Jesus. I tried for years to make sense of that and believe it, but all it succeeded in doing was giving me a headache and making me sad. For me, essentialism is bunk.

  1. Can you make any sense of Essentialism? If so can you help those of us who can’t, to understand it?

I can’t help but muse that maybe thankful counterfactuals have some practical value, as they can enable us to put our current sorrows into perspective. They are a very real way of Operationalizing (I know, right?) what Garrison Keillor suggests is the Minnesotan state motto – ‘It could be worse‘.

Maybe regretful counterfactuals sometimes have a role too, when they encourage us to learn from our mistakes and be more careful in the future. But they are of no use in the three examples given above. What are we going to learn from them: Never breathe in? Never fly on an aeroplane? Never break up with a romantic partner (no matter how unsuitable the match turns out to be)?

If we do something that leads to somebody else suffering harm, considering the regretful counterfactual can be useful. If I hadn’t done that, they wouldn’t be so sad. How can I make it up to them? I know, I’ll do such-and-such. That won’t fix it completely, but it’s all I can think of and at least it’ll make them feel somewhat better.

But once we’ve done all we can along those lines, the counterfactual has outlived its usefulness and is best dismissed. Otherwise we end up punishing ourselves with pointless guilt, which benefits nobody. Yet we so often do this anyway, perhaps because we can’t help it, as speculated in question 2.

I am completely useless at banishing guilt. But the techniques I have, feeble as they are, revolve around reminding myself that the universe is as it is, and cannot be otherwise. The past cannot be changed. If I had not done that hurtful thing I would not have been who I am, and the universe would be a different one, not this one. I am sorry I did it, and will do my best to make restitution, and to avoid causing harm in that way again. But the counterfactual of my not doing it is just an imaginary story about a different universe, that is (once I’ve covered the restitution and self-improvement aspects) of no use to anybody, and not even a good story. Better to read about Harry Potter’s imaginary universe instead.

This universe-could-not-have-been-otherwise approach is currently working moderately well in helping me cope with the recent Fascist ascendancy in the US. There are so many ‘if only…’ situations we could torture ourselves with: ‘If only the Democrats had picked Bernie Sanders’, ‘If only Ms Clinton hadn’t made the offhand comment about the basket of deplorables’, ‘If only the Republicans had picked John Kasich’. Those ‘If only’s are about a different universe, not this one. They could not happen in this universe, because in this universe they didn’t happen.

Counterfactuals also come into Quantum Mechanics. Arguably the most profound and shocking finding of quantum mechanics is Bell’s Theorem which, together with the results of a series of experiments that physicists did after the theorem was published, implies that either influences can travel faster than light – which appears to destroy the theory of relativity that is the basis of much modern physics – or Counterfactual Definiteness is not true. Counterfactual Definiteness states that we can validly and meaningfully reason about what would have been the result if, in a given experiment, a scientist had made a different type of measurement from the one she actually made – eg if she had pointed a particular measuring device in a different direction. Many find it ridiculous that we cannot validly consider what would have happened in such an alternative experiment, but that (or the seemingly equally ridiculous alternative of faster-than-light influences) is what Bell’s Theorem tells us, and the maths has been checked exhaustively.

Hypotheticals

A counterfactual deals with the case where something happens that we know did not happen. What about when we don’t know? I use the word hypothetical or possibility to refer to where we consider events which we do not know whether or not they occur in the history of the universe. These events may be past or future:

  • a past hypothetical is that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK from the book depository window. Some people believe he did. Others think the shot came from the ‘grassy knoll’.
  • a future hypothetical is that the USA will have a trade war against China

What do we mean when we say those events are ‘possible’ or, putting it differently, that they ‘could have happened‘ (for past hypotheticals) or that they ‘could happen‘ (for future hypotheticals)? I suggest that we are simply indicating our lack of knowledge. That is, we are saying that we cannot be certain whether, in a theoretical Complete History of the Earth, written by omniscient aliens after the Earth has been engulfed by the Sun and vaporised, those events would be included.

Some people would insist that the future type is different from the past type – that while a past hypothetical is indeed just about a lack of knowledge about what actually happened, a future hypothetical is about something more fundamental and concrete than just knowledge. This leads me to ask:

  1. Does saying that a certain event is ‘possible’ in the future indicate anything more than a lack of certainty on the part of the speaker as to whether it will occur? If so, what?

I incline to the view that it indicates nothing other than the speaker’s current the state of knowledge. What some people find uncomfortable about that is that it makes the notion of possibility depend on who is speaking. For a medieval peasant it is impossible that an enormous metal device could fly. For a 21st century person it is not only possible but commonplace. As Arthur C Clarke said ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ To us, mind-reading is impossible, but maybe in five hundred years we will be able to buy a device at the chemist for five dollars that reads people’s minds by measuring the electrical fields emitted by their brain.

Under this view, the notion of possibility is mind-dependent. What would a mind-independent notion of possibility be?

There is a whole branch of philosophy called ‘Modal Logic’, and an associated theory of language – from the brilliant logician Saul Kripke – that is based on the notion that possibility means something deep and fundamental that is not just about knowledge, or minds. To me the whole thing seems as meaningful as debates over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but maybe one day I will meet somebody that can demonstrate a meaning to such word games.

Sometimes counterfactuals sound like past possibilities. That happens when we say that something which didn’t happen, could have happened. Marlon Brando’s character Terry in ‘On the Waterfront‘ complains ‘I coulda been a contender … instead of a bum, which is what I am‘. As I said above, I don’t think it makes literal sense to say it could have happened, since it didn’t. But if we didn’t know whether it had happened or not, we wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that it did happen. So in a sense we are saying that a person in the past, prior to when the event did or didn’t occur, evaluating it from that perspective, would regard it as possible. Brando’s Terry was saying that, back in the early days of his boxing career, he would not have been at all surprised if he had become a star. But he didn’t, and now it was too late.

What would happen / have happened next?

With both counterfactuals and hypotheticals, we often ask whether some other thing would have happened if the first thing had happened differently from how it did. For instance:

  • [counterfactual] If the FBI director had not announced an inquiry into Hilary Clinton’s emails days before the 2016 US presidential election, would she have won?
  • [past hypothetical] If Henry V really did give a stirring speech like the ‘band of brothers’ one in Shakespeare’s play, exhorting his men to fight just for the glory of having represented England, God and Henry, were any of the men cynical about his asking them to risk death just in order to increase Henry’s personal power?
  • [future hypothetical] If Australia’s Turnbull government continues with its current anti-environment policies, will it be trounced at the next election?

Which leads to another question:

  1. What exactly do these questions mean?

The first relates to something that we know did not happen and the other two relate to what is currently unknowable.

My opinion is that, like with counterfactuals, they are about making up stories. In the US election case we are imagining a story in which certain events in the election were different, and we are free, within the bounds of the constraints imposed by what we know of the laws of nature, to imagine what happened next. Perhaps in the story Ms Clinton wins. Perhaps she then goes on to become the most beloved and successful president the country has ever had, overseeing a resurgence of employment, creativity, and brotherly and sisterly love never before encountered. Or perhaps she declares martial law, suspends the constitution and becomes dictator for life, building coliseums around the country where Christians and men are regularly fed to lions. Within the bounds of the laws of nature we are free to make up whatever story we like.

The same goes for the past hypothetical of Henry’s speech. We can imagine the men swooning in awe and devotion, murmuring Amen after every sentence, or we can imagine them rolling their eyes and making bawdy, cynical quips to one another – but nevertheless eventually going in to battle because otherwise they won’t be paid and their families will starve.

However, the future hypothetical seems to be about more than a made-up story. If the first thing happens – continued anti-environmentalism – then we will definitely know after the next election whether the second thing has also happened. At that point it becomes a matter of fact rather than imagination.

To which I say, so what? Until it happens, or else it becomes clear that it will not happen, it is a matter of future possibilities and can be covered by any of the scientifically-valid imaginative scenarios we can dream up. It is only if the scientific constraint massively narrows down those scenarios that it has significance. If, for instance, we could be sure that any government that fails to make a credible attempt to protect the environment will be booted out office, our future possibility would become a certainty: If the government doesn’t change its track then it will be ejected. But in politics nothing is ever that certain. Other issues come up and change the agenda, scandals happen, natural and man-made disasters, personal retirements and deaths of key politicians. At best we can talk about whether maintaining the anti-environment stance makes it more probable that the government will lose office. Which leads on to the next thorny issue.

Probability

Probability, aka chance, aka risk, aka likelihood and many other synonyms and partial synonyms, is a word that most people feel they know what it means, but nobody can explain what that is.

What do we mean when we say that the probability of a tossed coin giving heads is 0.5? Introductory probability courses often explain this by saying that if we did a very large number of tosses we would expect about half of them to be heads. But if we ask what ‘expect’ means we find ourselves stuck in a circular definition. Why? Because what we ‘expect’ is what we consider most ‘likely’, which is the outcome that has the highest ‘probability’. We cannot define ‘probability’ without first defining ‘expect’, and we cannot define ‘expect’ without first defining ‘probability’ or one of its synonyms.

We could try to escape by saying that what we ‘expect’ is what we think will happen, only that would be wrong. The word ‘will’ is too definite here, implying certainty. When we say we expect a die will roll a number less than five, we are not saying that we are certain that will be the case. If it were, and we rolled the die one hundred times in succession, we would have that expectation before each roll, so we would be certain that no fives or sixes occurred in the hundred rolls. Yet the probability of getting no fives or sixes in a hundred rolls is about two in a billion billion, which is not very likely at all. We could dispense with the ‘certainty’ and instead say that we think a one, two, three or four is the ‘most probable’ outcome for the next roll. But then we’re back in the vicious circle, as we need to know what ‘probable’ means.

  1. What does ‘expected’ mean?

There is a formal mathematical definition of probability, that removes all vagueness from a mathematical point of view, and enables us to get on with any calculation, however complex. Essentially it says that ‘probability’ is any scheme for assigning a number between 0 and 1 to every imaginable outcome (note how I carefully avoid using the word ‘possible’ here), in such a way that the sum of the numbers for all the different imaginable outcomes is 1.

But that definition tells us nothing about how we assign numbers to outcomes. It would be just as valid to assign 0.9 to heads and 0.1 to tails as it would to assign 0.5 to both of them. Indeed, advanced probability of the kind used in pricing financial instruments involves using more than one different scheme at the same time, which assign different numbers (probabilities) to the same outcome.

This brings us no closer to understanding why we assign 0.5 to heads.

Another approach is to say that we divide up the set of all potential outcomes as finely as we can, so that every outcome is equally likely. Then if the number of ‘equally likely’ outcomes is N, we assign the probability 1/N to each one.

That seems great until we ask what ‘equally likely’ means, and then realise (with a sickening thud) that ‘equally likely’ means ‘has the same probability as’, which means we’re stuck in a circular definition again.

  1. What does ‘equally likely’ mean?

After much running around in metaphorical circles, I have come to the tentative conclusion that ‘likely’ is a concept that is fundamental to how we interpret the world, so fundamental that it transcends language. It cannot be defined. There are other words like this, but not many. Most words are defined in terms of other words, but in order to avoid the whole system becoming circular, there must be some words that are taken as understood without definition – language has to start somewhere. Other examples might be ‘feel’, ‘think’ and ‘happy’. We assume that others know what is meant by each of these words, or a synonym thereof, and if they don’t then communication is simply impossible on any subject that touches on the concept.

Or perhaps ‘likely’ and ‘expect’ may be best related to a (perhaps) more fundamental concept, which is that of ‘confidence’, and its almost-antonym ‘surprise’. Something is ‘likely’ if we are confident – but not necessarily certain – that it will happen, which is that we would be somewhat surprised – but not necessarily dumbfounded – if it did not happen. I think the twin notions of confidence and surprise may be fundamental because even weeks-old babies seem to understand surprise. The game of peek-a-boo relies on it entirely.

Once we have these concepts, I think we may be able to bootstrap the entire probability project. The six imaginable dice roll numbers will be equally likely if we would be very surprised if out of six million rolls, any of the numbers occurred more than two million times, or not at all.

There are various frameworks for assigning probabilities to events that are discussed by philosophers thinking about probability. The most popular are

  • the Frequentist framework, which bases the probability of an event on the number of times it has been observed to occur in the past;
  • the Bayesian approach, which starts with an intuitively sensed prior probability, and then adjusts to take account of subsequent observations that using Bayes’ Law; and
  • the Symmetry approach, which argues that events that are similar to one another via some symmetry should have the same probability.

It would make this essay much too long to go into any of these in greater detail. But none of them lay out a complete method. I suspect they all have a role to play in how we intuitively sense probabilities of certain simple events. But I feel that there is still some fundamental, unanalysable concept of confidence vs surprise that is needed to cover the gaps left by the large vague areas in each framework.

Here is one last question to consider:

  1. A surgeon tells a parent that their three-year old daughter, who is in a coma with internal abdominal bleeding following a car accident, has a 98% chance of a successful outcome of the operation, with complete recovery of health. In the light of the above discussion, it seems that nobody can explain what that 98% means. Yet despite the lack of any explicable meaning, the parent is so relieved that they dissolve in tears. Why?

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, January 2017

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Too many words!

Books are too long. People talk for too long. Academic papers are too long. Almost everything is too long.

Why? Partly, because to be concise is very difficult. Urban legend has it that Blaise Pascal once wrote at the end of a letter to a friend: ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short one’.

I struggle with conciseness. Part of the problem is that, when I am trying to explain something, I worry about whether what I have said is clear enough, so I keep on saying it over, in a slightly different way each time, in the vague hope that one of the attempts will make the connection.

I think a better strategy might be to make one brief attempt at an explanation and then wait for a response. If more is needed, I imagine my interlocutor will tell me. If they do, the particular nature of their response will better enable me to tailor my next statement to fill in the information that was missing in my first.

But that requires discipline, and nerves of steel. It is like being silent in an interview after giving a short reply to a question – forcing the interviewer (or interrogator) to make the next move. Few people can carry that off, and I suspect I am not one of them.

Academic papers can be particularly irritating, droning on about all the references and who has written what, so that by the time one gets to the bit about what the authors have done that’s actually new, one is exhausted and wants to retire for a tea break. It’s not clear to me whether this is a stylistic practice, imposed by the producers and reviewers of journals, or whether it reflects insecurity on the part of the authors, who may feel that they need to mention some minimum number of other papers in order to be taken seriously.

Arthur Schopenhauer railed against this sort of writing in a series of essays collected under the title ‘The Art of Literature’. He opens with an unrestrained broadside ‘There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.‘ Schopenhauer loved the first (and of course considered himself to be one of them) and loathed the second.

If someone really has something important to say, it usually doesn’t take very long. When Neville Chamberlain announced the grim news to the British people in 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany, the message had been delivered by the end of the 67th word. I did a test reading just now and it took about 26 seconds, including pauses for effect.

Einstein’s legendary 1905 paper that presented his special theory of relativity to the world, ending decades of confusion amongst physicists, is only 24 pages, and the key part that resolves the paradoxes by which physics was previously beset is complete by the end of page 12! John Bell’s paper that turned the world of Quantum Mechanics upside down in 1964 is only six pages. Bell cited only five references. Einstein cited none.

In general communication, most people use too many words. I do too, but I am trying to correct that. I feel that, where possible, I would like to conduct a post-mortem on every sentence I utter and work out whether that sentence has added any new information. If it hasn’t, then it was probably a waste of everybody’s time.

Politicians exploit this deliberately. They are trained to, when asked a difficult question by a journalist, give a long-winded, emphatic speech about something only tangentially related, thereby avoiding the issue and (they hope) making the journalist despair of persisting with the question because of the pressure of time. Even better, if the politician sounds confident in their ‘answer’, the less analytic watchers will form the impression that the politician is competent and frank. The more analytic types just shrug their shoulders in disgust and turn the telly off.

A sentence can be very long and yet not reveal what information it contains until late in the sentence. Sometimes there is a key word that makes it all fall into place, The words before that one stack up like the numbers in a long calculation on a Reverse Polish calculator, impotent while they wait for release. Then the key word comes and it all falls into place. It attains a meaning. The wait for that word can sometimes be prolonged, like in this:

Though they all came from different social strata, sub-cultures and occupations, crammed together against their will in the prison cell from which they wondered if there would ever be any release, though none of them had known each other – or even known of each other – in their previous lives, though they squabbled and quarrelled over the tiniest of things, the one thing that bound them together despite the rivalries and petty jealousies, the perceived slights and reconciliations, the development, disintegration and reformation of cliques, was a single shared emotion, an emotion so powerful that they could feel it oozing out of one anothers’ pores, smell it on their breath and discern it in the tones of voice – the emotion of fear.

In some cases, the key word never comes. Perhaps the writer or speaker confuses themselves by their excessive verbiage and ends the sentence with an admission of defeat.

Books are too long as well! Novels are generally OK, as it takes time to get to know and care about the characters. But I have a strong sense that non-fiction books are often padded to reach whatever is considered a minimum page count for a book – usually at least 200. There isn’t really a strong market for writings that are halfway between essay and book length. In many cases a book really only has one idea, which could make a decent essay, but doesn’t justify a book. But essays don’t get to be put on a prominent shelf that catches your eye as you enter the bookshop, nor do they get listed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Nassim Taleb’s famous book ‘The Black Swan’ is like that. It really only contains one idea, which is that investors, bankers and other financiers have for decades been making crucial financial decisions based on theories in which they assume that the future will be like the past, and that all occurrences of randomness must follow the Normal Distribution (the nice friendly old ‘Bell Curve’). Decisions based on that erroneous, oversimplified assumption have repeatedly led to disasters, because events tend to be more extreme than is predicted by the Bell Curve. Taleb’s is a good insight, and definitely worth saying, but probably not worth stringing out to book length.

And then, if the book sells well, they write it again, ever so slightly differently, and pretend it’s a new book, with new ideas. Taleb did that. Self-help authors do it all the time – which raises the question ‘If your first book about how to live a better life was so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented by a second, why did I waste my time reading it?‘ I suspect Richard Dawkins may do it too. As far as I can tell he has written at least four popular explanations of evolution. I read The Blind Watchmaker and thought it was great (but too long, of course!). But I didn’t read The Selfish Gene, The Ancestors’ Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth because I couldn’t see any indicators that they would contain much substance that hadn’t already been covered in the one I had read. I imagine there is some new material in each of them, but I would guess it’s more likely to be a dozen pages’ worth rather than 200+.

Fiction authors and other creative artists do this too. Stravinsky acidly observed that Vivaldi wrote the same marvellous concerto five hundred times. Bach shamelessly reused his work (goodness knows he was paid little enough for it!) and Enid Blyton invented maybe a dozen adventure and fantasy stories, which she recycled into what seems like hundreds of similar tales (surely I’m not the only one that’s noticed the remarkable similarity between Dame Slap’s School for Bad Pixies and Mr Grim’s School for Mischievous Brownies?). And let’s not even mention Mills and Boon. But somehow I don’t mind that so much. We humans are story-telling animals, and telling the same story repeatedly, changing it just a little every time, is what we have always done. I find myself able to smile indulgently on the prolixity of Enid and Antonio and Mills (?), but alas not on that of Nassim or Richard, or Deepak Chopra.

I think I’ve ranted for long enough now about how We All (including me) need to work on being more concise with our communication. It’s time to relent a little.

Not all language is just about conveying information, so the efficiency with which the information is conveyed is not always the best test. In comforting a frightened child, information communication is not the purpose of our speech. I will restrain myself from objecting that the second half of the soothing phrase ‘There, there‘ is informationally redundant. In fact, I think I could even stretch to approving of its repetition, if its first invocation was insufficient to assuage the poor mite’s distress.

Declarations of love, expressions of support, telling jokes, goodbyes, hellos and well-wishes are all ‘speech acts’ that have important non-informational components. It seems appropriate to apply different expectations to those speech acts from those we apply to informational speech. Even there, there are limits though. Many’s the operatic love aria I’ve sat through where after a while I just feel like screaming ‘OK, you love him, we get it, can we move on with the plot now please?’ And waiting for Mimi to die in La Boheme (of consumption, what else?) in between faint protestations of her love for Rodolfo, can become a little trying on one’s patience after the first ten minutes of the death scene.

But communication of information is the purpose of much of the language we use, especially in our work lives. It is a pity that so much of it is ill-considered.

Hmmm. 1,742 words. I wonder if I could turn this into a book.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, November 2015


Soft-heartedness

I am too soft-hearted, it’s getting worse, and it’s a nuisance.

I know what you’re thinking – Andrew’s been stopping to give money to every beggar he passes in the street, so he never has any money left to buy lunch, and he’s always late for work. Well, actually no. I would call that sort of behaviour Compassionate rather than soft-hearted. That’s an altogether more laudable quality and one on which I don’t measure up especially well, although I am working to try to improve it (I give large amounts to carefully selected charities, but not usually to beggars, for non-soft-hearted reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay).

What’s the difference? Well to me, Compassion is the ability to discern the suffering of others and empathise, combined with a disposition to act towards alleviating the suffering. Soft-heartedness on the other hand is a tendency to get very upset about the distress of another, when one discerns it. I’m not very good at discerning the suffering of others, so unfortunately I’m more likely to perceive a beggar as an obstacle and a nuisance than as a suffering person in need of help.

The difference is particularly apparent in situations of conflict. People who are rude or inconsiderate often act thus because they are suffering in some way. Unlike a very compassionate person, I will often resist or even retaliate against unfriendly behaviour without stopping to think about how the antagonist might be feeling. But later, I might pause to wonder how they felt, and feel bad about the conflict – even if they started it. If I were more skilled at compassion, the conflict might never have happened. In such scenarios, the difference between compassion and soft-heartedness is timing, and regret.

My soft-heartedness manifests itself mostly when I am reading or watching fiction. I get very upset when something sad is happening. To see the sadness in fiction, there is no need for the discernment skills of a truly compassionate person, because the suffering is usually presented so starkly that only an emotionally tone-deaf person could miss it.

When I encounter such sad tales, I do the grown-up equivalent of a child hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks appear on Doctor Who shrieking ‘EXTERMINATE!’ I stop reading/watching.

Usually I will close the book, or stop the DVD, and go and do something else, because I just can’t stand wallowing in that misery any further. I might even pick up a different book or DVD and read/watch that for a while.

Often I stop reading before the bad thing even happens, if I know it is just about to happen.

I have found that, if I leave the book for a day or more, I can summon up the ‘courage’ to come back to it and read a little bit more. I can get through the arrest of Edmond Dantes in Le Comte de Monte Cristo if I start right at that point, without having just gone through the lead up of the joyful engagement celebration with his beloved Mercédès, from which he was untimely ripp’d by the officers of the Procureur du Roi.

I think the reason that works is that, by distancing myself from the book for a while, I loosen my emotional ties to Edmond and Mercédès, so I care somewhat less about what happens to them (they are, after all, only fictional!). I see them less as people, so I am more able to stand their misfortunes.

As an aside, this technique of using distance and de-personalisation to block empathy is employed very effectively by the current Australian government to support its program of treating refugees brutally in order to discourage subsequent refugees. It forbids the publication of any personal information about the refugees, including photos that show any faces, and it keeps the refugees in detention camps on distant islands, where hardly any voting Australians, or journalists, will get to see them. That way, voters are less likely to realise that the ‘illegal arrivals’ their government is brutalising in their name are humans, with feelings and parents and children. Thereby, the voters will be less likely to feel empathy, and consequent revulsion at what is being done in their name.

While I am (obviously) strongly opposed to the use of such techniques with real people, I can vouch for them as highly beneficial in the case of fictional ones. I got myself through Edmond’s fourteen years of solitary confinement in a dungeon under the gloomy island fortress the Chateau d’If by taking it a few pages at a time, interspersed with regular breaks in which I reminded myself that Edmond, Mercédès and Edmond’s lonely, destitute father (who died of starvation and a broken heart while Edmond was imprisoned) were not real.

There has to be something to make it worth the effort though. I will only persist with struggling through long, gloomy passages of a book if I think that they are essential to the art, and that there will be at least some redemption later on that makes it worth the pain. If those criteria appear unlikely to be met, I cast the book aside for good. I did that with Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’. There was too much child abuse and misery, with no clear indicator as to why I should subject myself to reading about it. In Monte Cristo, it was worth suffering through though, for what came later. This filtering process rules out most movies with lots of violence, including those involving organised crime or serial killers (that’s about two-thirds of the best-seller shelf gone right there). Stories focusing on emotional cruelty in dysfunctional relationships are similarly excluded, unless the depiction of the cruelty can be justified by egregious artistic merit or the imparting of great wisdom. The TV news is also excluded – I can stay abreast of what I need to know as an engaged citizen by just scanning the headlines and reading important articles on a reputable news site like abc.net.au/news. I don’t need to know about grisly murders, abductions and far-away terrorist attacks. I know that violence and cruelty happen in the world. I will do what I can to prevent it. There is no need for me to submit to ghoulish blow-by-blow accounts of it in order to be persuaded to act where appropriate.

The intermittent approach to reading and watching has become very prevalent with me lately. I will have several movies on the go at once, in some cases watching only 5-10 minutes of each at a time, in order not to get too emotionally involved. I’m intermittently watching one at the moment called “À l’origine”, in which a con man tricks a whole load of construction contractors in an economically depressed town into working for him on the promise of deferred pay – while he demands cash bribes from them for ‘awarding’ them the contracts. I cringe at the thought of the devastation and despair that will ensue when the contractors are not paid, having borrowed heavily to hire machinery and staff. Currently I’m down to watching less than five minutes at a time. It’s touch and go whether I’ll make it through, notwithstanding the plaudits it received at Cannes (why are so many film festival films miserable?).

I think there is an overlap between soft-heartedness and the much-derided trait of Sentimentality, because they can both involve strong feelings of empathy. But they are not the same. Sentimentality is something like a wallowing in tender emotions, which includes sadness but also sweetness, admiration and nostalgia. The most potent criticism of the writing of Charles Dickens (whom I love) is that it is sometimes too sentimental. The worst bits seem ludicrously over-the-top to us, but that’s what Victorian-era Britons loved. Oscar Wilde summed it up so well when he said ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing‘. I didn’t laugh at Little Nell’s demise, but I did cringe. The presentation was too twee, too unrealistic, to invoke my sympathies. I could no more mourn her than I could mourn the coyote in Hanna Barbera’s Road Runner cartoons being blown up (yet again) by his own sticks of dynamite.

I think sentimentality is a particularly unhelpful emotion because it tends to generate sympathy only when the suffering heroine is very lovable. Yet the people most in need of empathy are generally not easy to love. If they were, they might have received more help, and not be in such a desperate situation. So some Victorian sentimentalists saw no contradiction between on the one hand weeping uncontrollably over saintly, pretty Little Nell and on the other going to watch the public execution of some filthy, ugly, foul-mouthed ne’er-do-well that had the misfortune of being born into a social stratum in which the only way to survive was to join a street gang and steal.

Soft-heartedness is not much better than Sentimentality, but maybe it’s one step further from inanity. It at least allows one to feel sympathy for – and hence maybe to help – ratbags, thiefs and murderers, if their suffering is sufficiently apparent.

Another manifestation of my soft-heartedness is a terrible dislike of disappointing people. In bygone days, when I managed a whole bunch of people at work, I hated when, after doing interviews for a new hire, I had to tell the unsuccessful applicants that they were unsuccessful. My imagination would picture them dissolving in tears of despair as soon as they put the phone down, all their hopes and dreams dashed, despair looming. I doubt that ever happened, but in my imagination it happened all the time. Soft!

That’s where being soft-hearted can be a socially unhelpful trait, rather than just a privately irritating one. I decided to no longer manage people at work, partly because I found having to be their boss, or potential boss (in the case of job applicants), too stressful. Based on the performance reviews I received, it seems I was a better than average boss, so by removing myself from the pool of managers I suppose I have slightly degraded the overall quality of the management in the organisations in which I work. A good manager will do the unpleasant managerial tasks, the tickings-off, the firings, the counselling of underperforming employees, the ‘no we don’t want you’ phone calls to job applicants, firmly but as kindly as possible, taking a ‘cruel to be kind’ approach when necessary. I did that, but disliked it because I was too soft-hearted about it, so now I don’t do it any more. It doesn’t really matter though in this particular case, because not doing management frees up my time to do more complicated technical work, where my comparative advantage, and hence my value to the organisation, is stronger than it is in people management.

The main book I’m reading at present is Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. The story is told in alternating sections by the misanthropic, impoverished yet highly literate concierge of a Parisian apartment building with wealthy occupants, and the precocious, nihilistic, world-weary, twelve-year old daughter of one family of occupants. There was no great tragedy happening, but it was all rather gloomy, seen through such misanthropic pairs of eyes, which made it hard going. I could only read a few pages at a time. But all of a sudden the mood brightened! In one short chapter the concierge reveals that she actually likes someone – a nineteen-year old daughter of a family in another of the apartments, who is determined to be a rural vet – against the wishes of her family, who don’t think the profession is classy enough. The girl regularly visits the concierge in her ‘lair’ to have long chats over tea about the health of Léon, the concierge’s cat, and the other animals in the building. It’s amazing what a difference a little ray of sunshine like that can make. All of a sudden, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Soft!

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2015


On Adventures

When I was little I wished I could have an adventure. I put it down to reading too much Enid Blyton. The children in her stories were always having adventures. In the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree they visited magical lands in the clouds, got chased and imprisoned by goblins, wizards and stern school-teachers (Dame Slap and Mr Grim), flew on various improbable objects and had regular feasts. In the Famous Five and the Secret Seven they snuck across dark moors at night, following shadowy men in overalls who turned out to be either burglars or smugglers, frequently nearly getting caught, but finally managing to trick the wrong-doers and manoeuvre them into a sticky situation in which the grateful police were able to arrest them.

Oh, why can’t I have adventures like that?’ I wondered. ‘Why is my life so dull? If only I could have just one adventure, I’d be so happy!

In primary school I loved playing soldiers with my friends in the bush around my home. Sometimes it was just me and my imagination. There were lots of great places: creeks with banks you could peer over to take a shot at the enemy, tall grass you could creep through, mounds of stones and sticks to hide behind and wriggle over. ‘If only’ I thought ‘this was a real war and I was a real soldier, with a tin helmet, a combat back-pack and a Lee-Enfield rifle’. I never thought about what shooting someone, or getting shot, would mean for me or them. One generally doesn’t, as a seven year old boy. When you’re shot you just fall over. You don’t bleed or scream.

When I was older, I graduated from Blyton and Boys’ Own Adventure Annual to CS Lewis and from there to JRR Tolkien. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ – now there’s an adventure’: travelling enormous distances over magical landscapes of enchanted forests, brooding mountains and miasmic swamps. Pursued by hideous spectres on terrifying black stallions. Dreading the power of the Dark Lord that I know is out there searching for me, growing stronger every day. I wasn’t that keen on the battle scenes – they were too chaotic and repetitive for me – but the struggle against the elements, trying to traverse the Misty Mountains in a blizzard, getting lost in the Mines of Moria, evading the tentacled monster in the black pool, that was the stuff of life! I longed to peek into Mordor, or even just to visit the Misty Mountains.

In later high school I often rode my bicycle out into the countryside. One of the rides was an 80 kilometre circuit past Tidbinbilla, to the West of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. There were steep hills and, further to the West, the Brindabella mountains. They were pretty good, and would occasionally get snow in mid-winter, but they were no Misty Mountains. Partly it was the lack of craggy peaks, partly the usual lack of snow, and partly the fact that the surrounding countryside was mostly brown, nothing like the lush green of Tolkien’s Shire.

One winter it rained more than usual, and the foot-hills turned green. I remember looking at them as I rode by and thinking: ‘Now if only they didn’t have those wire fences, and they had snowy peaks in the background, then this would be like the Lord of the Rings!’ There could even be dwarves and barrow-wights in tunnels under the ground.

Perhaps today’s teenagers would instead imagine that it was the countryside near Hogwarts, with dragons and hippogriffs flying overhead.

Later in high school I became more interested in girls and less interested in Tolkien. CS Lewis would have been disappointed in me.

I don’t recall thinking about adventures at all between my mid-teenage years and a few months ago, when I suddenly remembered riding through the Tidbinbilla hills and wishing I could see orcs peeping up above the granite boulders that litter the ground there.

What seems odd to me now is that it never occurred to me that riding my bike on an 80km loop in mostly deserted countryside, with no mobile phone, nobody knowing where I was, and with inexpertly driven cars occasionally whizzing past me at 100kph, was an adventure of its own. Not to mention the occasional attacks of dogs from below and magpies from above.

Nor did it occur to me that there was plenty of danger in the snakes that undoubtedly hid in various parts of the long grass through which I imaginatively snuck in my primary school war games, or the stones that my friends and I would occasionally hurl in one another’s direction, pretending they were grenades (‘oh to have a real live grenade!’).

In those days we had freedom that kids these days can only dream of. We could go wherever we liked, and do what we wanted as long as it wasn’t something likely to raise the ire of our parents or the police, or if it was, then as long as they didn’t find out about it. But we lamented the lack of smugglers and orcs in our lives. Oh, dreary existence that has no such pantomime baddies to liven it up!

Not that there weren’t real baddies. I remember Barry the Bully at primary school (not his real name), a lumbering, brutish lad whose only means of expressing himself seemed to be to thump the daylights out of some unfortunate child of lesser stature who had the misfortune to wander nearby. I vaguely remember him pummelling me one day, surrounded by the usual ring of excited nine-year olds looking on. I suppose I could have considered that an adventure, but somehow I didn’t. Like most of my schoolmates I feared Barry then. Looking back now, I can only feel compassion. I wonder what sort of life he has now, and if he is still alive. I fear he may not be flourishing, but I may be wrong. Barry wasn’t really bad. He was just an inexorable product of his genes and his environment, and I suspect he suffered from his inability to interact with people except through violence, as much as others did.

There were lesser villains too, like the minor antagonists in a pantomime melodrama. The boys from the government school sometimes stole my school bag and tossed it from one to the other, to tease and punish me for being a Roman Catholic and going to the RC school. Then there were the boys at my school who mocked me for having so many patches on my hand-me-down shorts. I remember my mother once tearing down to our school in a rage and excoriating them for their teasing. I can’t remember what led up to that but I remember vividly the verbal tirade she unleashed on them and their quivering, shame-faced silence as they stood there being denounced. I don’t think they teased me any more. I suppose in that episode my mother was as much a hero of the adventure as Galahad or Lancelot, Jupiter Jones or Janet (Secret Seven) ever were.

Then there was the dreaded Mr F at junior high school. He was as violent as Wackford Squeers – another adventure villain that loomed with lurid clarity in my over-excited imagination. The main difference was that, unlike Squeers, Mr F would smile in a broad, friendly manner as he twisted your arm behind your back or lifted you out of your chair by the ears, with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers. I think he saw this violence as some sort of game, expressing good-natured affection to the students. It was not malicious. Generally I bore him no resentment, and even quite liked him. There was only one occasion when I mentioned to my mother that I thought my arm might be broken because, after a particularly savage twisting, I couldn’t use it properly. It got better. Yet despite the Squeers-like violence (would Severus Snape be a modern-day equivalent?) it never occurred to me that these elements of colour in my life were as good as any Blytonian or Dickensian adventure. I still thought my life was bland.

When I was five we lived in Aberystwyth, Wales and my parents announced that we were going to move to Australia. This set off two fantastic trains of thought in my impressionable young mind.

Firstly, I imagined that Australia was a land covered with thick, dark jungle, and that we would live in a hut in a small clearing. The jungle would be full of snakes and whenever we went outdoors we would have to tread carefully to avoid being bitten.

Secondly, I remember resolving, standing next to the stove while dinner was being prepared, that our arrival in Australia would mark the beginning of a new life for me, and would be an opportunity for me to put my sins behind me and become the good boy that I wanted to be. Inculcation of Catholic Guilt began early in the RC church in those days, at least it did in Wales (those Welsh nuns were well fierce!). I can’t remember whether I ever recalled this resolution once we arrived in Australia. Regardless, the resolution did not seem to be fulfilled. A couple of years later I was as guilt-ridden as every RC boy is expected to be.

One would think that moving to a jungle-filled, snake-infested, primitive land where one seeks to purify one’s soul from its many misdeeds contains many of the elements of a classic adventure. But again I didn’t see it that way then. Snakes and pious aspirations are all very well, but where were the smugglers?

Later teenage years and university have different sources of excitement from boyhood: discovering girls, discovering sex, discovering algebraic topology.

I travelled a lot after leaving school, in a gap year, in university holidays and after leaving uni. I travelled through many lands: Europe, Morocco, India, South-East Asia, Iran, Pakistan. I was mostly on my own and always on a shoe-string budget, sleeping and eating in some very run-down places and encountering many dicey situations – recklessly driven buses careering on two wheels around U-bends on precipitous mountain passes, enduring dysentery and fever in a lonely concrete hotel room, sinister strangers in railway carriages trying to show me pornographic pictures and suggesting mutual exploration of what they depict, crossing the Iranian border with US bank notes hidden in my shoe to avoid the extortionate exchange rate required by the Iranian border controls (and wondering what they’d do to me if they found them). I would have described such things as an experience, but the word adventure never occurred to me. Adventures happen to other people, and usually only in books. Not to me.

When one grows up – whenever that is, some time between the age of 25 and 40 for me – one has other challenging, frightening and exciting experiences. Accompanying one’s partner through the experience of childbirth. Raising a child. Buying a house. Moving across the world to live and work in another country. Most people know what these experiences are like. As a five year old, I would have found the contemplation of such experiences terrifying, yet there I was wishing I could chase smugglers in Cornish caves, or dodge German machine-gun fire as I leaped from foxhole to another.

When we middle-aged people look back over our life to date, there will in most cases be plenty of exciting, surprising, dangerous events, in between the humdrum and routine. Yet in my case at least, I often saw the danger or the challenge in a negative light at the time, wishing it were not there. I have only recently realised how contrary this is to my childhood wish for adventures, a wish that surely some other children must share. The only things I can think of that are missing from real-life experiences, compared to the Secret Seven or Harry Potter, are the presence of magic, and of people trying to kill, or at least imprison you. Yet modern science is far more wonderful, surprising and weird than any tale of magic or myth ever was, and even if people aren’t trying to kill us, we nevertheless live in the constant danger of being accidentally killed by a motor car or attacked by a virus or cancerous cell.

Perhaps if we could re-frame our perception of the vicissitudes of life as an adventure, rather than an imposition or a chore, we would appreciate it more. When we trip while jogging and seriously bark our elbows on concrete, as I did the other day, we can view that as another interesting experience, rather than reacting as ‘woe is me’. Maybe, if one day I have to undergo chemotherapy, or a lingering terminal illness, I will be able to even frame those as new experiences. We shall see. Perhaps even death, as that great philosopher Albus Dumbledore said, is “the next great adventure”.

Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 July 2013