'It's a Wonderful Life' Helps Explain Life

Counterfactuals: the most significant non-events you've ever ignored.

Posted Dec 25, 2020

It's a Wonderful Life is a movie about "counterfactuals." George Baily, in fact, stayed in town but what if, counter to that fact, he hadn't? How would things be different? 

It's also about appreciating under-appreciated blessings, bad outcomes prevented which we don’t tend to notice because there are so many of them. Be grateful for the gazillions of things that didn’t happen that would have prevented your great-grandparents from meeting. Back to the Future, plays with that kind of counterfactual too. 

Counterfactuals are a human thing. You need language to do any serious what-iffing. Still, we're not great at it. We save lives by wearing masks during the pandemic but we never see the deaths prevented. Some will say that masks made no difference because look at all the people who died.

Or more generally, why do we need government or education? What difference would it make if we didn’t have them? Why do I need smoke alarms or the fire department? My house hasn’t burnt down. The naive child still lives in us, saying “Why do I need to look both ways? I didn’t get hit by a car last time.”

Getting serious about counterfactuals, we can describe what happens in opposite ways with equal accuracy. We can say that the coin landed on heads or it didn't land on tails. Either works. Still, sometimes you learn something important about reality by attending to what doesn’t happen instead of what does. 

For example, we had a big breakthrough in information science when Claude Shannon started measuring information in “bits” of unrealized possibilities. A binary bit of information is not some added thing, rather it’s a counterfactual relationship, a two-to-one reduction from the possible to the actual, for example, a coin that could have landed heads or tails having landed on one or the other. 

We measure information in processes of possibility-elimination. The game of 20 questions has you guessing an object in less than 20 binary bits (yes/no questions) and to play it right, you start out trying to eliminate as many possibilities as you can. Your first question is, “Is it bigger than a breadbasket?” not “Is it a breadbasket?”

Darwin’s big insight was counterfactual too, an explanation for how life evolves that, like the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, is about the unnoticed things that were prevented from happening. To understand the beings that are here, pay attention to those who didn’t make it. What’s presented is a product of what’s prevented. You don’t need some guiding hand pushing species forward toward better fitness. A process of elimination will do. 

Still, as I say, we’re not great at counterfactuals. We talk about natural selection as though it’s some God-like guiding hand, “selecting” the best, or designing traits when it’s really a process of elimination.  All beings struggle for their persistence. Some make it; others don’t. It would be more accurate to call natural selection, passive ejection.

And what is it in us beings that struggles for our persistence? On this question, our limited powers of counterfactual thinking have failed us for millennia. We’ve looked for an added thing, a soul, brain, spirit, vital energy, consciousness, DNA, motivating chemicals (even though chemicals have no motivation), when really, what makes us alive is subtracted possibilities. Living beings are themselves, processes of elimination, possibilities prevented, most fundamentally, preventing our own decay. 

With time, everything in the universe gets all mixed up, or as scientists say entropy increases. Food rots, engines rust, paper yellows and crumbles, recordings fade. You configure some orderly patterned organization, and with time the patterned organization peters out, falls apart, blurs, melts, and slurries. 

That’s true of your room getting messier, a box of toothpicks spilling into an unaligned configuration on the floor or temperature in a room equalizing, or what would happen to us if we weren’t hustling to keep our own decay at bay—really everything and anything. Let things go and they’ll go to pot, like what would have happened if George Bailey had left town.

Life isn’t some natural or supernatural thing added to physical matter and energy. It’s a way that, the living prevent their own degeneration, keeping decay at bay. The struggle for existence is a struggle to prevent non-existence, a process of elimination, the unlikelification of decay. 

We sort of get it. We talk about self-discipline, self-control, self-regulation, focus, even deliberation (un-liberating) ourselves, all terms that imply that we living beings limit what happens. We get to what’s on our to-do lists by preventing dithering on our to-don’t list. Your will-power is focused by your won’t-power. Likewise, we know that an organization is a bunch of people keeping each other from dithering and flailing, doing just whatever whenever. 

Sure, there’s nothing new under the sun and nothing comes from nothing. And yet new possibilities emerge when what once was likely becomes unlikely through some process of elimination. Every skill you’ve honed is like that, not an added thing but a reduction in dithering and flailing. Life overall is like that too, emergent when a chance change in likeliness, a happenstance pattern in chemistry happened to reduce the likeliness of its own petering out. 

It’s good to count our blessings, both the good we get and the bad we prevented. Things could be worse. Here’s a song I wrote years ago on that subject. 

And here are a couple of four-minute videos that speculate about how life started that way. It’s not fancy or difficult chemistry. It couldn’t be since there was no guiding hand to engineer it, no God or a God-like natural selector and for the same reason: It’s illogical to say the first being struggling for its own existence was created by a prior being struggling for anything.


And a longer Google Talk I did on this view of life:


Sherman, Jeremy (2017) Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves. NYC, NY: Columbia University Press.