I have written a lot lately about the incredible human ability to imagine worlds that don’t exist. An important way that we understand the world is by imagining what would happen if we did something that we have not yet done or if we imagine what would have happened had we done something different in the past. We are able to use our experiences about the world and our intuition on causality to imagine a different state of affairs from what currently exists. Innovation, scientific advancements, and social cooperation all depend on our ability to imagine different worlds and intuit causal chains between our current world and the imagined reality we desire.
In The Book of Why Jude Pearl writes, “counterfactuals are an essential part of how humans learn about the world and how our actions affect it. While we can never walk down both the paths that diverge in a wood, in a great many cases we can know, with some degree of confidence, what lies down each.”
A criticism of modern science and statistics is the reliance on randomized controlled trials and the fact that we cannot run an RCT on many of the things we study. We cannot run RCTs on our planet to determine the role of meteor impacts or lightning strikes on the emergence of life. We cannot run RCTs on the toxicity of snake venoms in human subjects. We cannot run RCTs on giving stimulus checks to Americans during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Due to physical limitations and ethical considerations, RCTs are not always possible. Nevertheless, we can still study the world and use counterfactuals to think about the role of specific interventions.
If we forced ourselves to only accept knowledge based on RCTs then we would not be able to study the areas I mentioned above. We cannot go down both paths in randomized experiments with those choices. We either ethically cannot administer an RCT or we are stuck with the way history played out. We can, however, employ counterfactuals, imagining different worlds in our heads to think about what would have happened had we gone down another path. In this process we might make errors, but we can continually learn and improve our mental models. We can study what did happen, think about what we can observe based on causal structures, and better understand what would have happened had we done something different. This is how much of human progress has moved forward, without RCTs and with counterfactuals, imagining how the world could be different, how people, places, societies, and molecules could have reacted differently with different actions and conditions.