Human imagination is unique

Suppose for a moment that you have been offered a new job in another country, one which is very different from where you live now. How do you make the decision?

Chances are you will imagine what life would be like in that country. What will the job be like? Will you be able to learn the language? What kind of house would you live in? You would compare this imagined life with the one you live now, except you would also need to imagine the one you live now extending into the future. Intuitively you understand that this story contains three versions of you and your life: your current self and two different versions of your future self. These two versions of future self cannot simultaneously exist. There is only one or the other. Yet, for our human brains, two imaginary stories and two imaginary selves isn’t a problem.  

Humans may be the only intelligence to reason counterfactually, giving us a unique predictive power. Prediction isn’t only a matter of forecasting into the future. When we understand how data is generated, we can fill in gaps in information. When we imagine, we can conjure alternate worlds. We quantify possibilities that could happen but couldn’t happen at the same time. When we reason counterfactually, we produce forecasts and predictions of the plausible range of outcomes. Using our imagination helps us grasp the degree of uncertainty we face.

Counterfactual reasoning also helps us apply our knowledge, taking our implicit knowledge, making it less abstract and helping us see how things work, not just what things are. Kahneman describes the act of mental simulation as an act of observation, not of construction. We experience the outcomes as something real and not contrived. What we perceive as real engages our emotions and our ability to reason deepens. We can even develop counterfactual versions of ourselves. We can ask, if I chose this alternative path, who would I be?

Counterfactuals give us a deeper sense of our choices. A good counterfactual can make the world seem more predictable. It can increase our sense of control, giving us more agency in our decision making. It helps us to move from what we can know to what we can do because it gives us a sense of experiencing the alternative outcome. Counterfactuals are the platform for decisions, where we transition from thinking to doing.

Great Human Strength: We can imagine different futures which allows us to stress test our intentions and actions, as well as those of others. We are mental time travelers.

Great Human Weakness: We can obsess, be anxious, and ruminate about past and present experiences rather than recognize the present moment.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that help us simulate alternative futures.

Machine Threat: Designs that reduce our ability to imagine a different future.