It’s a question posed by those engaged in scientific pursuits and by those who create science fiction. A query for the curious and the imaginative, wondering “What if…?” provokes thought, motivates investigation, and inspires invention. It invites us to consider possibilities and to see (in our minds, at least) beyond our horizon. It drives our quest to better understand our world and to improve our condition within it.
A fan of science fiction (and science), I am drawn to tales asking the question “What if…?”, especially those involving the theme of time travel. One of my favorite time travel movies is The Time Machine (2002). Adapted from a novella written by H. G. Wells and published in 1895, the film explores what happens when 19th century inventor, Alexander Hartdegen (played by Guy Pierce), becomes obsessed with the possibility of traveling back in time to change past events. The product of his preoccupation is his invention, the time machine.
There is a memorable scene in the film that explores Alexander’s obsession. In it, Alexander is confronted by the Über-Morlock (a powerful, other-worldly rival portrayed by Jeremy Irons) who provokes the inventor to examine his own motives and his behavior. Here is dialogue from that scene:
Über-Morlock: Who are you to question 800,000 years… of evolution?
Alexander Hartdegen: This is, this is a perversion of every natural law.
Über-Morlock: [grabs him by the throat] And what is time travel but your pathetic attempt to try to control the world around you? Your futile effort to have a question answered? You think I don’t know you, Alexander? I can look inside your memories, your nightmares, your dreams. You’re a man haunted by those two most terrible words: What if?
Two most terrible words. The Über-Morlock defines Alexander’s attempt and effort as pathetic and futile. He puts emphasis on the outcome of Alexander’s quest, rather than on the quest itself. I like this scene because I find myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with the Über-Morlock’s point of view. To me, “What if…?” is a starting point or springboard for gaining knowledge and understanding, ultimately leading to the attainment of truth. There is no harm in asking the question. It is human nature to seek to understand Earth’s natural conditions and to strive to survive. Asking questions and seeking answers is key to our survival. Whereas the Über-Morlock emphasizes outcome, I see “What if…?” as a catalyst for learning, with the emphasis on the process of learning.
Where I agree with the last line of the dialogue, “You’re a man haunted by those two most terrible words: What if?”, is in the way Alexander (and many real-life inventors, scientists, etc.) becomes so obsessed in his pursuit of the desired outcome (or the ultimate solution or answer) that he ignores all the real details of his life: his relationships, his health, his responsibilities, his daily activities. In an ironic way, for Alexander time stands still as he in engrossed in intellectual pursuit. So driven to succeed in solving his problem, he seems unaware that time slips away from him and that he is missing out on the true nature of living. Many advances in science and technology have been realized (and continue to be realized) through the singular drive of individuals so dedicated to their passions. While these advances may greatly benefit humanity, they perhaps come at significant costs to those individuals, and the people closest to them.
It’s funny, or maybe synchronicity, that after thinking about the question “What if…?” and having written a part of this post, I had been changing channels, looking for something interesting to watch on television, when I came upon a promotional video for the Science Channel that grabbed my attention. Rather than tell you about it, I think you should check it out for yourself. Click on the link below and enjoy!
I agree with Morlock. I don’t think anything of value can be attained by asking what if. Focusing on what might have been only distracts you from what actually is.
Living in the past only prevents you from living in the present. The past is indeed important, but only as a tool from which to learn. Otherwise, the past is best left where it is.
I understand your point about looking backward to, or dwelling on, the past. I believe in the concept of mindfulness, where attention is focused on living in the present moment.
But consider the idea of using “What if?” to solve problems affecting us in present time. One area I am thinking of is health. Some of the best advances in medicine (vaccines, for example) have come from physicians and scientists who may have started with that question, spurred to think creatively toward solutions benefiting the lives of billions of people who inhabit our world. That’s a powerful impact. And to think it may have come from someone asking the question “What if?”.
True, it may have.