I recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, and was struck by an important exchange about counterfactuals between the two main characters, Boris and Theo. (Spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet read the novel!)
Near the narrative’s conclusion, the two men are discussing the circumstances surrounding the theft and recovery of the famous painting by Carel Fabritius (1654) when Boris contrasts his philosophy of life from that of Theo.
Boris explains his philosophy with the help of a reference to Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, The Idiot (1869), in which the main character, Myshkin, does many good deeds but only ends up producing disaster.
Boris observes: “I used to worry about this a lot. Lie awake at night and worry. Because – why? How could this be?....Myshkin was kind, loved everyone, he was tender, always, forgave, he never did a wrong thing, but he…hurt everyone around him. Very dark message to this book. ‘Why be good.’ But…what if [the story] is more complicated than that? What if maybe opposite is true as well? Because, if bad can sometimes come from good actions--? where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be?....Sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?
Theo replies: “I’m not sure I see your point.”
Boris continues: “Well I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you….You -- wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if, ‘what if,” Life is cruel. I wish I had died instead of….”
(Throughout the novel, Theo revisits the circumstances that led to his mother’s death and his survival in the museum explosion and constantly second guesses his actions, wondering if a different set of decisions could have led to a different outcome).
“Well-think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good and bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? …What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
“Understand, by saying ‘God,’ I am merely using ‘God’ as reference to long-term pattern we can’t decipher….
“The point is maybe that the point is too big to see or work around to on our own. Because…well, if you didn't take picture from museum, and Sascha didn’t steal it back, and I didn’t think of claiming reward – well, wouldn’t all those dozens of other paintings remain missing too? Forever maybe? Wrapped in brown paper? Still shut in that apartment? No one to look at them? Lonely and lost to the world? Maybe the one had to be lost for the others to be found? “
Theo replies: “I think this goes more to the idea of relentless irony than divine providence.”
Boris concludes: “Yes – but why give it a name? Can’t they both be the same thing?”
The interesting thing about the exchange is the inherent contradiction between Boris’s use of counterfactuals.
He initially attacks Theo for his counterfactual mindset, criticizing his tendency to pursue wishful thinking and Monday morning quarterbacking. He implies that maybe all things happen for a reason, as part of a divine plan. In other words, he highlights the dominance of fate, which is the antithesis of a counterfactual sensibility.
But then, at the same time, he employs counterfactual reasoning to justify his own criminal activity. He declares that all of his mistakes, errors, and misdeeds have had the fortunate consequence of producing a happy outcome (the opposite of the plot in The Idiot). In other words, despite the many bumps in the road, everything worked out for the best. This assertion exhibits all the classic features of a nightmare counterfactual, whereby a happy ending redeems anything negative that happened before hand. It resembles the Panglossian mindset lampooned by Voltaire in Candide.
Boris brings to mind the many critics of counterfactual reasoning who nevertheless utilize it in their daily lives without being aware they are doing so.