The one about If

In a recent conversation a friend, he said something which amounted to, “If A happens, then I plan to do B,” to which I informed him that A is not going to happen.

I’m sure that this person probably does not even remember this, but my reply is making me feel guilty to the point that I can’t sleep.

There’s a reason I feel guilt. I’ve been at the receiving end of this several times over the past few months, and I’ve slowly begun noticing a pattern, and I get more and more frustrated each time it happens, because it simply destroys any logical conversation between the two people involved.

For those who haven’t yet understood what I’m talking about: when I tell somebody “If A, then B” (or “I’m doing B just in case A happens”), I have not implied anything about whether A is true, and have not implied anything about the probability of A being true. Simple logic.

Yet, when I have debates (you know, political issues, and the like) with people, the moment I mention “If A, then B”, everybody jumps on me claiming that I’m stupid to assume that A can ever be possible.

For the same reason, when somebody asks me what my plans for the future are, I would avoid the “If A, then B”s, and find the C that is most likely to happen (which happens to be: nobody hires me, and am jobless, as opposed to A being getting a job in Wall Street), and simply say “If C, then D”. When I do get careless, and break away from this format and say, “If A, then B”, I’m attacked as if I’m the most stupid person ever because I’m actually planning for the possibility of A happening.

If the discussion is of value to the attacker (Notice the If), and if the attacker makes me feel stupid about mentioning the As, the attacker learns less from me, and stands to loose.

So should I never question an If-A-then-B? It’s not all that simple.

What if somebody tells me: “I’m raptor-proofing my house, just in case the dinosaurs attack.” At this point, the if-clause is absolutely utterly stupid, and I’m allowed to question it. What’s the difference here? In this case, there’s a cost to taking into consideration the possibility of A. If raptor-proofing is free, I should shut up.

Therefore, in the interest of sane, logical conversations, I propose the following mechanism for determining whether you’re allowed to argue an If-A-then-B. Think of insurance. I had an argument once about why I prefer an expensive medical insurance, “Sure, in most cases I won’t be needing it. Heck, I’ve hardly used a few hundred dollars of it last year. But if a medical emergency does happen, and I don’t have an expensive insurance, I’d get bankrupt and my whole life would be ruined”. At this point, your only valid argument should be whether my annual premium that I pay being worth the small probability. You do not have a right to simply tell me that the probability of such an emergency is too low (worse: telling me it will never happen!), without talking about the cost involved.

And therefore, in the future, if I ever say “If A, then B”, and the cost involved in taking A into consideration is Zero, then heck, you have no right to argue the possibility of A. If needed, argue B given A.

If I say, “If A, then B”, and there’s a cost involved in taking A into consideration, then you have a right to question whether that cost is worth it. Even in this case, be mindful of the differences in valuations of cost between you and me.

And since, in the recent conversation with the friend that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I claimed that A is not going to happen, in a situation where there was no cost involved in planning for A, I sincerely apologize.

(P.S. I didn’t have the right words while describing the If-A-then-B construct. Any pointers to proper linguistic terms for these if I need to discuss this again?)


4 Responses to The one about If

  1. anshul says:

    If 1 equals 2 (in ℝ), I promise to never bring the probability of A into question on hearing an “If A then B” claim.

  2. Preyas says:

    I always thought grad students had the most free time in the world but I guess a grad student quitting grad school is a phenomenon in itself.

  3. i actually like this post :)

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