Ahmed Afzaal

If Only . . .

We have heard this sentence structure countless times, as well as uttered it ourselves: “If only [x] then [y].”

Here are some random examples.  If only Nader had not run in the 2000 elections, Al Gore would have easily won.  If only you had listened to my advice, this disaster would not have happened.  If only the press were more honest, the Iraq war would have been prevented.  If only I had not married you, my life would have been a paradise.  If only she had tried harder, she would have won the prize.

Most uses of “if only…” posit a slightly different past that is understood to have the potential of causing an alternative and highly desirable present.  There is something profoundly disturbing about this sentence structure, but it is difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what’s wrong with it.  Apparently, if one set of causes regularly leads to a given set of results, which does seem to be the case, then the “if only…” sentences may be taken as simple expressions of truth.  The problem that one can note almost immediately, however, is that it is not at all obvious as to which causes are primary in determining a given outcome, and that in selecting one cause or one set of causes as primary the speaker has to ignore a very large number of additional causes that may also have had the same or, more importantly, the opposite effect.  These latter, un-mentioned causes do not enter the discussion because they are deemed irrelevant by the speaker, not simply due to their irrelevance as legitimate causal factors but also due to their lack of utility in relation to the speaker’s immediate purpose in making that statement.

Why do we utter sentences that begin with “if only…”?  I suppose there are times when such usage is perfectly valid and conveys objectively verifiable information, but I also suspect that more often it is an expression of a lot more than what the words themselves seem to suggest.  In the first case, we learn a lesson from a particular mistake, we make a mental note that such and such happened due to such and such cause or lack thereof, and then we move on with our lives, determined to avoid the undesirable outcome by being more vigilant.

Very frequently, however, the sentence structure beginning with “if only…” is uttered in a context where the infamous blame game is being played.  This is a game that usually two people play, but we also practice our blaming skills by playing the game with ourselves.  In the latter case the blame may be called regret, shame, guilt, and can lead to intense self-aversion.

The “if only…” sentences come in handy when we are looking for someone or something to blame.  It begins like this:  Something is the case that we find undesirable for one reason or another.  At a semi-conscious level we are faced with a very troubling question: Undesirable things are not supposed to happen, at least not to us; if this particular undesirable thing was not supposed to have happened, why did it happen?  Obviously, someone or something has interfered with the otherwise smooth functioning of reality.  We must find the culprit and let everyone know that “it” was the cause.  More importantly, we need to be reassured that if it were not for that particular cause, that particular interference in the otherwise smooth flow of life, then everything would have turned out just fine.

Of course, it is always possible that a given “if only…” sentence is factually correct, but given its very conditional nature, i.e., the fact that it argues from a condition different from what is already the case, the factual correctness of an “if only…” sentence is very difficult to demonstrate.  In fact, it might well be impossible to do so in any conclusive fashion.  We may speak in terms of probabilities, but the bigger the alternative outcome we are referring to the less will be our certitude.  Yet, most “if only…” sentences are delivered with great confidence, betraying the fact that their purpose is not to communicate an objectively verifiable fact but to help us overcome our own semi-conscious anxiety about why an undesirable situation has arisen in the first place.

Behind this anxiety, of course, hides another unexamined assumption, i.e., that we are, or should be, exempt from undesirable events.  If, on the contrary, we do not imagine ourselves to be so exempt, undesirable events would not cause any perplexity that would then have to be overcome by means of identifying a real or imaginary culprit.  No blame game would be necessary in that case.  However, since most of us do harbor that assumption, acceptance of whatever life brings to us is a virtual impossibility and, for this reason, playing the blame game has become almost a necessity.

To say “if only…” is to wish against what is already the case.  It is to deny what is unquestionably real because it has already happened.  What has already happened is qualitatively different from what has not yet happened.  The past must be accepted as such; only the future is open to our creative activity.  While infinite possibilities are waiting in the future, one cannot argue against what has already happened.  Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said: “Do not curse time, for God is time.”  By saying so, he was rejecting the Arab custom of condemning or cursing one’s fate or destiny, i.e., one’s past reality.  To curse whatever has ultimately brought about one’s past reality is to resist what cannot be resisted -an exercise in futility if there ever was one.

The “if only…” sentence is also a scientific scandal.  The world used to be predictable in the good old days of Newtonian physics, but after quantum mechanics and chaos theory this is no longer the case.  Complex systems have a built-in unpredictability, an indeterminacy, that resists all attempts to make them follow exact laws with an absolute, predictable regularity.  Absolutely accurate measurements were never possible, but now we are told that even if such measurements were available we would still fail to make absolute predictions about the future behavior of systems.  Given that outcomes demonstrate a highly sensitive dependence on initial conditions, a tiny variation in a single variable can lead to major changes in ways that are not subject to comprehension because they may never repeat themselves.  To say that the present would be considerably different if the past were only slightly different is obviously true; but it is impossible to predict the exact way in which the present would be affected by any particular “adjustment” in the past.

Sentences that begin with “if only…” are so nineteenth-century!

Between Isness and Oughtness

Contemporary atheists have resurrected an old idea.  The problem of evil, they argue, is a veritable proof for the non-existence of God.  This may be so, but who told them that evil was a problem?

The “problem of evil” is simply this: the world as-it-is seems to fall far short of the world as-it-ought-to-be.  Things happen that should not happen; things that should happen do not happen.  But there is more to the problem than the objective reality of the world, i.e., our own capacity to recognize it as falling short of the ideal.  We are dissatisfied not simply because the world is the-way-it-is, but more importantly because we are able to imagine it the way-it-ought-to-be.  What brings the “problem of evil” into existence is the fact that we distinguish between “good” and “evil,” that we are capable of imagining the alternative to what is already the case.

This indicates that to understand the “problem of evil” attention needs to be focused inwards rather than outwards, on our own subjective reactions rather on the objective conditions.

This much is clear.  If we could not imagine something better, we would not be able to feel dissatisfied.  If we didn’t feel dissatisfied, there would be no “problem of evil.”  The dissatisfaction that we feel, however, can lead us into one of two directions, i.e., into the despair of meaninglessness or into the affirmation of a higher meaning.  Contemporary atheists have chosen the former, but this choice is not inevitable; it is, after all, a choice.

The “problem of evil” shows, first of all, that humans are capable of exercising a profound moral imagination, that they have the capacity to judge actions and events as desirable or undesirable.  They experience, in other words, a gap between reality-as-such and reality-as-morally-perfect.  The question, then, is not so much what this gap says about the existence or non-existence of God, but what is it in us that makes us discern that gap in the first place.

It is doubtful that we would have experienced the gap between isness and oughtness if we didn’t have symbolic language.  The latter allows us not only to describe what is happening but also to think about what should have happened, what ought to have happened, what could have happened, what must happen, what might happen, and so on.  Living beings who do not have a symbolic language that allows them to imagine other-than-what-is-the-case do not seem to experience oughtness; they only experience what is already true.  Without experiencing the world of oughtness, all they have access to is the realm of isness; as such, the “problem of evil” does not exist for beings who do not have symbolic language.

To use the colorful words of Shel Silverstein, the suffering of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” seems to be an experience limited to the human race.  Of course, animals other than Homo sapiens do feel pain, but do they also suffer from the thought that tells them they shouldn’t be feeling pain?  When an ordinary domestic cat sees a pure-bred Persian cat, does she suffer from pangs of racial inferiority?  When a small mouse looks at a large mouse, does he suffer emotionally from the realization of his own relative weakness?  When a male lion loses all his female companions to a younger, stronger lion, does he feel like cursing the universe for its gross unfairness?  The answer to these questions, while not directly knowable, is probably in the negative.

If it is the awareness of oughtness, mediated through symbolic language, that makes us dissatisfied with isness, should we seek a way out of the resulting suffering?  Should we disregard the advantages of having a symbolic language and, instead, strive to revert back to a pre-language stage when everything was experienced as such, without judgments of good or bad?  Should we cultivate a state in which there is no distinction between what-is and what-ought-to-be?  At one level, the answer is indeed “yes.”  It is often to our advantage to experience whatever is already the case without the interference of language, which only introduces labels and judgments and thereby creates a gap between isness and oughtness.

At another level, however, this gap is of immense significance.  It is a gift to be cherished, to be thankful for.  Our perception of the gap is not simply the result of the symbolic language we use,  it is also a sign that we have a moral compass within us.  To discern unfairness, injustice, and cruelty in any form, anywhere in the world, and to feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction as well as a powerful desire for things to be otherwise, signify the presence of something very special within us.  Next time you feel angry when you see a gross injustice, say “thanks” to whoever you believe gave you the sense to recognize an injustice as such.

Furthermore, who wants to live in a world where everything is exactly as it ought to be?  A world in which isness coincides with oughtness is a world of moral perfection.  In a morally perfect world, there is absolutely nothing for a morally conscious being to do.  In a world already perfect, there is nothing better to be imagined, no higher goal towards which to strive, no dreams to be pursued.  A perfect world does not degenerate, nor does it improve; it merely stands still.  There is no change in such a world, at least no consciously conceived and deliberately planned change.  Since there is nothing to do, there is no purpose or meaning either; there is no evolution, no growth.  Thank God we don’t live in a perfect world!

As for contemporary atheists, they may want to ponder the following paradox: In a morally imperfect world, they have failed to find any inherent meaning; but in a morally perfect world, with nothing at all to do, they are also going to find a similar lack of meaning.  In fact, in the present, imperfect world they have found themselves a meaningful vocation, i.e., to investigate and explain why the “problem of evil” proves the non-existence of God.  In a morally perfect world, they would have no such luxury.

Does this mean that the perfect is imperfect, and the imperfect is perfect?


If we could grasp the whole of reality all at once, we would know that it is not just fair but unimaginably good and benevolent.  As things stand, this grasping of the whole seems to be clearly out of our reach. Read More