We all need categories, maps, models, mental short cuts and other simplifications of reality in order to make our environment intelligible, to navigate the world and find our place in it. In this way, our search for knowledge is propelled not only by a yearning for truth but also by a need for power and control, belonging and satisfaction, and also just to get through the challenges of life. And if our understanding seems to be working for us, we tend to stick with it. As the saying goes, if it’s not broken, why fix it?
But in times of crisis, whether in our personal lives or on a social or global level, our understanding of the world meets resistance from the world itself. That is to say, the world seems to send us the message—through physical and mental symptoms, misery in our relationships, outcry in communities, violence in politics, collapse in economies, the rising of oceans and burning of forests, and failures in dominant paradigms, whether artistic, scientific, religious or otherwise—that however we’re perceiving and thinking about things is failing to grasp something essential. At such times, our established knowledge becomes what has been called “zombie knowledge”: knowledge reduced to rationalizing the dissonance between what we think we know and what is actually happening.
Various crises are incubating in the 21st century: a collapse of the human habitat, natural or human-made pandemics, a nuclear Armageddon, a bio-genetics dystopia, a digital apocalypse, the colonization of life by algorithms, the Apartheidization of the world, the commodification of life and the potential obsolescence of humanity. In the face of these crises, WHAT IF? thinking and perceiving can help us to resist “zombie knowledge”, to step back from hegemonic ideas, representations and practices, and to re-examine our understanding of the world and of ourselves. What if we adopted the point of view of an ant, a tree or a beam of light? What if we could look at the world as if for the first time, with what Buddhist masters call “Beginner’s Mind” or as the philosopher Hegel put it, “without a dictionary”? What if we asked a different question? Or told a different story? Or tried a different approach? What if, as the economist Milton Friedman wrote, “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”? What new possibilities might reveal themselves then?
WHAT IF? has proven itself transformative in the arts, the sciences and virtually every other area of human knowledge and belief. What if there were a particle smaller than an atom? What if line and colour could be used not depict reality but rather a feeling? What if our society became focused on happiness for all rather than just for some? WHAT IF? is also notably, as the psychologist Alison Gopnik has pointed out, a highly active mode of thought among children, whose developmental imperative is to explore, experiment and discover. The ability to think counterfactually, to contemplate alternative possibilities, is central to the human mind, manifesting in common words such as if, unless, might, could, and should. What if instead of waiting for crises to emerge we were to cultivate our natural capacity to ask WHAT IF? in our personal lives and in our social and cultural conversations? What potential crises might we avoid and more just, sustainable futures might we create?
In 2022/2023, SPACE invites Dawson students across the disciplines to develop their talent for considering WHAT IF? Questions—to hypothesize, to model, to innovate, to challenge, to imagine—and to share their explorations with the Dawson community through SPACE venues such as our website, our ongoing events and our annual showcase. The urgent issues of our times transcend any one academic discipline and require more than ever that citizens ask WHAT IF? together, helping each other us notice the unnoticed, to consider the unconsidered, to express the inexpressible and to make the impossible a reality.
Above: detail of poster design by Alexia Boreham, Illustration student, Dawson College.
If you wish to get involved with SPACE, please contact the SPACE coordinator or one of the fellows: