I've got to admit: I'm asking this mostly because the question amuses me.

Imagine a world (herein known as Whatworld) which is identical to Earth before the rise of humanity. It is populated by the same spread of creatures, with one important difference: The 'homo-sapiens' analogue (homo-whatvia) has no cognitive ability to think in hypotheticals. Questions like 'what if' and 'could we' don't occur to them. They're still very logical, and can infer, extrapolate and learn from example, but they can't answer or ask questions that require a hypothetical component/assumption..

For example: When a lightning strike lit a nearby tree on fire a nearby tribe of Homo-Whatvia learnt that making things hot could set them on fire, and fire was hot, so fire could make fire, which was useful in some ways and not in others. What they didn't do was engage in speculation about whether they could make things hot any other way, and the only answer they could give when one of them asked 'Does anyone know what caused the lightning?' was 'Nope'.

Can Homo-Whatvia progress along a similar track to homo-sapiens, or is the lack of hypothetical situations going to prevent them from progressing at all?

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    $\begingroup$ I think the limits are quite hard to set. So, for example, if they observed a landslide that somehow created a load of crap rolling down a hill atop some logs, would they be able to then use log rollers themselves to move other things, as is common in prehistory? Or would even that leap be beyond them? Because I think if the latter, they're not going to get anywhere. I can't see how'd they'd get to a simple wheel without log rollers, and there are limited things that will happen by accident that they can observe for direct examples. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Nov 24 '15 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ One difference is that you could not have asked this question. Fiction would be entirely absent from such a world. Quite possibly deception of any sort, as well. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton Nov 24 '15 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ Seems to me that the actual missing characteristic is called "curiosity". Your homo-whatvias lack curiosity. Progress would be purely accidental when circumstances allowed. You can find humans like that here. $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Nov 25 '15 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ I presume that you are asking hypothetically? Oooh, recursion! Nice. ("in order to understand recursion, you must first understand recursion") $\endgroup$ – Mawg says reinstate Monica Nov 25 '15 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ @mawg: Hypothetically speaking, could this question be construed as being like a simile? $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 25 '15 at 17:16

11 Answers 11


It really depends on where the line is drawn exactly. If I work with what I consider to be hypothetical thought-processes, humans never survive.

Anytime you think about doing something before doing it, you could be engaging in a hypothetical. Your mind considers, "How does the situation change if I take this action." This could be rephrased as, "What if I [took this action]", and your mind responds, "[something like this] should happen", which is either better or worse than your current situation. If it's better, you'd likely take the action.

Seeing the bolt of lightning start a fire, and the fire spreading, we might learn, "Fire spreads." At that first moment we will continue doing what we were doing before, (presumably, just sitting there.) The fire starts burning Kevin as he sits there. Kevin cannot think, "What if I move away from the fire". He can't even comprehend what would happen if he were to move at all. All he has learned is, "Fire causes heat, then pain". Kevin dies as everyone sits there watching.

Everyone now learns that fire kills. But nobody can tie "running" to "not dying", because nobody can ever tie how any potential action affects their real-life situation.

Humans then die out almost immediately. Unlike single-celled organisms, we do not have enough hard-wired action/reaction responses to actually sustain ourselves. If we did, babies would not need us to care for them while they learn the skills they need to survive. (Skills they would not learn, in this case)

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    $\begingroup$ I am on fire. Things not near fire are not on fire. I will make myself not be near fire. ***Fire spreads via the medium of Kevin *** $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 24 '15 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs "If I were somewhere else, I would not catch fire" is an unproven hypothetical which just happens to be correct in this instance, but that doesn't matter - it is the same as saying, "What if I were somewhere else, my guess is that I wouldn't catch fire". $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Nov 24 '15 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ Since we cannot make that connection, we are unable to connect "Things not near fire are not on fire" and "I will make myself not be near fire". $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Nov 24 '15 at 23:17
  • $\begingroup$ Out of interest, roughly where do you draw the line at which animals are capable of moving away from a fire by "hard-wired action/reaction responses" and which animals do it by considering the hypothetical that not being on fire would be an improvement? $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 25 '15 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveJessop I doubt there is a line, so to speak. I think it ties closely with the idea of self-awareness. This link relates how difficult it is to define what has consciousness/self awareness. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Nov 25 '15 at 13:47

I think the final result is that they must live in harmony with nature.

Defining this world is going to take a tremendous leap of faith to define what "no ability to think hypothetically" means at a biological level. Once we have that, we can extrapolate out to what that would mean for the species as a whole.

Of course, the real challenge is that basic thought requires some level of thinking which might be seen as hypothetical. If you eat food, your body observes inputs though taste and smell and does its best to predict what sorts of work the digestive tract needs to do. This system is so advanced that you can even get "more energy" through a placebo effect. If you think you just got more glucose, the body/mind will often permit more action on the presumption that more glucose will hit the small intestine shortly. Its really hard to live without this (in fact, by some definitions of "life," the inability to do this would prevent single celled organisms from forming). Accordingly, we're going to have to carefully sidestep this definition and find another definition of "hypothetical thinking."

The definition I find most promising is one which breaks hypothetical thinking into two parts. The first part is where we think of the hypothetical situation, such as "I wonder what it would be like to have soup for lunch today." However, at a biological level, its really hard to separate that phrase from "Soup is happening, the digestive tract moves." Instead, we're going to draw the line differently. The second part of this hypothetical thinking is the ability to discard the thoughts. If you finish thinking through what it would be like to have soup, decide "Nah, I'm having salad instead," you discard the entire mental universe you constructed to explore having soup. But what if you couldn't discard it? What if those thoughts had to continue existing as long as they "wanted" to? Anyone who has unbridled hypothetical thoughts would quickly go insane with the myriad of worlds in their head.

I don't define this line by sheer happenstance. This is also one of the accepted lines of reasoning for exploring reversible computing. In the theory of reversible computing, it's not the computation that has entropic costs, but rather the act of erasing those computations. Thus, I can argue that Homo-whavia can indeed think, as well as any reversible computer can think.

The biggest challenge with this is that reversible computing is very bad at handling irreversible changes (no surprise there). Accordingly they would develop a culture which avoids considering irreversable changes. Everything would have to flow smoothly from one state to another, permitting them to stop thinking about a "hypothetical" simply by letting it flow outside of them (to be forgotten elsewhere, most likely).

This is I think the defining characteristic of such a species. We often say "every action has its consequences." Their version would be much more extreme, for even their most secretive thought must eventually have a consequence as it is permitted to flow out of their minds into the world. This concept of everything having consequences may be so prevalent that the only phrase they can construct regarding the topic is "Consequences are." (manipulating a phrase from Stranger in a Strange Land to suit my fancy)

Such a species may survive. In fact, I'd be tempted to argue that there exist religions which actually describe such a world. Daoism believes "everything is of the Dao." The Dao flows through us, and while we perceive a separation between us and the Dao, it is believed to be just an illusion. The Daoist cultures sought long term stability. If a ruler was poor, they would not attack him head on, but allow the flow of time to erode his support until it brought him down to his proper place.

The wisest of homo-whatvia would be those which were most aware of their balance within their "Dao." That individual would be so in tune with the consequences of those balances that they might not even more perceptibly. The tiniest flickers of their hands may be enough to keep their world in tune. Any homo-whatvia would recognize that they are doing this, and accept it. However, another species, such as the impetuous H. sapiens might not. They may see the leaders of homo-whatvia as not acting at all. Homo-whatvia would do its best to communicate with us, but that language gap would be significant. They might even have to resort to strange aphorms in their language, which even then might not translate. Perhaps the best communication they could achieve would be...

"Waiting is."

  • $\begingroup$ A surprisingly philosophical answer for what was intended as a flippant question. My respect for you is expressed. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 24 '15 at 22:10

Well, I will take my hypothetical guess. Luckily, in this universe I am able to do it, so lets do it:

You end up on hunters and gatherers level

I think it can be expected, that these hoomans (alternate humans) will figure out by trial and error how to hunt and how to gather stuff to survive.

edit: I think that it is plausible to build on scenarios like: "Animal hunts me, I stumble on rock, rock hits animal, animal is dead." Someone else from the tribe can see it and learns that from example (as I understood the question)

They might grasp on primitive knives and spears. Also, they might conquer a fire. Maybe they will be able to start a fire by trial and error.

I think that you will end before "agricultural revolution" because I think that domesticating of cattle needs some of the "what if" or "what would" in order to even try it

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    $\begingroup$ How would "trial and error" differ from building and testing hypotheses though? I'm really struggling to understand what they can and can't do. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Nov 24 '15 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Whelkaholism tried to add that to my answer. I know that with fire and spears I am already on edge of plausibility, but I assume that you would get there over millenia $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Nov 24 '15 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ I think they would be less likely to make fire as they would be to save fire. By that I mean, when lightning strikes a tree and starts a fire, they will take some for themselves, but they cannot rub two sticks together to create fire, because they would never witness that happening naturally. $\endgroup$ – David K Nov 24 '15 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I can imagine them just sitting around the slowly dying fire, looking at the dry brushwood next to them, waiting patiently for an animal to get trapped in the fire and get cooked, or for a spark to leap over and ignite the brushwood. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Nov 24 '15 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ I have to agree with this. There is no way that you could advance any further without using some sort of hypothetical thought. You could only harness what you have already seen. It would be impossible to invent writing $\endgroup$ – womp Nov 25 '15 at 10:00

Without Hypothesis, you've got only Empiricism. A French author, Michel Serres, in his book "Les origines de la géométrie" states that most discovery and invention where made with the help of random. Reaching a peak would then propagate them.

One of the possible origin of agriculture, according to Michel Serres could be : There was a great fire that burnt a lot a of space in a forest. Once the place is burnt, its soil became fertile. Then some plants began to grow and populate most of the space left.

So Humans concluded : If a forest burns, then some plants will grow later.

My guess is, Mankind discovered most of thing randomly and simply trying to reproduce it.

  • $\begingroup$ Science through bloody-mindedness. I like it! $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 24 '15 at 14:49

First, I'd like to use a narrower definition of "hypothetical". Many answers are interpreting it very widely, going as far as including operant conditioning as requiring hypotheticals:

  • Another human jumped off a cliff and died
  • What if I jump off the cliff?
  • I would die; don't jump off cliffs

But operant conditioning is such a basic form of behaviour that even insects can do it. Humans without it would indeed struggle to survive let alone develop technology.

Instead, I think a better definition would be that hypotheticals requires abstract reasoning, the sort that requires formal education for most people to attain. We have good examples from real life of how these people think; they are very uncomfortable with dealing in pure hypotheticals and have very concrete reasoning. The Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria once interviewed Russian peasants about 100 years ago, giving them the kind of abstract reasoning questions typical in IQ tests, this is how it went:

Luria: What do crows and fish have in common?
Subject: Absolutely nothing. A fish swims, and a crow flies.
Luria: Are they not both animals?
Subject: Of course not, a fish is a fish, and a crow is a bird.

Luria told another subject: “There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is in Germany. Are there camels in Hamburg?” The subject replied, “If it’s big enough, perhaps it has camels.” Luria prompted him again to listen to the conditions, and again he replied that perhaps Hamburg had camels. He was used to camels, and he was unable to imagine that there weren’t any in Hamburg.

In other words, these humans would think exactly like us, if we were illiterate peasants.

So what kind of society can these humans achieve? They would have the same level of general intelligence as us, just as those illiterate peasants are as intelligent as us, except without the benefit of education. If you plop one of them into our world, they are fully capable of surviving and integrating, only that they cannot perform cognitively demanding professions. But a world comprised fully of such humans won't be able to transform into our world, as so much of it depends on modern science which requires abstract reasoning skills.

They would still be able to develop a lot of technology, although at a much slower rate. Some would be entirely out of their reach; for example they can be like Edison and repeat thousands of experiments to invent things like light bulb filaments or alkaline batteries, but they can't be like Tesla who invented AC motors, which requires understanding advanced mathematics.

It would be hard to precisely define what their world would look like, since we've had abstract thinkers from the beginning. They would have superstitions and very basic myths but no religion like the ones we do. They will have very skilled crafts and traditions, but no philosophers, no scientists, no mathematicians.

Such a society should be capable of accumulating a large body of technology, although their development rate would be severely hampered. I can easily imagine their society matching some of our nomadic cultures in sophistication. However, they will hit a developmental wall somewhere around the pre-industrial level, as that's when you need modern sciences like chemistry, physics or advanced engineering to get breakthroughs.

  • $\begingroup$ Just to pick nits, "a crow is a bird" is just as much commonality as "a fish is an animal." ;) I could rephrase your example using two birds, rather than a crow and a fish and it would be just as true. "What does a crow and a penguin have in common?" $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Nov 25 '15 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s the example shows that they are capable of classification, but it is based on concrete criteria, in this case, what the animals do. As stated earlier, "fish swim and birds fly". Therefore to them, fish and crows have nothing in common because they do totally different things. If you tell them about a penguin, perhaps they'll say "why would you call it a bird if it doesn't fly". $\endgroup$ – congusbongus Nov 25 '15 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ Are a hawk and a pigeon both "birds"? One hunts the other, has different color, shape, and size. Other than the fact that they both have feathers and fly isn't much of a similarity. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Nov 26 '15 at 5:33

No progress at all.

Animals can learn by operant conditioning:


This is effectively learning by example: if the animal does this, that happens. We humans have it, along with conscience of our actions. A homo-whatvia without operant conditioning would learn almost nothing, even with developed conscience.

For example: Ug is in the forest, collecting fruits. Some foliage ahead shakes, and a tiger breaks out. Ug runs and manages to escape somehow. Without conditioning, the next time Ug sees foliage shaking, he won't be afraid - and his luck will run out someday.

I expect that homo-whatvia will be extinct way before any organized tribes emerge.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, operant conditioning can aptly be described as hypothetical reasoning. "If I do/don't do X, then Y happens/does not happen." Whether the individual does X depends on the perceived cost of X versus the perceived value of Y (or not-X or not-Y). This is the positive/negative reinforcement/punishment quadrants. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 25 '15 at 10:48

No. Progress would stagnate. Any amount of progress requires "what if". Even if you find a fire lit by lightning strike and go "that's warm", you now need a "what if we bring it with us". The same applies to anything else.

Without a way to generalize advancement it would go very very slowly and most likely stall somewhere around the hunter-gatherer level.


Your learning example actually involves quite a few hypotheticals:

For example: When a lightning strike lit a nearby tree on fire a nearby tribe of Homo-Whatvia learnt that making things hot could set them on fire, and fire was hot, so fire could make fire, which was useful in some ways and not in others. What they didn't do was engage in speculation about whether they could make things hot any other way, and the only answer they could give when one of them asked 'Does anyone know what caused the lightning?' was 'Nope'.

The hypotheticals here are, among others:

  • Fact: When lightning occurs, you sometimes observe fire shortly afterwards. Hypothesis 0: the two phenomena are linked. Hypothesis 0a: one is the cause of the other (rather than both having a common root cause) Hypothesis 1: lightning causes fire. Hypothesis 2: other loud things also cause fire. Hypothesis 3: Other hot things also cause fire.
  • Fact: After a lightning strike, there is light, heat and thunderous noise. Hypothesis: heat and light have the same root cause, but noise doesn't.
  • Fact: Fire is hot. Hypothesis: Heat may be useful even though it can also be destructive.

Without hypotheticals, you cannot ask questions. This is because every question has some wrong answers, and wrong answers are hypothesis about what could be true but isn't.

Learning and planning are both inherently linked to hypotheticals (and to each other, and to asking questions). Without hypotheticals, you are limited to strictly a reactive lifestyle, akin to how ants or bees proceed.


Even animals can engage in hypotheticals. Can use tools and find un-obvious solutions to problems. Dog which learned to climb a fence to get out from enclosure (there is a video somewhere). Bird which learned to wrap fishing line around something to get the fish out. Sea otter which learned that coke bottle is as good for cracking shells than the rock is, and easier to hold. Apes can invent to use tools (a branch) to get ants from anthill - I am confident it was not learned by observation of humans. Etc.

Responding in a new way to a new situation is crucial to evolutionary adaptation. If you remove that kind of response from your planet, life on your planet would not develop beyond single cell organisms, if it will go that far.

"What-if" thinking cannot be removed from brain.


I don't have a long philosophical answer. I simply think that it would lead to a Whatworld with no sentient beings at all, where every organism acts on pure instinct. Not only would there be no homo-whatever type of organism, there'd be no mammals, because "lesser" organisms wouldn't have been capable of asking "what if", either. There wouldn't be anything to evolve from. I mean, even my cat can ask herself "what if". It's pure curiosity. It would basically be a world where the highest intelligence achieved would be up to the level of reptile, insect, or fish (not sharks), if that. Birds are too curious. Maybe we would be ants or bees, since they live in such complexity. I guess we'd have our own jobs, but no ability to live on our own or think for ourselves. Smarter than bees, but dumber than birds.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you are giving non homo sapiens way more credit for thinking in general. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 25 '15 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ Haha - possibly. I'm giving them credit for curiosity, more than intelligence. $\endgroup$ – user70848 Nov 26 '15 at 2:06

Let us avoid the semantics of the term 'hypothetical' and instead base the Homo-Whatvia's intellectual abilities on your example of observing a lightning strike.

According to your description, the ability to learn from direct experience and observation is within Homo-Whatvia's ability, but extrapolating from that point forward would not be. This is actually not too bad as far as animal intelligence is concerned; it would place them roughly on par with crows and the lesser primates, both of which can learn behaviors they observe in others in order to accomplish tasks, but typically do not 'invent' novel solutions to problems unless they stumble upon it through trial and error.

Humans could survive at this level and might even manage to invent some simple tools, provided some roughly analogous item existed naturally (for instance, some rocks are sharp, sharp rocks are good at cutting, and you can make rocks sharp if you bang them together in the right way), but it would be very, very unlikely that they would move beyond a survival-oriented hunter-gatherer society.


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