EVERYBODY WANTED TO KNOW WHAT I WOULD DO IF I DIDN'T WIN

As soon as he sticks the arm out, you know this thing has been rehearsed. I mean, of course it’s been rehearsed. It’s Kanye. He’s been practising for this moment in front of bathroom mirrors since he was thirteen-years-old. His very first Grammys and his very first Grammy, off the back of his very first album. You know how it goes.

Start with the throwaway line. First impressions might be everything but a speech is something you ease into. You gain nothing by catching your audience by surprise. And the throwaway is something you can’t mess up. You’re just warming up here.

Speak slowly. Especially at the beginning. You’ll speed up naturally as you go along so adjust for that now. Weigh your words and savour the silences. It’s the silences that mark the difference between a speech and a lecture.

Make it personal. This is your moment after all. But give your audience something to chew on too – a secret, a lesson, a shout-out. It wouldn’t be much of a moment without them.

And finish strong. The ending doesn’t have to be loud or passionate, but it does have to be definite. A speech that fizzles is really no speech at all. You’ve got to let these people know when to clap.


I love this video because you can see how hard he’s trying to stay composed. Kanye’s very much an ‘Act like you’ve been there before’ kinda guy so he desperately wants to seem cool, calm and collected. And it works for a while. The ‘Nothing in life is promised except death’ line makes him seem like a Grammys elder statesman, dishing out wisdom to all the young guns just starting out. But then the words start coming faster and the voice gets louder and the mask drops for a moment and you can see just how much it means to him. He has to say he’s at the Grammys just to convince himself it’s real.

And that line. Oh my god, that line. It’s a whooping-and-cheering, standing-ovation kinda line. It’s a shout-it-from-the-rooftops, sing-it-in-churches kinda line. It’s a nominated-for-a-spoken-word-Grammy kinda line. It’s a bring-the-house-down, okay-folks-pack-it-up-we’re-done-here kinda line. It’s a tattoo-it-on-my-chest-and-carve-it-into-my-gravestone kinda line. It’s a name-your-five-kids-I-Guess-We’ll-Never-and-Know kinda line. It’s an etch-it-onto-a-solid-gold-record-and-blast-it-into-space kinda line.

And, for me at least, it’s a write-two-thousand-words-on-its-philosophical-implications kinda line.

Kanye has drawn our attention to a question: ‘If Kanye hadn’t won, what would he have done?’ Now say someone proposes an answer. They say, ‘If Kanye hadn’t won, he would have stormed on stage and grabbed the microphone.’ Philosophers call this a counterfactual, which is another one of those fancy words with a nice, simple meaning (Counterfactual, to me, sounds like something Sherlock Holmes would name his cat). It starts with something counter to fact and suggests what would follow.

Counterfactuals crop up all over the place in our everyday speech. People commonly say things like, ‘If I’d missed the train, I would’ve been late to work’ and ‘If Abou Diaby wasn’t injured so often, he would be remembered as one of the Premier League’s greatest midfielders.’ They also appear in less obvious form, in phrases like ‘I’d be a great prime minister’ and ‘Bernie would have won.’





Back to the Kanye counterfactual: ‘If Kanye hadn’t won, he would have stormed on stage and grabbed the microphone.’ If you were listening to this claim, you might nod your head and say, ‘Yes, that’s true.’ But, hold up, what could possibly make a claim like this true?

Philosophers generally agree that every true claim needs a truthmaker – something that makes it true. So, for instance, the claim ‘There’s a cat outside’ is only true if there really is a cat outside. The cat is the truthmaker for that claim.

So if the counterfactual Kanye claim is true, it must have a truthmaker. There must be some object or state of affairs that makes it true that ‘If Kanye hadn’t won, he would have stormed on stage and grabbed the microphone.’ But this is very difficult to find, simply because the claimed event didn’t happen. Where do you find the truthmaker for an event that didn’t happen?

In a world that didn’t happen. That’s where.

Enter David Lewis.


Would you look at this fella? He looks wise as hell – like a monk in a Dostoyevsky novel – and he’s got a literal twinkle in his eye. He’s the kinda guy that looks eminently sensible. He’d never endorse the kind of la-di-da, pie-in-the-sky bullshit that philosophers are peddling nowadays right? Right?

Wrong. Wrong! Lewis is not just a nutty philosopher, he is the high-priest of nutty philosophers. He’s the nutty philosopher that’s too nutty for all the other philosophers, the nutty philosopher that makes all the other philosophers look like Jeremy Paxman by comparison (the most sensible man in the world).

Lewis is famous for his theory of modal realism, a very sober-sounding name stamped onto a truly bonkers theory. Here it is: think of something that doesn’t exist. A unicorn. A centaur. The perfect frying pa-

#spon

A hippogriff. A lepechraun. A Pikachu. According to Lewis, it exists. Not just in stories or in your imagination, but in exactly the same way as you do, in the flesh and blood in a real, physical world.

Now make your non-existent thing ten times its normal size. Make it pink. Let it speak English and give it Danny DeVito’s voice. According to Lewis, this new thing exists too, in exactly the same way. It’s not just in your head. It’s really out there, as real as you are.

Now make your original thing and your giant, pink, English-speaking thing fall in love. Make them go on bike rides up and down the sides of buildings. Make them co-author a book together called ‘Left of Left-Field: How Baseball Shapes Emerging Economies’. Make them live in a shoe and have literal tigers for children. I don’t care at this point. According to Lewis, this is really happening somewhere. Your things exist! Just like you do!

It’s hard to grasp just how wild this theory is. Basically, Lewis says that every possible thing occurs in some possible world. These possible worlds are isolated from our own – you can’t travel to them – but they are as real as the actual world (our world). In fact, Lewis claims, ‘actual’ is an indexical term. It’s like ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now’. What it refers to depends on the context in which it is spoken. So your big, pink creature can correctly call its own world the actual world.

It’s these worlds that help Lewis explain how the counterfactual – ‘If Kanye hadn’t won, he would have stormed on stage’ – can be true. The counterfactual is true, Lewis claims, if, in the closest possible world to our actual world where Kanye doesn’t win, Kanye storms on stage. So imagine the possible world where everything is exactly the same but the Grammy goes to the Beastie Boys instead. If Kanye storms on stage in that possible world, then the counterfactual is true in our world.

Lewis’ theory of counterfactuals chimes with our intuitive ideas quite nicely. After all, when we ask, ‘What would Kanye have done if he didn’t win?’, we want to know what our world would be like if that one thing had been different. And that’s exactly what Lewis gives us.

But things aren’t all rosy for Lewis. There are many objections that you might make. The first is this one: Lewis is attempting to solve what is, most people would agree, a very small problem. But his proposed solution involves inferring something very, very big. Namely, an infinite number of universes. And the question you might ask is, is it worth it? Is it, David? Couldn’t we just, you know, leave counterfactuals unanalysed? Couldn’t we say, maybe, they just can’t be true at all? I know it’s not very satisfying but hear me out here. The whole possible worlds thing? It sounds a bit nuts, David. Maybe it’s better to just let this one go.

Lewis would have a reply of course. He’d ask you why an infinite number of possible worlds seems so ridiculous to you. He’d ask what reason you have for thinking his theory false. And you might have some difficulty here. There’s no experiment you can run or phenomenon you can observe that would prove his theory wrong. After all, everything you can test is a part of this world, and his theory is about other worlds. Your only weapon, then, is Ockham’s Razor: the last resort of whiny rationalists since 1347. You can say, ‘Mr Lewis, you’re multiplying entities beyond necessity!’ But if you do that then wily old Lewis is gonna use your own momentum against you, judo-style. He’ll say, ‘My theory posits just one kind of entity – possible worlds. Your theory is the more complex. You posit two kinds of entity – a world and some unknown thing that limits the number of worlds to one.’

Wham! You’re on your back and twice as angry as you were two seconds ago.

But even if you can’t call modal realism ridiculous, you can call it useless. After all, it only tells us how counterfactuals can be true. It can’t tell us whether any specific counterfactual is true or not. You can’t know what Kanye would have done because you can’t visit other possible worlds. If you were hoping Lewis had a foolproof way of settling the question, you’re about to be disappointed. Ask him about Kanye and he could only tell you one thing.


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