In Let the Children Play, It’s Good for Them! (Smithsonian, July/August 2012) Alison Gopnik writes:
Walk into any preschool and you’ll find toddling superheroes battling imaginary monsters. We take it for granted that young children play and, especially, pretend. Why do they spend so much time in fantasy worlds?
People have suspected that play helps children learn, but until recently there was little research that showed this or explained why it might be true. In my lab at the University of California at Berkeley, we’ve been trying to explain how very young children can learn so much so quickly, and we’ve developed a new scientific approach to children’s learning.
Where does pretending come in? It relates to what philosophers call “counterfactual” thinking, like Einstein wondering what would happen if a train went at the speed of light.
Do our current models for search encourage or discourage counterfactual thinking? Neutral?
There is place for “factual” queries: Has “Chipper” Jones, who plays for the Atlanta Braves, ever hit safely 5 out of 5 times in a game?
But what of counterfactuals?
Do they lead us to new forms of indexing? By re-imagining how searching could be done, if and only if there were a new indexing structure?
Are advances in algorithms largely due to counterfactuals? Where the “factuals” are the world of processing as previously imagined?
We can search for the “factuals,” prior answers approved by authorities, but how does one search for a counterfactual?
Or search for what triggers a counterfactual?
I don’t have even an inkling at an answer or what an answer might look like, but thought it would be worth asking the question.