The Permutation Machine

Man, these books were the best.

Man, these books were the best.

For your birthday, a friend/enemy leaves a mysterious machine on your doorstep. It is a Permutation Machine, that will let you revisit every decision in your life and see the possible variations and the consequences. You cannot change the past, but the Machine lets you know, with specificity, what “could have been”.

Do you use the Machine?

Here’s my guess at what you might see if you used the Machine: some of the decisions you have agonized the most about, some of the mistakes you have mourned the most over the years, might be shown to be not that bad. Meanwhile, some of the errors you consider minor or harmless might turn out to be of dramatic consequence. You might even be surprised to learn that a number of your prized decisions were completely wrong. In other words, I suspect we are really bad at analyzing our own actions, both in terms of assessing the magnitude of their impact as well as in even detecting whether or not a choice was wrong at all.

Another thing that might happen if you used the Machine: you might become obsessed with the past, obsessed with an unobtainable alternate present. Why, it would be like Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised! Would you waste away using the Machine, endlessly thinking about the could-have-been that you now KNOW would-have-been? While that would probably happen to some, my gut tells me that this is less likely of a scenario than it might appear, because we already do this to ourselves. Those prone to obsess over their mistakes would continue to do so, only now it might be a more efficient process as the ‘wondering’ element has been removed from the equation. Those who don’t worry about the past might use the Machine as a recreational tool.

What’s the difference between the Machine and LDS notions of judgment? I’ve heard it said that the real weight of judgment is to see what you could have become without the errors of sin, that the true horror of damnation comes from perceiving the potential that you’ve lost. The Machine would show you exactly where you’ve gone wrong and what you could have been. Is this complete retrospection the essence of divine judgment, or is there something more?

Would you use the Machine? My bet is that most people would say no, but really couldn’t resist if presented the opportunity.


  1. Angela C says:

    I would use that sucker in a New York minute!

  2. Totally.

  3. 100% yes.

  4. Yes–I’d fire that thing up without taking time to read the instructions.

  5. Never forget says:

    I since a “Best use of a Permutation machine ranking” coming soon.
    And yes, I would use it. Goodbye decision to go to law school.

  6. Never forget says:

    Sense* too early to post correct.

  7. Yeah, and as usual for most things I start to really think about, I’d become obsessed. I can already picture running through the list of girls in high school I might have dated, had I the courage to step up and ask. I wonder if that would have made some huge difference in where I ended out now. How about a MaChInE that allows you to go back and actually change a decision, without knowing in advance what plays out? That would be really creepy.

  8. Bill, I don’t think many people would use such a machine, except out of desperation.

  9. Angela C says:

    WVS: I wouldn’t use the machine that let you change decisions, but just seeing the alternatives? That would be more addictive than Netflix.

  10. It would be really, really interesting to see which types of life decisions made me more or less happy in the alternate scenarios… I don’t think I’m very good at figuring out what sorts of things will make me happy in the long term. Maybe the machine would help me get a better sense for the kind of decisions I should make in my actual future about careers, marriage, children, where to live, etc. That would be awesome. Maybe I’m desperate.

  11. I wouldn’t use the machine. I second guess myself sufficiently already; that way lies madness.

  12. Liar.

  13. charlene says:

    This is already my most fertile field of writing ideas. I imagine back in my life or the lives of others (especially my parents) and follow a different path.

  14. Oh heck no I wouldn’t use the machine–actually seeing how much better my life would be if I’d made a few different choices would be too painful.

    Those who say “yes”, are you assuming that your lives couldn’t be much better? Or would that simply not bother you?

  15. Honest answer: Before using the machine I would watch a few dozen other people use it first in order to see they turned out happiner, depressed, or insane. I’d use that information in deciding whether to pursue the same course.

    Honest question: Does the machine allow you to review the consequences of the very last decision you made – i.e., the decision whether to use the machine? If so, I seems that you would risk entering into an endless death spiral of sorts.

    Honest critique: Most of the answers supplied by this machine would be completely boring. Imagine all the choices you make in deciding the order in which to each each french fry in a box of fries. The 100+ permutations of differing choices will all lead to the same uninteresting conclusion: “I ate the whole box.” Now multiple that by your lifetime. I think I’d go insane from boredom long before I went insane from realizing that I should have married the other girl.

  16. The Other Clark says:

    Heck yes!

  17. My answer is no, I won’t use it because there are a few instances in my life that I couldn’t handle seeing what might have been. But….it depends on how long it sat on my doorstep. If I had to pass it every time I walked through the door, I know at some point I would do it. I would be the person who tortured myself until I lost my mind so don’t drop one of at my house!

  18. This post reminds me of a great poem I stumbled across a while ago:

    “The God Who Loves You” by Carl Dennis:

    “It must be troubling for the god who loves you
    To ponder how much happier you’d be today
    Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
    It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
    Driving home from the office, content with your week—
    Three fine houses sold to deserving families—
    Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
    Had you gone to your second choice for college,
    Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
    Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
    Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion. …”

  19. I think it would be interesting; I’d totally do it. I hope it would teach me a lot about how to approach decisions in a better way (big or small).

  20. What if someone has already seen all the possibilities and has helped guide you to the best option considering your free will decisions? Should we spend time second guessing ourselves, thinking we’d know better without being able to see the end from the beginning?

  21. Frank, we second guess ourselves all the time, regardless.

  22. I would hate myself, but I don’t think I would be able to resist. I can’t imagine using it would do anything but make me miserable, though. If I looked at all the possible outcomes and found that I *had* actually made a good decision at some point, would that make me happy? I doubt it. At best I would be relieved that I hadn’t botched things that one time. But when I inevitably found that I had made awful decisions, where all the other possibilities were better than what I chose? Those would be agonizing. As obsessive as I am, I figure I would probably re-play those over and over indefinitely.

  23. Ziff, if you do that, can I come over and watch? I’ll bring nachos.

  24. Steve, indeed we would. I know I voted yes. I agree with the OP, to say otherwise is deceiving yourself. It’s almost like saying you wouldn’t push the button with a sign on it that says “do not push, it could end the world”, just to see if it’s right.

  25. Bro. Jones says:

    I’ve made so many dunderheaded, life-altering decisions that I would actually find it liberating to know whether going an alternate route would have turned out well or not. As it is I complain constantly about “Well I’m in situation X because of choice Y that was imposed on me/stupidly chosen by me years ago,” so it would be nice to say “Wow if I’d gone with choice Y2 it turns out my kids would have been awful people and I’d have wound up living in Detroit.”

  26. Like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I would say yes, but when faced with the reality, no matter how things might have worked out differently, I don’t think I would spend any time on the big decisions. I wouldn’t want to see things turn out differently. And I would likely obsess over small stuff for a while, the equivalent of watching cat videos on the internet; entertaining for a while, but ultimately, a complete waste of time.

  27. I would use it once, then come back in a month and revisit that one-use to see if it were a good decision or not in order to gauge if I should use it again.

  28. Glenstorm says:

    “I’ve heard it said that the real weight of judgment is to see what you could have become without the errors of sin, that the true horror of damnation comes from perceiving the potential that you’ve lost.”

    This is how many people read patriarchal blessings. This is how I read my patriarchal blessing for many years, and it’s a little terrifying.

  29. I think I’d get it out every afternoon, watch myself hit, smack, kick whoever, see the consequences of that, then go back to normal. I’d hope that by watching the bad decisions and good decisions play out from the recent past, it would help inform my future choices. Examples: If I had asked my boss for a raise in the last 15 minutes, what would have happened? next 15 minutes have a probable same outcome….

  30. Steve G. says:

    I would use the permutation machine, then use it again to see what would happen if I hadn’t used the machine. Of course than I might want to see what would happen if I hadn’t used the machine to check my earlier use of the machine. It gets very confusing from there on…

  31. Clark Goble says:

    Sure. Just think of all the economic problems you could finally figure out. And if it gives quantifiable answers… Wow. It’s a social scientists dream. Finally real science.

    And then then of the implications. If we repeated the same choice, we could find out of determinism was true. And if (as I suspect) it isn’t then we can just replace the same choice to figure out probabilities related to particular actions. Finally psychohistory as a discipline could develop! Think of the consequences of this science for humanity!

    Oh. That wasn’t what you were looking for? Oops. Sorry.

  32. Absolutely not. I would so much rather move forward and make the best of the decisions I’ve made (right or wrong) than give myself more opportunity to ruminate on what was or what might have been.

  33. it's a series of tubes says:

    Steve, thanks for the reminder to rewatch the episode “Tapestry”. Just as good as the first time around, all these years later.

  34. Dan Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness describes humankind’s inability to make choices that create the most happiness and our inability to know what we really need to be happy. I suspect you are right in that we have very little ability to know which choices were good which ones were not and which ones really didn’t matter. He also describes how life events good or bad really don’t have as big an effect on our happiness as we think.

    One of the experiments entailed having kids take a photography class at harvard and creating a final project. One version of the class entailed giving the kids an option to change their mind for a few days on which photo they chose for the final project after turning it in. The other version of the class there was no such option. Almost universally the class that did not have the option of changing their mind was happier with their final project and with the class. Just having the option of changing your mind was enough to make people second guess themselves and keep them from finding happiness. When giving people the option to other people about which class they would choose most choose the one in which they could change their mind even when given the data on satisfaction levels for each class.

    I imagine that your permutation machine will probably cause more unhappiness for the same reason, yet most would want to use it anyway even if they knew this to be the case.

  35. Great book, and it definitely is behind some of these ideas.

  36. You could use the machine to learn from your mistakes perhaps. I would use it regardless though, because I already obsess too much about the past and wouldn’t be able to help myself.

  37. Ziff would watch all possibilities and then plot them on a graph and run it through a SPSS or something. I smell a new blogpost….

  38. I’ve often wondered if Final Judgement consists of something similar: the opportunity to see what your life would have been like had you been able to “play a perfect game”. That way, you’re not being judged against a one-size-fits-all standard, but only against the possible outcomes given the cards you were dealt. Aren’t “the saddest words” supposed to consist of “what might have been”?

  39. Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf has something similar at the end called Magic Theater where you can experience an infinite number of your own alternate realities and potentialities. However, the philosophy behind it is not that there was a “good, better or best” reality that you should have chosen, but that each individual identity contains within it a plethora of potentialities, each of which tells us something about who we are. In life, we do what we “should” do, and our infinite, expansive soul is forced into a narrow, restrictive series of arbitrary events. But that is not who we are. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh says of Jane’s piano playing “I too would have been a great proficient had I ever learnt.” The statement is pathetic and profound at the same time. I believe there are dimensions of the soul that include roads not taken.

  40. I think it’s pretty well established (in the field of psychology) that having fewer limits on your choices leads to greater unhappiness. Seeing *more* past options, and having *more* what-ifs to think about leads necessarily to greater dissatisfaction and unhappiness. At the very least, from the point that you know about the Machine going forward you will be miserable because you’ll know there is a way to revisit/second guess all of your choices, even if you never use it again.
    This TED talk explains a bit about the psychology:

    All you people who would use it are gluttons for punishment and/or masochists. ;)

  41. If it doesn’t change the path, I’d treat it as entertainment. And as such, I would use the machine to try to find the decision chains that lead to my own most hilariously slapstick deaths.

  42. (Dangit: path=past)

  43. Dr_Doctorstein says:

    Can the machine be modified a bit? Instead of revisiting decisions actually made, I’d like it to cut to the chase and answer questions of this form: Were there decisions I could have made that would have led to result X? If so, what were they? It would be interesting to see what the possibilities really were. And of course as a party game it would beat the tar out of Trivial Pursuit.

  44. It suddenly occurs to me that there must be about a bazillion ways in which decisions/paths are taken by my parents and others who impacted on my parents’ lives that result in me not being born (to them, at least) at all.

  45. I wouldn’t use the machine because I prefer ignorance in almost all things.

  46. BHodges says:

    Hooray for this post!

    Steve P wins the comment section BTW.

    And yes, I would use that machine. But I might not use it with regard to my children. That has the potential to be too painful. (Though I think my kids are still too young for me to have irrevocably messed up their lives yet.)

  47. What if, instead of being a line with a variety of intersections at which one moves in one direction or another, time is a moving cloud of possibility: no linear connections between events, only a cloud? No possibilities in the future only possibility, openness. Only looking backward would it look like a series of events connected along intersected lines. Looking forward it would not look like anything at all. If time is anything like that, then the permutation machine is impossible even as a thought experiment. The past is the past precisely because it no longer has the openness of the future. Only in the present is there any openness to the past.

  48. BHodges says:

    Jim! Oh yes.

  49. Jim, the problem with your proposed view is indeed that fun thought experiments (not to mention time travel movies!) are then impossible. But yes, I tend to agree that time primarily appears linear in retrospect. But it would be a mistake to say that future is completely unpredictable; weathermen and Bob Dylan can tell us which way the wind is blowing, and we can tell in broad senses where generalized trends are moving. It may be more accurate to say that individual choices are difficult to predict. Still, big data companies such as Amazon and Google are getting very, very good at predicting behavior, not just in terms of overall human trends but in terms of our personal choices. Temet nosce, as they say.

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