When people learn that I tore my quadriceps tendon in a fall, they tend to say “it could have been worse.” Their main intent is, of course, not to state the obvious but to make me feel better about my plight. Presumably, when I ponder that I could have landed on my head and died, I will feel better about merely being unable to run for 9-12 months. Oddly enough, I do.
I suspect that when most people say those words, they are not considering the metaphysical implications of their claim. However, this matter does seem worth considering. Although I may or may not still be a runner, I am still a philosopher, so onward with the considering.
On the face of it, to make the claim is to assert that it is possible that the event could have had a different outcome and that among the possible outcomes are those that are worse than the actual outcome.
If we happen to live in a deterministic (or pre-determined) universe, then it could not have been worse. This is because the only possible outcome is the outcome that occurred and it cannot be worse (or better) than itself.
For example, suppose that Spinoza got it right and all actual events are those that must happen and that they could not be otherwise. In this case, my fall and injury could not be worse because no other outcome was possible. Spinoza would no doubt say to me “it could not have been worse, or better. What you should do is realize this and free yourself from the bondage of your emotions. Thus, you will achieve serenity.”
As another example, on Leibniz’s view the injury could not have been any worse-at least in this world. When God created the world, at least according to Leibniz, he selected the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps in other worlds my injury was worse and, if so, then the injury could have been worse if God had decided to create that world. Of course, since God picks the best (and seemingly must pick the best), it could be argued that those other possibilities are not possibilities at all: God could not have picked them and hence my injury could not have been worse. If so, I got the injury that was “placed” by God into my nature and, as the pre-established harmony of the universe ticked along, my tendon was torn. I am not sure what Leibniz would say about a torn quadriceps, but he would no doubt be diplomatic about it.
Now, if we live in a non-deterministic world, then perhaps my injury could have been worse. It would, of course, depend on all the various factors that would set what can and cannot be. Perhaps I did suffer the worst possible injury given all the antecedent conditions. Then again, perhaps I did not.
At the very least, it is easy enough to conceive or imagine the injury being worse. Perhaps what we can conceive is, to follow Descartes, possible. If so, then the injury could have been much worse. People have, at various times, noted that I could have broke my neck, torn both quadriceps tendons, died, broke both legs, been paralyzed in the fall and eaten by rogue squirrels (best not to ask), and so on. All of these are worse than my current situation, so it could have been worse.
Perhaps David Lewis is right and my injury could be worse because in some possible world there is a Mike counterpart who fell and suffered a worse injury. If so, I feel really sorry for him. But, the Mike counterpart I feel most sorry for is the poor fellow who has the worst possible injury from the fall. Assuming he is not dead now, he will be denied the consolation of his friends and associates telling him “it could have been worse.”