Friday, July 31, 2009


Let me, as often, think out loud.

Counterfactuals seem to be an extremely powerful philosophical tool. Except that they never seem to work. Think of the employment of counterfactuals in connection with epistemology (e.g., one only knows p if one would not have believed p had p not been true), the theory of truth (Russell: p is true iff to believe p would be to believe truly), causation (Lewis), free will (e.g., x does A freely only if x would not have done A had x not wanted to do A), intention (e.g., x does A in order to achieve F only if x would not have done A had she not believed that it would achieve F), etc. It seems largely, and perhaps entirely, a history of failure. Yet, at the same time, counterfactual claims continue to seem tantalizingly close to capturing something important about many phenomena. Counterfactual characterizations are roughly right, but then fall apart when the details are to be worked out, or odd cases are considered (sometimes, the initial counterexamples are odd indeed, but with more work one can see that these counterexamples are not quite as out of the way as one might have thought). Counterfactual accounts are roughly right, but they cannot be modified to be exactly right. These are surprising facts, and it would be nice if a theory of counterfactuals explained them.

A standard story is that in a lot of the cases where counterfactual relations aren't doing their job, it is because one also needs an "in the right way" constraint on the counterfactual. Now, taking the words "in the right way" literally suggests that a normative, proper-function based, constraint is needed.

Could there, perhaps, be something like a counterfactual but which has that constraint built-in? But the force of that constraint is different in different employments of counterfactuals.


Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

I've always thought the failure of such accounts was not of the truth of some bi-conditional, but of the *reductive* nature of the proposal. That there is some true counterfactual, say, connected with causation, seems to me right; that it will serve as a reductive base of causation seem exactly wrong.

So I guess I'm inclined to think that the counterfactuals can be modified to be exactly right, but that the result will be non-reductive: it will appeal to some one of the putatively mysterious notions that philosophers these days are so desiring to be rid of.

The interesting question, it seems to me, is *which* putatively mysterious notion (or notions) ought we to use. And, or so it seems to me, the answer to that question will depend on what work the choice does for you in all the areas counterfactuals are connected with. There's no getting around just trying it and seeing what works.

I would be interested to see what would happen if you used some notion of normativity or final causation. (I myself prefer a notion of power, and would love to explain final causation and, indeed, normativity, in terms of a power. I think I see it for final causation, thanks to some work by Michael Rota, but I'm just not sure about normativity.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

The power for F is a normative concept in my book: the power for F is a power that ought to produce F (but might not), a power whose telos is F, etc.

I am not sure there is any true counterfactual connected with causation, except in normal cases. :-)

enigMan said...

Ordinary expressed counterfactuals do seem to work, and that must be because of some fairly common knowledge about how to take the various modalities. There are various sorts of possibility, connected to various ways in which things could have been different. Perhaps the counterfactual is what we have, in ordinary language, because it has the constraint built in, in just the right way. That is, the 'would' points us towards 'could' and 'possibly'. Then there are various posits connected to conceptual possibilities, some of which correspond to metaphysical possibilities. But to build the latter into some replacement for the counterfactual would naturally lose us the natural power of the counterfactual... maybe...

Dan Johnson said...
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Dan Johnson said...

Jon Kvanvig once mentioned in class a possible explanation for the simultaneous failure and near-irresistable attraction of counterfactual accounts (which is related in some ways to the first post, by Jonathan Jacobs):

Counterfactuals are a matter of logic, and are pretty well-behaved. There is a constant temptation, therefore, to reduce metaphysically substantive things to counterfactuals precisely because they are a matter of logic. And the reason this is possible is that there are a number of metaphysically substantive things which ground counterfactuals, which means there will be counterfactuals associated with them in the normal cases (providing tantalizing opportunities for reductive analysis).

Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

If C actually causes E, then if C were to occur *and everything else were exactly as it actually was when C caused E*, then it would cause E. Right?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, if C actually causes E, then the counterfactual (or subjunctive conditional) holds, because the truth of p and q is sufficient for the truth of were p, then q. :-)


That's interesting. So in a lot of these cases, the counterfactuals are really to be analyzed or grounded in terms of the metaphysical stuff that is really going on, but people get the direction wrong.

It would be very interesting if it followed that counterfactuals were of different natures in different cases, maybe in the way that the good in basketball is different from the good in morals.