, Volume 185, Issue 3, pp 365-386
Date: 20 Oct 2010

Counterfactual reasoning and the problem of selecting antecedent scenarios

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Abstract

A recent group of social scientists have argued that counterfactual questions play an essential role in their disciplines, and that it is possible to have rigorous methods to investigate them. Unfortunately, there has been little (if any) interaction between these social scientists and the philosophers who have long held that rigorous counterfactual reasoning is possible. In this paper, I hope to encourage some fresh thinking on both sides by creating new connections between them. I describe what I term “problem of selecting antecedent scenarios,” and show that this is an essential challenge in real-life counterfactual reasoning. Then, I demonstrate that the major extant theories of counterfactuals (especially the Lewis/Stalnaker theory and Igal Kvart’s rival account) are unable to solve this problem. I show that there are instances of real-life counterfactual reasoning in the social sciences that are counterexamples to both of these accounts. And finally, I develop a new theory of how to select antecedent scenarios that overcomes these difficulties, and so would be part of a more adequate theory of counterfactuals (and counterfactual reasoning).