Advertisement

Synthese

pp 1–31 | Cite as

So close no matter how far: counterfactuals in history of science and the inevitability/contingency controversy

  • Luca TamboloEmail author
Article
  • 107 Downloads

Abstract

This paper has a twofold purpose. First, it aims at highlighting one difference (albeit in degree and not in kind) in how counterfactuals work in general history, on the one hand, and in history of the natural sciences, on the other hand. As we show, both in general history and in history of science good counterfactual narratives need to be plausible, where plausibility is construed as appropriate continuity of both the antecedent and the consequent of the counterfactual with what we know about the world. However, in general history it is often possible to imagine a consequent dramatically different from the actual historical development, and yet plausible; in history of science, due to plausibility concerns, imagining a consequent far removed from the results of actual science seems more complicated. The second aim of the paper is to assess whether and to what degree counterfactual histories of science can advance the cause of the so-called “contingency thesis,” namely, the claim that history of science might have followed a path leading to alternative, non-equivalent theories, as successful as the ones that we currently embrace. We distinguish various versions of the contingency thesis and argue that counterfactual histories of science support weak versions of the thesis.

Keywords

Counterfactual history Plausibility Explanation in history History of science Contingency thesis Inevitability thesis 

Notes

Acknowledgements

This paper is based on material presented at the workshop “Progress, Realism, and Cognitive Values” (Trieste, 30 September 2016), at the SILFS2017 conference (Bologna, 20–23 June 2017), and at the EPSA17 conference (Exeter, 6–9 September 2017). Audiences at such venues—especially Mario Alai, Francesco Bianchini, Alberto Cordero, Vincenzo Crupi, Roberto Fumagalli, Anne Sophie Meincke, Jan Sprenger, and Ioannis Votsis—offered precious criticisms and suggestions. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to discuss at great length the issues addressed in this article with Gustavo Cevolani and Roberto Festa. Their insightful comments on various drafts of the manuscript, as well as the detailed feedback of two anonymous reviewers, contributed to improve significantly the final product. Usual caveats apply.

References

  1. Allamel-Raffin, C., & Gangloff, J. (2015). Some remarks about the definitions of contingentism and inevitabilism. In L. Soler, E. Trizio, & A. Pickering (Eds.), Science as it could have been: Discussing the contingency/inevitability problem (pp. 99–113). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  2. Arlo-Costa, H., & Egré, P. (2016). The logic of conditionals. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/logic-conditionals/. Accessed 22 Oct 2017.
  3. Ben-Menahem, Y. (2016). If counterfactuals were excluded from historical reasoning. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 370–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bohm, D. (1951). Quantum theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  5. Bohm D. (1952a). A suggested interpretation of the quantum theory in terms of ‘hidden’ variables, I and II. Physical Review, 85, 166–179 and 180–193.Google Scholar
  6. Bohm, D. (1952b). Reply to a criticism of a causal re-interpretation of the quantum theory. Physical Review, 87, 389–390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bowler, P. J. (2008). What Darwin disturbed: The biology that might have been. Isis, 99, 560–567.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bowler, P. J. (2013). Darwin deleted: Imagining a world without Darwin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bulhof, J. (1999). What if? Modality and history. History and Theory, 38, 145–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bunzl, M. (2004). Counterfactual history: A user’s guide. The American Historical Review, 109, 845–858.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carr, E. H. (1961). What is history?. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  12. Chang, H. (2004). Inventing temperature: Measurement and scientific progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chang, H. (2012). Is water H 2 O? Evidence, realism and pluralism. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chang, H. (2015). The chemical revolution revisited. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 49, 91–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cobb, M. (2016). A speculative history of DNA: What if Oswald Avery had died in 1934? PLoS Biology, 14(12), e2001197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cushing, J. T. (1994). Quantum mechanics: Historical contingency and the Copenhagen hegemony. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  17. Elster, J. (1978). Logic and society: Contradictions and possible worlds. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  18. Evans, R. J. (2014). Altered pasts: Counterfactuals in history. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Evans, R. J. (2016). Response. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 457–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ferguson, N. (Ed.). (1997). Virtual history: Alternatives and counterfactuals. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  21. Feyerabend, P. K. (1970). Consolations for the specialist. In I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave (Eds.), Criticism and the growth of knowledge (pp. 197–230). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Feyerabend, P. K. (1999). Conquest of abundance: A tale of abstraction versus the richness of Being (B. Terpstra, Ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  23. Fogel, R. (1964). Railroads and American economic growth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  24. French, S. (2008). Genuine possibilities in the scientific past and how to spot them. Isis, 99, 568–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fumagalli, R. (2017). Who is afraid of scientific imperialism? Synthese.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1411-2.Google Scholar
  26. Giere, R. N. (2006). Scientific perspectivism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Giere, R. N. (2015). Contingency, conditional realism, and the evolution of the sciences. In L. Soler, E. Trizio, & A. Pickering (Eds.), Science as it could have been: Discussing the contingency/inevitability problem (pp. 187–201). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  28. Gingras, Y. (2015). Necessity and contingency in the discovery of electron diffraction. In L. Soler, E. Trizio, & A. Pickering (Eds.), Science as it could have been: Discussing the contingency/inevitability problem (pp. 202–219). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  29. Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful life: The Burgess Shale and the nature of history. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  30. Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what?. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hacking, I. (2000). How inevitable are the results of successful science? Philosophy of Science, 67, S58–S71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Haufe, C. (2015). Gould’s laws. Philosophy of Science, 82, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Henry, J. (2008). Ideology, inevitability, and the scientific revolution. Isis, 99, 552–559.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hesketh, I. (2014). Darwinian we are not: Counterfactualism as the natural course of history. History and Theory, 53, 295–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hesketh, I. (2016). Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 58, 41–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hricko, J. (2017). Scientific rationality: Phlogiston as a case study. In T.-W. Hung & T. Lane (Eds.), Rationality: Constraints and contexts (pp. 37–60). London: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Jamieson, A., & Radick, G. (2013). Putting Mendel in his place: How curriculum reform in genetics and counterfactual history of science can work together. In K. Kampourakis (Ed.), The philosophy of biology: A companion for educators (pp. 577–595). Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Jamieson, A., & Radick, G. (2017). Genetic determinism in the genetics curriculum: An exploratory study of the effects of Mendelian and Weldonian Emphases. Science & Education.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-017-9900-8.Google Scholar
  39. Kaye, S. T. (2010). Challenging certainty: The utility and history of counterfactualism. History and Theory, 49, 38–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kidd, I. J. (2011). The contingency of science and the future of philosophy. Essays in Philosophy, 12, 312–328.Google Scholar
  41. Kidd, I. J. (2016). Inevitability, contingency, and epistemic humility. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 55, 12–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kidd, I. J. (2017). Review of Paul Feyerabend’s Philosophy of Nature. Journal of the Philosophy of History.  https://doi.org/10.1163/18722636-12341385.Google Scholar
  43. Kinzel, K. (2015a). Are the results of science contingent or inevitable? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 52, 55–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kinzel, K. (2015b). Narrative and evidence: How can case studies from the history of science support claims in the philosophy of science? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 49, 48–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kinzel, K. (2016). Counterfactuals, causes and contingency in the history of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 60, 92–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Klein, U. (2015). A revolution that never happened. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 49, 80–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kragh, H. (1987). An introduction to the historiography of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Kuipers, Th A F. (2000). From instrumentalism to constructive realism. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Kusch, M. (2015). Scientific pluralism and the chemical revolution. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 49, 69–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Laudan, L. (1981). A confutation of convergent realism. Philosophy of Science, 48, 19–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Laudan, R., Laudan, L., & Donovan, A. (Eds.). (1988). Scrutinizing science: Empirical studies of scientific change. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  52. Lebow, R. N. (2000). What’s so different about a counterfactual? World Politics, 52, 550–585.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lorenzano, P. (2011). What would have happened if Darwin had known Mendel (or Mendel’s work)? History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 33, 3–48.Google Scholar
  54. Love, A. C., Richards, R. J., & Bowler, P. (2015). What-if history of science. Metascience, 24, 5–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Maar, A. (2016). Applying D. K. Lewis’s counterfactual theory of causation to the philosophy of historiography. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 349–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Martin, J. D. (2013). Is the contingentist/inevitabilist debate a matter of degree? Philosophy of Science, 80, 919–930.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Megill, A. (2008). The new counterfactualists. In D. A. Yerxa (Ed.), Recent themes in historical thinking Historians in conversation (pp. 101–106). Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  58. Mendel, G. (1866). Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden. Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereins in Brünn, 4, 3–47. Translated in English, e.g., by S. Abbott & D. J. Fairbanks, in Genetics, 204, 407–422, 2016.Google Scholar
  59. Morris, S. C. (1989). The crucible of creation: The Burgess Shale and the rise of animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Morris, S. C. (2003). Life’s solution: Inevitable humans in a lonely universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Niiniluoto, I. (1999). Critical scientific realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Nolan, D. (2013). Why historians (and everyone else) should care about counterfactuals. Philosophical Studies, 163, 317–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Nolan, D. (2016). The possibilities of history. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 441–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Pessoa, O., Jr. (2001). Counterfactual histories: The beginning of quantum physics. Philosophy of Science, 68, S519–S530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Pessoa, O., Jr. (2005). Causal models in the history of science. Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 5, 263–274.Google Scholar
  66. Pessoa, O., Jr. (2010). Modeling the causal structure of the history of science. In L. Magnani et al. (Eds.), Model-based reasoning in science and technology (pp. 643–654). Heidelberg: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Pessoa, O., Jr. (2011). The causal strength of scientific advances. In D. Krause & A. Videira (Eds.), Brazilian studies in the philosophy of science (pp. 223–231). Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Radick, G. (2005). Other histories, other biologies. In A. O’Hear (Ed.), Philosophy, biology and life (pp. 21–47). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Radick, G. (2008). Why what if? Isis, 99, 547–551.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Radick, G. (2016). Experimenting with the scientific past. The British Journal for the History of Science, 49, 153–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Reiss, J. (2009). Counterfactuals, thought experiments, and singular causal analysis in history. Philosophy of Science, 76, 712–723.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Rescher, N. (1999). Extraterrestrial science. (Could aliens overcome our limitations?). In N. Rescher (Ed.), The limits of science (pp. 197–222). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Rosenfeld, G. D. (2014). Whither “What if?” history? History and Theory, 53, 451–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Rosenfeld, G. D. (2016). The ways we wonder “what if?”. Towards a typology of historical counterfactuals. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 382–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sankey, H. (2008). Scientific realism and the inevitability of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39, 259–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Shapin, S. (2010). Never pure. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Soler, L. (2008a). Are the results of science contingent or inevitable? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39, 221–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Soler, L. (2008b). Revealing the analytical structure and some intrinsic major difficulties of the contingentist/inevitabilist issue. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39, 230–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Soler, L. (2015a). Introduction: The contingentist/inevitabilist debate. In L. Soler, E. Trizio, & A. Pickering (Eds.), Science as it could have been: Discussing the contingency/inevitability problem (pp. 1–42). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  80. Soler, L. (2015b). Why contingentists should not care about the inevitabilist demand to “Put up or shut up”: A dialogic reconstruction of the argumentative network. In L. Soler, E. Trizio, & A. Pickering (Eds.), Science as it could have been: Discussing the contingency/inevitability problem (pp. 45–113). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  81. Stanford, P. K. (2006). Exceeding our grasp: Science, history, and the problem of unconceived alternatives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Sunstein, C. R. (2016). Historical explanations always involve counterfactual history. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 433–440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Tambolo, L. (2014). Pliability and resistance: Feyerabendian insights into sophisticated realism. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 4, 197–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Tambolo, L. (2016). Counterfactual histories of science and the contingency thesis. In L. Magnani & C. Casadio (Eds.), Model-based reasoning in science and technology (pp. 619–637). Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Tambolo, L. (2017). The problem of rule-choice redux. Journal of the Philosophy of History.  https://doi.org/10.1163/18722636-12341372.Google Scholar
  86. Tetlock, Ph E, & Belkin, A. (1996). Counterfactual thought experiments in world politics: Logical, methodological, and psychological perspectives. In Ph E Tetlock & A. Belkin (Eds.), Counterfactual thought experiments in world politics: Logical, methodological, and psychological perspectives (pp. 1–38). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Tetlock, P. E., Lebow, R. N., & Parker, G. (2006). Preface. In P. E. Tetlock, R. N. Lebow, & G. Parker (Eds.), Unmaking the West: “What-if” scenarios that rewrite world history (pp. 1–13). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Trizio, E. (2008). How many sciences for one world? Contingency and the success of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39, 253–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Trizio, E. (2015). Scientific realism and the contingency of the history of science. In L. Soler, E. Trizio, & A. Pickering (Eds.), Science as it could have been: Discussing the contingency/inevitability problem (pp. 129–150). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  90. Tucker, A. (2004). Our knowledge of the past: A philosophy of historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Tucker, A. (2016). Historiographic counterfactuals and the philosophy of historiography. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 333–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Vlerick, M. (2017). How our biology constrains our science. Kairos. Journal of Philosophy & Science, 18, 31–53.Google Scholar
  93. Weber, M. (1949) [1905]). Objective possibility and adequate causation. In E. A. Shils & H. A. Finch (Eds.), The methodology of the social sciences (pp. 164–188). Glencoe: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  94. Woolf, D. (2016). Concerning altered pasts: reflections of an early modern historian. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 413–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Yerxa, D. A. (2008). Recent themes in historical thinking. Historians in conversation. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.MarzabottoItaly

Personalised recommendations