Events and their counterparts


This paper argues that a counterpart-theoretic treatment of events, combined with a counterfactual theory of causation (call this combination CCT), can help resolve three puzzles from the causation literature. First, CCT traces the apparent contextual shifts in our causal attributions to shifts in the counterpart relation which obtains in those contexts. Second, being sensitive to shifts in the counterpart relation can help diagnose what goes wrong in certain prominent examples where the transitivity of causation appears to fail. Third, CCT can help us resurrect the much-maligned fragility response to the problems of late pre-emption by understanding fragility in counterpart-theoretic terms. Some reasons to prefer this CCT approach to rivals are discussed.

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  1. 1.

    Quine (1985) and Schaffer (2005) also endorse a coarse-grained theory of events.

  2. 2.

    The world-bound events theorist need not endorse counterpart theory, or in fact any interpretation of modal talk that is meaningful. For example, they may not take the subjunctive conditionals concerning actual events seriously and so would not owe any account of their truth conditions.

  3. 3.

    See Lewis (1986d) for a reprint of the original work together with some important post-scripts. The simplifying role of the limit assumption is mentioned on p. 164 but is discussed more fully in his (2001, pp. 19–21).

  4. 4.

    I thank an anonymous referee for helping to draw out the options.

  5. 5.

    Once again I stress that this is not offered as a final analysis but rather a working account to show the benefits of adopting a counterpart theory of events within a counterfactual theory of causation.

  6. 6.

    Hitchcock (1996) argues that the emphasis implies an alternative ‘contrast’ event. I am proposing a different solution.

  7. 7.

    It is important to note that reading the essence from the emphasis works well in this simple case, but more complex cases will require much more careful assessment of the context. Emphasis will typically be just one clue among many.

  8. 8.

    Note that I claim only that the representation of the event’s essence is shifty. This is so that I can remain neutral here about whether or not the event’s essence is genuinely shifting.

  9. 9.

    This embellishment confounds temporal-parts solutions to the ancient puzzle which distinguish the duration throughout which Goliath and Lumpl existed when the statue is merely squashed rather than annihilated.

  10. 10.

    Though see Merricks (2003) for an important critique.

  11. 11.

    I thank an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  12. 12.

    For the sake of brevity I do not rehearse the contrastive reading of the bike stealing case above. See Schaffer (2005) and Schaffer (2012) for the contrastive treatment of this and other examples.

  13. 13.

    The defender of contrastivism will rightly point out that their claim to superiority over simple counterfactual analyses of causation is based on many more issues than just tracing the contextual variation—Schaffer (2005) in particular argues that contrastivism can successfully resolve issues of absence causation and extensionality that I will not discuss here. Not all battles can be fought at once, however, and so I restrict myself to considerations of contextualism, transitivity and pre-emption in this paper.

  14. 14.

    See Schaffer (2005).

  15. 15.

    More examples with a near-identical structure can be found in McDermott (1995), Hall (2000), and Lewis (2004). I will stick to discussion of Paul’s case for brevity.

  16. 16.

    I will not discuss cases involving absences or double prevention here (see Hall (2000) for much discussed examples). Such cases are highly controversial given that they involve omissions as causes. Absence causation is a worthy topic in its own right (see Bernstein (2013) for a treatment using counterpart-theoretic events) but it would go beyond the scope of this paper to discuss it here. My aim is to show that counterpart-theoretic events can match the results claimed by Paul and Schaffer in the less controversial cases.

  17. 17.

    For an illuminating discussion of the role of intuition in the philosophy of causation, see Hall (2007a). Note that this is a pre-print of the eventually published (2007b) but that the discussion in question only appears in the pre-print version. Hall (personal correspondence) considers the pre-print the official version as the published version was shortened due to space constraints.

  18. 18.

    See McDonnell (2015).

  19. 19.

    Trumping cases (Schaffer 2000) will be immune to the fragility response but are controversial—see McDermott (2002) and Bernstein (2015).

  20. 20.

    In his later (2004) account of causation, Lewis took the position that such small influences could not be causes. I disagree. See Schaffer (2001) and (Strevens 2003) for persuasive rebuttals of this notion.

  21. 21.

    There is an interesting methodological issue lurking under the surface in this sort of debate. Lewis purported to be offering pre-selective account of causation: a highly liberal and inclusive account of causation intended to pick out all of the causes there are prior to our pragmatically selecting those which interest us (see 1986d, p. 162). It is not clear why anyone offering such a pre-selective account should worry if a host of typically irrelevant causes such as the dog’s bark and Billy’s gravity are counted, so long as the salient cause or causes are too. But plainly Lewis did think that counting ‘spurious’ causes was a problem for his theory, so perhaps the view of causation he was offering was not completely pre-selective after all. For the purposes of this paper I am simply aiming for what Lewis explicitly wanted which is to offer a theory which can match intuition in ordinary pre-emption cases.

  22. 22.

    The region of the actual world denoted by the event letter (c, d, e, etc.) remains fixed throughout.


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This paper benefited greatly from input from Stephan Leuenberger and an anonymous referee and I am very grateful to them both. I am also grateful to Umut Baysan, Patrick Kaczmarek, Peter Menzies and Martin Smith for valuable comments and advice. The research for this paper was conducted jointly at the University of Glasgow as part of the Glasgow Emergence Project (funded by John Templeton Foundation Grant 40485) and at Universität Hamburg, as part of the DFG Emmy Noether Research Group Ontology After Quine. I am thankful for the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

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McDonnell, N. Events and their counterparts. Philos Stud 173, 1291–1308 (2016).

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  • Counterparts
  • Events
  • Transitivity
  • Pre-emption
  • Contextualism