Skip to main content

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

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. See www.uchronia.net. Accessed 22 Oct 2017. Attempts to imagine different pasts date as far back as Livy’s speculations on what would have happened, had Alexander the Great expanded his empire westward instead of eastward. In any case, Louis Geoffroy’s Historie de la Monarchie universelle: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1836) is sometimes credited as “the first recognizable full-length, speculative, alternative history” (Evans 2014, p. 11).

  2. As our analysis in the following sections will amply illustrate, advocates of counterfactual history of course disagree with Evans on this score. Indeed, it is easy to imagine, for instance, a counterfactual scenario revolving around Tycho Brahe’s death in 1566, following the sword duel in which he lost part of his nose; and all that is required to start building such a scenario are biographical facts about Brahe—namely, clear-cut instances of concrete historical evidence.

  3. Evans’ response to critics of his book is included in a recent monographic issue of the Journal of the Philosophy of History devoted to counterfactuals, which features papers by Ben-Menahem (2016), Nolan (2016), Sunstein (2016), Tucker (2016), and Woolf (2016). Evans sketched the essentials of his criticism of counterfactuals, well before the publication of Altered Pasts, within a symposium on counterfactual history published in Historically Speaking in 2004. The contributions therein collected (reprinted in Yerxa 2008) are an excellent sample of the debate among historians on the merits of counterfactuals.

  4. Weber hastened to emphasize the general methodological validity of his remarks on counterfactuals, which apply not only in the case of the specialist discipline of history, “but also in the ‘historical’ ascertainment of causes of every individual event, including even the individual events of ‘inanimate nature’” (1949 [1905], p. 166, fn. 32). For discussions on Weber’s view of counterfactuals within historical explanation, see esp. Reiss (2009) and Maar (2016).

  5. See however Nolan (2013, esp. Sect. 2) for a discussion of the problems involved in the best way to unpack the connection between causal claims and counterfactuals.

  6. As Kinzel (2016, pp. 93–94) notes, it is unclear whether, on Bowler’s account, such alternatives fared better or worse, along the dimension of empirical success, than evolution by natural selection.

  7. Within this framework, the term “advance” does not necessarily bring with it its usual positive connotation, since it “may also apply to steps in a ‘wrong’ direction” (Pessoa 2005, p. 264).

  8. According to Chang, “pluralism is more beneficial to science than monism, given any reasonable position regarding the aims of science and the fundamental views operating in science” (2012, p. 269). Such claim echoes Feyerabend’s work (see, e.g., Feyerabend 1970), by which Chang is admittedly inspired.

  9. For a systematic discussion of the difficulties involved in assessing how a certain discipline would have progressed, had history gone differently, see Fumagalli (2017, Sect. 5).

  10. For thoroughgoing presentations of the analytical problems arising within such debate, see esp. Soler (2008a, b, 2015a, b).

  11. See Soler (2015a, p. 9) for an impressively long list of the “ingredients” of science that one can view as inevitable (contingent).

  12. Simon Morris (1989, 2003) famously challenged Gould’s views, arguing that convergence, rather than divergence, is the norm of evolution.

  13. Cushing’s counterfactual history is an exception in this regard, exactly because it hinges on actual science.

References

  • 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 

  • 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.

  • Ben-Menahem, Y. (2016). If counterfactuals were excluded from historical reasoning. Journal of the Philosophy of History,10, 370–381.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bohm, D. (1951). Quantum theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

  • Bohm, D. (1952b). Reply to a criticism of a causal re-interpretation of the quantum theory. Physical Review,87, 389–390.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bowler, P. J. (2008). What Darwin disturbed: The biology that might have been. Isis,99, 560–567.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bowler, P. J. (2013). Darwin deleted: Imagining a world without Darwin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bulhof, J. (1999). What if? Modality and history. History and Theory,38, 145–168.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bunzl, M. (2004). Counterfactual history: A user’s guide. The American Historical Review,109, 845–858.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carr, E. H. (1961). What is history?. London: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chang, H. (2004). Inventing temperature: Measurement and scientific progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chang, H. (2012). Is water H2O? Evidence, realism and pluralism. Berlin: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chang, H. (2015). The chemical revolution revisited. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,49, 91–98.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cobb, M. (2016). A speculative history of DNA: What if Oswald Avery had died in 1934? PLoS Biology,14(12), e2001197.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cushing, J. T. (1994). Quantum mechanics: Historical contingency and the Copenhagen hegemony. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elster, J. (1978). Logic and society: Contradictions and possible worlds. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Evans, R. J. (2014). Altered pasts: Counterfactuals in history. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Evans, R. J. (2016). Response. Journal of the Philosophy of History,10, 457–467.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, N. (Ed.). (1997). Virtual history: Alternatives and counterfactuals. London: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

  • Fogel, R. (1964). Railroads and American economic growth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • French, S. (2008). Genuine possibilities in the scientific past and how to spot them. Isis,99, 568–575.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fumagalli, R. (2017). Who is afraid of scientific imperialism? Synthese. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1411-2.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giere, R. N. (2006). Scientific perspectivism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • 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 

  • Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful life: The Burgess Shale and the nature of history. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what?. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hacking, I. (2000). How inevitable are the results of successful science? Philosophy of Science,67, S58–S71.

    Google Scholar 

  • Haufe, C. (2015). Gould’s laws. Philosophy of Science, 82, 1–20.

    Google Scholar 

  • Henry, J. (2008). Ideology, inevitability, and the scientific revolution. Isis, 99, 552–559.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hesketh, I. (2014). Darwinian we are not: Counterfactualism as the natural course of history. History and Theory,53, 295–303.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kaye, S. T. (2010). Challenging certainty: The utility and history of counterfactualism. History and Theory,49, 38–57.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kidd, I. J. (2011). The contingency of science and the future of philosophy. Essays in Philosophy,12, 312–328.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kidd, I. J. (2016). Inevitability, contingency, and epistemic humility. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,55, 12–19.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kinzel, K. (2015a). Are the results of science contingent or inevitable? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,52, 55–66.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • Klein, U. (2015). A revolution that never happened. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,49, 80–90.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kragh, H. (1987). An introduction to the historiography of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kuipers, Th A F. (2000). From instrumentalism to constructive realism. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kusch, M. (2015). Scientific pluralism and the chemical revolution. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,49, 69–79.

    Google Scholar 

  • Laudan, L. (1981). A confutation of convergent realism. Philosophy of Science,48, 19–48.

    Google Scholar 

  • Laudan, R., Laudan, L., & Donovan, A. (Eds.). (1988). Scrutinizing science: Empirical studies of scientific change. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lebow, R. N. (2000). What’s so different about a counterfactual? World Politics,52, 550–585.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Love, A. C., Richards, R. J., & Bowler, P. (2015). What-if history of science. Metascience,24, 5–24.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin, J. D. (2013). Is the contingentist/inevitabilist debate a matter of degree? Philosophy of Science,80, 919–930.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • 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.

  • Morris, S. C. (1989). The crucible of creation: The Burgess Shale and the rise of animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morris, S. C. (2003). Life’s solution: Inevitable humans in a lonely universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Niiniluoto, I. (1999). Critical scientific realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nolan, D. (2013). Why historians (and everyone else) should care about counterfactuals. Philosophical Studies,163, 317–335.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nolan, D. (2016). The possibilities of history. Journal of the Philosophy of History,10, 441–465.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pessoa, O., Jr. (2001). Counterfactual histories: The beginning of quantum physics. Philosophy of Science,68, S519–S530.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pessoa, O., Jr. (2005). Causal models in the history of science. Croatian Journal of Philosophy,5, 263–274.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • Radick, G. (2005). Other histories, other biologies. In A. O’Hear (Ed.), Philosophy, biology and life (pp. 21–47). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Radick, G. (2008). Why what if? Isis,99, 547–551.

    Google Scholar 

  • Radick, G. (2016). Experimenting with the scientific past. The British Journal for the History of Science,49, 153–172.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reiss, J. (2009). Counterfactuals, thought experiments, and singular causal analysis in history. Philosophy of Science,76, 712–723.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenfeld, G. D. (2014). Whither “What if?” history? History and Theory, 53, 451–467.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sankey, H. (2008). Scientific realism and the inevitability of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,39, 259–264.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shapin, S. (2010). Never pure. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Soler, L. (2008a). Are the results of science contingent or inevitable? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,39, 221–229.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • 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 

  • Stanford, P. K. (2006). Exceeding our grasp: Science, history, and the problem of unconceived alternatives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sunstein, C. R. (2016). Historical explanations always involve counterfactual history. Journal of the Philosophy of History,10, 433–440.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tambolo, L. (2014). Pliability and resistance: Feyerabendian insights into sophisticated realism. European Journal for Philosophy of Science,4, 197–214.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tambolo, L. (2017). The problem of rule-choice redux. Journal of the Philosophy of History. https://doi.org/10.1163/18722636-12341372.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Tucker, A. (2004). Our knowledge of the past: A philosophy of historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tucker, A. (2016). Historiographic counterfactuals and the philosophy of historiography. Journal of the Philosophy of History,10, 333–348.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vlerick, M. (2017). How our biology constrains our science. Kairos. Journal of Philosophy & Science,18, 31–53.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

  • Woolf, D. (2016). Concerning altered pasts: reflections of an early modern historian. Journal of the Philosophy of History, 10, 413–432.

    Google Scholar 

  • Yerxa, D. A. (2008). Recent themes in historical thinking. Historians in conversation. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luca Tambolo.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tambolo, L. So close no matter how far: counterfactuals in history of science and the inevitability/contingency controversy. Synthese 197, 2111–2141 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1787-7

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1787-7

Keywords

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