pp 1–19 | Cite as

Time travel and counterfactual asymmetry

  • Alison FernandesEmail author


We standardly evaluate counterfactuals and abilities in temporally asymmetric terms—by keeping the past fixed and holding the future open. Only future events depend counterfactually on what happens now. Past events do not. Conversely, past events are relevant to what abilities one has now in a way that future events are not. Lewis, Sider and others continue to evaluate counterfactuals and abilities in temporally asymmetric terms, even in cases of backwards time travel. I’ll argue that we need more temporally neutral methods. The past shouldn’t always be held fixed, because backwards time travel requires backwards counterfactual dependence. Future events should sometimes be held fixed, because they’re in the causal history of the past, and agents have evidence of them independently of their decisions now. We need temporally neutral methods to maintain connections between causation, counterfactuals and evidence, and if counterfactuals are used to explain the temporal asymmetry of causation.


Time travel Counterfactuals Causation Evidence Temporal asymmetry Backwards causation Open future David Lewis 



My warm thanks to the following people for helpful comments, discussions and suggestions: David Albert, Kristie Miller, Achille Varzi, Carolina Sartorio, Alasdair Richmond, Jenann Ismael, Anjan Chakravartty, Matthew Brown, Kareem Khalifa, Yann Benétreau-Dupin, Edouard Machery, Jonathan Tallant, Christian Loew, Juliusz Doboszewski, and Giuliano Torrengo. This work was supported by a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, and a Research Fellowship on the AHRC project ‘Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology’ at the University of Warwick (AH/P00217X/1).


  1. Albert, D. Z. (2000). Time and chance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Arntzenius, F. (2006). Time travel: Double your fun. Philosophy Compass, 1(6), 599–616.Google Scholar
  3. Arntzenius, F., & Maudlin, T. (2013). Time travel and modern physics. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition). Accessed October 24, 2016.
  4. Carroll, J. W. (2010). Context, conditionals, fatalism, time travel, and freedom. In J. K. Campbell, M. O’Rourke, & H. S. Silverstein (Eds.), Time and identity (pp. 79–93). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Collins, J., Hall, N., & Paul, L. A. (2004). Counterfactuals and causation: History, problems, and prospects. In J. Collins, N. Hall, & L. A. Paul (Eds.), Causation and counterfactuals (pp. 1–57). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  6. Daniels, P. R. (2014). Lewisian time travel in a relativistic setting. Metaphysica, 15(2), 329–345.Google Scholar
  7. Earman, J. (1974). An attempt to add a little direction to “the problem of the direction of time”. Philosophy of Science, 41(1), 15–47.Google Scholar
  8. Edgington, D. (2004). Counterfactuals and the benefit of hindsight. In P. Dowe & P. Noordhof (Eds.), Cause and chance: Causation in an indeterministic world (pp. 12–27). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Elga, A. (2001). Statistical mechanics and the asymmetry of counterfactual dependence. Philosophy of Science, 68(3), S313–S324.Google Scholar
  10. Fernandes, A. Forth. Freedom, self-prediction, and the possibility of time travel. Philosophical Studies.Google Scholar
  11. Fernandes, A. (2016). Varieties of epistemic freedom. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 94(4), 736–751.Google Scholar
  12. Fernandes, A. (2017). A deliberative approach to causation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 95(3), 686–708.Google Scholar
  13. Field, H. (2003). Causation in a physical world. In M. J. Loux & D. W. Zimmerman (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of metaphysics (pp. 435–460). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Frisch, M. (2010). Does a low-entropy constraint prevent us from influencing the past? In G. Ernst & A. Hüttemann (Eds.), Time, chance and reduction: philosophical aspects of statistical mechanics (pp. 13–33). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Halpern, J. (2000). Axiomatizing causal reasoning. Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, 12, 317–337.Google Scholar
  16. Hiddleston, E. (2005). A causal theory of counterfactuals. Noûs, 39(4), 632–657.Google Scholar
  17. Hitchcock, C. (2001). The intransitivity of causation revealed in equations and graphs. Journal of Philosophy, 98(6), 273–299.Google Scholar
  18. Horacek, D. (2005). Time travel in indeterministic worlds. The Monist, 88(3), 423–436.Google Scholar
  19. Horwich, P. (1987). Asymmetries in time. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  20. Ismael, J. (2003). Closed causal loops and the bilking argument. Synthese, 136(3), 305–320.Google Scholar
  21. Ismael, J. (2017). An Empiricist’s guide to objective modality. In M. Slater & Z. Yudell (Eds.), Metaphysics and the philosophy of science: New essays (pp. 109–125). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Jackson, F. (1977). A causal theory of counterfactuals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 55(1), 3–21.Google Scholar
  23. Kiourti, I. (2008). Killing baby Suzy. Philosophical Studies, 139(3), 343–352.Google Scholar
  24. Kvart, I. (1986). A theory of counterfactuals. Indianapolis: Hackett.Google Scholar
  25. Lewis, D. (1973). Causation. The Journal of Philosophy, 70(17), 556–567.Google Scholar
  26. Lewis, D. (1976). The paradoxes of time travel. American Philosophical Quarterly, 13(2), 145–152.Google Scholar
  27. Lewis, D. (1979). Counterfactual dependence and time’s arrow. Noûs, 13(4), 455–476.Google Scholar
  28. Lewis, D. (1981). Are we free to break the laws? Theoria, 47(3), 113–121.Google Scholar
  29. Loewer, B. (2007). Counterfactuals and the second law. In H. Price & R. Corry (Eds.), Causation, physics, and the constitution of reality (pp. 293–326). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Pearl, J. (2000). Causality: Models, reasoning and inference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Rea, M. (2015). Time travelers are not free. Journal of Philosophy, 112(5), 266–279.Google Scholar
  32. Reichenbach, Hans. (1956). The direction of time. In M. Reichenbach (Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  33. Rennick, S. (2015). Things mere mortals can do, but philosophers can’t. Analysis, 75(1), 22–26.Google Scholar
  34. Rice, H. (2015). Fatalism. In E. N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition). Accessed 24 November, 2016.
  35. Schaffer, J. (2004). Counterfactuals, causal independence and conceptual circularity. Analysis, 64(4), 299–308.Google Scholar
  36. Sider, T. (2002). Time travel, coincidences and counterfactuals. Philosophical Studies, 110(2), 115–138.Google Scholar
  37. Smeenk, C., & Wüthrich, C. (2011). Time travel and time machines. In C. Callender (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of time (pp. 577–630). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Smith, N. J. J. (1997). Bananas enough for time travel? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 48(3), 363–389.Google Scholar
  39. Strevens, M. (2008). Depth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Tooley, M. (2002). Backward causation and the Stalnaker–Lewis approach to counterfactuals. Analysis, 62(3), 191–197.Google Scholar
  41. Vihvelin, K. (1996). What time travelers cannot do. Philosophical Studies, 81(2/3), 315–330.Google Scholar
  42. Vihvelin, K. 2011. Two objections to the possibility of time travel. Accessed April 28, 2016.
  43. Wasserman, R. (2015). Lewis on backward causation. Thought, 4, 141–150.Google Scholar
  44. Wasserman, R. (2018). Paradoxes of time travel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyTrinity College DublinDublinIreland

Personalised recommendations