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Getting counterfactuals right: the perspective of the causal reasoner

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This paper aims to bridge philosophical and psychological research on causation, counterfactual thought, and the problem of backtracking. Counterfactual approaches to causation such as that by Lewis have ruled out backtracking, while on prominent models of causal inference interventionist counterfactuals do not backtrack. However, on various formal models, certain backtracking counterfactuals end up being true, and psychological evidence shows that people do sometimes backtrack when answering counterfactual questions in causal contexts. On the basis of psychological research, I argue that while ordinarily both kinds of counterfactuals may be employed, non-backtracking counterfactuals are more easily used in causal inference because they are consistent with temporal order information embedded in the mental simulation heuristic, and they match reasoners’ experience of causation. While this approach is incompatible with the ambitions of counterfactual theories that seek to establish the non-backtracking interpretation as the only legitimate one, it can provide support for perspectival views on causation and open further inquiry on the functions of causal and counterfactual thought in the context of causal models.

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  1. See Lewis (1973).

  2. One issue is whether Woodward’s account should be read as a theory of causation at all, see Popa (2015): Sect. 1.2 for a review and arguments in this sense.

  3. See Glynn (2013) for a discussion of Woodward’s counterexamples and a comparison to Lewis.

  4. On an interventionist reading, intervening to light the match would break the connection to its cause (striking it), thus the counterfactual ‘If the march lit, then if the match had not been struck, it would have lit’ would be true.

  5. In the philosophical literature on causation this would count as a preemption scenario.

  6. This falls into the blicket detector paradigm (see Gopnik and Sobel, 2000).

  7. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for bringing up this point.

  8. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this point.

  9. Also see Kahneman (1995) for a discussion on counterfactuals specifically.

  10. See Waldmann and Mayrhofer (2016) for a discussion of different concepts of causation in psychological context.


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Correspondence to Elena Popa.

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Popa, E. Getting counterfactuals right: the perspective of the causal reasoner. Synthese 200, 17 (2022).

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