Getting counterfactuals right: the perspective of the causal reasoner

Synthese 200 (1):1-18 (2022)
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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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Elena Popa
Jagiellonian University

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References found in this work

Causation.David Lewis - 1973 - Journal of Philosophy 70 (17):556-567.
Causality.Judea Pearl - 2000 - Cambridge University Press.

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