On the Substitution of Identicals in Counterfactual Reasoning

Noûs 54 (3):600-631 (2020)
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It is widely held that counterfactuals, unlike attitude ascriptions, preserve the referential transparency of their constituents, i.e., that counterfactuals validate the substitution of identicals when their constituents do. The only putative counterexamples in the literature come from counterpossibles, i.e., counterfactuals with impossible antecedents. Advocates of counterpossibilism, i.e., the view that counterpossibles are not all vacuous, argue that counterpossibles can generate referential opacity. But in order to explain why most substitution inferences into counterfactuals seem valid, counterpossibilists also often maintain that counterfactuals with possible antecedents are transparency‐preserving. I argue that if counterpossibles can generate opacity, then so can ordinary counterfactuals with possible antecedents. Utilizing an analogy between counterfactuals and attitude ascriptions, I provide a counterpossibilist‐friendly explanation for the apparent validity of substitution inferences into counterfactuals. I conclude by suggesting that the debate over counterpossibles is closely tied to questions concerning the extent to which counterfactuals are more like attitude ascriptions and epistemic operators than previously recognized.

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Alexander W. Kocurek
Cornell University


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