Special-science counterfactuals

The Monist 105 (2):194–213 (2022)
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On the standard analysis, a counterfactual conditional such as “If P had been the case, then Q would have been the case” is true in the actual world if, in all nearest possible worlds in which its antecedent (P) is true, its consequent (Q) is also true. Despite its elegance, this analysis faces a difficulty if the laws of nature are deterministic. Then the antecedent could not have been true, given prior conditions. So, it is unclear what the relevant “nearest possible worlds” are. David Lewis suggested that they are ones in which a local breach of the laws occurred: a “small miracle”. Others have suggested that they are ones in which the initial conditions were different (“backtracking”). I propose another response. It builds on the idea that the special sciences, where counterfactual reasoning is most common, operate at a higher level of description from fundamental physics, and that the world may behave indeterministically at higher levels even if it behaves deterministically at the fundamental physical one. The challenge from determinism can then be bypassed for many special-science counterfactuals.

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Christian List
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München


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