Counterfactual Skepticism

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by Tyler Collins

This summer, I’ve had the privilege of working with Dr. Nikk Effingham as part of UoB’s 2019 undergraduate research scholarship. This blog post sadly marks the end of that project and leaves me with an unusual question: How best to convey what was essentially five weeks of close reading? Unfortunately, philosophy seldom has the technical flare of searching through archives or the flashiness of conducting a study. More often than not it consists of reading and thinking, which you could imagine becomes a hard sell when somebody asks you to make your research process compelling. So, at least as far as this project is concerned,  we’ll need to reverse the old adage. It was the destination that was of interest, not the journey!

With that preamble out of the way, we can move onto the project itself! As the name suggests, the project’s focus was counterfactual skepticism; the view that most or all counterfactuals are false. While we rarely think about them abstractly, counterfactuals are actually statements we use every day. They’re claims about what ‘would’ or ‘will’ be, if the world were different to how it actually is. They can be historical, such as “If Germany had lost WW1, Hitler would not have risen to power”; and futureward, such as “If I toss this ball, it will fall back down”.

While it might seem fair to doubt the truth of the first statement, I’ll forgive you if you find it weird to doubt the truth of the last one, as the counterfactual skeptic does. Gravity doesn’t just switch off at a whim, so surely balls will fall down when tossed. Well, here the counterfactual skeptic appeals to two things: uncertainty and quantum mechanics. They claim that, if a situation is uncertain, statements about what ‘would’ or ‘will’ happen are simply false. While this might not be intuitive in the ball case, it definitely is in a coin toss. If I you tossed a coin and I told you it would definitely come down heads, you’d probably call me daft. After all, it might  come down tails. The only reason we don’t think the ball tossing case is false, is because we think it’s certain that it will fall back down. Here, the skeptic appeals to quantum mechanics, which tells us that uncertainty is actually a lot more rife in the world than we’d like to think. So much so, in fact, that there is the insanely small chance of every particle in the ball ‘tunnelling’ in every direction, causing it to evaporate before it fell back down. The fact that this chance is small doesn’t stop the counterfactual being false, even if saying so seems insufferably pedantic.

While it might not seem so bad on the face of it, the consequences of this view being true are actually pretty catastrophic. If you recognize that you use counterfactuals quite a bit, you better believe they’re used a lot in more specialized disciplines; disciplines where saying something true counts for a lot.  A great example of this is in law, where counterfactuals are used to demonstrate negligence by claiming something like “If she had paid attention, it wouldn’t have happened!”. Another is pathology, where counterfactuals are used to show cause of death (“If X hadn’t happened, they would still be alive”). Given this potential damage, one of the objectives of this project has been to see if other disciplines had considered counterfactual skepticism in some form or another, albeit under the ordinary notion of uncertainty, not the quantum mechanical variety!

I began with the linguistics literature and it wasn’t a promising start to the research. While linguists do talk about counterfactuals, they don’t seem to talk about them being true/false. After some days with no luck, I moved onto law and things really started to pick up. Once I got used to the legal jargon, it only took me a few days to find discussions on counterfactuals (or “hypotheticals”) spanning back decades. Concerns regarding uncertainty are rife in a field that prides itself on proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the uncertainty of daily life, legal scholars are found skeptical of counterfactuals used in negligence, remedial justice, and determining cause-in-fact. The way scholars wanted to deal with this uncertainty was varied. Some called for counterfactuals not to be used in court, while others called for rephrasing to what is probably true. Some called counterfactuals true while others said we need to focus on whether or not they are assertible. Suffice to say, there isn’t a consensus among the legal community on how we should approach counterfactuals.

My hope is that this project shines a light on the need for that cooperation between the disciplines for whom counterfactuals play an integral role. Perhaps, now that philosophers have become more aware of the problem, we can work together to find practical solutions for uncertainty or, better yet, show that uncertainty isn’t as much of a problem as it appears. Whatever will turn out to be the case, I have really enjoyed my time in the scholarship, and thank Dr. Effingham and the college for the opportunity to conduct this research!

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