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Understanding Counterfactuals / Understanding Causation

A two-day workshop
15/16 December
University of Warwick


Workshop description 

There is a great deal of existing work in philosophy exploring connections between causation and counterfactuals, much of it framed in terms of a debate as to whether or not the meaning of causal claims can be explained in terms of counterfactual conditionals. Perhaps surprisingly, though, philosophers working in this area, with a few exceptions, rarely consider empirical work in psychology on the circumstances in which people actually produce counterfactuals, or on how grasp of counterfactuals develops in children. Nor is it easy to find any systematic discussion of the question as to how we should think of the relationship between philosophical and psychological research in this area. The aim of this workshop is to try and make progress on this question by bringing together both philosophers and psychologists working on counterfactuals and causation. The hope is that this will help us make more concrete questions as to what it is for someone to think of the world in causal or counterfactual terms, and how the two might be connected, in a way that might be beneficial for both disciplines. In more detail, some of questions to be discussed include:

  • Are there principled ways of drawing distinctions between different kinds of counterfactuals that can explain differences in children's performance on different counterfactual tasks? Do they relate in interesting ways to distinctions we might want to draw between different levels of sophistication in understanding causal relationships?
  • To what extent, if any, are counterfactual approaches to causation committed to the idea that causal reasoning requires a grasp of counterfactuals? Would data showing, for instance, developmental dissociations between causal and counterfactual judgements impose constraints on such approaches?
  • Work on the psychology of counterfactual reasoning highlights different ingredients in counterfactual reasoning such as imaginative abilities, an understanding of possibility or a grasp of tenses, which do not typically appear in standard accounts of causal reasoning. What, if any, connection do these abilities have to the ability to form causal judgements?
  • What sorts of causal understanding are available to children (and animals) in the absence of an explicit grasp of counterfactuals, and to what extent, if any, do they rely on elements of counterfactual reasoning that can be implicit also in non-verbal behaviour?
  • What, if anything, does an ability to reason with counterfactuals add to a child's understanding of causal relationships? What are the circumstances in which children and adults engage in counterfactual reasoning, and what is the function of such reasoning?
  • Can an appeal to counterfactual reasoning abilities provide a useful way of distinguishing between an explicit and an implicit grasp of causal relations?