A Conversation about Causation and Counterfactuals

by Kieran Healy on October 21, 2010

Philosophy TV hosts a conversation between Ned Hall and L.A. Paul on the counterfactual analysis of causation. It is, of course, must-see TV on any plausible account of necessity.

In the interests of full disclosure, something, something, something. I’ll think of it in a minute.



Paul Sagar 10.21.10 at 10:24 pm

My word, are people still flogging the dead counterfactual horse?

The “problem” of causation was solved in a little book called A Treatise of Human Nature. And whilst said book has generally been misread, I thought that people had nonetheless realised that a “counterfactual” analysis – a la confused David Lewis – is utterly hopeless taken alone.


Kieran 10.21.10 at 11:13 pm

My word, indeed.


dana 10.21.10 at 11:27 pm

My word, Paul is a woman?!? ;-)


Substance McGravitas 10.21.10 at 11:33 pm

My word, Paul is a woman?!?

Progressive credentials ratcheted DOWN.


Substance McGravitas 10.22.10 at 12:59 am

Meaning Kieran’s. Fail is my middle name.


Neil 10.22.10 at 2:39 am

My word, are people still flogging the dead counterfactual horse?

There is a nomologically possible world in which this horse is not flogged.


Paul Sagar 10.22.10 at 7:51 am


If the horse had not been flogged, it would not have died.
If the horse had been flogged, it would have died.

Note that flogging apparently caused the horse to die depending on how one reads the conditionals above. But I swear I only started whipping the thing after/ David Lewis ran off cackling into the night.


Paul Sagar 10.22.10 at 7:51 am

HTML fail


Michael Drake 10.22.10 at 12:31 pm

All we can really say is that we see the flogging of the horse and the horse’s death constantly conjoined, and that we expect from the one the appearance of the other.


ben w 10.22.10 at 7:02 pm

The good (and no doubt flush) people of Philosophy TV should really furnish their guests with headset-like things of the sort whose use Paul enjoys, because Hall looks uncomfortable holding his phone up like that for the whole conversation.


Neil 10.22.10 at 11:35 pm

Oh, now I see. The counterfactual analysis fails because it is possible to give wildly stupid reading of counterfactual claims.


Brian 10.24.10 at 12:40 am

Isn’t Ned Hall your brother?


Michael Weissman 10.27.10 at 2:05 am

Actually, the biggest problem with the counterfactual analysis has been solved. Quantum mechanics not only allows but even requires (for consistency with relativity) that the outcome of a “measurement” process not be determined by any event in its past light cone. That means that, unlike in an deterministic dynamics, one can in at least some cases make alternate accounts of particular events which are fully consistent with exactly the same detailed past. Thus, to the extent we understand the dynamics correctly, we can reason about counterfactuals without worrying about an infinite train of detailed past differences.

Comments on this entry are closed.