Wed Jul 10, 2002

Counterfactual Plausibility

I was rereading a bit of Doug Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach the other day and came across this comment:

In everyday thought, we are constantly manufacturing mental variants on situations we face, ideas we have, or events that happen, and we let some features stay exactly the same while others ‘slip’. What features do we let slip? What ones do we not even consider letting slip? … There are times when one plaintively says, “It almost happened”, and other times when one says the same thing, full of relief. But the “almost” lies in the mind, not in the external facts.

Driving down a country road, you run into a swarm of bees. You don’t just duly take note of it; the whole situation is immediately placed in perspective by a swarm of “replays” that crowd into your mind. “Sure am lucky my window wasn’t open!“—-or worse, the reverse: “Too bad my window wasn’t closed!” “Lucky I wasn’t on my bike!” “Too bad I didn’t come along five seconds earlier.” Strange but possible replays: “If that had been a deer, I would have been killed!” “I bet those bees would have rather had a collision with a rosebush.” Even stranger replays: “Too bad those bees weren’t dollar bills!” “Lucky those bees weren’t made of cement!” “Too bad it wasn’t just one bee instead of a swarm.” “Lucky I wasn’t the swarm instread of being me.” What slips naturally and what doesn’t—-and why?

The issue here is the plausibility of counterfactuals. On the one hand, counterfactuals are second nature to us. We think in terms of them all the time. On the other, it can be difficult to say when a particular counterfactual (or a chain of them) starts to become implausible or silly. Hofstadter poses the question in a characteristically engaging way (though it’s equally characteristic of him that a clearly thought-out solution is not forthcoming).

Philosophers have written some important stuff on this topic, as it’s a central question in metaphysics. We can mostly leave that to them. I’m interested in the relationship between counterfactuals and social theory and the explanation of events. Historians have occasionally asked about the relationship between counterfactuals and historical explanation, but they’ve often been scared away from it. The fluidity of alternatives threatens to undermine the validity of their accounts, so they dismiss counterfactual history as a “parlor game”. Recently, though, there has been some new interest in the topic from smart people like Niall Ferguson. There’s also a small literature on the sociology side, investigating these ideas (and trying to apply some of the philosophical insights). And there has always been a historical literature—- especially in popular military history—- stressing the contingency of many major events. In sociology (particularly comparative historical sociology) the problem of counterfactuals occasionally comes up in discussions about whether (and to what extent) theory should be predictive. There was an exchange in AJS a few years ago between Alex Portes, Chuck Tilly, Timur Kuran and Randy Collins about this.

What’s been written on this topic leaves me in two minds about following it up further. The question is undeniably interesting—- I was thinking about an aspect of it the other day when I wrote about Minority Report—- but the literature is patchy. There might be a lot of dead ends. It might be worth incorporating some of it into an ‘Explanation in Social Science’ course, though.