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Counterfactualism August 31, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, science.

In counterfactual history, people debate over questions such as “What would have happened if …”, say the Atom Bomb was not dropped, India was not partitioned and the like. Now, its easy to say -“That is merely an an academic exercise (waste of time)”.

Is it ?

From an interview with one of my favorite academic/writer Steve Pinker :

DS: In your chapter, Cleaving The Air, you write of how people often mistake chronology for causality. As example, you cite two potential assassins who try to kill a man, and use this as an example of the ‘counterfactual theory.’ Please elucidate.

SP: Actually, the counterfactual theory arose to solve the problem that chronology is not causality. I take some herbs and my cold sore goes away. Does that prove that the herbs cured the cold sore? No, to show that you’d have to show that if the person failed to eat the herbs (the counterfactual scenario), the cold sores would have remained. The dual-assassin thought-experiment, for its part, was intended to make life difficult for the counterfactual theory. Specifically: two assassins conspire to take out a dictator at a public rally, with the first one to get a clear shot firing whereupon the other melts into the crowd. They end up killing him with simultaneously fired bullets. But if Assassin A hadn’t fired, the dictator would still be dead, and ditto for Assassin B. Hence, according to the counterfactual theory, neither one killed him! But that can’t be right. So the counterfactual theory has problems, too.

DS: In a sense, though, such an exercise seems akin to the Presidential parsings you mention. Also, it reminds me of one of Zeno’s Paradoxes- the one where one can never move because one would have to get halfway to a place, then a quarter of a way, then an eighth, and so on. Is counterfactualism merely mental masturbation?

SP: You haven’t watched enough Law and Order – courtroom examples pop up all the time. Can a widow of a smoking asbestos miner sue the tobacco company (who will say the asbestos killed him) or the asbestos company (who will say the smoking killed him)?

That last retort is interesting. See my previous post : Do Law.



1. Achala - September 1, 2007

Where’s the link?

2. Sharath Rao - September 1, 2007

there it is, again 🙂

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