Counterfactual histories and possible futures

Edit. See also Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is. Part 2 discussing how to assess historiographical counterfactuals.

There has been discussion about the relevance of historiographers’ “toolkit of thinking” in futures studies. In order to understand the possible relationships between historiography and futures studies, the claims made about historiographical toolkit must be critically examined. In this post, I begin a series of discussions on the topic and analyze some issues that are related to historical counterfactuals.

David J. Staley (2002) has argued that important questions in historiographical analysis require that we study and track counterfactual histories, i.e. histories that did not happen but would have happened, had some historical event or process been different. [I share this view, see my 2019.] Staley claims that the basic strategies that are used in tracking counterfactual histories can be used in scenario building: if we are able to track alternative histories, we are also able to track alternative futures.

However, counterfactual histories have often been criticized as mere speculation and there exists a genuine question of what makes a counterfactual scenario plausible. We cannot have (direct, see below) evidence of counterfactual scenarios (because, by definition, they did not happen). If we are not able to distinguish between plausible and far-fetched counterfactual scenarios, there is little hope that we are able to distinguish between plausible and far-fetched future scenarios on the basis of historiographical toolkit. Therefore, Staley asks

But how does the historian determine which alternatives are plausible, when one could imagine an infinite number of different scenarios?”. (2002, 85.)

Staley cites a suggestion by Niall Ferguson:

The answer to the question is very simple: We should consider as plausible or probable only those alternatives which we can show on the basis of contemporary evidence that contemporaries actually considered.” (1997, 86.)

Staley is not alone with his view that Ferguson’s approach is able to define plausible historical scenarios and to connect futures studies and historiography. Alix Green has also argued that “This [Ferguson’s approach] makes counterfactuals and scenarios ontologically similar” (Green 2012, 175).

In my view, there are fundamental problems in the suggestion that plausible counterfactuals are identical with Ferguson-style counterfactuals (let’s call them “f-counterfactuals”). That some historical agents thought some scenario S to be possible (or plausible) is neither necessary nor sufficient for S to be possible (or plausible). At the end of the 19th century, fundamental changes in physics were not considered as plausible (not necessary), and it was thought as a plausible scenario that physics would improve only in a piecemeal manner (not sufficient). If scenarios and counterfactuals (in Ferguson’s sense) are “ontologically” similar, then the value of scenario-work in analyzing the possible futures is not obvious.

Are there reasons to believe that scenarios and f-counterfactuals are similar? At the first glance, it seems that there are. Both scenario-work and f-counterfactuals are based on what someone thinks as possible: in the case of scenarios, the relevant agent is us (or the experts of the field) and, in the case of f-counterfactuals, historical actors. However, scenarios and f-counterfactuals are not epistemologically identical: What people at certain point of time thought was possible was usually not based on systematic analysis in the same way as scenario-work is (the whole point of scenario-work being that the futures are analyzed more reflectively).

Of course, there is a continuum of how reflective different views of possible futures are. At the one end, there are views that are mere unreflective beliefs or “hunches”. Sometimes a person can be blamed for holding such beliefs: one should have investigated the issue at hand with more scrutiny. This underlines the fact that beliefs about what is possible do not determine the relevant counterfactual alternatives: sometimes people focus on wrong scenarios and can even be blamed for that (in cases where they should have been epistemologically more careful). At the other end, there are highly systematic analysis of possible futures. Both we and historical agents can have such highly reflective scenarios (and counterfactuals). Yet, the fact that historical agents sometimes had highly reflective analysis of possible futures does not mean that the only relevant historical counterfactuals are those that the historical agents thought to be possible. Even highly reflective scenarios of historical actors can be impossible; there was nothing that indicated the fundamental changes in physics in the 1900th century for those who lived before (our hindsights are a different issue). And this true of our current scenarios: we might be wrong no matter how reflective our scenarios are.

All three (i) our future scenarios, (ii) our historical counterfactuals, and (iii) historical agent’s scenarios can be reflective (or complete madness), and this reflectivity must be characterized. Historiography in itself does not provide such characterization. In order to identify those scenarios of historical agents that can serve as a starting point of our analysis of counterfactual histories, we need to already know what types of scenario-building and counterfactual analysis are adequate. Ferguson’s suggestion does not get off the ground before we know what good counterfactual analysis consists of. Therefore, we need to have the ability to answer the general question: “How to study plausible alternative developments of some field F”, whether these alternatives are about counterfactual histories or future processes. We cannot take a short-cut into future scenarios by looking at historiographical counterfactual-building as it is no more transparent what good historiographical counterfactual analysis consist of than what good scenario-building consists of. However, in the case of historical counterfactuals, we have the benefit of hindsight: we know more (we know that light bents in gravitational field) and we are able to connect the knowledge and plans of different people (we know what the Soviet Union was thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis unlike Kennedy). This is (one of the things) what makes the assessment of historiographical counterfactuals (at least sometimes) easier that assessing the future scenarios.

We have seen that scenario-building and counterfactual-building similar practices, but there are no easy answers as to what historiographical issues are relevant in scenario- or counterfactual-building The question “But how does the historian determine which alternatives are plausible, when one could imagine an infinite number of different scenarios?”

can NOT be answered

“We should consider as plausible or probable only those alternatives which we can show on the basis of contemporary evidence that contemporaries actually considered.”

But what can historiography do to assess the plausibility of a counterfactual scenario? My answer is that there is no unified answer because history does not consist of limited types of development driven by limited number of types of causes. Of course, historians often self-identify as studying only a limited subject matter, such as human actions and the thoughts within them. Such identities limit the scope of historiography, making it less useful for futures studies – a simpler epistemology comes with serious lack in scope. In order to get the scope that could connect historiography with futures studies, we have to forget the identity-issues of historiography. Once we accept that historiography is a field that studies heterogenous causal patterns, we must admit that there is no special class of “historical counterfactuals” and no specific ways in which we can choose counterfactual suppositions (the X in “had X happened”) or track what would have happened.

Consider the history of science. In some (easy) cases, it is rather easy to track counterfactual scenarios. For example, the fact that some study inspired (and caused) a further study can be assessed by reading the latter study. Usually, these easy cases are not very interesting from the perspective of scenarios/counterfactuals. In some (intermediate) cases, we need to do much more to establish a counterfactual dependency. For example, to establish the dependency of acceptance of an idea on the age-structure of a scientific community, we need to rely on (i) considerations of the credibility of Planck’s principle “[A new] scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it” (cited from Hull et al. 1978, 718) and (ii) on the prospects of applying that principle to the case at hand which requires demographic data and careful study of the views and discussions within the community. In some (difficult/philosophical) cases we need facts, non-trivial principles, and philosophical assumptions (or rather: philosophical analysis) about the issues at hand. For example, when we study the dependence of the 20th century developments in physics on the works Einstein (theory) and Eddington (observation) we need to establish (i) facts (e.g. how widespread was the idea of spacetime-curvature in the early 20th century), (ii) principles (e.g. how did international relationships in science work before and after the WW1), and (iii) philosophical analysis (what is the role of observation in theory-acceptance?)

Such plurality in historical counterfactuals and in their assessment means that, in order to use historiographical counterfactuals as a resource in scenario-work, we need to have a good command on various issues. For example, we need to study the nature of different types of principles/laws/patterns etc. Yet, there is a similarity between scenarios and historical counterfactuals that might be useful: Historical counterfactuals, even if they use general principles etc., are always about some single case. This means that even if we know something general about the relationship between some X and Y (for example, that X is a type-level cause of Y [in the interventionist sense]) we still need to study whether the relationship matters in the case at hand. We might know that some principles are useful and some historical situation might seem to follow those principles but it could still be the case that the historical case was driven by something else. For example, Galileo Galilei was condemned after he published works supporting heliocentric model [note that I use “after” and not “because”]. This series of events has sometimes been framed as a clash between worldviews and is often taken to confirm the seeming pattern P between authoritarian worldviews and censorship of research on the basis of its “embarrassing contents”. However, the “Galileo affair” was (also) about personal relationships and, in addition, involved serious discussions about the merits of Galileo’s work (the work was not quite as convincing as is suggested by popular accounts). We could make the erroneous claim that “no matter what – until the power of church in matters of science diminished – happened, Galileo would have been condemned” if we were not careful enough to study the relationship between the pattern P and Galileo’s case. In the similar manner, we might know that some conditions C hold in the present and that there are principles that can be used to describe C. However, it might still be the case that we make the same error as a counterfactual historian of science who thinks Galileo affair was about censorship of a “better idea”. We could be mistaken about the dynamics of our own conditions.


Ferguson, Niall (1997) Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

Green, A., (2012). “Continuity, contingency and context: Bringing the historian’s cognitive toolkit into university futures and public policy development”. Futures. 44 (2), 174-180.

Stalley, David J (2002). “A History of Future”.  History and Theory, Theme Issue 41

Virmajoki, Veli (2019). Cementing Science.