In this post, I argue that the criteria of external validity in the futures research and the criteria for explanatory depth in historiography share important conceptual similarities. The similarities suggest many interesting connections between historiographical insights and futures research.
According to Kuusi, Cuhls and Steinmüller (2015), we can explicate the notion of external validity in the futures research as follows:
“Let us have two Futures Maps FM1 and FM2 that have the same topical focus. Ceteris paribus or when FM1 and FM2 are equally valid in other criteria, any following criterion implies that the FM1 is more valid than FM2 from a pragmatic point of view.
1) FM1 suggests more possible futures than FM2 that might be relevant from the point of view of the vision or acceptable futures (wide scope of possibly relevant paths)
2) FM1 is able to identify most relevant futures better than FM2 (important relevant futures)
3) FM1’s scenarios are causally in line with more futures’ relevant facts than FM2’s scenarios (more interpreted causally relevant facts)
4) FM1’s number of facts that get causal interpretation in scenarios divided by the number of scenarios is higher than in FM2 (effectively with scenarios interpreted facts)
5) FM1 is understood by more customers than FM2 (many understand)
6) FM1 is better understood by those customers who understand FM2 (better understood)”
It is interesting to note the similarities between this set of criteria and the criteria for explanatory depth in historiography, as formulated in Virmajoki 2020 (based on Hitchcock and Woodward  and Woodward ).
In my account of historiographical explanation, an explanation provides understanding by tracking down patterns of counterfactual dependency. An explanation of “Why X” tells us when some alternative(s) of X would have happened. Explanations answer what-if-things-had-been-different-question (“what-if questions”). For example, we may ask
“Why did scientists come to believe that atoms exist (“X”) rather than believe that atoms do not exist (“an alternative of X”)?”
The answer to this question is
“Scientists believe that atoms exist rather than believe that atoms do not exist because Einstein formulated an explanation of the Brownian motion and Perrin confirmed this explanation with his experimental work. Had there not been such explanation or experimental work, scientists would not believe in atoms.”
Because explanations answer what-if questions, it is natural to understand explanatory depth in terms of the ability to answer what-if questions. We can define the notion of explanatory depth in historiography according to the following dimensions (taken form Virmajoki 2020):
(I) We can say that E is a deeper explanation than E* if E gives information about counterfactual alternatives to the explanans Z that E* is silent about. For example, if E says
“Had Einstein not explained the Brownian motion OR had he provided a different explanation, scientists would not have come to believe in atoms.”
and E* says
“Had Einstein not explained the Brownian motion, scientists would not have come to believe in atoms.“
then E is a deeper explanation than E* since it answers a what-if question about Einstein giving a different explanation of the Brownian motion.
Notice that the number of what-if questions is not the only dimension that is relevant in such cases. Some what-if questions are more important than others. For example, in some context, it might be more important to know what would have happened if Einstein provided a different explanation than to know what would have happened if no explanation was provided. If we wanted to know the influence of personal prestige, this question would be interesting.
(II) E is deeper than E* if E provides information about a factor F that is not provided by E*. In other words, E is a more complete explanation than E* as it makes explicit a factor that is only a background conditions from the perspective of E*.
For example, if we assume that the following explanations are true
(1) Scientists believe in atoms rather than believe that atoms do not exist because Einstein formulated an explanation of the Brownian motion and Perrin confirmed this explanation with his experimental work. Had there not been such explanation or experimental work, scientists would not believe in atoms.
(2) Scientists believe in atoms rather than believe that atoms do not exist because Einstein formulated an explanation of Brownian motion and Perrin confirmed this explanation with his experimental work. Had someone else formulated the explanation or performed the experimental work, scientists would not believe in atoms.
then it follows that (1) and (2) together (i.e. “Had there been no explanation or experimental work OR had these works been produced by someone else thanEinstein and Perrin, scientists would not believe in atoms”), provide a deeper explanation than either of them alone.
According to Hitchcock and Woodward “[this] is, perhaps, the most fundamental way in which one [collection of counterfactuals] can provide a deeper explanation than another.” The more factors we add, the more complete an explanation we have.
(III) We can now turn to dimensions of explanatory depth that are less straightforward than (I) and (II) but still of a great importance in historiography. First, we may notice that adding more and more factors into an explanation might not add to the depth of the explanation in historiography. In historiography, the historical context (whatever this means) where the explanandum is embedded needs to be somehow taken into an account when the explanans is formulated. We cannot build every feature of a historical situation into the explanans and treat them as equally changeable. This would, in a sense, tear down the historicity of these situations. For example, it might not seem right to assume that the ethos of scientists in some era could have been different. The fact that scientists had that ethos might seem to be constitutive of that era. If we wanted to understand why something happened in the context of that era, it would be a distortion to provide a scenario where the ethos would have been different. For example, if we added to our explanation above that Had the scientific community lived in an Aristotelian framework, Einstein’s and Perrin’s work would not have had any effect. we arguably would not have achieved a deeper explanation than the ones we already have despite our being able to answer one more what-if question.
The third dimension of explanatory depth is important if we follow the advice that historiographical counterfactuals should not “unduly disturb what we otherwise know about the original actors and their beliefs and goals” (also known as the minimal-rewrite rule). The third dimension prevents us from adding explanatory depth by giving answers to what-if questions that seem irrelevant, given the nature of the historical era under discussion.
(IV) Another interesting dimension is the following. We can argue that E is deeper than E* if it is the case that E would still be true while E* would no longer be true, if there was a change in background conditions, due to the conceptualization of explanantia.
Assume that 1905 was a somewhat boring year, and therefore Einstein’s explanation of the Brownian motion was the most noteworthy event of the year.
Now, if E says:
“Had Einstein not explained the Brownian motion, scientists would not have believed that atoms exist.”
and E* says:
“Had the most noteworthy event of the year not happened, scientists would not have believed that atoms exist.”
then E is deeper than E*. This is due to the fact that E would still be true if the iPhone had been introduced in 1905, while E* would no longer be true. The introduction of the iPhone would have been the most noteworthy event in 1905. However, if the iPhone had been introduced, it would no longer be true that had the most noteworthy event not happened (i.e. had the iPhone not been introduced) scientists would not have believed that atoms exist. E* is therefore fragile with respect to changes in the background conditions. We should prefer E as it provides (or, at least, building materials for) a better possible-cause hypothesis than E*.
The connections between the external validity criteria and explanatory depth are (at least) the following:
A) A historiographical work that establishes many counterfactual scenarios that would have led to a different outcome provides deeper understanding than a work that is not as rich in its scenarios. (Dimensions I-II of explanatory depth.) On the other hand, a future map that establishes many future scenarios is better than a map that is not as rich in its scenarios. (Dimension 1 of validity.)
B) A historiographical work that establishes interesting counterfactual scenarios provides better understanding than a work that provides less interesting counterfactual scenarios. (Dimensions I-II.) On the other hand, a future map that finds the most relevant future scenarios is better than a map with less relevant scenarios (dimension 2).
C) A historiographical work that cites counterfactual changes that are not considered plausible with respect to some historical context is inferior to a work that considers only plausible changes. (Dimension III). In particular, this means that we should not consider counterfactual scenarios that are not grounded in the causal framework of the relevant context. On the other hand, a future map that is causally suspicious is inferior to one that is grounded in relevant causal understanding. (Dimensions 3 and 4.)
D) A historiographical work that establishes counterfactual scenarios that are conceptually robust is better than a work that establishes scenarios in a conceptually obscure manner. (Dimension IV.) On the other hand, the more understandable the scenarios of a future map are, the better the map is. (Dimensions 5 and 6.)
What does this mean?
First, the fact that the criteria of explanatory depth and the criteria for validity were formulated independently from each other is evidence for essential similarities in our attempts to understand the history and the future through scenarios.
Secondly, the connections establish the mutual relevance of futures studies and historiography. The better we understand the explanatory practices of historians and their assessment, the better we can understand scenario-work, and vice versa. If we are able to reveal how insightful counterfactual scenarios are build, we can find tools to build futures scenarios (a theme that I have discussed many times in the blog).
Thirdly, we can use the connections to track down future scenarios through historiographical inquiry. Given the connections between explanatory depth in historiography and validity in futures research, identifying or even producing historiographical research that maximizes the explanatory depth can be highly relevant for the understanding concerning futures. A deep historical work has the best prospects of providing externally valid futures research.
Hitchcock, Christopher & Woodward, James (2003). “Explanatory generalizations, part II: Plumbing explanatory depth.” Noûs 37 (2). 181–199.
Kuusi O., Cuhls K., Steinmüller K. (2015) “Quality criteria for scientific futures research”. Futura 1/15
Virmajoki, Veli (2020). “What Should We Require from an Account of Explanation in Historiography”. Journal of the Philosophy of History.
Woodward, James (2003). Making Things Happen. A Theory of Causal Explanations. Oxford University Press.