Limits of Conceivability in the Study of The Future. Part 2. History, Future, and Conceivability

This post continues from the previous post.


The three cases from philosophy of science draw conceptual and epistemological insights from considerations that are intimately related to history and historiography. They are related to history when they are based on events and patterns in the past, and they are related to historiography when they are based on how history can be understood and reasoned about. This is interesting since the relationships between history, historiography, and futures studies have been discussed widely, and the connections between history, historiography, and futures studies have been deemed relevant in recent discussions.

Bradley et al. have focused on the “use of history to aid causal analysis of the future” (2016, 57). They argue that we “can learn from the past even while acknowledging that it does not repeat itself in the same way every time similar events occur” (Bradfield et al. 2016, 65). We can compare, contrast and debate possible future changes against the causal framework of the past (Bradfield et al. 2016, 61), and “history’s value to consideration of the future lies in its ability to tease out conflicting viewpoints, misunderstandings and biases” (Bradfield et al. 2016, 64). We will see that this analysis by Bradley et al. corresponds to the type of understanding that the philosophical cases provide. The cases establish future-relevant historical patterns but are also essentially related to considerations about conflicting viewpoints and biases in our reasoning about historical phenomena. However, the cases also show how our historical reasoning is conceptually and epistemologically limited and, therefore, shed some critical light on to what extent historical consideration – or any considerations, for that matter, – may clarify issues concerning the future.

Moreover, Staley argues that historical thinking is useful in the study of the future: “Thinking about the future, like thinking about the past, requires contextual thinking. [–] the historian of the future draws high-context, ampliative, nondemonstrative inferences from the evidence” (2010, p. 62). Staley (2002) has also 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. Staley claims that the basic strategies that are used in tracking counterfactual histories can be used in creating scenarios: if we are able to track down alternative histories, we are also able to track down alternative futures. This view has been shared by others. Booth et al. have argued that “it may be hoped that the extensive theoretical literature on counterfactuals and other forms of modal narrative may help to shed some light on certain important questions concerning the philosophical underpinning of [a] type of foresight methodology” (2009, 88). Also, Green has studied “the affinities between the cognitive approaches of historical study and those of strategic foresight, specifically” (2012, 174) and noted the connection between historical counterfactuals and future scenarios (2012, 175).

As we will see, historical counterfactuals and counterfactual considerations are at the very heart of two philosophical cases that we will study. In Part 4, it is argued that counterfactual narratives might necessarily converge towards the actual state of the world and thus be unhelpful in imaging how things could be different. In Part 5, it is argued that counterfactual considerations, no matter how plausible, may not have enough power to force us to accept the plausibility of alternative states of affairs. By studying these cases, we can understand better the epistemological and conceptual limits of conceivability. The cases do not support the optimism that the past-facing approaches can straightforwardly “reject determinism by multiplying and pluralizing possibility” (Bendor et al. 2021, p. 3) or “expand the futurological imagination and open it up to new possibilities for knowledge and action” by “applying counterfactual thinking in and through congruent “what if?” questions” (Bendor et al. 2021, p. 11).

Moreover, the cases also indicate that, in crucial respects, the discussion concerning counterfactual histories in futures studies has been hopelessly naïve. As is well known, counterfactual histories have often been criticized as mere speculation. What counts as a plausible counterfactual scenario is a genuine question. We cannot have direct 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 counterfactual considerations provide any helpful insight in futures studies. Therefore, Staley asks “But how does the historian determine which alternatives are plausible, when one could imagine an infinite number of different scenarios?” (2002, 850) and cites a suggestion by 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. Green has argued that “This [Ferguson’s approach] makes counterfactuals and scenarios ontologically similar” (2012, 175). Unfortunately, there are serious problems in the suggestion that plausible counterfactual scenarios are Ferguson-style counterfactual scenarios. That some historical agents thought that a scenario is possible (or plausible) is neither necessary nor sufficient for the scenario to be possible (or plausible). For example, at the end of the 19th century, some scientists thought that fundamental changes in physics were not possible, and, conversely, they thought that it is a plausible scenario that physics would improve only in a piecemeal manner. We know that fundamental changes were possible (as they happened) and that the piecemeal scenario was not plausible. If scenarios and counterfactuals (in Ferguson’s sense) were “ontologically” similar, then the value of scenario-work in analyzing the possible futures would be in great danger due to the naivety of Ferguson-style counterfactual reasoning. This means that while it is true that “scenarios and historical accounts involve a disciplined imagination of contexts about which we have imperfect knowledge” (Green 2012, p. 175), there remains a serious question of what counts as disciplined imagination and what are its limits in capturing historical or future possibilities. The discussion of the philosophical cases will shed some light on these issues.

In general, the philosophical cases are useful because many important issues related to conceivability and alternative states of the world have been heavily analyzed in philosophy of science. For example, there has been discussion on what counts as a radical/interesting or benign/uninteresting alternative to some existing state of affairs (e.g., Soler 2015; Virmajoki 2018). It is important to steer clear on what kind of possibilities are within the range of conceivability. For example, if we can conceive only benign alternatives, the study of the future loses its creative and critical bite. Moreover, there have been debates about continuity in science through historical change (e.g., Laudan 1981; Psillos 1999; Stanford 2006). It is important to understand on what our views concerning continuity and rupture are based. Recently, it has been argued, by Raskin and Swart, that “Global scenario assessments [–] tend to focus on a narrow bandwidth of possibilities: futures that unfold gradually from current patterns and trends. This ‘continuity bias’ downplays the real risks (and opportunities) of structural discontinuity” (2020, Abstract). This type of problem has deep epistemological and conceptual roots. There have been discussions of why the present state of affairs, once in place, structures our thinking in a way that reinforces its hegemony and continuity through multiple mechanisms (e.g. Kidd 2016; Soler 2015; Tambolo 2020). As we will see, philosophy of science has developed powerful conceptual tools to tackle the issues at the center of futures studies’ theoretical framing that was discussed above, and this series of posts extracts some of the central insight provided by those tools. In the next posts, we will see the details.


Bendor, Roy & Eriksson, Elina & Pargman, Daniel (2021). “Looking backward to the future: On past-facing approaches to futuring”. Futures 125.

Booth, Charles & Rowlinson, Michael & Clark, Peter & Delahaye, Agnes & Procter, Peter (2009). “Scenarios and counterfactuals as modal narratives”. Futures 41 (2). 87-95.

Bradfield, Ronald & Derbyshire, James & Wright, George (2016). “The critical role of history in scenario thinking: Augmenting causal analysis within the intuitive logics scenario development methodology”. Futures 77. 56-66.

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

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.

Kidd, Ian James (2016). “Inevitability, contingency, and epistemic humility”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:12-19.

Laudan, Larry (1981). “A confutation of convergent realism”. Philosophy of Science 48 (1):19-49.

Psillos, Stathis (1999). Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. Routledge.

Raskin, Paul & Swart, Rob (2020). “Excluded futures: the continuity bias in scenario assessments”. Sustainable Earth 3.

Soler, Léna (2015). “Why Contingentists Should Not Care about the Inevitabilist Demand to “Put-Up-or-Shut-Up”: A Dialogic Reconstruction of the Argumentative Network”. In Léna Soler, Emiliano Trizio and Andrew Pickering (eds.). Science As It Could Have Been. Discussing the Contingency/Inevitability Problem. University of Pittsburgh Press. 45-98.

Staley, David J. (2002). “A History of Future”. History and Theory, Theme Issue 41. 72—89.

Staley, David J. (2010). History and Future. Using Historical Thinking to Imagine the Future. Lexington Books.

Stanford, P.K. (2006). Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tambolo, Luca (2020). “So close no matter how far: counterfactuals in history of science and the inevitability/contingency controversy”. Synthese 197 (5):2111-2141.

Virmajoki, Veli (2018). “Could Science Be Interestingly Different?”. Journal of the Philosophy of History.

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