Limits of Conceivability in the Study of the Future. Part 4. The Problem of Leaking Counterfactuals

Continues from the previous posts

We have seen, in Part 2, that counterfactual histories are often considered as an important way to approach future possibilities. However, a recent argument by Tambolo (2020) puts this verdict in doubt. Tambolo discusses counterfactuals in the historiography of science. Tambolo argues that

“In the case of general history, it is often possible to imagine a consequent dramatically different from actual history, and yet plausible; in the case of history of science, imagining outcomes far removed from the results of actual science seems more complicated” (2020, 2012).

The argument is, at its core, simple and elegant. A historical counterfactual needs to have a plausible antecedent and the consequent must follow from plausible principles concerning how the world works (see also Part 2). Given that the actual science is our source of knowledge of how the world works, the consequent must be derived by using the results of actual science. This use of the results of actual science affects how a counterfactual narrative can develop. “In order to be plausible, the outcomes of counterfactual histories need to be appropriately continuous with [the] results [of actual science], which provide the yardstick for the assessment of the plausibility of counterfactuals” (Tambolo 2020, 2113). “What [–] we view as a plausible alternative to actual history of science is influenced by our currently accepted knowledge” (Tambolo 2020, 2123).

Tambolo discusses many studies from the existing counterfactual historiographies of science and points out that they all build a narrative that converges towards the actual results of science. Tambolo is making the following claims: 1. There exists a regularity in the historiography of science: (Plausible) counterfactual narratives converge towards the actual results of science, and 2. this convergence is dependent on the central role that actual results of science play in the building of plausible counterfactual narratives. 3. The results of actual science play a central role in the building of counterfactual narratives because each step in a counterfactual narrative is restricted by plausibility considerations, and these considerations are based on what we know about how the world works, i.e., on the actual science. The results of the actual science leak into the counterfactual narratives and guide them towards the present state.

This argument has a very important consequence that Tambolo points out: Counterfactual historiographies of science seem to be unable to tell how science could have been different. For example, Virmajoki (2018) has suggested that the contingency of (a feature of) science depends on how plausible a counterfactual scenario where we have a different (version) of science is. The more plausible the scenario is, the more contingent science is. Given Tambolo’s analysis, Virmajoki’s definition of contingency could force all historiographical inquiry to concede that science is inevitable: given that it is difficult to come by with plausible scenarios where science is different, science is judged to be inevitable. The existing scientific results guarantee their own inevitability through the backdoor. Due to the problem of leaking counterfactuals, counterfactual narratives are unable to tell how science could be different.

Tambolo’s discussion points toward a fundamental epistemological problem in our ability to conceive alternative developments. No matter how much we want to challenge the present science by writing counterfactual histories, the task can never be epistemically robust: It is possible to write histories where different scientific evidence is found because different theories were at the table, but imagined evidence is not actual evidence. It is possible to look at the history in order to find blind spots and dubious turns in theory-choice, but this can only establish problems in the justification of the current theories and ideas, not an alternative science. It is possible to show historically that there are, in fact, evidential considerations that we have missed that confirm some alternative theory, but this would be a scientific breakthrough but not a counterfactual insight.[1] It follows that a mere counterfactual scenario seem unable to establish that a successful alternative science could have been accepted. We will return to this topic in the next post where we discuss the consequences of the epistemic limitations of counterfactual considerations from another perspective. Here we need to investigate whether the problem of leaking counterfactuals concerns only counterfactual histories of science or whether it concerns all historiographical imagination.

We need to ask why the history-of-science counterfactuals seem to converge towards the actual state of affairs, but other historical counterfactuals seem not. In both cases, we need to apply our actual knowledge to the counterfactual past. First, notice that, in general, historical counterfactuals do not, in fact, diverge from what science says. There are no plausible counterfactuals of the form “had X been the case, T would have been the case” where Y violates what science says (as long as we trust science). The difference between the history-of-science counterfactuals and other counterfactuals seems to concern the flexibility and repetitiveness of certain causal processes – or at least our conceptions of their flexibility and repetitiveness. In the case of science, we think that the uniform structure of entities, processes, and phenomena and their repetitive effect on the human cognitive system shapes the beliefs as time passes.. In the case of other histories, we more easily think that situations are unique and once the actual effect was not produced, there would not have been a similar opportunity again. We tend to think that there is more variability and less repeatability in the counterfactual scenarios outside the history of science. For example, one could argue that had Hitler not been in power, there would not have been a war in 1939. And given the changes after the counterfactual 1939, a possible war would have had different characters (armies would have been differently prepared, etc.) and maybe a different unfolding. On the other hand, had Millikan not measured the charge of electrons, someone else would have worked with identical electrons in the future and measured their charge. Electrons’ effects are more repetitive than conditions in 1930’s.

While there is, then, a difference in history-of-science counterfactuals and other historical counterfactuals, the conceptual nature of the difference is not very encouraging for the claim that counterfactual scenarios can tease out alternative possibilities for the future. In essence, the difference is based on our judgements of the possibility of variation in certain historical conditions and processes. Science leaks into plausible counterfactual scenarios because it provides knowledge of that variability. Given that plausible counterfactual scenarios are deemed plausible by our conceptions of the possibility of variation in certain conditions, counterfactual scenarios cannot help us to exceed the limits of the conceivability of alternative states of affairs. Plausible counterfactual scenarios and alternative futures are formulated on the basis of the same set of conceptions concerning possible variability in the domain of interest. Possible histories and alternative futures come in the same package, as it were. We are fundamentally trapped in our own epistemological and conceptual predicament concerning how the world works and what is possible to happen, as Tambolo’s insight makes surprisingly clear. However, the mere fact that we cannot escape, epistemologically speaking, the present condition does not mean that it is an inevitable endpoint of history. On the contrary, we need to appreciate the fact that present leaks into what-if scenarios. Due to this flaw in our epistemological predicament, our inability to tell how history could have developed otherwise does not tell us much about the history itself. Our predicament is a problem exactly because the limits of possibilities do not match the limits of conceivability.


Chang, Hasok (2004). Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress.

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

[1] Hason Chang’s idea of complementary science falls to the latter two categories. It has the explicit goal of contributing to the epistemic soundness of the current science (2004, 3).

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