Counterfactual and Other Forms of Conditional Reasoning

Josef Perner and Eva Rafetseder

in Understanding Counterfactuals, Understanding Causation

Published in print October 2011 | ISBN: 9780199590698
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191731242 | DOI:

Series: Consciousness & Self-Consciousness Series

Counterfactual and Other Forms of Conditional Reasoning

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We distinguish different kinds of conditional reasoning and focus on basic (BCR) and counterfactual conditional reasoning (CFR). Both kinds of inferences use actual regularities in the (toy) world (at least in children’s stories). Basic CR starts from a hypothetical fact and uses regularities to infer what else would be the case. Typically these assumptions differ from what is actually the case at the time the assumption is made. We call this therefore ‘reasoning with assumptions counter to fact’. CFR, however, requires more. It constructs a possible alternative to an actual sequence of events by starting with a counterfactual assumption about the beginning of that sequence. For correct reasoning the counterfactual scenario has to be modelled as closely as possible on this actual event (i.e. to construct a ‘nearest possible world’). Counterfactual reasoning is signalled by use of the subjunctive. However, asking a subjunctive question does not guarantee that children will apply CFR. They still may use BCR and apply it to counterfactual assumptions. This has not been controlled for in the developmental literature that reported counterfactual reasoning emerging as early as 3 or 4 years. If controlled the majority of children applies CFR not before about 11 years. Parallel research investigating children’s CF emotions like regret and relief point to a similar age

Keywords: counterfactual reasoning; nearest possible world; conditional reasoning; hypothetical reasoning; development in children

Chapter.  8998 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Philosophy of Mind

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