Counterpossible Reasoning in Physics

Alastair Wilson

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This article explores three ways in which physics may involve counterpossible reasoning. The first way arises when evaluating false theories: to say what the world would be like if the theory were true, we need to evaluate counterfactuals with physically impossible antecedents. The second way relates to the role of counterfactuals in characterizing causal structure: to say what causes what in physics, we need to make reference to physically impossible scenarios. The third way is novel: to model metaphysical dependence in physics, we need to consider counterfactual consequences of metaphysical impossibilities. Physics accordingly bears substantial and surprising counterpossible commitments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1113-1124
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophy of Science
Issue number5
Early online date30 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
*To contact the author, please write to: University of Birmingham and Monash University; e-mail: †Thanks to Amanda Bryant, Nina Emery, Nick Emmerson, Joaquim Giannotti, Dana Goswick, Mike Hicks, Chris Hitchcock, Vera Hoffmann-Kolss, Mario Hubert, Noelia Iranzo Ribera, Matthias Jenny, Nick Jones, Sam Kimpton-Nye, Dennis Lehmkuhl, Brian McLoone, Kristie Miller, Daniel Nolan, Martin Pickup, Alex Roberts, Katie Robertson, Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra, Miranda Rose, Chip Sebens, Henry Taylor, Jim Woodward, David Yates, and an anonymous referee for Philosophy of Science. Thanks also to audiences at the workshop on Counterpossibles, Counternomics, and Causal Theories of Properties in Köln, the Framework for Metaphysical Explanation in Physics (FraMEPhys) Workshop on Grounding and the Laws of Nature in Birmingham, the Caltech Philosophy of Physics Reading Group, and the reading group of the Emergence in the Natural Sciences project in Lisbon (PTDC/FER-HFC/30665/2017). This work forms part of the FraMEPhys project, which received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant 757295). Funding was also provided by the Australian Research Council (grant DP180100105).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the Philosophy of Science Association. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Philosophy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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