Scientific counterfactuals as make-believe

Noelia Iranzo-Ribera

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Counterfactuals abound in science, especially when reasoning about and with models. This often requires entertaining counterfactual conditionals with nomologically or metaphysically impossible antecedents, namely, counternomics or counterpossibles. In this paper I defend the make-believe view of scientific counterfactuals, a naturalised fiction-based account of counterfactuals in science which provides a means to evaluate their meanings independently of the possibility of the states of affairs their antecedents describe, and under which they have non-trivial truth-values. Fiction is here understood as imagination (in contrast with its most typical association with falsity), characterised as a propositional attitude of pretense or ‘make-believe’ (Walton 1990). The application of this theory to scientific counterfactuals makes their evaluation a game of make-believe: a counterfactual is (fictionally) true iff its antecedent and the rules of the game prescribe the imagining of its consequent (Kimpton-Nye 2020). The result is a practice-based account of counterfactuals and counterfactual reasoning in science which incorporates insights from theoretical and experimental analytic philosophy as well as cognitive science. This way, the make-believe view of scientific counterfactuals shows that the evaluation of scientific counterfactuals is none other than a question of scientific representation in disguise.
Original languageEnglish
Article number473
Number of pages27
Issue number6
Early online date10 Nov 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Nov 2022


  • counterfactuals
  • Scientific reasoning
  • Fiction
  • Make-believe


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