News – Counterfactual Reasoning in Science – March 2021

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Image: Harold Edgerton, Bullet Through Apple, 1964 (printed in 1984) Dye transfer print on paper, /240 40.8 x 50.8 cm 16.063 x 20 inches. © 2010 MIT. Courtesy of MIT.

On Thursday 25 March 2021, the FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham hosted a free half-day workshop on the topic of counterfactual reasoning in science, via Zoom.

If you have any queries about this event, please email


2.30-3.20pm: Ruth Byrne (Trinity College Dublin)
“How people reason with counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals”

10-min break

3.30-4.20pm: Marco J. Nathan (University of Denver)
“Counterfactuals as Placeholders: Take II”

4.40-5.30pm: Peter Tan (Fordham University)
“Two Theses about Modality and Modelling”


Ruth Byrne (Trinity College Dublin)
“How people reason with counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals”
When people understand and reason from counterfactual conditionals, such as “if the car had run out of petrol it would have stalled”,  they envisage two possibilities, the imagined conjecture (the car ran out of petrol and it stalled) and the presumed facts (the car did not run out of petrol and it did not stall).  Although alternative theories of reasoning have been tested for counterfactuals,  little is known about how people reason with counterpossibles, subjunctive conditionals with impossible antecedents, such as “if lakes were made of bleach people would not swim in them”. I discuss the results of several recent experiments designed to examine how people reason with a range of counterpossibles, that compare those that seem non-vacuously true, to those that seem vacuously true, and those that seem false. The experiments examine the judgments participants made about whether such counterpossibles are true or false and their tendency to make inferences such as modus ponens and modus tollens. I discuss the implications of the results for theories of how people understand and reason from counterfactual and counterpossible conditionals.

Marco J. Nathan (University of Denver)
“Counterfactuals as Placeholders: Take II”
In previous work, I advanced the thesis that counterfactuals, just like their corresponding dispositional properties, are placeholders standing in for predictions or explanations, without themselves actually predicting or explaining anything. This, I maintained, explains the role of subjunctive conditionals and dispositional properties in scientific practice. A few years later, I still believe that both of these constructs are placeholders. However, the placeholder thesis is in need of clarification and amendment. I was wrong to suggest that counterfactuals never explain, and this point can be clearly seen by drawing a distinction between two kinds of placeholders, ‘frames’ and ‘difference-makers.’ The goal of this talk is to elaborate and extend the placeholder view of counterfactuals and its role in scientific explanation, by focusing on examples from various branches of natural and social sciences. 

Peter Tan (Fordham University)
“Two Theses about Modality and Modelling”
Philosophers of science interested in the content of highly idealized scientific representations often claim that their content is modal in nature. There are two prevailing theses about the modal content of idealized models: the view that they provide information about what is merely possible (the “how-possibly thesis”), and the view that their content either literally is or is best understood counterfactually (the “counterfactual interpretation”). These theses about modality and modeling have not received a treatment that compares their advantages, and in fact, only recently has the how-possibly thesis begun to receive more scrutiny. I defend the counterfactual interpretation on three broad grounds. First, it coheres best with broader views about scientific representation; second, it provides a more unificatory account of model formulation and testing; lastly, it best allows for an empiricist-friendly view of the metaphysics of modality.

Density Matrix Realism Workshop – 24 Nov 2020

On Tuesday 24 November 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a free one-day workshop on the topic of Density Matrix Realism. This took place via Zoom, from 2.30-6.30pm GMT.

If you have any queries, please email .

Provisional Schedule (times GMT)

2.30-3.00: Katie Robertson (University of Birmingham)
‘An introduction to density matrix realism: what’s at stake?’

3.00-3.45: Owen Maroney (Oxford)

10-min break

3.55-4.40: Roderich Tumulka (Tuebingen)

20-min break

5.00-5.45: Eddy Keming Chen (UC San Diego)

10-min break

5.55-6.25 General discussion and wrap-up


Coming soon.

Idealized Models Workshop, 6 Oct 2020

On Friday 06 Oct 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a one-day workshop at the Univeristy of Birmingham.

If you have any queries, please email

Schedule (times BST)

2.00-2.50pm: Arnon Levy (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
“Must the best explanation be true?”

3.00-3.50pm: Alkistis Elliott-Graves (Helsinki University/University of Bielefeld)
“What are general models about?”

4.00-4.50pm: James Nguyen (University of London)
“Why (at least some) idealisations aren’t false”

5.00-5.50pm: Angela Potochnik (University of Cincinatti)
“Why it matters that idealizations are false”


James Nguyen (University of London)
“Why (at least some) idealisations aren’t false”

In order to understand how idealised models contribute to the epistemic success of science we need to understand how they, and models in general, represent. I outline the, relatively commonly held, view that modelling is an indirect enterprise: model descriptions serve to specify model systems, which in turn represent their target systems. I argue that, suitably interpreted, the idealised aspects of these model systems needn’t be understood as misrepresentations. I then discuss the upshot of this way of thinking in terms of the factivity of explanation and understanding.

Angela Potochnik (University of Cincinatti)
“Why it matters that idealizations are false”

Many of our best scientific explanations incorporate idealizations, that is, false assumptions. Philosophers of science disagree about whether and to what extent we must, as a result, give up on truth as a prerequisite for explanation and thus understanding. I propose reframing this. Factivism or veritism about explanation is not, I think, an obvious and preferable view to be given up only under duress. Rather, it is philosophically fruitful to emphasize how departures from the truth facilitate explanation (and understanding). I begin by motivating one version of the idea that idealizations positively contribute to understanding, then I make the case that it is philosophically important to emphasize this contribution of idealizations. I conclude with a positive account of what theorists about science stand to gain by acknowledging, even emphasizing, how certain departures from the truth benefit our scientific explanations.

22 June 2020: Paul Näger (Münster), “How Quantum Mechanics Solves the Causal Problem of Entanglement”

For the fourth FraMEPhys meeting of 2020, Dr. Paul Näger (University of Münster) gave a talk entitled “How Quantum Mechanics Solves the Causal Problem of Entanglement” via Zoom to the University of Birmingham FraMEPhys group and guests.

Recent works show that the statistics of typical experiments with entangled quantum objects (EPR/B experiments) contradict the usual principles of causal explanation, even if one disregards all spatio-temporal constraints (Wood & Spekkens 2015, Näger 2016). More precisely, this causal problem of entanglement consists in the fact that it is impossible that both central principles of the theory of causal Bayes nets (Glymour, Spirtes & Scheines 1993; Pearl 2000)—the causal Markov condition and the faithfulness condition—hold in such experiments. Any correct theory of the quantum realm must violate at least one of these conditions. This threatens the idea that the correlations in such experiments might be explained causally. In this talk I shall present a detailed analysis of the quantum mechanical formalism (in a GRW interpretation), revealing that quantum theory even violates both principles. Nevertheless, I shall argue for the claim that there are good reasons to regard the quantum mechanical explanation as a causal one. For the one, it is a well-known fact that the entangled quantum state does not screen off the correlations in such experiments. In other words, if quantum mechanics is complete, there is no screener-off for the correlations (van Fraassen 1982, Butterfield 1989, Cartwright 1989), implying that the theory violates the causal Markov condition (Spirtes, Glymour, Scheines 1993, Pearl 2000), which is a generalisation of Reichenbach’s principle of the common cause (Reichenbach 1956). Referring to the work of Cartwright (1988), however, I argue that in indeterministic worlds one should accept common causes that do not screen off. Further developing on Cartwright’s ideas, I present a generalisation of the Markov condition which is able to capture these new cases. This saves the central principle of causal explanation in the quantum realm, and makes explicit that underlying the quantum mechanical formalism is a causal structure that can explain the correlations. In a second step I show that the quantum mechanical formalism also violates the causal faithfulness condition. While being one of the central principles of the theory of causal Bayes nets, violating faithfulness does not seem to threaten a causal explanation per se: there are well-known counterexamples to the principle in perfectly causal situations. However, an unfaithfulness seems only acceptable in a causal explanation, when one indicates how it comes about (i.e. which type of unfaithfulness there is) given the causal connections in question; for not all types fit with all structures. Wood & Spekkens (2012) are tacit about which kind of unfaithfulness quantum mechanics involves; Näger (2015) claims that the theory involves an unfaithfulness of a supposedly new kind (unfaithfulness by internal cancelling paths), but only sketches its central features. In the present analysis I show explicitly how quantum mechanics explains the specific no-signalling independences by internal cancelling paths. I also provide an explanation for the unfaithfulness occurring between outcomes and local settings (for maximally entangled states), which reveals another so far unnoticed kind of unfaithfulness. In sum, my analysis shows that quantum mechanics solves the causal problem of entanglement in an astonishing and elegant way: though violating both central principles of causal explanation, the theory can still be considered as providing a causal explanation, if one moderately and reasonably modifies the original principles.

Dr Katie Robertson awarded Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

Some really excellent news for the FraMEPhys project team – our research fellow Katie Robertson has been awarded a three-year Early Career Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust, to be hosted at the University of Birmingham and to start in 2021.

Katie’s project is called ‘Increasing entropy: from black holes to the direction of time’ and it links directly into her research with FraMEPhys. We’re all looking forward to continuing to work with Katie and excited to see the outcomes of her new project!

Workshop on Symmetries & Explanation, March 2020

On Fri 6 March, the FraMEPhys project hosted a workshop on Symmetries and Explanation at the University of Birmingham (Department of Philosophy, ERI G51).

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0930-1000: Registration. Coffee & Snacks

1000-1115: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?” Adam Caulton (University of Oxford)

1115-1230: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics” Niels Linnemann (University of Bremen)

1230-1400: Lunch (ChangeKitchen) ERI Atrium

1400-1515: “Are Symmetry Explanations Grounding Explanations?” Mike Hicks (University of Birmingham)

1515-1530: Coffee

1530-1700: “What Was the ‘Great Advance’ of 20th-Century Physics that ‘Put Symmetry First’?” Marc Lange (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

1700-1800: Drinks at Staff House, University of Birmingham

For abstracts see the workshop page. For any questions or information about the event, please email

Adam Caulton: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?”
Niels Linnemann: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics”

18 February 2020: Luke Fenton-Glynn (UCL), “Probabilistic Actual Causation”

On Tuesday 18 February as part of the FraMEPhys Seminar series, Luke Fenton-Glynn (UCL) gave a talk entitled “Probabilistic Actual Causation” (Talk Slides, Full Paper) at the University of Birmingham. Luke presented an extension of recent theories of deterministic actual causation, formulated in terms of causal graphs, to irreucibly indeterministic cases.

ABSTRACT: Actual (token) causation – the sort of causal relation asserted to hold by claims like the Chicxulub impact caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, Mr. Fairchild’s exposure to asbestos caused him to suffer mesothelioma, and the H7N9 virus outbreak was caused by poultry farmers becoming simultaneously infected by bird and human ’flu strains – is of significance to scientists, historians, and tort and criminal lawyers. Progress has been made in explicating the actual causal relation in the deterministic case by means of the use of structural equations models and causal graphs. I seek to make similar progress concerning the probabilistic case by using probabilistic causal models and associated causal graphs

Earlier on the same day, Luke took part in a reading group discussion of the above paper.

4 February 2020: Andreas Hüttemann, “Laws and their Modal Surface Structure”

For the second FraMEPhys meeting of 2020, Prof. Dr. Andreas Hüttemann (University of Cologne) gave a talk on “Laws and their Modal Surface Structure” at the University of Birmingham (Muirhead Tower, 427).

ABSTRACT: Law statements or generalisations are involved in one way or another in explanation, confirmation, manipulation or prediction. I argue that these practices require a particular reading of the generalisations involved, namely as making claims about the behaviour of systems. These practices therefore presuppose the existence of systems or things (pace Ladyman, Ross etc.). 
Furthermore, I look at the metaphysical surface structure associated with laws. I use the term “surface structure” to indicate that this structure may or may not be reduced to non-modal facts – as the Humean has it. I will side-line the debate about whether Humeanism is a tenable philosophical position. The positive claim I advance is that the modal surface structure can be explicated in terms of invariance relations – where I take invariance to be a modal notion.

Earlier on the same day, from 1130-1230 in ERI 159, Prof. Dr. Hüttemann attended a reading group where we discussed his “Reduction and Monism“.

21 January 2020: David Papineau, “The Seductions of Interventionism”

At the first FraMEPhys meeting of 2020 (21 January), Professor David Papineau (King’s College London) gave a talk on “The Seductions of Interventionism” at the University of Birmingham.

ABSTRACT: The philosophy of causation is changing. The new ‘interventionism’ promises to dissolve many longstanding problems. Based on the work of Judea Pearl, and transmitted to philosophy by Jim Woodward, this approach builds a bridge between the philosophical analysis of causation and techniques used in statistical causal modelling. It is certainly welcome that philosophers of causation are finally trying to make sense of these statistical techniques. But in the process of transmission a number of ungrounded ideas have been installed as philosophical orthodoxy. In this talk I shall expose two: first, the idea that we need to appeal to ‘interventions’ or actions to understand causation; second, the idea that correlational facts alone are insufficient to determine causal structure.

Talk Handout (4 pages)

Earlier on the same day, Professor Papineau took part in reading group on his paper ‘Causation as a Guide to Life‘, which discussed some of the themes from his talk.