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What If – On the Epistemological, Pragmatic, Psychological, and Cultural Significance of Counterfactual Thinking

What if?

Conditional and in particular counterfactual reasoning plays an important role in everyday life. It is important to know not only how things are or were, but also how they could have been and how they would be under certain circumstances. Counterfactual thinking plays a similar role in inquiries in the natural sciences and humanities. Yet one might be concerned about the scientific standing of counterfactual reasoning. Both a satisfactory (historical) epistemology and a detailed linguistic analysis of the conditional claims used to convey counterfactual thinking are still wanting, as is a description of the role of counterfactuals in more complex narrative and rhetorical structures such as thought experiments.

Counterfactual reasoning and thought experiments take a wide variety of forms in different disciplines. Our group brings together history of philosophy, linguistics, literary studies, philosophy and psychology to examine counterfactuals and/or thought experiments in these domains and from these various perspectives. Our work focuses on three topics:

1. The epistemological role of counterfactual reasoning and practices of simulation;
2. The semantics and pragmatics of counterfactual discourse;
3. The psychological and social dynamics of counterfactual thinking.