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What If - On the Meaning, Epistemology and Scientific Relevance of Counterfactual Claims and Thought Experiments

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 reasoning 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 reasoning 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 science, linguistics, literary studies, and philosophy to examine counterfactuals and/or thought experiments in these domains and from these various perspectives. Our work focuses on four themes:

1. The logical and linguistic form of counterfactual and other conditionals;
2. The epistemology of counterfactual thinking and thought experiments;
3. The role of counterfactual conditionals and thought experiments in different sciences and humanities;
4. Counterfactuals in fiction and narrative.