Should Special Science Laws Be Written into the Semantics of Counterfactuals?

  • 1 Università degli Studi di Milano, Dipartimento di Filosofia


Adam Elga has presented an anti-thermodynamic process as a counterexample to Lewis’s default semantics for counterfactuals. The outstanding reaction of Jonathan Schaffer and Boris Kment is revisionary. It sacrifices Lewis’s aim of defining causation in terms of counterfactual dependence. Lewis himself suggested an alternative: «counter-entropic funnybusiness» should make for dissimilarity. But how is this alternative to be spelled out? I discuss a recent proposal: include special science laws, among them the laws of thermodynamics. Although the proposal fails, it serves to uncover the limits of Elga’s example.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Albert, David 2000. Time and Chance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Albert, David 2014. The Sharpness of the Distinction between the Past and the Future, in: Alasdair Wilson (ed.), Chance and Temporal Asymmetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 159–174.

  • Bennett, Jonathan 2003. A Philosophical Guide to Conditionals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Callender, Craig 2011. Thermodynamic Asymmetry in Time, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

  • Dunn, Jeffrey (2011) “Fried Eggs, Thermodynamics, and the Special Sciences”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 62, pp. 71–98.

  • Elga, Adam (2001) “Statistical Mechanics and the Asymmetry of Counterfactual Dependence”, Philosophy of Science, 68, pp. S313-S324.

  • Frigg, Roman, Hoefer, Carl (2010) “Determinism and Chance from a Humean Perspective”, in: Friedrich Stadler et al. (ed.), The Present Situation in the Philosophy of Science, F. Stadler et al (Ed.), Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 351–371.

  • Hitchcock, Christopher (2011) “Trumping and Contrastive Causation”, Synthese, 181, pp. 227–240.

  • Kment, Boris (2006) “Counterfactuals and Explanation”, Mind, 115, pp. 261–310.

  • Kutach, Douglas (2002) “The Entropy Theory of Counterfactuals”, Philosophy of Science, 69, pp. 82–104.

  • Lange, Marc (2004) “The Autonomy of Functional Biology: Reply to Rosenberg”, Biology and Philosophy, 19, pp. 93–109.

  • Lewis, David (1973) Counterfactuals, Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Lewis, David (1986) “Counterfactual Dependence and Time’s Arrow, Postscripts to «Counterfactual Dependence and Time’s Arrow»”, in Philosophical Papers II, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 32–66.

  • Loewer, Barry (2012) “Two Accounts of Laws and Time”, Philosophical Studies, 160, p. 115–37.

  • Morreau, Michael (2010) “It Simply Does Not Add Up: Trouble with Overall Similarity”, Journal of Philosophy, 107, pp. 469–490.

  • Noordhof, Paul (2005) “Morgenbesser’s Coin, Counterfactuals and Independence”, Analysis, 65, pp. 261–263.

  • North, Jill (2002) “What is the Problem about the Time-Asymmetry of Thermodynamics? – A Reply to Price”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 53, pp. 121–136.

  • Northcott, Robert (2009) “On Lewis, Schaffer and the Non-Reductive Evaluation of Counterfactuals”, Theoria, 75, pp. 336–343.

  • Price, Huw (2002) “Boltzmann’s Time Bomb”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 53, pp. 83–119.

  • Schaffer, Jonathan (2004) “Counterfactuals, Causal Independence and Conceptual Circularity”, Analysis, 64, pp. 299–309.

  • Schaffer, Jonathan (2007) “Deterministic Chance?”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 58, pp. 113–140.

  • Wasserman, Ryan (2006) “The Future Similarity Objection Revisited”, Synthese, 150, pp. 57–67.

  • Williams, Robert G. (2008) “Chances, Counterfactuals, and Similarity”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 78, 385–420.

  • Wilson, Alasdair (ed.) (2014) Chance and Temporal Asymmetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Journal + Issues