Counterfactual Thinking


A. S. Karpenko


Counterfactual thinking is thinking about a past that did not happen. This often takes place in “if only...” situations, when we wish something had or had not happened. Counterfactual reasoning is basic to human cognition and universal in occurrence. Currently, the principles of couterfactual thinking and its results appear in research in various disciplines, such as logic, philosophy, psychology, cognitive processes, sociology, economics, history, political science etc. The special thing about the counterfactuals is that they are the mental imitations of the different variants of what could have happened in the past. It is observed that two uniquely human characteristics — counterfactual thinking (imagining alternatives to the past) and the fundamental drive to create meaning in life — are causally related. Gradually, we have come to understand that we are dealing with the phenomenon of exceptional importance.
DOI: 10.21146/2074-1472-2017-23-2-98-122






A chto, esli by?.. Al’ternativnaya istoria. [What is? Alternative History], ed. by R. Coley. St . Petersburg: AST, 2002. 604 p. (In Russian)
Bestuzhev-Lada, I.V. “Retroal’ternativistika v filosofii istorii” [Retroaltenative studies in philosophy of history] // Voprosi filosofii, 1997, No. 8, pp. 112–122. (In Russian)
Karpenko, A.S. Fatalizm i sluchainost’ budushego: logicheskiy analiz [Fatalism and randomness: logical analysis]. Moscow: LKI, 2008. 216 p. (In Russian)
Karpenko, A.S. “Kontrfakticheskie viskazivaniya” [Counterfactual propositions], Enciklopedia epistemologii i filosofii nauki [Handbook of epistemology and philosophy of science]. Moscow: Kanon+, ROOI «Reabilitacia», 2009, pp. 385–386. (In Russian)
Karpenko, A.S. “Filosofskiy princip polnoti. Ch. I” [Philosophical completeness principle. Part I], Voprosi filosofii, 2013, No. 6, pp. 58–70; “Ch. II” [Part II], Voprosi filosofii, 2013, No. 7, pp. 95–108. (In Russian)
Karpenko, A.S. “Filosofskiy princip polnoti. Ch. II” [Philosophical completeness principle. Part I], Filosofiya i kul’tura, 2013, No. 11, pp. 1508–1522; “Ch. II” [Part II], Filosofiya i kul’tura, 2013, No. 12, pp. 1660–1679. (In Russian)
Karpenko, A.S. “Osnovnoy vopros metaphiziki” [Basic question of metaphysics], Filosofskiy jurnal, 2014, No. 2(13), pp. 51–73. (In Russian)
Leshchenko, V. Vetvyashcheesya vremya [Branching time: History that did not exist]. M.: AST, 2003. 592 p. (In Russian)
Malishev, M.A. “Soslagatel’noe naklonenie — virtual’niy bunt protiv sud’by” [Subjunctive mood — virtual riot against reality], Nauch. egegodnik In-ta filosofii i prava RAN, 2015, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 5–27. (In Russian)
Nevski, B. “A chto esli bi? Al’ternativnaya istoria kak nauka” [What if? Alternative history as science], Mir fantastiki, 2004, No. 6, pp. 12–16. (In Russian)
Nemakhin, V.A. Kontrfakticheskie issledovaniya v istoricheskom poznanii: geneziz, metodologiya [Couterfactual investigations in historical cognition: origins and methodology]. Moscow: MAKS-Press, 2006. 176 p. (In Russian)
Nemakhin, V.A. “Kontrfakticheskie istoricheskie issledovaniya” [Counterfactual studies in history], Istoricheskaya psihologia i sociologia istorii, 2011, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 102–120. (In Russian)
Odissey. Chelovek v istorii 2000: istoriya v soslagatel’nom naklonenii? [Odyssey. Human in History 2000: history in subjunctive mood], ed. by A.Y. Gurevich. Moscow: Nauka, 2000. 343 p. (In Russian)
Pomernatz, G.S. “Istoriya v soslagatel’nom naklonenii” [History in in subjunctive mood], Voprosi filosofii, 1990, No. 11, pp. 55–66. (In Russian)
Psevdonimi [Pseudonames], ed. by A.S. Karpenko. St. Petersburg: CGI, 2011. 224 p. (In Russian)
Reze, H. “Kontrfaktual’noe mishlenie” [Counterfactual thinking], in: Gorizonti cognitivnoi psihologii: hrestomatii [Cognitive psychology horizons: collection], ed. by V. F. Spiridonova, M.V. Falikman. Moscow: Yaziki slavyan. Kultur: Ros. gos. gumatitar. un-t (RGGU), 2012, pp. 243–254. (In Russian)
Toynbee, A. “Elsi by Aleksand ne umer togda...” [If Alexander the Great had lived on], Znanie – sila, 1979, No. 2, pp. 39–42. (In Russian)
Hawking, S. et al. Budushchee prostranstva i vremeni [The future of spacetime stephen]. St. Petersburg: AMFORA, 2009. 254 p. (In Russian)
Ekshtut, S.A. “Soslagatel’noe naklonenie v istorii: voploshchenie nesbivshegosya. Opit istoriosofskogo osmisleniya” [Subjunctive mood in history: The incarnation of the unfulfilled. Experience of historiosophic understanding.], Voprosi filosofii, 2000, No. 8, pp. 79–87.
Anderson, A.R. “A note on subjunctive and counterfactual conditionals”, Analysis, 1951, Vol. 11, pp. 35–38.
Arntzenius, F. “Time Travel and Modern Physics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009. [, accessed on 23.01.2016].
Arregui, A. “On similarity in counterfactuals”, Linguistics and Philosophy, 2009, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 245–278.
Beck, S.R. et al. “Conditional reasoning and emotional experience: A. Review of the development of counterfactual thinking”, Studia Logica, 2014. Vol. 102, No. 4, pp. 673–689.
Bennet, J.F. Philosophical Guide to Conditionals. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003. 408 p.
Bigaj, T. Non-Locality and Possible Worlds: Counterfactual Perspective on Quantum Entanglement. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2006. 294 p.
Black, J.M. Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2015. 252 p.
Byrne, R.M.J. The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. 268 p.
Causation and Counterfactuals, eds. by J. Collins, N. Hall and L.A. Paul. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 480 p.
Chen, J. et al. “Culture and counterfactuals: On the importance of life domains”, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2006, Vol. 37, pp. 75–84.
Counterfactual Thinking — Counterfactual Writing, eds. by D. Birke, M. Butter and T. K_oppe. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2011. 256 p.
Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives, eds. by P.E. Tetlock and A. Belkin. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996. 344 p.
Divers, J. “Modal commitments”, in: Modality: Metaphysics, Logic, and Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010, pp. 189–219.
Earman, J. “Time Machines’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010 [, accessed on 17.12.2015].
Epstude, K. “The functional theory of counterfactual thinking”, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2008, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 168–192.
Evans, R.J. Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. London: Little, Brown, 2014. 224 p.
Faye, J. “Backward Causation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015. [ entries/causation-backwards/, accessed on 17.12.2015].
Fogel, R. Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1964. 296 p.
Goodman, N. “The problem of counterfactual conditionals”, Journal of Philosophy, 1947, Vol. 44, No. 5, pp. 113–128.
Gunderson, L.B. “Outline of a new semantics for counterfactuals”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 2004, Vol. 85, No. 1, pp. 1–20.
Hill, C. “Modality, modal epistemology, and the metaphysics of consciousness”, in: The Architecture of Imagination: New Essays on Pretense, Possibility and Fiction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006, pp. 205–236.
Ippolito, M. Subjunctive Conditionals: A Linguistic Analysis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. 216 p.
Johnson, M.K. “Constructing and reconstructing the past and the future in the present”, in: Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. N.Y., 1990, Vol. 2, pp. 482–526.
Kment, B. “Counterfactuals and the analysis of necessity”, Philosophical Perspectives, 2006, Vol. 20, pp. 237–302.
Kroedel, T. “Counterfactuals and the epistemology of modality”, Philosophers’ Imprint, 2012, Vol. 12, pp. 1–21.
Kvart, I. A Theory of Counterfactuals. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986. 283 p.
Kray, L.J. et al. “From what might have been to what must have been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning”, J. of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010, Vol. 98, No. 1, pp. 106–118.
Lewis, D. Counterfactuals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973. 160 p.
Lewis, D. “The Paradoxes of time travel”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 1976, Vol. 13, pp. 145–152.
Lewis, D. On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 288 p.
Many Worlds? Everett, Quantum Theory, and Reality, eds. by S. Saunders et al. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. 618 p.
Nickerson, R. Conditional Reasoning: The Unruly Syntactics, Semantics, Thematics, and Pragmatics of “If ”. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015. 472 p.
Nute, D. “Conditional logic”, in Handbook of Philosophical Logic, D. Nute, C.B. Cross (eds.). 2nd ed. Dordrecht, 2001, Vol. 4, pp. 1–98.
Pollock, J. Subjunctive Reasoning. Dordrecht:Reidel, 1976. 255 p.
Pollock, J. “A refined theory of counterfactuals”, Journal of Philosophical Logic, 1981, Vol. 10, pp. 239–266.
Rescher, N. Hypothetical Reasoning. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1964. 95 p.
Rescher, N. Conditionals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007. 260 p.
Rice, H. “Fatalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014 [, accessed on 11.12.2015].
Sider, T. “Time travel, coincidences and counterfactuals”, Philosophical Studies, 2002, Vol. 110, pp. 115–138.
Sladek, O. “On the Worlds of Counterfactual History: Between History and Fiction, 2006”, [, accessed on 23.01.2016].
Smeenk, C. “Time travel and time machines”, in: The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time. New York, 2011, pp. 577–633.
Smith, N.J.J. “Time Travel”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013 [, accessed on 23.01.2016.)
Stalnaker, R. “A theory of conditionals”, in: Studies in Logical Theory. Oxford, 1968, pp. 98–112.
The Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, K.D. Markman, W.M.P. Klein, and J.A. Suhr (eds.). New York: Psychology Press, 2009. 488 p.
The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, D.R. Mandel, D.J. Hilton, and P. Catellani (eds.). London: Routledge, 2005. 264 p.
Tooley, M. “The Lewis-Stalnaker approach to counterfactuals”, Journal of Philosophy, 2003, Vol. 100, pp. 371–377.
Toynbee, A.J. Some Problems in Greek History. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969. 538 p.
Understanding Counterfactuals, Understanding Causation: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology, C. Hoerl, T. McCormack, and S.R. Beck (eds.). New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012. 272 p.
Unterhuber, M. Possible Worlds Semantics for Indicative and Counterfactual Conditionals?: A Formal Philosophical Inquiry into Chellas-Segerberg Semantics. Frankfurt: Ontos Ferlag, 2013. 333 p.
van Hoeck, N. et al. “Counterfactual thinking: an fMRI study on changing the past for a better future”, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2013, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 556–564.
van Inwagen, P. “Modal epistemology”, Philosophical Studies, 1998, Vol. 92, No. 1, pp. 67–84.
van Inwagen, P. “Changing the Past”, in: Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, ed. by D.W. Zimmerman. N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010, Vol. 5, pp. 3–28.
Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. by N. Ferguson. London: Macmillan, 1997. 548 p.
von Fintel, K. “Subjunctive conditionals”, in: The Routledge companion to philosophy of language, G. Russell, D.G. Fara (eds.). N.Y.: Routledge, 2012, pp. 466–477.
What Might Have Been: the Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, N.J. Roese, J.M. Olson (eds.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995. 424 p.
What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians, ed. by A. Roberts. London: Orion Publishing, 2005. 208 p.
What If ?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might have Been, ed. by R. Cowley. N.Y.: Berkley Books, 2000. 416 p.
What If ? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might have Been, ed. by R. Cowley. N.Y.: Berkley Books, 2002. 448 p.
Williamson, T. “Armchair philosophy, metaphysical modality and counterfactual thinking”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 2005, Vol. 105, pp. 1–23.
Williamson, T. The Philosophy of Philosophy. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 352 p.