Just a note...while the lead in to the below may have been snipped from a
post made by me or in response to a post I made, the comment was not mine.
I agree with your conclusion, Mark. Most counterfactuals break down due to
codependency of variables. Usually you can't just change one variable. Too
often we only change the variables that we prefer to see change.
Behalf Of profgrimsley
Sent: Thursday, September 01, 2005 4:16 PM
Subject: [civilwarwest] Counterfactuals and Contingency
--- In email@example.com
, "Harry Smeltzer" <hjs21@c...>
You acknowledged the importance of the Snake
> Creek Gap movement. It did not succeed to the degree that Sherman
> hoped. Thus discussing counterfactuals is almost inescapable.
It's a fair observation. I'm just questioning whether a good,
rigorous Snake Creek Gap counterfactual is possible--whether one can
say that if *this* one variable were changed, the disruption or
destructionof Johnston's army would have ensued. (It's not really
enough to say that "better results" would have ensued.)
I'm not talking about any sort of "what-if" history. Rather, I'm
trying to adhere to certain rules that have been proposed for using
counterfactual analysis in a way that meets the same tests as
conventional academic history.
The basic idea is that whenever historians interpret the past they
isolate certain factors as key. When they do so, they are implicitly
arguing that if one of those factors were modified or removed, the
outcome would change. To use an example from the western theater:
the Army of the Cumberland lost the battle of Chickamauga primarily
because a gap opened up when Wood's division shifted its position just
before Longstreet's attack. The argument implicitly is that *if*
Wood's division had remained in place, the Union would have won. In
this scenario, the "consequent" is a Union victory at Chickamauga.
What accounts for the outcome--leaving Wood in place--is the
It occurs to me that maybe the easiest thing would be to paste in nine
rules for grounding counterfactuals. They're not mine; the credit
goes to Prof. Ned Lebow, a political scientist who has worked
extensively with counterfactual theory. The rules are excerpted from
an essay available online at
1. Realism: Good counterfactuals must arise from the historical
context, and we must have compelling mechanisms to bring them into
being that themselves require only minimal rewrites of history.
2. Clarity: All causal arguments should define as unambiguously as
possible what is to be explained (the consequent in counterfactual
arguments), which accounts for this outcome (the antecedent) and the
principle(s) linking the two. Good counterfactuals should also
specify the conditions that would have to be present for the
counterfactual to occur.
3. Logical consistency or cotenability: Every counterfactual is a
shorthand statement of a more complex argument that generally requires
a set of connecting conditions or principles. The hypothetical
antecedent should not undercut any of the principles linking it to the
4. Enabling counterfactuals should not undercut the antecedent: Some
counterfactual scenarios may require other counterfactuals to make
them possible. Researchers need to specify all important enabling
counterfactuals and consider their implications for the consequent.
5. Historical consistency: While the "minimal rewrite" rule should
be followed as closely as possible, the nature of the changes is more
important than the number of changes. A minimal rewrite that makes
only one alteration of reality may not qualify as a plausible world
counterfactual if the counterfactual is unrealistic.
6. Theoretical consistency: It is useful to reference any theories,
empirical findings, historical interpretations or assumptions on which
the causal principles or connecting arguments are based. This will
provide readers with a more explicit perspective from which to
evaluate the counterfactual's plausibility.
7. Avoid the conjunction fallacy: The probability of any compound
counterfactual is exceedingly low. Counterfactuals might have changed
the world, but in ways that become exponentially more difficult to
track over time because of the additional branching points that enter
the picture. As the probabilities associated with these outcomes will
vary enormously, researchers accordingly need to specify if their
counterfactuals are intended to produce a specific world, a set of
worlds with a particular characteristic or any world (on a specific
dimension) other than the one that actually came to pass.
8. Recognize the interconnectedness of causes and outcomes: Changes
we make in the past may not only require other changes to make them
possible, they may also produce additional changes beyond those we
intend to lead to the consequent.
9. Consider second order counterfactuals: Even when there is good
reason to believe that the antecedent will produce the desired
consequent, the possibility remains that subsequent developments will
return history to the course from which it was initially diverted by
the antecedent. Researchers should try to identify what in their view
is the most likely course of events that could unravel their
consequent or negate its value as an outcome.
Basically what I fear is that so many variables are in play at Snake
Creek Gap that too many of the above rules are violated or ignored. I
may be able to explain this better when I write the next part of the
post, which looks at the Confederate side of the hill.
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