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Counterfactuals are events that may occur, but often don't. Such a concept tends to accompany the libertarian free will position, since if there is a free choice among alternatives, then this presupposes there are alternatives.

Given that only one of multiple alternatives actually occurs, what happens to the other possibilities? It seems they must exist in some way, since it sounds weird to say we are choosing among non existent options. However, they also don't exist since they didn't happen. So, in what way, from a libertarian free will perspective, do counterfactuals exist?

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  • Considering Paul chosing which tie to wear today, saying "the possibility exists that Paul choses the red tie" merely means there is no physical impediment that would prevent Paul from chosing the red tie if he decides so. It does not necessarily follows that the situation where Paul chose another tie than the one he ended up chosing "exists" in some abstract way.
    – armand
    Feb 19 at 4:56
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    The Aristotelian view is that counterfactuals exist as potentialities or propensities in the actual world. Libertarians often favor a version of it and some interpretations of probability use such notions, see SEP, Propensity Interpretations. A more common view is that they "exist" in other possible worlds, and the sense of this "existence" varies widely, from concrete physical to platonic or just nominal, see SEP, Possible worlds.
    – Conifold
    Feb 19 at 6:32
  • This question isn't only challenging from a Libertarian perspective, it's also interesting to ask about the ontology of 'possibilities', and how they relate to responsiblity, from the point of view of determinists, and particularly compatibilists.
    – TKoL
    Feb 19 at 16:19

2 Answers 2

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Your question is another classic that arises from the way in which we use words- in this case the word exist- in ways that are different but easily confused. When we talk of possibilities 'existing' we are speaking figuratively. When we say that different outcomes are possible, we mean that we can think of nothing that would prevent them.

If I say that I could take the 8:30am or 9:00am train to London, I mean there is no reason why I could not do either, and I can express that figuratively by saying both options 'exist'. However, if I dally over my breakfast and do not reach the station until 8:35, I cannot take the 8:30 train, so I might say that option no longer exists, by which I mean it no longer 'exists' in the sense I used earlier of being possible.

'Exist' is one of those words that have become hopelessly vague as a consequence of being put to use for a wide range of purposes, so when you are faced with a question about whether such-and-such a thing 'exists', the first thing you must do is be clear about which of the many meanings of the word is being intended.

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Maybe a better (and less contradictory) way to describe a free choice is this: it is an attempt to realize a certain possibility, one among several considered.

Then we can say that the possibilities themselves "exist" in the agent's imagination -- the agent must visualize every one of them on order to "choose" the most favorable one. I put "choose" in quotes because the agent still cannot choose the future -- they can only choose a course of action which, as they see it, will make that future more likely (if not inevitable).

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