I'd like to assign social science undergraduate students an article, short part of a book, or even a blog post about causality and counterfactual logic that is easy to understand.

It seems that most articles and books are too advanced for undergraduate students unfamiliar with advanced philosophy, formal logic, or statistics.

Added information:

The class is a research methods course for undergraduates, mostly in their first and second years of college, in the social sciences. My background is in econometrics rather than philosophy, so my knowledge of causality and counterfactuals is mostly within the statistical causal inference framework (e.g., Morgan and Winship, Judea Pearl, and Donald Rubin).

For undergraduates with little knowledge of statistics, however, I would not assign the work of these authors. Perhaps instead it would be better to introduce them to causality through a philisophical lens, which itself can become difficult.

Summary: I'm looking for a discussion of causality that is approachable for a more popular audience.

  • Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. One-line posts are discouraged because it is hard to tell from them what people are looking for. What relation exactly between causality and counterfactuals do you want students to understand? Are they freshmen or seniors, what are they expected to take out of it? Which articles or books did you aready disqualify as "too advanced"?
    – Conifold
    Mar 25, 2018 at 22:54
  • 2
  • @Conifold, thank you for your comments and suggestions. I've added further information about my request as you recommended. I believe the Cattel discussion is a bit advanced for these students, although I do like the Brady recommendation. Thank you! Mar 26, 2018 at 1:24
  • @Conifold - Why isn't this posted as an answer, when it directly answers the question as given? What's the justification for putting it in a comment instead? Mar 27, 2018 at 18:53
  • 1
    @ChrisSunami I did not know at the time whether it would. And even then an answer requires more work, like brief description of the content and merits instead of just a link. At least that's what I'd expect from an answer.
    – Conifold
    Mar 27, 2018 at 19:35

2 Answers 2


I suggest

Paul, L.A. (2009): Counterfactual Theories, In: Helen Beebee, Christopher Hitchcock, and Peter Menzies (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Causation, Oxford: Oxford UP, Ch. 8.

This is a good and quite easy-to-read introduction that is particularly addressed to students getting familiar with the theories of causation. It also offers a lot of material for further studies and is usually available through the universities' libraries, at least as an online version.

From the introduction:

L. A. Paul examines counterfactual theories of causation, starting with David Lewis’s classic theory. According to this, causation is to be understood in terms of counterfactuals of the form ‘if event c had not occurred, event e would not have occurred’. When such a counterfactual is true, Lewis says the event e causally depends on the event c; and when c and e are wholly distinct events that are linked by a chain of such causal dependences, he says c is a cause of e. After reviewing some general methodological issues concerning conceptual and ontological analysis, Paul outlines the merits of this theory by showing how it applies smoothly to examples involving common causes, early pre-emption, and causation involving absences. She examines possible solutions to especially recalcitrant problems arising from certain kinds of pre-emption and overdetermination.

While surely not "layman", it does not involve statistical analysis but rather common sense understanding.

  • Is "counterfactual" the same as "necessary prerequisite"?
    – Jo Wehler
    Mar 27, 2018 at 19:18
  • @JoWehler: If anything, a potential cause identified through counterfactual reasoning is. But generally, it points in the right direction. It actually is nice for identifying overdetermination in particular (two people shooting at the same time, both events not ruled out through counterfactual reasoning).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 27, 2018 at 19:56
  • This is a nice recommendation. Thank you! Mar 27, 2018 at 20:24

Some of your students may be familiar with the classic theological problem of "if God knows the future, then how can my will be free?" For them this argument about "Newcomb's Paradox", which makes use of counterfactuals, may prove helpful.

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