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Backtracking Counterfactuals

by   Julius von Kügelgen, et al.

Counterfactual reasoning – envisioning hypothetical scenarios, or possible worlds, where some circumstances are different from what (f)actually occurred (counter-to-fact) – is ubiquitous in human cognition. Conventionally, counterfactually-altered circumstances have been treated as "small miracles" that locally violate the laws of nature while sharing the same initial conditions. In Pearl's structural causal model (SCM) framework this is made mathematically rigorous via interventions that modify the causal laws while the values of exogenous variables are shared. In recent years, however, this purely interventionist account of counterfactuals has increasingly come under scrutiny from both philosophers and psychologists. Instead, they suggest a backtracking account of counterfactuals, according to which the causal laws remain unchanged in the counterfactual world; differences to the factual world are instead "backtracked" to altered initial conditions (exogenous variables). In the present work, we explore and formalise this alternative mode of counterfactual reasoning within the SCM framework. Despite ample evidence that humans backtrack, the present work constitutes, to the best of our knowledge, the first general account and algorithmisation of backtracking counterfactuals. We discuss our backtracking semantics in the context of related literature and draw connections to recent developments in explainable artificial intelligence (XAI).


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