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Keywords:

  • Counterfactual conditionals;
  • Bayes nets;
  • Explanation;
  • Reasoning

Abstract

This article reports results from two studies of how people answer counterfactual questions about simple machines. Participants learned about devices that have a specific configuration of components, and they answered questions of the form “If component X had not operated [failed], would component Y have operated?” The data from these studies indicate that participants were sensitive to the way in which the antecedent state is described—whether component X “had not operated” or “had failed.” Answers also depended on whether the device is deterministic or probabilistic—whether X's causal parents “always” or only “usually” cause X to operate. Participants' explanations of their answers often invoked non-operation of causally prior components or unreliability of prior connections. They less often mentioned independence from these causal elements.