Historical Counterfactuals, Causal Reasoning and the LSAT

    LSAT Prep

    listenting_to_historySome historians like to play "what if" games, and other historians resent them for it. To me, the use of historical counterfactuals, the "what ifs" of history, can be entertaining and thought provoking. For example, what if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated? Or what if the United States sat out World War I? And the debate over the value of counterfactuals in the study of history can help give us some insight into the LSAT as well.

    The problem some historians have with counterfactuals is that they can delve further into fantasy than historical analysis. In fact, what prompted me to write about this topic today was a New Republic review by Professor Cass Sunstein of the new book Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History, by Sir Richard Evans. (h/t to my former real property professor, Illya Somin, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy). Let's just say that Evans is not too keen on the use of counterfactuals other than as a fun diversion from serious historical investigation.

    While agreeing to a great extent with Evans' analysis, Sunstein also mounts a defense of counterfactuals in certain instances, and points out that the very nature of historical conclusions often implicitly evokes a counterfactual train of thought. It's at this point, the acknowledgement that certain historical conclusions implicitly suggest counterfactual scenarios, that our discussion of the LSAT comes into play.

    LSAC employs an extreme version of causal reasoning on the LSAT. In our materials, including this free Causal Reasoning Secrets seminar, we refer to this as the LSAT's central causal assumption. The assumption made by the LSAT in logical reasoning stimuli is that that there is only one cause for each effect. This assumption effectively merges causality and conditionality, casting the cause as a necessary condition. In other words, if we see the effect, then we now the cause must have been occurred.

    In his review, Sunstein comments on a similar use of causality by historians. When a historian reaches a definitive conclusion about a single (or at least the driving) cause for a historical event, they are using causality in a way that's similar to how it's used on the LSAT. Now, I'm not saying that all definitive causal conclusions in which a historian points to a single cause are flawed. Remember that the problem with the use of causality on the LSAT is the assumption that there is just one cause for each effect. Hopefully, historians reaching similar conclusions have reached their respective conclusions after careful vetting of the historical record and can offer support for them.

    To borrow an example from Sunstein, Evans himself,

    in explaining the rise of Nazism (an area in which he has great expertise), [ ] writes more firmly, saying that the “key factor” was “the Nazi’s storm troopers’ escalating use of violence” —which is an unambiguous suggestion that in the absence of that violence, the Nazis might not have come to power.

    In other words, Evans implicitly argues that the increasing stormtrooper violence was to some extent necessary for the Nazis coming to power. Admittedly, the use of the word "might" mitigates the nature of the conditional relationship, but for the purposes of this discussion, it's close enough.

    On the LSAT, in a Logical Reasoning stimulus, we might have the following argument:

    Premise:    A car accident occurred this morning on Main Street.

    Conclusion:     So, the glare from the morning sun must have caused the crash.

    Similarly to Evans' conclusion about the causal link between the Nazi storm troopers' escalating use of violence and the rise of Nazism (though more strongly worded), this argument doesn't just reach a causal conclusion, it also implies a conditional one. Here, the argument is that glare from the morning sun must have caused the crash. The glare was necessary for the crash to occur. So, if the glare from the morning sun had not been present, the crash would not have occurred. To the historian, that statement is an exercise in counterfactualism.

    In an LSAT Weaken question, we might attack this conclusion by pointing out that there was an alternate cause for the crash, perhaps an animal darting across the road. But we could also weaken the conclusion by showing that the car was equipped with special anti-glare materials that totally eliminate the effects of the sun's glare on the driver.

    So, when you run into a causal conclusion in the Logical Reasoning section of the LSAT, remember to think like a historian. As described Sunstein, Evans talks about how

    historians are made uneasy by “monocausal 
explanations.” They “prefer to pile up causes until events are overdetermined, that is, they have so many causes that if one did not operate the others would, and the event in question would still have occurred.”

    Just like historians, you should be made uneasy by monocausal conclusions on the LSAT. Keep in mind that events typically have more than one cause. Now, sit back and imagine how much better you would have scored on your last practice test if you had been more suspicious of monocausal conclusions!


    Image attricbute: "Listening to History" by Cliff.

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