Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 (NeurIPS 2021)
Juan Correa, Sanghack Lee, Elias Bareinboim
The Ladder of Causation describes three qualitatively different types of activities an agent may be interested in engaging in, namely, seeing (observational), doing (interventional), and imagining (counterfactual) (Pearl and Mackenzie, 2018). The inferential challenge imposed by the causal hierarchy is that data is collected by an agent observing or intervening in a system (layers 1 and 2), while its goal may be to understand what would have happened had it taken a different course of action, contrary to what factually ended up happening (layer 3). While there exists a solid understanding of the conditions under which cross-layer inferences are allowed from observations to interventions, the results are somewhat scarcer when targeting counterfactual quantities. In this paper, we study the identification of nested counterfactuals from an arbitrary combination of observations and experiments. Specifically, building on a more explicit definition of nested counterfactuals, we prove the counterfactual unnesting theorem (CUT), which allows one to map arbitrary nested counterfactuals to unnested ones. For instance, applications in mediation and fairness analysis usually evoke notions of direct, indirect, and spurious effects, which naturally require nesting. Second, we introduce a sufficient and necessary graphical condition for counterfactual identification from an arbitrary combination of observational and experimental distributions. Lastly, we develop an efficient and complete algorithm for identifying nested counterfactuals; failure of the algorithm returning an expression for a query implies it is not identifiable.