Counterfactuals

It’s easy to come up with common, American English claims that take the form of a conditional claim but that actually aren’t conditionals.

Take for example: “If the hammer hits the gold, then the gold will flatten.”

I take it for granted that the claim is true when there is a hammer and a good chunk of gold present.

Now, the hammer does not have to be hitting the gold in order for it to be true, but neither is it a vacuous truth, or true just because the antecedent is false. So, for example, the following is false: If the hammer hits the gold, then the hammer will flatten. This claim is false, even when the hammer is not hitting the gold.

If so, then the claim does not admit of a material conditional analysis, since the falsity of the antecedent in a conditional guarantees that the entire conditional be true (this being the definition of a vacuous truth).

Of course, the claim is not a conditional then, but a counterfactual. In its more explicit form, counterfactuals are presented with the addition of ‘were’ and ‘would’, as follows: “If the hammer were to hit the gold, then the gold would flatten.” What does ‘were’ and ‘would’ add here? Nothing, it seems to me, except they make it perfectly clear that what is meant is a counterfactual rather than a conditional. Whether what is meant is a conditional or else a counterfactual in the absence of such markers is left up to the context in which the speaker utters the claim.

So what is a counterfactual? The name is, I think, already a terrible misnomer. If we go with an analysis that breaks apart the claim into that of an antecedent and a consequent, like that of a conditional, then it will be readily thought that it is irrelevant whether or not the antecedent is true. If it is false, well so be it, for we are making a claim about were it to be true, then such and such a consequent would also be true. Hence, the antecedent may be counter to fact and not affect the truth value of the entire claim.

However, I am skeptical of an approach that would analyse such claims as being anything other than fact. Of course, it might be considered that just because a component of a claim is counter to fact, does not mean that the entire claim is relegated to something that is less than a fact. Even so, the question becomes how to connect counter-fact components to facts. This is perhaps possible to do.

The orthodox way is to analyse conditionals is in terms of possible worlds. Thus the antecedent is counter to fact, sure, but it is about a possible world. If the possible word results in the consequent also being true (in that possible world), and the possible world is sufficiently close to the actual world, then the counterfactual is true, and false otherwise. Closeness here amounts to being similar to the actual world. So the more similar a possible world is to the actual one, the more close it is.

Thus, “If the hammer were to hit the gold, the gold would flatten” is true because there is a sufficiently close possible world (or even all such sufficiently close possible worlds) where the hammer hits the gold and the gold flattens. Indeed, perhaps it is just that world exactly as the actual one, except that the hammer that lies there is not lying there, but is hammering the gold, probably thanks to someone nearby picking up the hammer and using it. Such a sufficiently close possible world explains why the claim is true. On the other hand, “If the hammer were to hit the gold, the hammer would flatten” is false, because, as we just said, all sufficiently close possible worlds where the hammer hits the gold reveals that the hammer does not flatten, rather the gold does.

Is there anything wrong with such an analysis? Maybe this is just me, but when I make the claim about the hammer and the gold, even counterfactually, it certainly does not seem to me that I am making a claim about some possible hammer and some possible gold, but just the very hammer and gold that is on the scene. What’s more, certainly the truth conditions, i.e. those components of the world that make such a claim true or false, are not grounded in some possible world, but are of the actual world where the utterance is made. Furthermore, we live in one world. When I consider hitting gold with hammers, perhaps I am merely imagining what this world could be–I could imagine anything at all; but if I take it seriously that there is a causal capacity of such hammers and of such gold in this world, which I do, then I am not comparing some other world with this one at all–my focus is squarely on the actual world and what its causal nature is.

I therefore reject that we need possible worlds in order to account for counterfactual claims. Our starting place should be the actual facts involved in the claim. To begin, the claim is ostensibly about two things, the hammer and the gold. The claim is about these two objects and concerns their intrinsic nature, which is confirmed to us (shown to be true) when the hammer hits the gold, although of course it needn’t be shown to be true in order to be true. That would be to confuse knowing with being.

So what actual claims could the counterfactual be making? It is the intrinsic nature of the things involved that is pointed out in the claim. If I were to make the details explicit, my opening counterfactual would probably run:

“The hammer is hard enough to flatten the gold”

Or

“The hammer is constituted such to flatten the gold when it hits the gold”

Note that, in appealing to intrinsic natures or constitution, we don’t need to talk about possible worlds at all. We just talk about the very objects of the actual world. There is no more dividing and comparing of worlds. I think this is an advantage.

Now, the above sentences are clearly true. The other, false, counterfactual would be translated as “The hammer is constituted such to flatten when it hits the gold”, which is clearly false. Hooray for also being an adequate account, at least so far as I can see! What more details need to be worked out? Any worries or problems with any of this? Please feel free to write me or comment.

It’s interesting to me how analytic philosophy can run with an idea for so long that just seems misguided on the face of it. Talking about intrinsic natures, I’m assuming and would like to look into it, went out of style somewhere along the history of philosophy, and for no good reason that I can consider here. Surely speaking of an intrinsic nature is less absurd than speaking of or comparing possible worlds.

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