Heim Sequences and Why Most Unqualified ‘Would’-Counterfactuals Are Not True

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Abstract
The apparent consistency of Sobel sequences (example below) famously motivated David Lewis to defend a variably strict conditional semantics for counterfactuals. (a) If Sophie had gone to the parade she would have seen Pedro. (b) If Sophie had gone to the parade and been stuck behind someone tall she would not have seen Pedro. But if the order of the counterfactuals in a Sobel sequence is reversed – in the example, if (b) is asserted prior to (a) – the second counterfactual asserted no longer rings true. This is the Heim sequence problem. That the order of assertion makes this difference is surprising on the variably strict account. Some argue that this is reason to reject the Lewis-Stalnaker semantics outright. Others argue that the problem motivates a contextualist rendering of counterfactuals. Still others maintain that the explanation for the phenomenon is merely pragmatic. I argue that none of these are right, and defend a novel way to understand the phenomenon. My proposal avoids the problems faced by the alternative analyses and enjoys independent support. There is, however, a difficulty for my view: it entails that many ordinarily-accepted counterfactuals are not true. I argue that this (apparent) cost is acceptable.
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Archival date: 2020-07-30
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2020-07-30

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