Context-indexed counterfactuals and non-vacuous counterpossibles

Dissertation, The University of Queensland (2019)
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The two main features of this thesis are (i) an account of contextualized (context indexed) counterfactuals, and (ii) a non-vacuist account of counterpossibles. Experience tells us that the truth of the counterfactual is contingent on what is meant by the antecedent, which in turn rests on what context is assumed to underlie its reading (intended meaning). On most conditional analyses, only the world of evaluation and the antecedent determine which worlds are relevant to determining the truth of a conditional, and consequently what its truth value is. But that results in the underlying context being fixed, when evaluating distinct counterfactuals with the same antecedent on any single occasion, even when the context underlying the evaluation of each counterfactual may vary. Alternative approaches go some of the way toward resolving this inadequacy by appealing to a difference in the consequents associated with counterfactuals with the same antecedent. That is, in addition to the world of evaluation and the antecedent, the consequent contributes to the counterfactual’s evaluation. But these alternative approaches nevertheless give a single, determinate truth value to any single conditional (same antecedent and consequent), despite the possibility that this value may vary with context. My reply to these shortcomings (chapter 4) takes the form of an analysis of a language that makes appropriate explicit access to the intended context available. That is, I give an account of a contextualized counterfactual of the form ‘In context C: If it were the case that … , then it would be the case that …’. Although my proposal is largely based on Lewis’ (1973, 1981) analyses of counterfactuals (the logic VW and its ordering semantics), it does not require that any particular logic of counterfactuals should serve as its basis – rather, it is a general prescription for contextualizing a conditional language. The advantage of working with ordering semantics stems from existing results (which I apply and develop) concerning the properties of ordering frames that facilitate fashioning and implementing a notion of contextual information preservation. Analyses of counterfactuals, such as Lewis’ (1973), that cash out the truth of counterfactuals in terms of the corresponding material conditional’s truth at possible worlds result in all counterpossibles being evaluated as vacuously true. This is because antecedents of counterpossibles are not true at any possible world, by definition. Such vacuist analyses have already been identified and challenged by a number of authors. I join this critical front, and drawing on existing proposals, I develop an impossible world semantics for a non-vacuist account of counterpossibles (chapter 5), by modifying the same system and semantics that serve the basis of the contextualized account offered in chapter 4, i.e. Lewis’ (1986) ordering semantics for the logic VW. I critically evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of key conditions on the ordering of worlds on the extended domain and show that there is a sense in which all of Lewis’ analysis of mere counterfactuals can be preserved, whilst offering an analysis of counterpossibles that meets our intuitions. The first part of chapter 1 consists of an outline of the usefulness of impossible worlds across philosophical analyses and logic. That outline in conjunction with a critical evaluation of Lewis’ logical arguments in favour of vacuism in chapter 2, and his marvellous mountain argument against impossible worlds in chapter 3, serves to motivate and justify the impossible world semantics for counterpossibles proposed in chapter 5. The second part of chapter 1 discusses the limitations that various conditional logics face when tasked to give an adequate treatment of the influence of context. That introductory discussion in conjunction with an overview of conditional logics and their various semantics in chapter 2 – which includes an in-depth exposition of Stalnaker-Lewis similarity semantics for counterfactuals – serves as the motivation and conceptual basis for the contextualized account of counterfactuals proposed in chapter 4.
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