Putting Inferentialism and the Suppositional Theory of Conditionals to the Test

Dissertation, University of Freiburg (2017)
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This dissertation is devoted to empirically contrasting the Suppositional Theory of conditionals, which holds that indicative conditionals serve the purpose of engaging in hypothetical thought, and Inferentialism, which holds that indicative conditionals express reason relations. Throughout a series of experiments, probabilistic and truth-conditional variants of Inferentialism are investigated using new stimulus materials, which manipulate previously overlooked relevance conditions. These studies are some of the first published studies to directly investigate the central claims of Inferentialism empirically. In contrast, the Suppositional Theory of conditionals has an impressive track record through more than a decade of intensive testing. The evidence for the Suppositional Theory encompasses three sources. Firstly, direct investigations of the probability of indicative conditionals, which substantiate “the Equation” (P(if A, then C) = P(C|A)). Secondly, the pattern of results known as “the defective truth table” effect, which corroborates the de Finetti truth table. And thirdly, indirect evidence from the uncertain and-to-if inference task. Through four studies each of these sources of evidence are scrutinized anew under the application of novel stimulus materials that factorially combine all permutations of prior and relevance levels of two conjoined sentences. The results indicate that the Equation only holds under positive relevance (P(C|A) – P(C|¬A) > 0) for indicative conditionals. In the case of irrelevance (P(C|A) – P(C|¬A) = 0), or negative relevance (P(C|A) – P(C|¬A) < 0), the strong relationship between P(if A, then C) and P(C|A) is disrupted. This finding suggests that participants tend to view natural language conditionals as defective under irrelevance and negative relevance (Chapter 2). Furthermore, most of the participants turn out only to be probabilistically coherent above chance levels for the uncertain and-to-if inference in the positive relevance condition, when applying the Equation (Chapter 3). Finally, the results on the truth table task indicate that the de Finetti truth table is at most descriptive for about a third of the participants (Chapter 4). Conversely, strong evidence for a probabilistic implementation of Inferentialism could be obtained from assessments of P(if A, then C) across relevance levels (Chapter 2) and the participants’ performance on the uncertain-and-to-if inference task (Chapter 3). Yet the results from the truth table task suggest that these findings could not be extended to truth-conditional Inferentialism (Chapter 4). On the contrary, strong dissociations could be found between the presence of an effect of the reason relation reading on the probability and acceptability evaluations of indicative conditionals (and connate sentences), and the lack of an effect of the reason relation reading on the truth evaluation of the same sentences. A bird’s eye view on these surprising results is taken in the final chapter and it is discussed which perspectives these results open up for future research.

Author's Profile

Niels Skovgaard-Olsen
University of Freiburg


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