Friday, April 14, 2006


I’ve just got back from the University of Connecticut, where I gave my paper on Modal Knowledge at the Philosophy Department Colloquium and got lots of helpful feedback. The UConn grad students have just started a blog, What Is It Like To Be a Blog?.

I also attended a conference on Conditionals. On Saturday, Dorothy Edgington told us what she thinks about subjunctive conditionals, namely that they do not have truth values but rather express the speaker’s belief that the conditional probability of the consequent on the antecedent is high (i.e., basically, they function pretty much the way she thinks indicatives do, but in a different tense).

I was worried that there seem to be cases where the consequent is unlikely to be true given that the antecedent is, yet still would be true if the antecedent was. The existence of such cases suggests that subjunctives and conditional probabilities are not correlated in the way Edgington claims. We discussed the following example (one suggested by Edgington when I raised my worry in discussion time). Suppose you decide at the last minute not to get on a plane which is very unlikely to crash, and the plane in fact crashes, killing all its passengers. It’s tempting to think that the probability of your dying conditional on having got on the plane is low, because the plane’s chances of crashing were low, yet clearly if you had got on the plane you would have died.

Edgington replied that we simply have to find the right conditional probability, in much the same way that (say) someone who likes closest-world semantics for these conditionals has to find the right similarity relation. In the above case, she said, the right conditional probability is that of your dying given that you got on the plane and it crashed. To save the proposal, you just need to find the right pieces of further information about the world to take into account, besides what is mentioned in the antecedent. This information will makes the conditional probability of the consequent high.

This might be thought to be a bit ad hoc, given that the crashing is not mentioned in the antecedent of the conditional we’re actually interested in. But regardless of that, I think it is a problem that the response won’t always work if there is indeterminacy in the world. For in that case, there will – or at least, could – be some unlikely events that just happen, and are not rendered any more likely however much further information about the world we take into account.

Suppose C is an event that would have happened, without being determined, if A had happened, although it was very unlikely to do so. Then the subjunctive:
If A had happened then C would have happened
looks true, although the conditional probability of C on A is low. And in this case there is no further information about the world that we can take into account which will make the conditional probability of C high – that is, there is nothing which can play the role played by the fact that the plane crashed in Edgington’s response to the first example.

So Edgington’s account of counterfactuals seems at risk of giving the wrong results unless we assume there is no indeterminacy. And this seems to be a distinctive problem for the account, not analogous to an problem faced by closest-world approaches.


Alex Skiles said...

Hey Carrie,

What about this piece of information?

[IC]: If A had not have occurred, then C would have occurred.

This looks like cheating, but I see no reason why Edgington couldn't appeal to [IC] if, as your counterexample requires, C is a truly improbable event which in fact occurs.

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hi Alex,

I'm not sure I'm seeing your point here - could you make it a bit more explicitly?

Helga von porno said...

I'm with Edgington here, whom I take to be inspired by Ramsey. I don't think your example makes sufficient sense and is question begging. If you assume that C is undetermined completely, then to say that "the subjunctive: if A happened then C would have happened looks true," is simply to assume realism about subjunctive conditionals. If the probability of C happening is independent of whether or not A happened, then the subjunctive doesn't seem to make sense, unless you put "anyway" at the end. Try putting concrete events in place of A and C and it will become clear how implausible the subjunctive you have in mind is.

Aaron said...

the mere presence of indeterminacy won't hurt Edgington's account, right? So long as there is probablistic dependence at indeterministic worlds, she'll be able to find the conditional probabilities she wants. So perhaps feeling better isn't determined by having whiskey, but the probability of feeling better is raised significantly thereby. p(Better/Whiskey) was high (though not equal to 1) and "Whiskey []-> Better" expresses this high degree of confidence. (My grandmother certaintly thinks so.)

What you need for your objection to stick, I take it, is (1) cases where "A []-> B" is (intuitively/obviously/whatever) "true" but (2) p(B/A & *anything at all*) is either (a) no different than p(B) or (b) not sufficiently high for Edgington's account to work.

Well, as the previous poster pointed out, (a) doesn't seem to get you anywhere. It's hard to believe you'll find any "A []-> B" that seems true when p(B) = P(B/A & *anything at all*).

I'll assume you meant (b). This is probably worth worrying about. Do you have concrete examples in mind that satisfy (1) and (2b)? I'm having trouble thinking of any, but that doesn't mean anything. Kneejerk is to say that Edgington could appeal to something about context and what counts as "sufficiently high". I can't use that response without some examples though. So what did you have in mind?

Anonymous said...

A few points all of them rather tangential:
Define indeterminate. If I say that some event either will or will not happen--this may be seen as a kind of prediction may it not?
Suppose I say before the plane takes off that I have certain knowledge that this plane has a pilot who likes to drink and who frequently passes out after a couple of drinks while at the controls and if this happens while the co-pilot is in the john the plane will fall into an uncontrollable spin. Then I could say after the plane crashed that I predicted the crash---that according to my definition of prediction my understanding was sufficient and I have foretold the event. The black box might or might not support this but then what constitutes support becomes the issue. Another question: what consitutes a lucky guess , a chance correlation? --define that. What are the parameters of this or any event is another crux.
If I can define things to support my contention that I have predicted then I win. If it is said that I cannot so define things then the argument concerns why I cannot or must not do so. If I am not justified, then the question becomes --what is justification?
On indeterminacy --- When is an outcome fully determined? Suppose the result of a quantum experiment varies by say .0000002% from the previous performance of the same (define same) experiment--shall I say then that the outcome (define outcome) in both experiments is indeterminate or partially indeterminate or determinate ? Take your pick. Or shall I say that due to the bit of variance compared to the prevous experiment the experiment is not the same kind of experiment as the prior experiment-- but a different experiment entirely (define different). Or that it is the same except for the tiny bit that differs from the previous one--and that tiny bit is the different experiment.
Shall I further say that this tiny variance indicates that
there has been no actual prediction? Just how close a description does it have to be to be considered an accurate prediction? And back to the plane crash. I say that my scenatio of the pilot and flight predicted the crash--insist that my scenario of the flight is close enough to constitute a prediction. That the variance between my scenario and the actual event does not invalidate my prediction just as the variance between the quantum experiments may not mean indeterminance-- may have been predictive. (If I predict simply that there will be variation of some sort or other-- does that constitute a prediction-- and if so,is it an accurate prediction? (define accurate)
If the variance in the quantum experiment results -- or indeed any of the expected and common variation in scientific experimental results generally --indicates to you that there is indeterminacy in the world (if you want to generalize from a few experimental examples)--- that specifically we cannot predict this variation with accuracy (define accuracy) and consequently the world is indeterminate-- then so be it. if you decide that the variance is due to experimental factors out of our control and that could we control them it would yield exactly (define exactly) the same result each time-- or alternately, if you feel that that tiny a variation is irrelevant-- then the world is not indeterminate at all-but determinate --or we just can't pin down and understand all the factors but you are willing to give reality the benefit of the doubt and characterize it as strictly governed by rule, variation not withstanding.
It seems that definition can rule.
Even what must follow from what and what we may or may not say follows may be defined as we see fit.
if I am not allowed to deviate from what the consensus definition is then the issue becomes why am I not allowed to do so?
If this is all condemed as nonsense then the issue becomes--- what is nonsense? If you have agreed with peers to exclude certain definitions of a term then the question is ---to what purpose? if the assumption is that consensus definition reveals the truth then ok, but if it does not then why assume that one definition tends toward the truth more than another? Or is truth independent of definition? Are the words independent of the world or part of it?
Indeterminacy itself seems to have a great deal of indeterminacy-or not. Take your pick. One will or won't have a preference for a parameter or boundary of some type (define type) to limit indeterminacy.
You could argue that indeterminacy must be carefully defined to be of utility-- that worldly useful results require it. But then define useful.
Is an object one thing that can be described several ways accurately -- like a red bicycle or is the object undefined and only takes shape as we think or speak of it--is the object that is the focus of discussion undefined and flexible -- a kind of place holder--until we make it explicit and limit it as a result of our discussion and description and thinking?
Is indeterminacy an object in the same way that gravity is an object? And just what kind of object is gravity anyway?
All the above points out my feeling that wile definitions can be
If it is true that the world is indeterminate then indeterminacy , being part of the world, is itself indeterminate and so the world's indeterminacy is in doubt, except that this then confirms its indeterminacy
---and round and round we go.
It boils down to asking is there one set of statements-- or one description of a state of affairs that characterizes truth-- in other words is what truth is a set of statements which are indubitable and necessarily assented to by all-- (or even statements inferred from behavior)-- is that what truth is? Russell said only statements can be true or false: the world is neither true nor false-- but I think that the notion of truth should be expanded to include all things and all possible points of view such that the notion of truth always includes its own replacement, its own contradiction. it is perhaps less materially useful to see truth this way but it is more descriptive of life.
By Including its own contradiction I do not mean that
black should include white and mind include matter -- a negating of opposites --but rather contradiction meaning the absence of something and the presence of another: the ice cream you just finished is gone and now the newspaper reading is here eh endless replacement.
he point is that truth is progressive ratherthan ---
the truth is what just happened-- and then what happened is that you described what happened and what happend now is that you described desribing what happened and what happened then is that you described
describing describing what happened and so on and so on -- ad infinitum.
there is nothing that does not happen- even negation happens-- all that happens is a presence and not an absence. so that if your brother goes away for a month
this is a state of affairs -- there is never a lack of some state of affairs or other. that is what there is. ou can say that one state of affairs is missing and another present--but astate of affairs is what you'll get. all is a positive presence -- if not -- then there would be no presence. Can't detect those radio waves? postive presence.
If words and world are different is the contradiction in he workds or the world? if in the words then how can it be contradictory to say of the world that things can be
both black and white at the same time? since the contradiction is only inthe words-- which are separate from the world. If the contradiction is inthe world then words are merely "representing " the world accurately
and therefore the words themselves contain no contradiction and the world itself is contradictory-- contradictoryness is the truth then-- not opposed to the truth.
so contradictoryness is part of the world or part of words--
so the law of excluded middle is not
So, if contradiction is in the words and not in the world
or if in the world and not in the words then in either case the

but then you can say
is thought, event-- basic description?

I know that my comments rather circle around your issue, buzzard like-- and do not land--but this I think is what what words may do in general: they never seem to land with necessity-- they are deniable, dubitable and changeable-- or not.
But I cannot get Wittgensteinian and say that the meaning is the use--(implying that there is no truth to words beyond the fact of their use in life) but Wittgenstein certainly was convinced of the truth of his idea that meaning is the use --he does not believe that the meaning of his words in this case are merely determined by use and so do not actually tell a truth beyond mere use-- rather he is asserting that his words go beyond mere use and are in fact identical with the state of affairs -- he is asserting that something is the case independently of his idea of the meaning being the use. And yet he says he meaning is the use. It is a kind of a contradiction of the type exemplified by the self- refering sentence-- "this statement is false".
Seen from the point of view of true and false as opposites statements it is contradictory --true and false being mutually exclusive-one one may survive- but if there is no necessity to this mutual exclusivity- if there is no necessity to define them as necessarily opposed within one statement then the statement is true in one way and false in another --the statement is both true and false. Since the term "same" is, by my eye, subject to the same doubt as
My ongoing question is what is the necessity? and what
necessarily follows? Because one can see something as
contradictory or opposed is it therefore a necessity to do so? Yes, in this case I am questioning the law of excluded middle--- but not the usefulness of it-- just the necessity.
is there a necessity to split the world into words and physical things? does the mere acknowledgement that we can do this make it necessary? and make it the truth?
If the split was abandoned then we wouldn't have to depend on the entity we call a proposition to mend the rift.
Is the world indeterminate or is it just the words that are indeterminate?
This question is not possible without the split we have made between words and the world. I am not saying it is not useful to do so- but again, is it necessary and is it the truth? (Does utility indicate the truth? )
Some will say that it can be seen directly that this split is a given in nature. Some will say that words cannot be separated from the object-- that they are co-dependent. Or that if words are conceptual and the world is conceptual to some degree then they overlap.
But the split in these is preserved.
It boils down to asking is truth, is what is the case dependent on there being one set of statements