Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Counterfactuals as Descriptions of the Factual

A post at Arminian Chronicles comments on an old post of mine about interpretation of counterfactuals of freedom in Scripture:

Steve also posted a link to Brandon’s post suggesting that in Matthew 11:21-23, Christ uses a figure of speech meaning Capernaum is more hard-hearted than Sodom. Unquestionably Christ is teaching Capernaum is more hard-hearted than Sodom, but how is He teaching that? Are we looking at a divine guess? No way I am buying that. Is it exaggeration? Rhetorical exaggeration works if the person knows you are exaggerating. If I tell my kids, have some of this salsa, but not that one or smoke will come out of your ears, it works, because they know I am exaggerating. But is it obvious Christ is exaggerating? No, what He is saying is plausible. Besides, His point is better made with the truth.

I'm not hugely committed to this particular interpretation of the passage, but this misses the point, and it is worth pointing out how it does so. There is no need for any additional figure of speech beyond the counterfactual itself; and such counterfactual conditionals, while they can be combined with hyperbole (as someone would be if they said, "If Charles were here, I'd strangle him"), are not themselves rhetorical exaggerations. Rather, using a counterfactual conditional as an indirect description of the factual is an entirely normal, and virtually universal, way of using counterfactual conditionals. We see this particularly in the fact that one kind of (very common) counterfactual is the per impossibile counterfactual: we use counterfactual conditionals that refer to impossible situations and say what would happen in those impossible counterfactual situations. ("If God did not exist, life would have no meaning"; "If basic counting arithmetic were inconsistent, our entire view of the world would be wrong"; "If contradictories could both be true, we wouldn't be able to make sense of anything"; "If Martin Elginbrod were God and God were Martin Elginbrod, Martin Elginbrod would have mercy on God"; etc.) Obviously such counterfactual conditionals are not statements about what would be true if the impossible were true, since no sense can be made of what would happen if the impossible were true; they are statements about what must be true for the actual situation to be possible or actual. And here I quote Brian Ellis arguing that we find the same thing in causal counterfactual conditionals (of which counterfactuals of freedom are one kind). Unless we are specifically elaborating the counterfactual scenario for its own sake, we are almost always using counterfactual claims to describe the way the world is in fact. In particular, we are indirectly describing how two things are related in the world as it actually is.

There is actually some research in cognitive science that confirms this point; it's rather old (about seven years old now), but this post by Chris from Mixing Memory briefly summarizes thinking in cognitive science about counterfactual conditionals (as far as I am aware, current thinking has not made any massive revisions to the idea).

The question is simply this: What are you actually committing yourself to if you use counterfactuals, especially counterfactuals of freedom? And the answer is that it simply depends on whether the context requires us to take the counterfactual situation as the subject of discussion or whether it requires us to take the actual situation as the subject of discussion. If, in describing someone's joy over a gift, I say, "If Charles were here, Diana would kiss him," I am in no way committing to its being true that in the counterfactual situation she would actually kiss him; anyone who responded to this by saying, "No, she would probably would still restrain herself," is either making a joke or missing the point. The claim is counterfactual if read literally but is in fact a figurative factual claim about Diana's state of mind. And what is important to understand is that this figurative use of counterfactual conditionals is more common than the strictly literal reading; the figure of speech arises all the time in colloquial contexts, whereas the literal reading usually only becomes important in technical discussions although on rare occasions it can be important in colloquial contexts, too.

Thus, faced with any counterfactual conditional, we simply can't go about interpreting it on the assumption that it is probably about the counterfactual scenario unless we have already established that the point of mentioning it is to tell us something about the counterfactual scenario rather than to tell us something about the relation between two things in the factual scenario. At the same time, it is true that we can't automatically rule out that the point of the statement is to talk about counterfactuals; this, too, has to be determined by context. The result is that there is no easy rule for interpreting counterfactual conditionals; we have to assess each in its own context. It does mean, though, that we can't assume that the most natural reading of any given counterfactual of freedom is the one that the Molinist would prefer; it has to be argued for each and every single case. Indeed, we can't even assume that the counterfactual is intended to be taken as literally telling the truth about counterfactual situations, rather than figuratively telling the truth about the factual situation. It must be shown. This is nothing peculiar to counterfactuals of freedom; that a counterfactual claim can be read both counterfactually and factually is a general problem for the interpretation of any kind of counterfactual claim.

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