Wednesday, November 10, 2004

A Thought on 'Counterfactuals'

I was thinking a bit about counterfactuals last night as I was in bed (and yes, I am such a geek that I go to sleep thinking about things like counterfactuals; the topic I was thinking about before that was the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and before that was a passage in Hume's essay on miracles - in other words, a long chain of geekiness). I was thinking of this one in particular:

1) If I were a Hindu, I would worship Shiva.

Suppose I said something like this. Not only am I not a Hindu, I can directly connect my preference for Shiva with a number of things in my personal history that would not at all have been likely to occur had I actually ever been a Hindu. What (1) really imports is not something about what I would do if I were actually a Hindu; its import is that I (now, as I am) see reasons for thinking a certain thing about Shiva-worship (what that thing is will depend on the context; it might be a comment implying that I think Shiva-worship is preferable to other sorts of Hindu worship, or that I think it more intelligible, or that I think it more in line with my temperament, or some such). In other words, although put idiomatically in a counterfactual form, what it really is set out to describe is something factual. I suspect something of this kind is also happening in the Martin Elginbrod counterfactual:

2) If Martin Elginbrod were the Lord God, and if the Lord God were Martin Elginbrod, Martin Elginbrod would have mercy on the Lord God.

In a sense, it's a curious way of recognizing that being the Lord God involves being merciful to people who aren't the Lord God, whomever they may be. Again, a counterfactual way of expressing something not intended as a counterfactual.

And this seems to apply to all counterfactuals of impossibility, e.g.,

3) If, per impossibile, two and two made five, nothing would be certain anymore.

This seems to be a way of suggesting that certainty depends in some way or another on two and two not making five. Or again:

4) If, per impossibile, cats were cows and cows were dogs, then cats would be dogs.

Which (the one time I have ever used it in actual discussion) is simply to state something about logical form.

I'm sure someone else has noted it; I can't imagine that it would go unnoticed. But it's a helpful reminder that there are 'counterfactuals' that are not counterfactuals.

UPDATE: For those coming to this discussion from search engines using the search term 'counterfactual', see Chris's blog, "Mixing Memory," here.