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ON THE MEANING OF THE LABEL COUNTERFACTUAL
This is a brief note. If the readers check the literature, including the works I am reading that you see below, the term counterfactual
has been used in at least two different ways to refer to different kinds of conditional constructions (in natural or artificial languages):
Firstly there are some authors who call counterfactuals conditionals of the kind if non-B then non-A
when used in parallel with if A then B
. In this sense, they consider conterfactual
However, there are other authors who use the term conterfactual
in a different sense, which cannot be confused with contraposition
. In this second sense, a counterfactual conditional is a conditional that is contrary to the facts
in a given world. In natural languages, a sentence may be counterfactual in relation to the present or to the past, but not in relation to the future.
Such constructions have other special
characteristics. One of them is that they do not allow contrapositions. E.g.:
(A) If the Earth was the centre of the Universe, then Galileo would not have opposed geo-centrism.
(B) If Galileo had not opposed geo-centrism, then Einstein would have opposed it.
II.Failure of Contraposition
≠> (A) If Galileo had opposed geo-centrism, then the Earth was not the centre of the Universe.[*]
≠> (B) If Einstein had not opposed geo-centrism, Galileo would have opposed it.
There are other characteristics to be mentioned. Counterfactuals are not transitive. For instance, III below cannot be a conclusion extracted from (A) and (B) above:
III.Failure of syllogism
≠> If the Earth was the centre of the Universe, then Einstein would have opposed geo-centrism.
They do not admit strengthening of the antecedent either:
IV. Failure of Strengthening the Antecedent
#If Galileo had not opposed geo-centrism and there were abundant evidences that Earth was the centre of the Universe, then Einstein would have opposed such theory.
For the purposes of linguistic investigation I think it is more interesting to use the term counterfactual
in this second sense. Those are constructions that really challenge Classic conceptions and the empirical related empirical data still seem to constitute an almost unchartered territory.
However, if the reader pays attention to the samples herein exposed, the issue has not been confined to the borders of Linguistic science. Rather it seems to be of great interest in several branches of human knowledge.
[*] Iatridou below discusses the morpho-syntactic details of counterfactuals. In the case of failure of contraposition the choice of tense does not seem to change the picture. E.g:
If Athens did not attack Persia, Persia would have attacked Athens.
≠>a. If Persia would not have attacked Athens, Athens attacked Persia.
≠>b. If Persia did not attack Athens, Athens would have attacked Persia.
But, of course, this is a topic whose details must be better checked.
Posted by Tony Marmo
at 00:01 GMT
Updated: Monday, 21 March 2005 21:55 GMT