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What if: Counterfactual Language and Thought

What if: Counterfactual Language and Thought

Counterfactual conditionals, like “If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, then someone else would have”, are ubiquitous in everyday speech, and counterfactual speech and reasoning are indispensable in intellectual work in the humanities, the social and natural sciences, and the law. But the semantics of counterfactuals is incredibly vexed. Suppose that I bet on tails, I toss a coin, heads comes up, and I lose $10. Now, suppose counterfactually that I had bet on heads instead. Intuitively, the counterfactual “If I had bet on heads, I wouldn’t have lost $10” is true because we know that heads came up. But now suppose that Peter presses a button in a random coin-tossing device and heads comes up. The counterfactual “If someone other than Peter had pressed the button, the coin would have come up heads” is intuitively false. But why? As we just noted, in the first example we hold on to the fact that the coin actually landed heads. Why don’t we do that in the second case? A radical option is to claim that all counterfactuals are false. But this has disturbing implications for all the work that depends on our ability to reason about counterfactual circumstances. Our reading group will attempt to explore a more optimistic path with the following questions:

  1. How is counterfactual thinking related to other types of imaginative thought?
  2. What explains our ordinary judgments of counterfactual truth/falsity?
  3. When does counterfactual thinking emerge in children?
  4. How does our ability to assess what would or might be the case if things were different affect our decision-making process?

Michela Ippolito, FAS Linguistics
Nate Charlow, UTM Philosophy

Faculty Members at University of Toronto
Ana-Teresa Perez-Leroux, FAS Spanish & Portuguese and UC Cognitive Science & AI
James John, FAS Philosophy
Patricia Ganea, OISE

Graduate  Students at University of Toronto
Angelika Kiss, Linguistics
Rory Harder, Philosophy
Robert Matyasi, Philosophy
Evan Taylor, Philosophy
Tomohiro Yokoyama, Linguistics

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