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Iffy predictions and proper expectations


What individuates the speech act of prediction? The standard view is that prediction is individuated by the fact that it is the unique speech act that requires future-directed content. We argue against this view and two successor views. We then lay out several other potential strategies for individuating prediction, including the sort of view we favor. We suggest that prediction is individuated normatively and has a special connection to the epistemic standards of expectation. In the process, we advocate some constraints that we think a good theory of prediction should respect.

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  1. 1.

    More precisely, the point is to commit the speaker either to the truth of some claim, or to the untruth of some claim. Denial is also an assertive, the twin of assertion, but it commits the speaker to the untruth of the claim denied. We can set this complication aside.

  2. 2.

    It might be thought that, as a corollary of the two distinguishing features just mentioned, by performing an assertive speech act, one thereby expresses some degree of belief, or at least implies that one believes to some degree that the relevant proposition is true (compare what Searle says at 1979, pp. 12–13 in light of 1979, p. 4). But this doesn’t seem essential, since guessing that P does not, even by default, express or imply that the guesser believes, even to some degree, that P is true. Even Searle seems to recognize this when he remarks, ‘The degree of belief and commitment may approach or even reach zero’ (1979, p. 13, emphasis added). This is reflected in the fact that the following isn’t Moore-paradoxical: ‘I’m not the least bit confident that P is true, but still, my guess is that P’.

  3. 3.

    Such occasions will be likely be ones in which the speaker somehow signals (perhaps through intonation or hesitancy, etc.) that she is less confident. But in cases without such signals, an outright utterance (even if a mere prediction) will tend to represent the speaker as believing, as is suggested by the fact that while ‘How do you know?’ will seem out of place, ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘Why do you believe that?’ will be acceptable questions or challenges. (Thanks to an anonymous referee here.)

  4. 4.

    We say ‘future-directed’ rather than ‘future-tensed,’ because, first, predictions can be made without using the future tense (e.g. ‘I am going to be at your party’, which uses the present progressive). And second, according to many linguists, many languages (including English) do not even have a future tense; yet it still seems plausible to say that predictions can be made in such languages. We’ll also assume that the iffy view holds that the future-directed contents must also be contingent.

  5. 5.

    Another iffy view builds the future-directedness into the speaker’s intention to communicate something about (what the speaker takes to be) the future; the iffy views canvassed later in the main text also could be construed at the level of speaker intention. Such a view would handle what seems right about a subject who wrongly thinks it is 2010 and predicts that P about 2011. But such intentionally iffy approaches fall prey to some of the obvious counterexamples to be discussed below.

  6. 6.

    Physicists really do talk this way. Google searches reveal the following examples: ‘If we trace the rate of expansion and extrapolate in time, we predict that the universe in the past was smaller than the universe of today’; and ‘Cosmologists predict that the early universe was full of small galaxies which led short and violent lives.’

  7. 7.

    We intend ‘learn’ to be understood flexibly. Variations on this proposal could feature ‘know’, ‘discover’, ‘acquire good evidence’, etc. These details won’t figure into our evaluation of the view, so we note them here briefly, only to set them aside.

  8. 8.

    A different way of preserving the core of the iffy view is to combine it with a kind of speech act externalism (speech acts are ‘wide’): factors blankly external to the individual can make an illocutionary difference. According to one way of developing this externalist iffy account, you simply fail to make a prediction when you’re blind to the fact that the event you’re speaking of isn’t in the future. Although we’re not opposed to speech act externalism (see Davis 1994 and Gauker 2003; but compare Harnish 2009), its application in the present context seems ad hoc, and it doesn’t afford enough respect to the similarity desideratum.

  9. 9.

    Perhaps mere expectation falls significantly short of full expectation, and perhaps full expectation suffices for outright belief; at the very least, this creates room for differences between mere prediction and fully confident prediction.

  10. 10.

    We don’t say that it no longer counts as a prediction, but rather that its prospects have been eviscerated to the point where one has undermined the motivation for making a prediction rather than a guess. Something similar may be happening in cases where one claims to predict something which one does not regard as more likely than not: e.g., before the NCAA basketball tournament, in which 64+ teams participate, one ‘predicts’ that a given team will win it all, even though one’s proper credence that they will win is not more than 0.5. In these special cases, no one possesses proper expectation of the kind we outline above, and when it is understood by all involved that no one could have that, what passes for proper expectation shifts to the alternative which seems more likely than any other. In such contexts, it is unclear whether one is in fact still predicting rather than guessing; indeed, as an anonymous referee points out, it may be partly a matter of cultural convention whether, at such margins, one labels a speech act a mere guess or instead a prediction (albeit one without reasonable expectation).

  11. 11.

    If one doubts that guesses differ from predictions in this way, compare the following conjunctions:

    (3) I have no idea, but I will/am going to go ahead and guess that P.

    (4) I have no idea, but I will/am going to go ahead and predict that P.

    (4) sounds a bit worse to us than (3), and we suspect it is because one should have some leaning or reason, however slight, on which to base a prediction, whereas guesses don’t require even that.

  12. 12.

    One obvious difficulty here is closure: we expect lots of possibilities each of which are individually more likely than not but which taken together are not more likely than not (e.g. we will expect that the next throw of the 6-sided fair die won’t come up 1; but we expect that individually of each number on the die, even though we know that some number must turn up). If (exp) is correct, won’t it sanction a speaker in predicting multiple outcomes that are, taken together, not possible? We acknowledge this difficulty but note that similar closure issues arise for assertion, evidence, justification, belief, and knowledge (though different examples will apply). So (exp) faces no special problem here.

  13. 13.

    These strike us as akin to other absurd claims relating speech acts to their normative standards, such as the following about knowledge and assertion: ‘You could have known that it was going to happen, but you were in no position to say whether it would happen’, ‘She knows whether it’s true, but she is in no position to say whether it’s true.’

  14. 14.

    Though see Brown (2010) and Lackey (2011) for possible reasons to doubt this sufficiency thesis.

  15. 15.

    On which see DeRose 2009, pp. 86–87.

  16. 16.

    There may be further fruitful ways of distinguishing prediction. It may be plausible to distinguish prediction from other weak assertives such as guesses or conjectures by the way it relates to other aspects of discourse, similar to how ‘I reply that P’ differs from ‘I object that P’. Prediction may also be distinguishable stylistically, similar to how announcing that P differs from confessing that P. We do not take up such highly nuanced approaches here.


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We are grateful to John Hawthorne, Lisa Miracchi, Blake Roeber, Ernest Sosa, Kurt Sylvan, Angelo Turri, and to two anonymous referees for helpful feedback. This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation; the opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. This research was also supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the British Academy, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and an Ontario Early Researcher Award.

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Correspondence to Matthew A. Benton.

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Benton, M.A., Turri, J. Iffy predictions and proper expectations. Synthese 191, 1857–1866 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-013-0377-y

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  • Prediction
  • Assertion
  • Speech acts
  • Epistemic norms
  • Constitutive norms