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Two switches in the theory of counterfactuals

A study of truth conditionality and minimal change

Abstract

Based on a crowdsourced truth value judgment experiment, we provide empirical evidence challenging two classical views in semantics, and we develop a novel account of counterfactuals that combines ideas from inquisitive semantics and causal reasoning. First, we show that two truth-conditionally equivalent clauses can make different semantic contributions when embedded in a counterfactual antecedent. Assuming compositionality, this means that the meaning of these clauses is not fully determined by their truth conditions. This finding has a clear explanation in inquisitive semantics: truth-conditionally equivalent clauses may be associated with different propositional alternatives, each of which counts as a separate counterfactual assumption. Second, we show that our results contradict the common idea that the interpretation of a counterfactual involves minimizing change with respect to the actual state of affairs. We propose to replace the idea of minimal change by a distinction between foreground and background for a given counterfactual assumption: the background is held fixed in the counterfactual situation, while the foreground can be varied without any minimality constraint.

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Correspondence to Ivano Ciardelli, Linmin Zhang or Lucas Champollion.

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Ciardelli, I., Zhang, L. & Champollion, L. Two switches in the theory of counterfactuals. Linguist and Philos 41, 577–621 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-018-9232-4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-018-9232-4

Keywords

  • Counterfactuals
  • Experimental semantics
  • Crowdsourcing survey
  • Disjunctive antecedents
  • Inquisitive semantics
  • Minimal change semantics
  • Ordering semantics
  • Causal reasoning