Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Actuality and Counterfactuality

Suppose that, homicidal maniac that you are, you confess to me: "I would kill all my enemies if I thought I could get away with it." (I'll condense this to "SAFE []--> KILL ENEMIES".) What does this mean, exactly? Brit Brogaard suggests that the consequent is triply ambiguous. It could refer to your actual enemies, or to the enemies you would have if the antecedent (SAFE) were satisfied, or else to those of your actual enemies that would still exist were SAFE satisfied. (I may have picked a bad example, if the antecedent is itself similarly ambiguous, but we could replace it with, e.g., "if I could turn invisible...", to ensure that the same possible world w is invoked in all three analyses.)

None of these analyses seems entirely satisfactory, though. Suppose that the nearest possible world where you can turn invisible (or whatever) is also one where you became a pacifist. So, in that world w, you wouldn't kill anyone: not your local enemies, and certainly not your actual enemies (who may just as well be strangers or friends to you in w). Understood in possible-worlds terms, the counterfactual is then strictly false, no matter which way you interpret it. Still, it seems to me, the original confession need not be mistaken, if the only thing holding back your homicidal tendencies in the actual world is the fear of getting caught.

What happens in other possible worlds seems less relevant here. So what if it happens that the satisfaction of the SAFE condition would coincide with your becoming a pacifist? It doesn't change the fact that, as things stand, you're a dangerous maniac. (No offense, heh.) Your confession serves to relate your actual dispositions, rather than claiming anything about (potentially deviant) counterfactuals.

[I should note that Brandon and Chris offer some interesting discussion on related issues.]

But perhaps that's extra pragmatic information that we take away from the conversation, beyond its literal truth conditions. My intuitions are a bit vague here, but I guess there's some pull to concede that your assertion would be literally false in the scenario I've described. Perhaps the point is simply that it isn't meant to be understood literally.

Quick poll: what do you think are the truth conditions of the confession? What about its meaning?



  1. I think your example differs from similar sentences with relative clauses:

    In the case of relative clause sentences of the form:

    If p were the case, then it would be the case that [sentence with relative clause].

    the relative clause + nominal presumably undergoes (optional)movement. Take:

    "if I thought I could get away with it, then I would kill anyone who offended me"

    Here "anyone who offended me" can presumably move out of the scope of the subjunctive conditional. I don't think "all my enemies" in your example can undergo similar movement.

    Suppose now that the nearest world is one where you become invisible and a pacifist. Then at the closest world where you can get away with it, you don't kill anyone. So yes, the sentence is then false. But that doesn't prevent the sentence from having the reading in question. Whether it has the reading depends, at least in part, on syntax.

  2. It means, as far as English language usage goes:

    Of the enemies I have now, I would kill them all, should I have convincing proof that there would be no external consequence.

    There's no ambiguity. I would kill al my enemies (the "would" implies subjunctive counterfactuality, however the subjunctive is absent in "enemies, implying actual enemies (i.e. those which exist in the world confluent with the speaker's statement). If he said "my "would-be enemies" it describes a perpetual case. If I "could" get away with it, describes the counterfactual condition required for the statement to apply.

  3. Why do you think there is no ambiguity? Certainly, there is ambiguity in the following case:

    "if I thought I could get away with it, then I would kill anyone who offended me"

    Actual offenders vs possible ones.


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