Monday, August 13, 2007

PW Semantics

I keep bumping into possible worlds semantics, for subjunctive conditionals, in the course of trying to find out about (the metaphysics of) various other things, and so I need to work out what they are doing, what they bring to such analyses. I’ve not studied them properly, so what follows is just my thoughts on what I take to be a typical example (so if it’s atypical, or my thoughts about it are poor, please let me know). Anne bumps into a table, which she’d previously asked Bob to move, and says, “If you’d moved that table I wouldn’t have bumped into it.
......Clearly Anne is, with her utterance, doing something like blaming her accident on Bob, but what was actually said, literally? Anne said that, had Bob moved the table, she would not have bumped into it, so my first thought is that if the table had been moved, Anne might actually have been more likely to bump into it, especially if the table had been moved by only a small amount. (Indeed, it is quite consistent with the story thus far that Bob did disturb it slightly.) Would that alone be enough to make Anne’s claim literally false? Maybe, but then maybe bumps in general, and the intended ones in particular, are not defined well enough for Anne’s claim to have a definite truth-value.
......Still, I’ll presume that we can include, in the literal meaning, all sorts of information that was implicit in the context of the utterance (otherwise much of what we said might have no literal meaning at all). The literal meaning might still be some vague range of more precise meanings; but what are they? E.g. what if the world was deterministic, so that the actual table could not actually have been moved? Are we then considering similar tables, in some hypothetical Universe? But Anne was explicitly talking about “that table,” not some similar tables (and about Bob, not someone similar). Is it that her subjunctive talk changes those references?
......But why does it not instead mean that we are not assuming that the world is so deterministic? In the conversation there was a presumption of free will (of responsibility for moving the table) and reference to the actual world (via “you” and “that table”). Maybe the world isn’t deterministic (and if it is then maybe Anne’s utterance did not literally have its intended meaning), so why not build some presumption of indeterminism (whose kind might in general depend upon the context) into our interpretation of that utterance (rather than changing its subjects)?

3 comments:

Enigman said...

(just a memo to myself, to follow up the references in this post on this topic :)

Perezoso said...

The world is deterministic, but alas modal "logic" ain't. Likelihoods or eventualities do not work in valid arguments: The Dodgers may still win the pennant or they may not. That's about all the modalist can say, tho' in certain situations (gambling, stock markets. etc.) one can offer guestimates. Thinking that probability ("modality" sort of a imprecise, fancy name for probability issues) has some definite relation to logic may be one of the greatest contemporary errors. Apart from the mere valid forms, arguments depend on events that are known to have occurred, or with well-defined classes (biological taxonomies, mathematics, etc.), unless one is sort of f-ing around Lewis Carroll style (in other words, the validity of conclusions/inferences is sort of meaningless without sound premises). That may seem obvious, but many people --even graduate students in philosophy--seem to lose track of that idea.........

Enigman said...

The world does not seem to be deterministic, though...