- Antony Eagle, 'Might' Counterfactuals.A ‘might’ counterfactual is a sentence of the form ‘If it had been the case that A, it might have been the case that C’. Recently, John Hawthorne has argued that the truth of many ‘might’ counterfactuals precludes the truth of most ‘would’ counterfactuals. I examine the semantics of ‘might’ counterfactuals, with one eye towards defusing this argument, but mostly with the aim of understanding this interesting class of sentences better.
MLE seminar comments
University of Birmingham
Cross-posted from http://mleseminar.wordpress.com/
We thought a bit about cases in which ‘could’ and ‘might’ come apart. In the paper, Antony discussed sentences like
33b) If we’d left the gate open, the dog could have got out; yet if we’d left the gate open, it isn’t the case that the dog might have got out.
The felicity of such sentences seems to show that at least some ‘might’ counterfactuals shouldn’t be analysed in terms of ‘could’, but instead should be given an epistemic reading. Antony isn’t averse to this idea – in fact, his final view is that ‘might’ is ambiguous in counterfactual contexts between the epistemic reading and the ability reading. However, this does invite the further question of what determines the appropriate reading for some given ‘might’ counterfactual.
Fron 33b we naturally conclude though the dog has the ability to get out, it is so disposed as to not exercise this ability. The only way to interpret someone who expresses the conjunction as not contradicting themselves is to give the ‘might’ and the ‘could’ different readings, and the ‘could’ tends to snaffle the ability reading, leaving the epistemic reading for the ‘might’. 33a, on the other hand, is intuitively clashing:
33a) If we’d left the gate open, the dog might have got out; yet if we’d left the gate open, the dog couldn’t have got out.
An explanation for this would be is that the ‘might’ in the first conjunct naturally takes an ability reading, which the second conjunct then contradicts. If this is right, then it looks like ‘the dog couldn’t have got out’ always takes an ability reading, while ‘the dog might have got out’ can take both the ability and epistemic readings.
This suggests the following difference between ‘might’ and ‘could’ in counterfactual contexts. When used as a predicate, as in the examples above, can/could always takes the ability reading. It only takes the epistemic reading when used as a sentence modifer, as in ‘it could be that the dog escaped’. May/might, on the other hand, can take either the epistemic reading or the ability reading when used as as a predicate. Like can/could, may/might always takes an epistemic reading when used as a sentence modifier.