Counterpossibles in science: an experimental study

Synthese 201 (1):1-20 (2023)
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Abstract

A counterpossible is a counterfactual whose antecedent is impossible. The vacuity thesis says all counterpossibles are true solely because their antecedents are impossible. Recently, some have rejected the vacuity thesis by citing purported non-vacuous counterpossibles in science. One limitation of this work, however, is that it is not grounded in experimental data. Do scientists actually reason non-vacuously about counterpossibles? If so, what is their basis for doing so? We presented biologists (N = 86) with two counterfactual formulations of a well-known model in biology, the antecedents of which contain what many philosophers would characterize as a metaphysical impossibility. Participants consistently judged one counterfactual to be true, the other to be false, and they explained that they formed these judgments based on what they perceived to be the mathematical relationship between the antecedent and consequent. Moreover, we found no relationship between participants’ judgments about the (im)possibility of the antecedent and whether they judged a counterfactual to be true or false. These are the first experimental results on counterpossibles in science with which we are familiar. We present a modal semantics that can capture these judgments, and we deal with a host of potential objections that a defender of the vacuity thesis might make.

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References found in this work

Counterfactuals.David Lewis - 1973 - Philosophy of Science 42 (3):341-344.
Modality and Explanatory Reasoning.Boris Christian Kment - 2014 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Impossible Worlds: A Modest Approach.Daniel Nolan - 1997 - Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 38 (4):535-572.

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