Must, Might and Moore.

I’ve just been enjoying reading a paper by Thony Gillies. One thing that’s very striking is the dilemma he poses—quite generally—for “iffy” accounts of “if” (i.e. accounts that see English “if” as expressing a sentential connective, pace Kratzer’s restrictor account).

The dilemma is constructed around finding a story that handles the interaction between modals and conditionals. The prima facie data is that the following pairs are equivalent:

  • If p, must be q
  • If p, q

and

  • If p, might be q
  • Might be (p&q)

The dilemma proceeds by first looking at whether you want to say that the modals scope over the conditional or vice versa, and then (on the view where the modal is wide-scoped) looking into the details of how the “if” is supposed to work and showing that one or other of the pairs come out inequivalent. The suggestion in the paper is if we have the right theory of context-shiftiness, and narrow-scope the modals, then we can be faithful to the data. I don’t want to take issue with that positive proposal. I’m just a bit worried about the alleged data itself.

It’s a really familiar tactic, when presented with a putative equivalence that causes trouble for your favourite theory, to say that the pairs aren’t equivalent at all, but can be “reasonably inferred” from each other (think of various ways of explaining away “or-to-if” inferences). But taken cold such pragmatic explanations can look a bit ad hoc.

So it’d be nice if we could find independent motivation for the inequivalence we need. In a related setting, Bob Stalnaker uses the acceptability of Moorean-patterns to do this job. To me, the Stalnaker point seems to bear directly on the Gillies dilemma above.

Before we even consider conditionals, notice that “p but it might be that not p” sounds terrible. Attractive story: this is because you shouldn’t assert something unless you know it to be true; and to say that p might not be the case is (inter alia) to deny you know it. One way of bringing out the pretty obviously pragmatic nature of the tension in uttering the conjunction here is to note that asserting the following sort of thing looks much much better:

  • it might be that not p; but I believe that p

(“I might miss the train; but I believe I’ll just make it”). The point is that whereas asserting “p” is appropriate only if you know that p, asserting “I believe that p” (arguably) is appropriate even if you know you don’t know it. So looking at these conjunctions and figuring out whether they sound “Moorean” seems like a nice way of filtering out some of the noise generated by knowledge-rules for assertion.

(I can sometimes still hear a little tension in the example: what are you doing believing that you’ll catch the train if you know you might not? But for me this goes away if we replace “I believe that” with “I’m confident that” (which still, in vanilla cases, gives you Moorean phenomena). I think in the examples to be given below, residual tension can be eliminated in the same way. The folks who work on norms of assertion I’m sure have explored this sort of territory lots.)

That’s the prototypical case. Let’s move on to examples where there are more moving parts. David Lewis famously alleged that the following pair are equivalent:

  • it’s not the case that: if were the case that p, it would have been that q
  • if were that p, it might have been that ~q

Stalnaker thinks that this is wrong, since instances of the following sound ok:

  • if it were that p, it might have been that not q; but I believe if it were that p it would have been that q.

Consider for example: “if I’d left only 5 mins to walk down the hill, (of course!) I might have missed the train; but I believe that, even if I’d only left 5 mins, I’d have caught it. ” That sounds totally fine to me. There’s a few decorations to that speech (“even” “of course” “only”). But I think the general pattern here is robust, once we fill in the background context. Stalnaker thinks this cuts against Lewis, since if mights and woulds were obvious contradictories, then the latter speech would be straightforwardly equivalent to something of the form “A and I don’t believe that A”. But things like that sounds terrible, in a way that the speech above doesn’t.

We find pretty much the same cases for “must” and indicative “if”.

  • It’s not true that if p, then it must be that q; but I believe that if p, q.

(“it’s not true that if Gerry is at the party, Jill must be too—Jill sometimes gets called away unexpectedly by her work. But nevertheless I believe that if Gerry’s there, Jill’s there.”). Again, this sounds ok to me; but if the bare conditional and the must-conditional were straightforwardly equivalent, surely this should sound terrible.

These sorts of patterns make me very suspicious of claims that “if p, must q” and “if p, q” are equivalent, just as the analogous patterns make me suspicious of the Lewis idea that “if p, might ~q” and “if p, q” are contradictories when the “if” is subjunctive. So I’m thinking the horns of Gillies’ dilemma aren’t equal: denying the must conditional/bare conditional equivalence is independently motivated.

None of this is meant to undermine the positive theory that Thony Gillies is presenting in the paper: his way of accounting for lots of the data looks super-interesting, and I’ve got no reason to suppose his positive story won’t have a story about everything I’ve said here. I’m just wondering whether the dilemma that frames the debate should suck us in.

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