Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lunch Chat (2/23): The Counterfactual Game

A friend of mine recently alerted me to this scene from "The Big Bang Theory" (I haven't watched more than an episode or two, but this makes me think that perhaps I should watch more!). So I thought that for a change of pace for our next Lunch Chat, we should try playing the game "Counterfactuals" a bit.

I'll start here with a famous example: If Caesar had been in command of the U.S. forces in the Korean War, would he have used the atom bomb or would he have used catapults? The philosopher W.V.O. Quine used examples like this to suggest that such questions lack single correct answers. There are straightforward arguments that the suggest that both of the "counterfactual conditionals" 'Had Caesar had been in command of the U.S. forces in the Korean War, he would have used the atom bomb' and 'Had Caesar had been in command of the U.S. forces in the Korean War, he would have used catapults' are true — but then again, they conflict; so how can they both be true? So perhaps there are no objective facts about counterfactuals such as these. . . .

On the other hand, it seems that many counterfactuals are objectively true. We certainly seem to act as if they were in many cases. We constantly make use of them when planning about our actions. We might consider what would happen, say, if we didn't study for the next test or if we moved to New York rather than L.A. They show up in the sciences and humanities too. CERN physicists assure us that if they fired up their particle accelerator all the way, it wouldn't create any earth-destroying black holes. Closer to home, you know that if were to release your grasp on that book, it would fall on our foot and we would yelp in pain (so you'd better readjust your grip!).

What makes all these (apparent) facts true? Are there similar facts about who would have won WWII had Rhinos been domesticated? Join us this Thursday at noon and let's see if we can figure this out. Pizza provided as usual.