Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Counterfactuals and the Real World

Brandon has a great post on counterfactuals at Siris, in which he argues that many counterfactuals are designed to highlight something factual. He gives some good examples, such as, "If I were a Hindu, I would worship Shiva," and analyzes them in order to show what it is they are meant to show. Here is his analysis of that counterfactual:

Suppose I said something like this. Not only am I not a Hindu, I can directly connect my preference for Shiva with a number of things in my personal history that would not at all have been likely to occur had I actually ever been a Hindu. What (1) really imports is not something about what I would od if I were actually a Hindu; its import is that I (now, as I am) see reasons for thinking a certain thing about Shiva-worship (what that thing is will depend on the context; it might be a comment implying that I think Shiva-worship is preferable to other sorts of Hindu worship, or that I think it more intelligible, or that I think it more in line with my temperament, or some such). In other words, although put idiomatically in a counterfactual form, what it really is set out to describe is something factual.

I think he's right about the examples he gives, and would go even further to say that all counterfactuals serve to highlight aspects of the factual world. Take, for example, counterfactuals used in causal reasoning. Imagine that I have just been in a car accident, and I am thinking about what I could have done to avoid it. I might think that if I had taken my usual route, rather than the scenic one, I would not have gotten into the accident. Or I might wonder if I had swerved instead of hitting my breaks, I would have been able to miss the car that I ran into. In these cases, the counterfactual serves two purposes. The first is to come up with possible scenarios in which I would not have gotten into an accident. This then serves to help me to understand what aspects of the factual scenario actually caused the accident, which is the second, and in most cases primary goal of the counterfactual.

In addition to being used in causal reasoning, counterfactuals are also often used for rhetorical purposes. For instance, Gilles Fauconnier has analyzed the counterfactual, "If [Bill] Clinton had been the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk." This is an excellent example of a figurative counterfactual designed to highlight something about the factual Bill Clinton. This counterfactual was used (I forget by whom) soon after Clinton was impeached and it became clear that congressional Republicans were hurt more by the impeachment process than Clinton himself. The counterfactual is meant to highlight these aspects of the factual world. It essentially says that no matter what you bring against Clinton, you, rather than he, will ultimately be the one who gets hurt.

The fact that counterfactuals are generally used to highlight some aspect of reality demonstrates the importance of the mapping process in the production and comprehension of counterfactuals. As I've said previously, mappings between the factual and counterfactual scenarios serve to structure the counterfactual scenarios using our representations of the factual ones. In addition to providing structure for the counterfactual scenario, though, the mapping can also serve to highlight aspects of the factual scenario through contrasting alignable differences in the two domains. In other words, elements of the factual and counterfactual scenarios that are mapped onto each other (because they play the same role in the relational structure shared by the two scenarios), but which differ in some way, are brought to our attention through the mapping process. This highlighting of alignable differences has been demonstrated in research on analogy and metaphor, and is one of the key features in the structural alignment models of those phenomena. The fact that highlighting alignable differences through the mapping process can help explain the fact that counterfactuals serve to call our attention to certain aspects of the factual world makes me more confident that this sort of model can be used to explain counterfactuals as well.

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