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Counterpossibles in Science: An Experimental Study

McLoone, Brian and Grützner, Cassandra and Stuart, Michael T. (2022) Counterpossibles in Science: An Experimental Study. [Preprint]

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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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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
McLoone, Brianbrianbmcloone@gmail.com0000-0002-2622-4104
Grützner, Cassandra
Stuart, Michael T.mike.stuart.post@gmail.com0000-0002-4165-2641
Additional Information: Forthcoming in Synthese
Keywords: counterfactual reasoning; counterpossibles; model-based reasoning; the vacuity thesis; impossible worlds
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Theory/Observation
Depositing User: Michael T. Stuart
Date Deposited: 08 Dec 2022 15:31
Last Modified: 08 Dec 2022 15:31
Item ID: 21524
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Models and Idealization
General Issues > Theory/Observation
Date: 2022
URI: https://philsci-archive-dev.library.pitt.edu/id/eprint/21524

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