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Might You Not Have Been You?

J.J.C. Smart on cricket and counterfactuals.

A Kiwi friend of mine told me a good joke after Australia had won successive cricket test matches against New Zealand. She had been lecturing on ethics to police recruits and had told them that one day the Kiwis would win a test against the Aussies. A cheeky recruit said “But we’ll all be sergeants by then, won’t we?” To cheer her up I remarked that perhaps if their brilliant young spin bowler Vettori had not been injured, New Zealand would have won. Of course there is always the glorious uncertainty of cricket. I shall point out that this is nothing compared with the mind-boggling uncertainty of life. However, for what comes later, I must emphasise that sentences like the one about Vettori, of the form “If it had been the case that p it would have been the case that q”, the so called contrary-to-fact conditionals or ‘counterfactuals’, have given considerable trouble to philosophers. This is a matter to which I shall return later and which will be important for the concerns of this article.

Suppose that your father had coughed just before the act whereby you were conceived. Then some other of the hundreds of millions of ejaculated sperm would almost certainly have fertilised the ovum. Or if your mother had coughed. Or if any other trivial thing had happened. Or if your parents had never met. Or if any of your ancestors had not met. I am inclined to think that if anything had been different in history you would not have been you. Then there are all the chances that led to the existence of the planet Earth and its suitability for life. I could go on and on. One might say that the chances of you or me existing are infinitesimal. Reflection on this should be a powerful antidote to feelings of self importance. By ‘self importance’ I do not mean ‘importance’. No doubt it would have saved the world a lot of trouble if Hitler’s father had coughed at the right time. Perhaps a potentially benevolent girl would have been conceived instead. The sort of self importance that I have in mind is epitomised by a sort of theological idea that perhaps has lurked at the back of many minds, namely that individuality is a matter not of genes but of souls, and that at conception a soul has miraculously been popped into place.

On the other hand reflection on the mind-boggling improbability of one’s existence might lead to madness if one took counterfactuals too seriously. But perhaps in metaphysics one should not take them seriously. Certainly in ordinary life, in practical decision making one needs to think of different possibilities: “If I do A then B will happen which I don’t want”; “If I do C then D will happen which I do want”, for example.

So how do we make sense of counterfactuals? The account which I like derives from W.V. Quine’s very minimal notion of necessity and possibility as described in his paper ‘Necessary Truth’ (reprinted in his book The Ways of Paradox). “If it had been the case that p it would have been the case that q” is assertible in conversation between Smith and Jones if q is deducible in standard first order logic from p together with background assumptions held in common by Smith and Jones. So Smith and Jones can agree that “If it had been the case that Vettori was uninjured, it would have been the case that New Zealand won the test,” because they understand basic logic and share background assumptions about cricket, about Vettori and so on. Of course this kind of agreement is usually implicit and usually less than total.

This contextuality is not avoided in other favourite accounts of counterfactuals, either. For example, there is a popular account in terms of possible worlds other than the actual world. According to this, our counterfactual says that there is another possible world parallel to ours, in which Vettori escaped injury, and in that world New Zealand won the test. But the interpretation of the relation between entities and their counterparts in other possible worlds depends on one’s interests. Thus in one context the counterpart of Disraeli might be a novelist but not a politician, and in another context might be a politician but not a novelist. So even if you don’t believe that different possible worlds really exist, but interpret them instead as structures in the actual world, there is still contextuality and indeterminacy.

Thus a good case can be made for saying that counterfactuals have assertion conditions but not truth conditions. So perhaps in metaphysics one should not take them too seriously, and should worry less (if one does worry) about the almost zero antecedent probability of one’s existence.

© Professor J.J.C Smart 2000

John Jamieson Carswell Smart is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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