I often read that conditionals present deep philosophical problems. We’ve got to know what the real meaning of conditionals are, abstracts/forewords/grant proposals intone, and how to understand strict, material, indicative, subjunctive, counterfactual, probabilistic, suppositional readings of English sentences having the form “if…then…”, and how the modalities of tense, epistemic position, moral position fit together in them to effectively guide our practical reasoning, our decision making…to put order in our lives. What could be more important? Whitehead was wrong: Induction isn’t the scandal of philosophy, conditionals are.
And yet I don’t buy this, and neither should you. We see all manner of analyses and theories of conditionals, none of them living up to their advertised promise of explaining this supposed category of English expressions in a way that has anything to do with practical reasoning and decision making. This is because the theoretical category “conditional” in English is as pliable as a Texas congressional district.
There are many different kinds of relationships that we express with English sentences of the form “If…then…”. And when there is a risk of confusion, we turn to other devices to explicate what the item in the first gap has to do with the one filling the second. In a few situations where we use natural language technically (mathematical proof sketches, legal contracts, high-level programming languages are ready examples) we have more-or-less strict conventions for spelling out what we mean, catered to the kind of relationships we’re likely to need to express in a domain. For example,
In other words, in the cases in which it counts to be explicit about what a “conditional” means, we have developed technical devices and conventions for using natural language to deal with them. And in normal use? That is what conversation is for, which requires some negotiation between agents to work out a protocol for how much cooperation and precision is needed to get the message across. Precision for non-trivial information is expensive to craft, so there is natural economic pressure to accept as much imprecision as both you and your partner can tolerate; besides, if you carry precision to the limit you wind up not saying anything.
The problem with the glut of philosophical accounts on natural language conditionals is the institutional habit of getting this relationship between natural language and formal accounts of things we do with natural language exactly backward. First screw down why you need the formal machinery, where it is that you, your machine, your business goes into the weeds with the language you’ve got. Then generate your theory to repair that problem, if nothing in stock will suit. Set up sign posts to warn passers-by of the hazard, or a school and guild if the hazards and economics line up, and introduce the tools available to deal with those hazards. And let that be that. Do not pluck sentences at random from English and expect a sensible analysis. Because parameters must be fixed, model builders will inevitably be mislead by accidental features of the example to think that the parameters they’ve fixed in their particular solution will scale and apply to a general account of “conditionals” of similar, but superficial, type. Then the corrections will follow from another blind man, feeling up the other end of this white elephant. Many trees will die. Tankers of ink spilt. Confused PhDs minted. And the western world as we know it will collapse from misallocated thought.
This is to say that not only is the focus on conditionals hogwash, its harmful hogwash. Conditionals are bad for your health. By thinking that “if…then…” is a type of logical connective or, on more sophisticated views, approaching them with the thought that there are formal relationships between the gaps that map to the categories listed earlier, one is put in the perfect frame of mind to talk right past other people. Instead of asking what your conversation partner means, and using the full resources of natural language to try to answer, both are sent on a wild goose chase pointing and correcting one another’s grammar against intuitions about a phantom semantics. When there is a logic behind our “if…then…” talk, and often there is, people can say so, and switch to it directly, or use a pigeon-English keyed to this logic’s semantics. We can expand the variety of logics on offer by studying the implication fragments of formal languages, noble work that is actually good for your health. And useful for the guilds and schools.
Most of the time we use English as English, and in technical contexts most of the time we use English as a metalanguage to get some grip on the general behavior of the proof, the contract, the algorithm. In doing so we need to exploit the full capacities of that natural language—and the wealth of information that is lodged in the language. But to look for the precise meaning of “if…then…” sentences appearing in normal English is in effect to cut the legs out from under you or, if you’re clever and amused by such things, out from under your opponent. It amounts to dragging you down into a weaker but unspecified language. It is the very essence of imprecision masquerading as precision. Which is unhealthy.
To apply a formal method one has to be in a position to say what the model is supposed to do, which is not to confuse the practical assessments necessary to apply a model to a subject for the properties of that subject. (But pragmatic encroachment is a different song.) This built-in limitation is doubly important to remember when working with natural languages, since natural languages are much more flexible than formal languages. Each do very different kinds of things. Your formal model of English will throw out lots of features of English, particularly if you want that model to actually do something. If you’re a formal semanticist and only want models to point to, like specimens of meaning in a glass case, you can add attribute features to your model until your heart is content. This is important work. I’m not knocking it. But, if you want an effective guide to practical reasoning, decision making… a guide to life itself? Searching for the meaning of “if…then…” won’t do.