Edgington’s Eccentric Car and Some Conditionals

I’m being chased through enemy territory, and a warning light on my (eccentric) car indicates that either I am about to run out of fuel, or the radiator is about to boil over. I’m pretty sure it’s the fuel. Bother! If I hadn’t been going to run out of fuel, I would get away. Of course, I could be wrong about the fuel. But then, if I don’t run out of fuel, the radiator would boil over.
–Dorothy Edgington, “On Conditionals,” Mind 104 (1995): 235-329; p. 239)

I’m wondering which conditionals are in place in Edgington’s example — which seem accurate or likely accurate, and are the right way to put things. Which are the right things to say, or can be made the right things to say by inserting a “probably” or “likely” in the relevant place? Above, Edgington herself gives two:

A. If I hadn’t been going to run out of fuel, I would get away

B. If I don’t run out of fuel, the radiator would boil over

I’m not sure about these. Not saying they’re wrong. That’s just not the way I would put things. Is that just me? I am personally very unlikely to use anything like the “hadn’t been going to” of (A)’s antecedent, but if I were to start a conditional of that way, I’d be inclined to finish it off differently:

A2. If I hadn’t been going to run out of fuel, I would have gotten away [or would have been about to get away]

But that I’m very unsure of. Is (A) right (perhaps with a “probably” in there), or (A2), both, neither? And if we switch to antecedents with “were” in them, which if either of these is good (perhaps with a “probably” inserted):

A3. If I were not about to run out of fuel, I would get away

A4. If I were not about to run out of fuel, I would have been about to get away

And if I started a conditional off with (B)’s antecedent, I would finish it off differently, using “will” instead of “would”:

B2. If I don’t run out of fuel, the radiator will boil over

Is (B) right (perhaps with a “probably” inserted), or (B2), or both, or neither?
Any reactions to these?


Edgington’s Eccentric Car and Some Conditionals — 5 Comments

  1. I’m not a native speaker of English, so take the following for what is worth (extremely little, I guess). As soon as I read it, I thought that B was very odd. I would definitely use “will” instead of “would” there. In fact, the only translation of B into Spanish that I can think of is definitely ungrammatical.

  2. I, too, thought that B was *very* odd. B2 sounds just fine to me, though, and like the right thing to say in Edgington’s case.

    A and A2 both sound strange to me, because of the antecedent. The best I can do, given that antecedent, is a slight variant on your bracketed version of A2:

    ‘If I hadn’t been going to run out of fuel, I would be about to get away.”

    Switching from ‘hadn’t been going to’ to ‘weren’t about to’ helps a lot. And then, actually, A3 is slightly preferable to A4.

  3. The original constructions are unusual, but there is a temporal component to the story that might justify (i) viewing the sentences as distinct, and (ii) preferring (A) over its rivals.

    The story is in present tense, and this is important to keep (A) and (A2) apart. A light signals a disjunction of cases to consider, and she clearly prefers one of the two explanations. (A), then, is working out the consequences to her *present* circumstances from those commitments. (A2), however, just works out the consequences in a situation like hers given those commitments. In short, (A2) could work to express “I told you so!” or some other regret after the outcome is clear, whereas (A) cannot.

    (A) is not equivalent to (A3), by the constraints of the example: (A3) is presumably false because then the steamed up radiator would stop you.

    (A4) is farther away still from (A), since it compounds the previous two effects.

    Concerning (B) and (B2): (B) is a counter-factual, indicating that she really thinks it is a fuel problem; (B2) is simply a causal claim, reporting the mechanical constraints of the example sans her views about the actual cause.

  4. Like Juan and Geoff, I find (B) very odd sounding. I think the reason is that it mixes moods: the antecedent sounds indicative, and the consequent subjunctive. So I partially disagree with Gregory: (B) doesn’t seem like a (pure) counterfactual to me, because it holds fixed a different background than the one considered previously, which might well obtain, in order to get to the consequent. And her sentence “Of course, I could be wrong about the fuel” is meant to put *aside* her view that it likely the fuel: by the time the narrative gets to (B), it’s not a counterfactual consideration anymore, but an indicative conditional. This is why, to my ears, replacing (B) with (B2) in her story actually improves it.

    I agree with Greg’s important point about the present tense, that it explains the relevant difference between (A) and (A2): (A) highlights the forward-looking nature of her deliberation, whereas (A2) sounds backward-looking.

    I also think (A3) sounds better than (A) in the narrative, but I’m unsure about Gregory’s point that (A3) is presumably false; presumably if (A3) is false, so is (A)… I initially understood (A) in the narrative as considered apart from the information gained via the indicator light: (A) was just a complaint to the effect that one can’t very well get away without enough gas, and so if she had enough gas, she’d (be able to) get away. But now I’m less confident of this reading.

  5. I’m sympathetic to Matt’s skepticism about my defense of Edgington. But let me press on with a case.

    I take (A3) to be false since, given the dash light, if she were not about to run out of fuel, it is false that she would escape. In that case the car would overheat.

    The convoluted construction of (A) is designed to rule the radiator case out. That is, I take the antecedent of (A) to tell us to suppose that she is low on fuel, which is what’s making the light blink. Now, fixed within that situation and that causal story for the dash light, if she had topped up the tank, she’d escape.

    If she utters (A3) instead, there is nothing in the sentence to fix the antecedent causal story, which is needed to rule out the radiator being the cause of the blinking light, which is sufficient to thwar an escape.

    Now, as a practical matter, one might wonder whether signaling this information is better handled by the pragmatics of an assertion of (A3) than trying to twist the semantics to do the work as in (A). But, being charitable to Edgington, I think that what is going on is that she is trying to get the semantics to signal the key causal and temporal points in the story.

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