Real debate about unreal worlds

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Some of the political blogs (Marc Ambinder here, for example) are talking about counterfactuals today. A counterfactual conditional adjunct is a conditional adjunct (usually taking the form of a subordinate clause with the word if before it) that makes reference not to this world but to another world, a non-existent one. The phrase if Edwards were honest is unambiguously counterfactual, because were with first or third singular is a special possibility, the irrealis form of the verb, reserved solely for clauses making counterfactual reference. But the phrase if Edwards was honest doesn't necessarily have that meaning.

Two side notes en passant. First, some prescriptivists insist that if Edwards was honest does not have the counterfactual meaning. They insist that if I were you is correct and if I was you is "wrong" with that meaning (though correct with another rather weird meaning about me actually having been you at an earlier point in time). Follow their advice if you wish; most ordinary speakers don't. And second, many traditional grammars call the were of the construction if he were the "past subjunctive". Don't follow their usage; it's just a mistake. This use of were is not a past tense at all. It makes reference to either the present time or no particular time, but in some alternate state of affairs that we do not inhabit. If Edwards were honest can be put into the past tense, in fact, resulting in If Edwards had been honest, which makes reference to a past time in some alternate state of affairs that we do not inhabit. (End of side notes.)

So, If Edwards had been honest is counterfactual: it means "If, in some non-real world differing from this one, there is a past point of time at which Edwards is honest." The reason we find bloggers talking about counterfactuals today is that people are saying things like If John Edwards had been honest about his affair, then Hillary Clinton would have won the Iowa caucuses. The meaning is: "Consider a world just like this one except that when you wind time back to just before the Iowa caucuses of January 2008, John Edwards admits publicly that he had an affair [with Rielle Hunter; and in consequence, on a reasonable conjecture, he is forced to drop out of the nomination race as a potential presidential candidate]: in that world, if you track forward in time, you find Hillary Clinton winning the Iowa caucuses."

How can this claim have any real content, given that it refers to a world as non-existent as the world of Narnia or Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings? How can we get evidence of what is true in a non-existent world we can never view or visit? By indirect means. Some people (see this blog, for example) are arguing that the facts about what was true in the polls show that what would have been true in the resultant worlds if Edwards had chosen to admit his affair in December 2007 is not compatible with a probable Clinton victory in Iowa. Others disagree. One can debate these matters. And the debate is not an irrational or mystical one. Just because a world doesn't exist doesn't mean it is entirely beyond our ken: we can figure out quite a lot about some non-existent worlds. That's why it's worth having a special construction in our language that facilitates talking about their properties.

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