The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

MIT Colloquium 2/16 - Lucas Champollion (NYU)

Speaker: Lucas Champollion (NYU)
Title: Two switches in the theory of counterfactuals: A study of truth conditionality and minimal change
Time: Friday, February 16th, 3:30-5pm 
Place: 32-155

I report on a comprehension experiment on counterfactual conditionals based on a context involving two switches (joint work with Ivano Ciardelli and Linmin Zhang). We found that the truth-conditionally equivalent clauses (i) switch A or switch B is down and (ii) switch A and switch B are not both up make different semantic contributions when embedded in counterfactual antecedents. Assuming compositionality, this contradicts the textbook view that meaning can be identified with truth conditions. This finding has a clear explanation in inquisitive semantics: truth-conditionally equivalent clauses may be associated with different propositional alternatives, each of which counts as a separate counterfactual assumption. Related results from the same experiment challenge the common Stalnaker-Lewis interpretation of counterfactuals as involving minimizing change with respect to the actual state of affairs. We propose to replace the idea of minimal change by a distinction between foreground and background for a given counterfactual assumption: the background is held fixed in the counterfactual situation, while the foreground can be varied without any minimality constraint. (This talk presents work reported in a paper to appear in the journal Linguistics and Philosophy. Preprint at http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/003200.)