The Problem of Counterfactual Conditionals

From Nelson Goodman’s 1947 (!) article The Problem of Counterfactual Conditionals:

    What, then, is the problem about counterfactual conditionals? Let us confine ourselves to those in which antecedent and consequent are inalterably false — as, for example, when I say of a piece of butter that was eaten yesterday, and that had never been heated,

    If that piece of butter had been heated to 150′ F., it would have melted.

    Considered as truth-functional compounds, all counterfactuals are of course true, since their antecedents are false. Hence

    If that piece of butter had been heated to 150′ F., it would not have melted

    would also hold. Obviously something different is intended, and the problem is to define the circumstances under which a given counterfactual holds while the opposing conditional with the contradictory consequent fails to hold. And this criterion of truth must be set up in the face of the fact that a counterfactual by its nature can never be subjected to any direct empirical test by realizing its antecedent.

It is helpful to remember that the "truth-functional compounds" of conditionals Goodman refers to here follows this truth table:

P

Q

If P, then Q

T

T

T

T

F

F

F

T

T

F

F

T

Since the P’s are always false in counterfactual conditionals, the conditional statements always come out true no matter what the truth value of the consequent is. Thus a false P implies a true Q and a false Q, which spells trouble for certain assertions we make in the natural sciences.

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