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Counterfactuals by David Lewis Review by: Steven E. Bor and William G. Lycan Foundations of Language, Vol. 13, No.

1 (May, 1975), pp. 145-151 Published by: Springer Stable URL: . Accessed: 30/03/2013 07:06
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David Lewis, Counterfactuals, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1973, 150pp. In thiswork, Lewis formulates and defends a type of 'possibleworlds' se mantics for counterfactual conditionals, sentences of the form 'If itwere the case that 4, then itwould be the case that 0' (symbolized 'D--*1'). Lewis' presentation ispellucid; he explains his enterpriseand argues for his position with brilliant clarity, and forcefully anticipatesmany formidable objections. Consider our standardKripke-style semantics for alethicmodalities: We are to think of an assignment to each possible world i of a set of worlds S,, called the sphere of accessibility around i and representing the set of all worlds accessible from i under the corresponding accessibility relationR ('is accessible from'). Such an assignment is called an accessibility assignment, and is used to give truth-conditions for standard modal sentences, as follows:
LJ 0 is true at world ) is true at world i iff 4 is true at each worldj e Si. i iff 4 is true at some worldJ e Si.

Various accessibility assignments will underlie various sorts of necessity (and possibility), varying in degree of strictness (logical necessity; physical necessity; necessity for human life; necessity for human thinking to be as it is; etc.) It is tempting to suggest that a counterfactual is a strictly necessary con ditional, which corresponds to a particular accessibility assignment deter mined by 'overal similarity'of worlds, an assignmentwhich assigns, to each world i, the set of all worlds similar in at least a certain (fixed) degree to i. This view is not implausible when only single counterfactualsare considered; it is Lewis but, points out, plainly inadequate for sequences of counter factuals of the form:

(1i-?4) & ()10(t1 & 02i1-0 4)

& 02L-0,)

& -(01

(01& 42 & 3La-/)

For it is often


(01 & 02 & 43L-0'4).

be true under one set of counter

the case that what would

factual suppositionswould be false under a suitably expanded set of counter factual suppositions; itmay be that all the conjunctions in an instanceof the foregoing sequence are true. (E.g., briefly: "IfOtto had come, itwould have been a livelyparty; but if both Otto andAnna had come, itwould have been a dreary party; but ifWaldo had come as well, itwould have been lively,
1 'It is necessary that i,' symbolized 'ED', and 'It is possible that O', symbolized 'O0'.

Foundations of Language 13 (1975) 145-151. All rights reserved.

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but..." (p. 10; Lewis attributes this revealing sort of case to J. Howard Sobel).) But true sentencesof this form are impossibleon the suggested inter pretation of counterfactuals, since the first conjunct of any stagewould con tradict the second conjunct of the next stage in the sequence.The problem is that, as we move down the list, we must constantly expand the relevant spheres of accessibility so as to accomodate the truth of succeeding stages. Lewis writes,
... itmay be that for every stage of the sequence, there is a choice of strictness that is right for that stage. But as we go down the sequence, we need stricter and stricter conditionals. The choice that works at any one stage makes false all the counterfactuals at previous stages, and all the negated opposites at subsequent stages. If counterfactuals are strict conditionals we have no hope of deciding, once and for all, how strict they are. (p. 12)

The way out, Lewis argues, is to construe a counterfactual, not as any one (constantly) strict conditional, but as a 'variablystrict' conditional. The semantical analysis of such conditionals is a natural extension of that given above for constantly strict conditionals. Corresponding to a variably strict
conditional we shall have an assignment $ to each world i of a set $i of

spheresof possible worlds. $ is called a system of spheres, and themembers of each set $ are called spheresaround i, iff for eachworld i:
(1) (2) S, T e $i implies (S c T) v (T pc $i implies U p e $i, and S), and


pc$L & p A implies

pe $i.

A system of spheres is said to be centered iff, for each world i, {i} e $i. In tuitively, a centered systemof spheres is to be thoughtof as carrying informa tion about comparative overall similarity of worlds. A particular sphere
around a world i is just the set of worlds which resemble i to a certain degree.

The smaller the sphere, themore similar to i are theworlds in that sphere;
for any worlds j and k, if there is a sphere S such that j e S and k S, then j ismore similar to our world i than is k. (Of course, no world ismore similar

to i than i itself.) Truth-conditions for counterfactuals (quavariably strict conditionals)may now be formulatedquite simply:
ID-lI is true at world i (according to a system of spheres $)


iff either no 0-world belongs to any sphereS in $,, or

some sphere S in $i does contain at least one +k-world, and =~ /

holds at everyworld in S. (p. 16) This analysis, in terms of centered systems of spheres, neatly solves Sobel's

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problem concerning the fluctuating sequences of counterfactuals, since no single sphere around i need be chosen as the sphere of accessibility around i. So long as there are only finitelymany spheres around a world i, then any non-empty set of those sphereswill have a smallestmember. But there is no such guaranteewhen thereare infinitely many spheresaround i, sincewe may find an infinitelydescending sequenceof smallerand smaller spheres without end.Let us call a sphere4-permitting if itcontains at leastone 4-world, and let us say that ) is entertainableat i if some sphere Se$i is 0-permitting. Then the assumption that for every world i and antecedent ) that is entertain able at i there is a smallest 4-permitting sphere (= the Limit Assumption) cannot be accepted. Counterfactual suppositions regarding continuously variable magnitudes (such as the supposition that this page ismore than twelve inches wide) will give rise to an infinitely descending sequence of width exceeding twelve inches;hence no 'closest' spheres.There isno smallest world to ours amongworlds with pagesmore than twelve incheswide; hence no smallest spherepermitting the supposition inquestion. Lewis notes and defends various consequences of his analysis - e.g., that counterfactuals having impossible antecedents are vacuously true, and that counterfactualshaving true antecedents 2collapse intomaterial conditionals. He concludes his first chapter by using the analysis to account for several counterfactual fallacies (e.g., taking 'Lj--' to be transitive), and to explain (via his well-known theory of 'counterparts') the notion of a 'potentiality', or counterfactualpropertyof an individual. In Chapter 2 Lewis provides eight different reformulationsof his sphere systemmodel, some precisely equivalent to it, others equivalent just to special cases. One of these reformulations is particularly importantas regardscom parisons between Lewis' theory and previous accounts of counterfactuals
in the literature. Let us call a premiss X cotenable with ) at a world i (relative

to a sphere-system$) iff either (1) x holds throughoutU $i, or (2) X holds throughout some 4-permitting sphere in $,. Then it is easily proved that
OL---*f is true at world i (relative to $) iff there is some premiss X, contenable with 0 at i (relative to $), such that 0 & X logically implies 4.

Lewis applies this theorem in Chapter 3, to solve the problem which has plagued the 'metalinguistic'theoryof counterfactuals suggestedby Chis holm, Goodman, and others. According to the metalinguistic theory,
2 Some linguists will complain that a well-formed counterfactual presupposes the falsity of its antecedent. On one popular account of 'presupposition' (due to Strawson), presupposi tion failure results in truth-valuelessness. If this is right, then itwould seem to be impossible for the counterfactual to have a true antecedent and come out true (or false). Lewis con vincingly forestalls this objection on pp. 3, 26-31.

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148 is true just in case

01 Xi* ..>Xn

REVIEWS it is somehow 'backed' by a deductively valid

1[---* argument

in which


Xn are 'suitably chosen' suitable

further premises.

The problem,


course, is to explain what 'suitablychosen' comes to. Lewis' answer is that

Xi, *., Xn are premises for use in 'backing' 4[-1-(at a given world

i) just in case X,&... & X, is cotenablewith 4 at i. In light of the foregoing theorem, therefore, themetalinguistic theory can be identifiedwith Lewis' account.3 Lewis concludes his third chapter by comparing his theory to the well known analysis of counterfactuals proposed by Robert Stalnaker. Briefly, Stalnaker's account is shown to rest upon an assumption which is even stronger than the dubious Limit Assumption: that for every world i and antecedent ) (in our language) that is entertainable at i, there is a sphere around i containing exactly one +-world. Lewis demonstrates that the result of adding this assumption to his own apparatus yields a theory precisely equivalent to Stalnaker's. Further, Lewis points out that Stalnaker's analysis implausiblyvalidates ( -L1--+ )v (D-l->- 0). This defect could be repaired
if we were to pay. to abandon 'Stalnaker's Assumption' in favor of the weaker Limit

Assumption; but Lewis regards acceptance of the latter as too high a price Lewis is by no means insensitive to the controversies shaking the founda tions of his enterprise.He devotes Chapter 4 to a spirited defense of his appeal to 'possibleworlds' and of his crucial use of the tenuous notion of 'similarity'. He is an unabashed realist about possible worlds. He argues thatwe some times accept such sentences as "There aremany ways things could have been besides theway they actually are" (p. 84). This sentence has the superficial form of an existential quantification committing us to objects called "ways with possible worlds. things could have been", which objects Lewis identifies He proposes to take this apparent quantification "at its face value" unless he is shown some strong logical reason not to do so (and, he says, no such reason is forthcoming).He concludes,
Our actual world is only one world among others. We call it alone actual not because it differs in kind from all the rest but because it is the world we inhabit. The inhabitants of other worlds may truly call their own worlds actual, if theymean by 'actual'what we do; for themeaning we give to 'actual' is such that it refers at any world i to thatworld i itself. 'Actual' is indexical, like'I' or 'here',or 'now'.... (pp. 85-86) 3 Lewis neatly explains why laws of nature are so frequently invoked as background pre misses in arguments which back counterfactuals (see pp. 72-77).

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Thus, for Lewis, all possible worlds (including ours) exist, and are equal in ontological status, just as all times (or places or persons) are. For an individ ual to be 'actual' is just for it to exist here, 'at'ourworld.4 The denizens of our world, Lewis says, are confined to it (p. 87) - they do not spanmore than one world. Lewis therefore faces no problem of provid ing criteria of trans-world identity. Rather, he says, each of us closely resemblesother (numericallydistinct) individuals in other worlds whom we
may call our 'counterparts' in those worlds.5 For Boris to be such that he

might have been killed in an accident is for there to be, in some non-actual possible world, a counterpart of Boris who is in fact killed in a counterpart of the accident. Formally, thisparaphrase receivesclean and elegant semantic treatment.But we question the adequacy of the paraphrase to begin with: Itwould scareBoris considerably to realize that he might have been killed in the accident; itwould trouble him not at all that some distinct individual (howevermuch he resemblesBoris) dies in some unrelated (though similar)

On the topic of similarity:Lewis freely admits that judgmentsof similarity are vague and highly dependent on the speaker's interests and purposes. Lewis submits that this is what we should expect, if systematically vague locutions such as counterfactuals are to be explicated in termsof similarity:
I... seek to rest an unfixed distinction upon a swaying foundation, claiming that the two sway together rather than independently. The truth conditions for counterfactuals are fixed only within rough limits; like the relative importances of respects of comparison that underlie the comparative similarity of worlds, they are a highly volatile matter, varying with every shift of context and interest. (p. 92)

IfLewis' analysis has been successful, we are "leftwith onemystery inplace of two".Counterfactuals and similarityare "vague in a coordinatedway: firmly connected to each other, if to nothing else"; "... the limited vagueness of similarityaccounts nicely for the limitedvagueness of counterfactuals" (p. 94).
4 For further discussion of this novel view, see Lewis ' 'Anselm and Actuality', Nous IV (1970), Sec. 9. We wonder about the principle thatmotivates Lewis' taking apparent existential quan tifications at their face value unless doing so leads to logical trouble. The principle seems directly to conflict with a plausible principle of parsimony to the effect that we ought to treat as much of a surface structure as possible as fused or syncategorematic (non-referen tial), unless deeper syntactic or semantic considerations positively force us to do otherwise What would Lewis say of such sentences as, 'There are two reasonswhy your proof fails', 'There is tension between two of my desires', 'There is a problem about possible worlds', 'There are two conditions you must meet in order to be admitted', 'There is a high probabili ty that he will trip over his own feet', etc.? 5 For an earlier development of this view, see Lewis' 'Counterpart Theory and Quantified Modal Logic', Journal of Philosophy LXV (1968). 6 Further serious difficulties for the theory of counterparts are formulated by Fred Feld man in 'Counterparts', Journal ofPhilosophy LXVII (1971).

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This isplausible. But it suggests a view of counterfactuals that is somewhat Two individuals,or twoworlds, may be very similar to each other surprising: relative to one set of interests,and not at all similar to each other relative to a different set of interests. Lewis' truth conditions for counterfactuals, accordingly, are relativized to the systemsof spheres that "carry information about" similarityof worlds. But it seems to follow that (on Lewis' account)
a counterfactual is true only relative to a set of interests - a given counter

factualmight be both true and false, depending on the substituend of the hidden parameter.Lewis, however, seems to have inmind an intuitive con straint on the eccentricityof interestsand purposes; at least, inbizarre cases, eccentric purposesmust be explicitlymentioned if a speaker'suttered count erfactual isnot to 'deceive'his audience (pp. 93-94). InChapter 5, Lewis illustrates the extraordinaryusefulness of his sphere model in giving semantics for locutionsof severalkinds that are related in no obviousway to counterfactuals.To begin, ifwe give up theCentering assump tion we can form spheres of similarity around the best possible worlds, yielding an account of conditional obligation. (Lewisneatly solves thedeontic analogue of Sobel's problem on pp. 102-103.) Then he gives his sphere systems a temporal interpretation, explicating operators such as 'before', 'whennext', 'when last', 'until', and 'since'. Finally, in a tourde force, he gives an account of the "contextually definite description" (a definite de scriptionwhose putative uniqueness implication is purely relative to local context and interest, e.g., "the book on the table"). In this account the sphere-systemsare taken to carry information about comparative salience of objects in the utterance situation. An analogue of Sobel's problem is found here as well, and disposed of in a parallel fashion (pp. 114-115). A contextually definite description is ultimately taken to refer to whatever possible referent ismost salient for the speaker (and hopefully his audience) at the timeof utterance. In Lewis' final chapter,which ispurely of technical interest,he offers com pleteness and decidability proofs formodal systemsof his sort, and concludes
with a short section on alethic modal logics which can be derived from

It is not clear just how much relevance Lewis' work has for the syntax of

counterfactuals. There are no standard syntactic transformations which delete references to systems of spheresof possible worlds and then introduce
modal auxiliaries. Nor, so far as we know, are there surface syntactic phe

nomena concerning counterfactuals that point towards Lewis' analysis. Therefore, anyonewho holds roughly that syntactic transformationsoperate may findLewis' account implausibleor directly on semantic representations On the other the the hand, way. by impactof intensional logic on linguistic

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semantics,due largely to thework ofMontague, may well come to provide a naturalway of foldingLewis' results into linguistic theory.7 The Ohio State University, Dept. of Philosophy, Columbus,Ohio

7 In this connection, see Lewis' 'General Semantics', in D. Davidson and G. Harman (eds.), Sematics of Natural Language (D. Reidel: Synthese Library, 1972).

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