Ciardelli, Ivano, Linmin Zhang, and Lucas Champollion
Two switches in the theory of counterfactuals: A study of truth conditionality and minimal change


[Full paper on lingbuzz]
[Supplementary materials]

Abstract:  Based on a crowdsourced truth-value judgment experiment, we provide empirical evidence challenging two classical views in semantics, and we develop a novel account of counterfactuals that combines ideas from inquisitive semantics and causal reasoning. First, we show that two truth-conditionally equivalent clauses can make different semantic contributions when embedded in a counterfactual antecedent. Assuming compositionality, this means that the meaning of these clauses is not fully determined by their 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. Second, we show that our results contradict the common idea that the interpretation of a counterfactual involves 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. Our account integrates the causal reasoning framework of Pearl (2000) into possible-world semantics and extends it to arbitrary antecedents.

Keywords:  counterfactuals, disjunctive antecedents, minimal change semantics, inquisitive semantics, web survey, causal reasoning