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Regular version of the site

Article

Calculus and Counterpossibles in Science

Synthese. 2020. P. 1-22.

A mathematical model in science can be formulated as a counterfactual conditional, with the model’s assumptions in the antecedent and its predictions in the consequent. Interestingly, some of these models appear to have assumptions that are metaphysically impossible. Consider models in ecology that use differential equations to track the dynamics of some population of organisms. For the math to work, the model must assume that population size is a continuous quantity, despite that many organisms (e.g., rabbits) are necessarily discrete. This means our counterfactual representation of the model can have an impossible antecedent, giving us a counterpossible. Analogous counterpossibles arise in other sciences, as we’ll see. According to a prominent view in counterfactual semantics, the vacuity thesis, all counterpossibles are vacuously true, that is, true merely because their antecedents are necessarily false. But some counterpossible formulations of differential equation models in science are not all vacuously true—some are non-vacuously true, and some are false. I go on to show how an alternative semantics, one that employs impossible worlds, can deliver this judgment.