Friday, December 11, 2009

Are Subjunctive Facts Dispositional Facts?

Our St. Louis reading group on Lange's book (Laws and Lawmakers: Science, Metaphysics, and the Laws of Nature, OUP, 2009) is over. As I mentioned, Lange argues that the truthmakers for laws of nature are "subjunctive facts".

I still don't understand what a subjunctive fact is supposed to be; Lange doesn't shed much light on this. A subjunctive statement is a statement about what else would be the case, were something the case. Generally, the supposition of a subjunctive statement (i.e., what follows the "if" in "if something were the case") is contrary to fact. So a subjunctive fact is (usually) a fact linking two counterfactual facts, or a fact about contrary-to-fact facts. ???

Lange talks about regular categorical facts, and he seems to make sense of them, like many other people, as instantiations of categorical properties at a time. (I'm reading between the lines here, as Lange doesn't discuss this explicitly; but he does mention categorical properties occasionally.) Lange also occasionally mentions dispositions, but as far as I can see he doesn't draw any connection between dispositions and "subjunctive facts".

The best I can do is to suggest that subjunctive facts are dispositional facts -- facts dependent on the instantiation of a disposition (i.e., a power) at a time. Since dispositions have different manifestations under different conditions, the instantiation of a disposition can ground many different "subjunctive facts".

I would find Lange's view clearer and more persuasive if he said that the truthmakers for laws are dispositions/powers. Of course, other people have said this before, so his view would sound less radical if framed in terms of dispositions/powers. I believe that Lange would reject my gloss on subjunctive facts because he insists that "subjunctive facts" are ontologically primitive. But why should they be ontologically primitive, when (i) regular categorical facts do not seem to be ontologically primitive even by Lange's own lights and (ii) there is a straightforward account available in terms of dispositions/powers? And how are we supposed to make sense of them if not in terms of dispositions/powers? If I'm going to take something as primitive, I'd rather take powers than "subjunctive facts".

Any thoughts on this?

PS: While I'm here, I'll answer a question by anonymous posted to the earlier thread on this topic.

"Does Lange really say that laws are ontologically grounded in counterfactuals? This would be strange, since counterfactuals are linguistic entities (sentences or propositions) and laws are non-linguistic general facts."

No, Lange says laws are ontologically grounded not by counterfactuals tout court but by counterfactual facts, or "subjunctive facts."


  1. He doesn't say that the subjunctive facts are the dispositional facts because there are more of the former than the latter. If the dispositional facts were all there were, the laws would be necessary. But he doesn't think the laws are necessary. Or, at any rate, that's how I understood it.

  2. Hey Gualtiero,

    Have you read Lange's exchange with Ellis and Toby Handfield in AJP (2005)? His "Reply to Ellis and to Handfield on Essentialism, Laws, and Counterfactuals" goes toward your question, I believe. Not all the way, mind you. . . .

    I've struggled with this issue recently as well (I find subjunctives deeply perplexing myself). Forgive the self-plug, but Chris Haufe and I have a recent paper on Lange's lone-proton thought experiments in ISPS vol 23(3) called "Where No Mind Has Gone Before: Exploring Laws in Distant and Lonely Worlds" whose last section lays out some possibly related concerns about primitive subjunctives.


  3. "If 3 were greater than 4, then 3+3 would be greater than 4+4." This is a subjunctive fact, but not a disposition. Therefore, subjunctive facts are not dispositions.

    The key question is whether dispositions are subjective facts. "If wishes were horses then beggars could ride." Does the truth of this dispositon rest on something that is not itself a disposition (ie., a subjunctive fact)? The truth (we could say) rests in the relative powers or natures of wishes and horses. But are these powers or natures themselves subjunctive facts?

    If so, then it is possible that the nature or power lies in something that is external to the physical instantiation of the wish or the horse - the subjunctive fact itself, however defined. Otherwise, it is rather more likely that the power or nature resides in the physical instantiation of the wish or the horse itself, without reference to any 'fact' outside the wish or the horse.

  4. Charlie Martin used to emphasize to us that dispositions are not counterfactuals. If I recall, his argument pointed out that the glass's fragility cannot reduce to "if (counter to the facts) we knocked it off the table, it would shatter". You'd have to put in a very serious ceteris paribus clause to make it work. And that clause, he showed, could be "finked". That is, you could always posit a demon that steps in at the very last second and saves the glass (even by removing its fragility for that second). Even so, said Charlie, the glass is fragile.

    But laws are different. Because if the demon is always on the case then "if we dropped it, it would break" would be made false in every case, despite the glass's "real" physical properties. So the law for this glass would be that it would not break.

    So there's a good question here, I guess. Would that affect the supposed fragility of the glass? I.e., it's dispositional properties, the truth of the subjunctive facts about it?

    My immediate intuition here is that subjunctive facts are to laws as dormative powers are to sleeping pills.

  5. Thanks for these helpful comments.

    JDJ. I think I understand what you are saying, but couldn't someone like Lange recover the contingency of laws by either considering "possible worlds" where different properties are instantiated or by maintaining that that the same categorical property can be linked to different dispositions in different "possible worlds"?

    MS: Thanks for the references.

    D: We are talking about subjunctives linking physical properties here -- putative truthmakers for the physical laws.