Interesting Ambiguity

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In the following interview excerpt (source) from a few months ago, then-President George W. Bush misunderstood Charles Gibson in a way that I've just realized has implications for a hotly-debated but obscure-for-the-ordinary-person philosophical debate:

GIBSON: You've always said there's no do-overs as President. If you had one?
BUSH: I don't know -- the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.
GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?
BUSH: Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.
GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn't.
BUSH: Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate.

Here are the two ways to read Gibson's question "If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?":

1. Holding the content of the intelligence the same as it is in the actual world, the rest of the world would have to have been different for the intelligence to have been right. If that situation were true, would the war have occurred? In other words, if what the intelligence reports actually said had turned out to be true, and Iraq's WMD programs were not just on hold because of sanctions, if there had been stockpiles of WMD in fact, would we have invaded Iraq?

2. Holding the rest of the world constant, for the intelligence reports to have been true, they would have had to say something different from what they actually said. If that situation were true, would the war have occurred? In other words, if the intelligence reports had said only that Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were not actively producing weapons but were merely on hold so that he could have such weapons within a year if the sanctions ended, would there have been a war?

It's hard to say which interpretation is more natural. I can see how Gibson's might be thought to be more natural, because there doesn't seem to be any reason to ask the question if he'd meant what Bush took it to mean. But for the hearer to come to that conclusion, it requires being aware of both interpretations and considering that the first wouldn't be worth asking in comparison with the second. Most hearers interpreting it in a way that seems most natural to them will probably hear it one way or the other, and thus (like President Bush) won't be going through that reasoning process to conclude that the second is the more likely intent.

On the other hand, I can see how someone might more naturally take it the way Bush did. I can think of a much clearer way to ask what Gibson wanted to know. He could have asked what would have happened if we'd had better intelligence or more accurate intelligence. By referring to it as "the intelligence", Bush took it to be referring to the actual intelligence. It's a lot harder to find an alternative way to say what Bush took it to mean. You'd need a much more roundabout expression like "if the information we based the war on from intelligence reports had turned out to be the accurate description of Saddam Hussein's WMD status".

I thought that was an interesting ambiguity, anyway.

[Sidebar to philosophers: At first I thought it had larger implications, because it seems very close to a debate in the semantics of counterfactual expressions. David Lewis takes counterfactual claims of the form "If A were true, then B" to mean that in the closest possible world (by which he means the possible world as much like ours in material composition) where A is true, B is also true. I've always found that view implausible, and I had at first thought this would be a good test case for people's intuitions on that matter. But then I realized that Lewis' theory is a theory for the truth conditions of counterfactual propositions. This is a case where it's ambiguous which proposition is even meant, not a case of how to evaluate whether a clear counterfactual proposition is true.]


I'm not a philosopher, Jeremy, but I'm intrigued.

My question is, how do you decide which is the closest possible world?

Understanding Gibson's question the way he intended it, I can imagine several possible worlds in which there would not have been an Iraq war, and several others in which there would have been one, all of which are very close to our own world. Does Lewis suggest any way to choose one world over another?

Consider a very simple counterfactual expression: If I'd flipped a coin, it would have been heads. There is one possible world that is identical to ours except that I flipped a coin and it came up heads. There is another possible world where I flipped a coin and it came up tails. Which one is closer to our world?

Lewis' view of counterfactuals is as follows. A counterfactual statement should be evaluated by taking the antecedent (in your example "if I had flipped a coin") and finding the closest world where that is true, then seeing if the consequent (in your expression "it would have come up tails") and seeing if that is true. He determines closeness of worlds by seeing how close they are intrinsically to each other.

So, given that I didn't flip the coin, the closest world in which I flip a coin is the world most like this one in which I flip it. In this example, it doesn't seem as if we can figure out anything in the actual world that would have made it more likely for it to come up heads or tails, so we probably just can't evaluate the counterfactual as true or false. Presumably something might have made it so, provided that we're specific about what exact moment I might have flipped it, but we can't really do that for such a general claim.

Take a claim we can evaluate, though. If the economic crisis hadn't occurred, McCain would have won. What we need to do to figure out if that's true, according to Lewis, is find the world most like this one where the economic crisis didn't happen before the election. Then see if McCain wins in that world. So all the other political factors would have to be present except ones that depended on the crisis (and ones that depended on what caused the crisis to occur at that time; if those weren't present until later, then it might affect things).

I happen to think the claim is true, because I think the other factors present were moving McCain into more favorable territory, and the only thing preventing the anti-Obama move was the popular (but in my view nonetheless false) sense that his policies would be better for the economy. Some will obviously disagree with me on this, but the method of doing so will involve finding circumstances that would be true without the economic crisis and tracing out what they would lead to. Lewis seems right about at least that much. (Where he's wrong is in holding intrinsic material composition to be the only thing relevant to world-similarity, because causal issues are only derivative for him, whereas I see them as much more fundamental.)

Thanks for the explanation, Jeremy.

Your example of the recent election seems to me to be similar to a football game where one team falls way behind early, but then the momentum turns and by the middle of the fourth quarter is driving for the go ahead touchdown. Then their quarterback is injured, the drive stalls, and the momentum shifts back to the other team.

We could say, "If the quarterback had not been injured, his team would have won."

But that exact scenerio happens all the time where the quarterback doesn't get hurt, and yet the comeback stalls, and the his team loses. So which possible world is really closest to our own?

As I re-read what I've written and consider it, it strikes me that there IS a difference in the election-scenerio and the football-scenerio. In the football game, there are new variables that are introduced into the possible worlds that we'd consider, which aren't present in our world. And those variables will determine the outcome.

With the election, there were enough of those variable already in place. Experience, foreign policy, a more moderate position on social issues, etc. all favor McCain. And economic policy in a non-crisis probably would have favored McCain as well. So there's no need to evaluate unknown variable, and you can argue that in the closest possible world to our in which there was no financial crisis, McCain would have won.

Thanks for helping me think that through, Jeremy.

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