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The vast majority of philosophers today subscribe to the correspondence theory of the truth, that the truth is correspondence to the reality. Two other theories of the truth are the coherence theory of the truth ("A true statement is one which is coherent with other statements we accept as true.") and the pragmatist theory of the truth ("Truth is that which is useful.").

In our high-school philosophy classes we were taught that the biggest problem with the correspondence theory of the truth is that, if it were true, counter-factual hypotheticals could never be true. For example, the statement "If Honore de Balzac had not lived from his writings, he wouldn't have written 20'000 pages of text." corresponds to nothing in reality, so, according to the correspondence theory of the truth, it cannot possibly be true. Yet the vast majority of people would agree that statement is probably true.

I haven't heard any philosopher responding to that objection. So, how do the proponents of the correspondence theory of the truth respond to it?

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  • This depends on what is supposed to correspond to what. If "it is a fact that" or F is taken for a propositional operator, one can preface an entire counterfactual conditional cc X with F and get a fact F (X) that makes the conditional true. It is harder if we try to work just with established objects, since there seem to be true cc's that arguably involve merely possible/occurrently nonexistent objects. But perhaps one might say that truths about those correspond to statuses of (contingently) abstract objects instead, etc. Jul 4, 2023 at 6:21
  • Incidentally, pragmatic theories of truth are not necessarily inconsistent with the correspondence theory. Jul 4, 2023 at 6:22
  • To summarize pragmatism as "what is true is what is useful" is misleading. Taken superficially it appears obviously false; there are certainly useful lies and useless truths. William James, who originated that phrase, was annoyed by such interpretations. It's better to rely on C. S. Peirce's notion (also pragmatist) that truth is what a community of inquirers would eventually settle on after enough investigation. Truth about science is "what scientists would eventually find out," for example.
    – causative
    Jul 4, 2023 at 11:40

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Nice question. There are several possible answers.

David Lewis maintains that counterfactual conditionals are statements about possible worlds, and that these possible worlds do exist. This position is an outlier - I don't know any other major figure who holds it - but it has the merit of being straightforwardly compatible with the idea of truth as correspondence.

Others go along with the possible world understanding of the semantics of counterfactuals but regard possible worlds as something other than real. They might be useful fictions. Or they might be permutations of properties or circumstances that are real. What makes a counterfactual conditional true relates to what similarities there are between a possible world and the actual world and how 'close' that possible world is. Robert Stalnaker is an example of an advocate of this position.

Some have claimed that counterfactuals are a species of strict conditional. They are implicitly modal, with the added complication of context dependence. The question of what makes them true then boils down to the general question of the epistemology of modality. In practice this still is often expressed as truth in accessible possible worlds with appropriate restrictions on the accessibility relation. This kind of position has been held by Anthony Gillies and Ken Warmbrōd.

Another option is to take a purely inferential approach to conditionals and hold that their truth consists in the fact that the consequent follows from the antecedent in some way, and this 'following from' is grounded in laws of nature or other established universals. This position was held by Nelson Goodman.

Some take the view that conditionals don't actually have truth conditions at all and should be evaluated instead according to assertability conditions. This is sometimes called the suppositional theory, or sometimes the "no truth value" theory of conditionals. Roughly speaking, the idea is that when you speak of the truth of "if A then B" you are really speaking of the truth of B within the supposed context of A. It is B that has a truth value, not the conditional as a whole. The conditional has an assertability condition given by whether it is probable that B given A. This approach has been defended by Ernest Adams and Dorothy Edgington.

This is not an exhaustive list. As you can see, it's a complex subject.

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