Consider the following sentences:

  1. The current president of the United States has 2 daughters.
  2. The current president of the United States has 5 sons.
  3. The current emperor of the United States has 12 children.
  4. The current ruler of the Unites States is a blue dragon.
  5. The current cheddar of the United States has polynomial engines.

1) is a true statement (As of March 2015). 2) is not true, but could have easily been true if the 2012 elections had a different result. 3) is not true, and is very unlikely, but it doesn't violate the laws of nature, and is possible in some far fetched alternate reality 4) is not true and could never happen in reality, but is still a meaningful sentence, and could happen in the context of fantasy or sci-fi story. 5) doesn't make any sense what so ever, even though it is grammatically correct.

From a formal logic point of view 1) is true and 2)-5) are all false. Yet it seems to me that 2)-5) are on different ontological levels when it comes to how 'false' they are

My question is: Is there a formal way of classifying these falsehoods and has this been treated by any notable philosophers?

  • 5
    You can see The Epistemology of Modality and many others SEP's entries related to modal and possible worlds. Mar 9 '15 at 15:44
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA This is a better answer than mine --you should make it an actual answer (not a comment). Mar 9 '15 at 16:18
  • 1
    "Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put tomatoes in a fruit salad." Mar 9 '15 at 17:00
  • 1
    Note that (3) and (5) (and you might argue (4) depending on political theory, definition of "ruler") have non-existent subjects, which means their truth/falsehood is liable to the "have you stopped beating your wife?" problem. I don't know that "degree of falsehood" is a fruitful approach, though, so much as (in the case of (5)) the difficulty of assigning semantics to the sentence, and in the other cases the care needed to deduce anything from "X is false", X being one of the sentences. Mar 9 '15 at 18:44
  • 1
    The classic Asimov citation may be relevant - "When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
    – Peteris
    Mar 9 '15 at 19:37

The closest I can think to a categorization of relative distances from a real state of affairs is found in the counterfactual theory of causation (most notably associated with David Lewis). It's not the primary motivation for the theory, but it's a topic that had to be addressed along the way in order for the theory to make any sense.

  • I was thinking of Wittgenstein's states of affairs when I asked this question. But I didn't want to use the term, for fear of making my question confusing. How would one define an objective distance measure over states of affairs? Mar 9 '15 at 16:35
  • I think I might have started to find an answer to my own question. You can break down each sentence into atomic statements: The distance measure is then the number of atomic statements that are false, given that all the atomic statements of the true sentence are true. So if you break down 1) into 1.a the US currently has a president 2) he has two daughters Then the distance between 1) and 2) is |1|, since 1.a and 2.a match but not 1.b and 2.b. The distance between 1) and 3) is |2|. What do you think ? Mar 9 '15 at 18:53
  • Unfortunately, original research is off-topic here. You might try chat.stackexchange.com Mar 9 '15 at 19:28

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