Philosophy 83 - 5.2.1 Conditionals

A conditional is most commonly expressed as an if–then statement, similar to the examples we discussed earlier when considering hypotheses. Additional examples of if–then statements are “If you eat your meat, then you can have some pudding” and “If that animal is a dog, then it is a mammal.” But there are other ways to express conditionals, such as “You can have pudding only if you eat your meat” or “All dogs are mammals.” While these sentences are different, their logical meaning is the same as their correlative if–then sentences above.

All conditionals include two components—that which follows the “if” and that which follows the “then.” Any conditional can be rephrased in this format. Here is an example:

Statement 1: You must complete 120 credit hours to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Statement 2: If you expect to graduate, then you must complete 120 credit hours.

Whatever follows “if” is called the antecedent; whatever follows “then” is called the consequent. Ante means “before,” as in the word “antebellum,” which in the United States refers to anything that occurred or was produced before the American Civil War. The antecedent is the first part of the conditional, occurring before the consequent. A consequent is a result, and in a conditional statement, it is the result of the antecedent (if the antecedent is true).

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

All conditionals express two relations, or conditions: those that are necessary and those that are sufficient. A relation is a relationship/property that exists between at least two things. If something is sufficient, it is always sufficient for something else. And if something is necessary, it is always necessary for something else. In the conditional examples offered above, one part of the relation is required for the other. For example, 120 credit hours are required for graduation, so 120 credit hours is necessary if you expect to graduate. Whatever is the consequent—that is, whatever is in the second place of a conditional—is necessary for that particular antecedent. This is the relation/condition of necessity. Put formally, Y is a necessary condition for X if and only if X cannot be true without Y being true. In other words, X cannot happen or exist without Y. Here are a few more examples:

  • Being unmarried is a necessary condition for being a bachelor. If you are a bachelor, then you are unmarried.
  • Being a mammal is a necessary condition for being a dog. If a creature is a dog, then it is a mammal.

But notice that the necessary relation of a conditional does not automatically occur in the other direction. Just because something is a mammal does not mean that it must be a dog. Being a bachelor is not a necessary feature of being unmarried because you can be unmarried and be an unmarried woman. Thus, the relationship between X and Y in the statement “if X, then Y” is not always symmetrical (it does not automatically hold in both directions). Y is always necessary for X, but X is not necessary for Y. On the other hand, X is always sufficient for Y.

Take the example of “If you are a bachelor, then you are unmarried.” If you know that Eric is a bachelor, then you automatically know that Eric is unmarried. As you can see, the antecedent/first part is the sufficient condition, while the consequent/second part of the conditional is the necessary condition. X is a sufficient condition for Y if and only if the truth of X guarantees the truth of Y. Thus, if X is a sufficient condition for Y, then X automatically implies Y. But the reverse is not true. Oftentimes X is not the only way for something to be Y. Returning to our example, being a bachelor is not the only way to be unmarried. Being a dog is a sufficient condition for being a mammal, but it is not necessary to be a dog to be a mammal since there are many other types of mammals.

Dog in a field with a person and two sheep.
Figure 5.4 All dogs are mammals, but not all mammals are dogs. Being a dog is a sufficient condition for being a mammal but it is not necessary to be a dog to be a mammal. (credit: “Sheepdog Trials in California” by SheltieBoy/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The ability to understand and use conditionals increases the clarity of philosophical thinking and the ability to craft effective arguments. For example, some concepts, such as “innocent” or “good,” must be rigorously defined when discussing ethics or political philosophy. The standard practice in philosophy is to state the meaning of words and concepts before using them in arguments. And oftentimes, the best way to create clarity is by articulating the necessary or sufficient conditions for a term. For example, philosophers may use a conditional to clarify for their audience what they mean by “innocent”: “If a person has not committed the crime for which they have been accused, then that person is innocent.”

Counterexamples

Sometimes people disagree with conditionals. Imagine a mother saying, “If you spend all day in the sun, you’ll get sunburnt.” Mom is claiming that getting sunburnt is a necessary condition for spending all day in the sun. To argue against Mom, a teenager who wants to go to the beach might offer a counterexample, or an opposing statement that proves the first statement wrong. The teenager must point out a case in which the claimed necessary condition does not occur alongside the sufficient one. Regular application of an effective sunblock with an SPF 30 or above will allow the teenager to avoid sunburn. Thus, getting sunburned is not a necessary condition for being in the sun all day.

Counterexamples are important for testing the truth of propositions. Often people want to test the truth of statements to effectively argue against someone else, but it is also important to get into the critical thinking habit of attempting to come up with counterexamples for our own statements and propositions. Philosophy teaches us to constantly question the world around us and invites us to test and revise our beliefs. And generating creative counterexamples is a good method for testing our beliefs.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax