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Exploring hypothetical thinking

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What is hypothetical thinking? We do it continually. Consider making a decision, from choosing what to eat to choosing what to do about a dangerous disease. In deciding between options, you have to consider each of them, working out what’s likely to happen if  you take it, then compare the results. A natural human way to do that is by imagining taking the given option, and following through that scenario, still “offline” in imagination, but constrained by your background sense of reality. That sense includes innate or learned patterns of expectation about what will happen next, of how things and people in general tend to behave; it also includes your knowledge of your local environment and its particular inhabitants. It may be informed by modern science. Unfortunately, it may also be distorted by various sorts of prejudice and error. Still, we often have to rely on our ability to preview options hypothetically, because we cannot try them all before deciding. Choosing the right option first time can be a matter of life or death.Hypothetical thinking is used for theoretical purposes as well as practical ones. For example, when a mathematician wants to prove that every number with a property P also has a property Q, the most straightforward way to do it is by supposing that an unspecified number x has P, then proving from that hypothesis that x also has Q. For that shows that if x has P, then x has Q. Since x could be any number with P, the argument establishes that every number with P also has Q.We can get more precise about what such cases have in common. They all involve a procedure for assessing conditional statements of the form “If X, then Y.” For instance, “X” could be “It rains” and “Y” “The match will be cancelled”, or “X” could be “I try to swim across the river” and “Y” “I’ll reach the other side.” The procedure is this. First, suppose X. Then, on that hypothesis, assess Y, using whatever background information is appropriate. Finally, whatever attitude you. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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