It’s Time for the ‘Conditionals’ Argument to Die

It’s Time for the ‘Conditionals’ Argument to Die
Article by Christian Tarsney

It’s that time of year again! The TOC is just around the corner, with all that that entails, and hopefully if you’re heading to Kentucky next weekend, your prep is progressing well, and you’ve got visions of plastic ponies dancing in your head.

I’m writing this article to express one simple wish for this year’s TOC. I have just the one (apart from the success of my debaters, and an absence of bloodshed), and I think it’s a pretty reasonable: I would like it to be that no round at the tournament to be won on the claim that “challenging assumptions of the resolution proves it true.” I’m not picky about how this wish gets fulfilled. I’d be more than happy if debaters simply stopped reading the argument. But I’d be equally thrilled if their opponents just beat the living hell out of it when it’s run. And I’d be reasonably satisfied if judges were to decide that the argument is just too insanely, bizarrely wrong to be voted on, regardless of circumstance.

It’s odd that I’d feel this way about an argument—in general, I have no beef with arguments that are absurd, even arguments that are blatantly wrong, because they force debaters to master a skill that’s difficult and worth having—namely, the skill of clearly and concisely justifying the obvious. But the conditionals argument is worse than ordinary debate nonsense: not only is it wrong, it’s really badly, crazily (and indisputably) wrong. And not only do debaters have a hard time explaining why it’s wrong, a good number of them (and their coaches, and their judges) are actually convinced that it’s right (or mostly right, or almost right). For whatever reason, it hasn’t generated the same burning hatred that (much less deserving) stupid arguments often do, and my hope in this article is to rectify that. I’ve had conversations about this argument with a bunch of people, including some very smart people who seemed to think the argument makes sense, so my hope is to spell out clearly enough the primary ways in which it goes wrong that there will no longer be any ambiguity regarding its status.

The conditionals argument, or “conditional logic” as it’s come to be called, is really, truly, not something about which there’s room for legitimate disagreement—it’s just wrong, plain and simple, in more ways than one. I’ve written at some length in order to be as clear as possible about why that is, so don’t feel obligated to read past the point where you’re convinced. But in case you’re not, I’ve tried to be reasonably thorough in spelling out a couple of mildly thorny background issues.

For those who don’t know, the argument as debaters have run it over the last year and a half goes as follows: (a) Whatever argument the negative is running doesn’t prove the resolution false on its own terms, but rather “challenges an assumption of the resolution.” (b) Statements like the resolution which make such “assumptions” should read as tacit conditionals—i.e., what they actually assert is “If [assumption], then [remaining propositional content of resolution].” (c) For all conditionals (i.e., all “if…then” statements), if the antecedent of the conditional (the “if” part) is false, then the conditional as a whole is true. These three claims in combination, then, mean that by refuting an “assumption” of the resolution, the negative has actually proved it true—wonder of wonders, but hey, it’s “logic”!

There are three things wrong with this argument: First, (b) is false. Second, (c) is completely ridiculous, and made plausible only by a blatant misreading of a fairly banal feature of logical formalism. And third, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of any given thousand the argument gets run, (a) is false too.

Let’s take the last point first: There is a legitimate distinction between what a sentence asserts and what it simply takes for granted. Linguists refer to the latter category of semantic content as “presupposition.” The cases of presupposition most of us are familiar with are seemingly unanswerable questions like “Have you stopped bearing your wife?”, which take a (hopeful) falsity for granted such that either a “yes” or a “no” answer seems to imply it. What marks cases of presupposition, intuitively, is that the sentence makes sense only given the truth of the presupposition. Of course, it can’t merely be that the sentence would be false if the presupposition were false—then the entire semantic content of a sentence would count as presupposition, i.e. every sentence would “presuppose” its own truth, which obviates any useful distinction between assertion and presupposition. There is not, as far as I can see, any other useful distinction of this sort to be drawn, so what debaters have in mind by “assumption” must be presupposition.

Now, the most common use of the conditionals argument is as an offensive preempt to moral skepticism, and in that instance it requires the claim that the resolution “assumes”…well, debaters will say “assumes the existence of morality.” That can’t possibly be right, because it’s not clear that “morality” itself would be counted among the things that exist by even the strongest moral ontology. But let’s say, the resolution assumes the existence of moral facts, or moral properties, or that at least some things are morally right and some other things morally wrong, or that at least some positively worded moral utterances are true.

Does a typical debate resolution assume (read: presuppose) anything like this? I can’t imagine how one could think that it does. Suppose the resolution says something of the form: “a ought to x.” Does this fail to make sense if there are no true “ought” statements, in the same way that “John stopped beating his wife” ceases to make sense if it turns out John never beat his wife? Pretty obviously not. There’s nothing senseless about predicating properties which nothing possesses—merely something false. The sentence “Puff is a magic dragon who lived by the sea” does not assume that there is at least one magic dragon—it asserts (or at least implies) it. Similarly, the sentence “It is morally permissible for a to x” does not take for granted, as a condition of its intelligibility, that at least one agent is morally permitted to do at least one thing—it asserts the existence of a particular moral permission. (A small minority of moral-skeptical arguments, in debate and in academic philosophy, suggest that there is no sense at all to be made of moral language. But sentences don’t “presuppose” that the terms which compose them are coherent and meaningful in any sense which might license adding those coherence claims, as assumptions, to the semantic content of the sentence. There’s more that could be said here, but these arguments are rare enough that it’s not worth trying to unravel.)

The second place the conditionals argument goes wrong has to do with its suggestion for how we handle presupposition. There are two general approaches to this question that I’m aware of: one is to simply write off sentences with false presuppositions as neither true nor false, for essentially the reason that we don’t want to answer “Have you stopped beating your wife?” in either the affirmative or the negative. The other is to pull the presuppositions out as conjuncts to the (explicitly) asserted semantic content of the sentence. This is, famously, Bertrand Russell’s proposed analysis of sentences involving non-referring definite descriptions. “The present king of France is bald” tries to make reference via a description to which nothing corresponds (namely, “the present king of France”), and Russell’s solution was to simply extract a existence and uniqueness claims and tack them onto the front of the sentence, yielding “There is someone who is the present king of France, and only one such person, and he is bald.” (The worry motivating Russell did not exactly concern presupposition in the linguist’s sense, but his problem can be assimilated to a general theory of presupposition.)

I don’t know what to point out about the analysis of presupposition other than that these are both prima facie plausible solutions, while no one I’m aware of proposes (generally) analyzing sentences which involve presupposition as conditionals. If I make a statement that carries questionable presuppositions, and this is pointed out to me, I might choose to reformulate my claim conditionally: “Well, all I really meant to say was that if John ever beat his wife, he no longer does.” But in so doing, I’m saying something quite a bit weaker (i.e., something that could more easily come out true) than my original assertion. A moral error theorist might assent to a claim like “If anything were morally wrong, kicking puppies would be,” but will certainly not assent to “Kicking puppies is morally wrong.”

Finally, putting aside those problems, what if debate resolutions really did have tacit conditional form? Is it right, as debaters have been asserting, that any “if…then” statement with a false antecedent is true? Well, let’s see: “If John McCain had won the 2008 presidential race, then he would have personally flown Air Force One to Neptune to negotiate a trade agreement with the Plutonians.” “If it rains today in Tucson, then Iran will halt its nuclear program.” “If I go to the store tomorrow [assume I won’t], I’ll buy two hundred packs of fruit roll-ups.” Conditionals…false antecedents…and yet, somehow, they all seem pretty false.

“But,” I hear you ask, “how come the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that all conditionals with false antecedents are true?” In a nutshell, the answer is this: Logicians want to formalize certain bits of ordinary “natural languages” like English which seem to act as logical operators—for instance “and,” “or,” “not,” “if…then,” “if and only if,” “every,” “some,” “necessarily,” “possibly”…the list goes on. The first five are the ones which logicians usually pick out as “sentential connectives”—meaning, they connect sentences—and a desirable feature of sentential connectives, in formal logics, is that they be what’s called “truth-functional.” Truth-functionality requires, for a connective, that the truth value (true or false) of any sentence it governs be simply a function of the truth values of the parts which the connective holds together. So, if I have a formal conditional A → B, we’d like to read the ‘→’ such that simply knowing whether A and B are true will tell me whether the entire sentence is true.

It’s a sad fact of doing logic that no logical operator actually works, in English or other natural language, quite how we’d like it to work for logic, and there are cases which seem to show that no sentential connective in English is really quite truth-functional. For logicians, this fact can be noted and set aside, because their interest is in logical structure, not in a perfect mapping of ordinary language. But if you make the mistake of reading a logician talking about logic as a linguist talking about language, they’ll seem to be saying some pretty odd (and bizarrely wrong) things—none more so than that English conditionals have an accurate, truth-functional characterization.

The main reason they don’t is that, in ordinary English, most conditionals carry counterfactual content—saying “If A, then B,” asserts not merely (as in formal logics) that “Either not A, or else B, or both,” but rather “If A were to be the case then B would be the case.” Philosophers like to talk about counterfactuals in terms of “possible worlds,” so that the sentence “If John McCain had won in 08, he’d have flown Air Force One to Neptune,” turns out to mean something like “In the world most like ours except that John McCain wins the 08 election, he also pilots Air Force One to Neptune.” To know whether that’s true, given that he didn’t win the election in the real world (i.e. given a false antecedent), you need to know more than just whether he flew Air Force One to Neptune in the real world—i.e., the conditional has no truth-functional analysis.

Don’t worry if you find that all dense and boring—I won’t be the one to say you shouldn’t. But I will be the one to say you should never run the conditionals argument, and you should never lose to it. For all that I love about debate, the occasional success of this sort of argument should be cause for genuine worry about some of the downsides of debate pedagogy—namely that, in some instances, it teaches debaters (and judges) to defer to authority (“He’s got a card saying it, so I can’t answer the argument unless I’ve got a card too.”); to believe the ridiculous unthinkingly (all conditionals with false antecedents are true? really?); and to delude themselves about their grasp of arguments they don’t even begin to understand, for the purpose of either running them or voting on them. If you want to get the most out of your participation in debate, it’s important to recognize and avoid those risks, and rejecting the conditionals argument is a great place to start.

  • Anonymous

    Are people using the conditionals argument to say that literally any NC triggers affirmation?

    • Rebar Niemi

      the most common variation i have seen is any neg argument that would serve to prove false the antecedent (typically anything that is even close to “morality is false/bad”) “triggers” the “argument” and makes it aff offense. 

  • I think someone should read an AC that spends six minutes challenging multiple assumptions in the resolution, and then proving each antecedent false. 

  • Dave McGinnis

    On the one hand it’s nice to read a thorough and clear explanation of how and why this argument is wrong.

    On the other hand, this argument stands for the side of the angels. It may stand ridiculously, but it’s a good-guy argument.

    Why? Because one of the major problems with LD debate is the easy access (usually for the negative) to non-reciprocal layered strategies. 

    We whine and complain about the massive side bias to the negative. But at the same time we cling to negative strategies like “undermining assumptions.” 

    It should be painfully obvious that allowing the negative to win by undermining an assumption of the resolution is problematic. Such an argument is non-reciprocal because, under its own logic, winning the argument justifies a negative ballot while beating the argument doesn’t justify an aff ballot. 

    This conditionals nonsense is just an effort on the part of the affirmative to balance back against the negative’s overwhelming ability to win by running a variety of nonreciprocal levels of argument. 

    It used to be that theory would check back against these kinds of practices, so reasonably skilled affirmatives could prevent losses to these kinds of strategies just by being prepared to debate theory. But that’s not the case any more. Theory is so open-ended, complex, and poorly understood in LD that a debater is not more likely to win the theory debate because their argument is the correct one. Debaters who enjoy running NIBs, a prioris, and other non-reciprocal strategies load up on pages-long counter-interps. 

    So the aff has to come up with some way to balance against this. This problem is what begat “contingencies,” the strategic purpose of which is to win by taking your opponent by surprise. 

    These problems would all be solved 100% if the community could just accept that both debaters have to defend an advocacy linked to a single standard. The win would then go to the debater who was (A) more skillful and (B) better prepared with quality writing and research.

    But this kind of nonsense has become so pervasive in the activity that I don’t know if we could give it up. The best debaters are no longer (necessarily) the ones who do a really good job of researching and writing their position, or refuting their opponent’s. And you can’t really blame anyone — if a debater were to eschew these kinds of strategies in favor of focusing on substantive topical debate, they’d lose. 

    • It can also be used for the purpose of affirming off skepticism or a similar argument on an ought topic for debaters that like to be tricky…

    • You are so spot on, Dave. This is exactly why we’re thinking about transitioning the Cy-Woods team to policy debate over the next few years. I know a lot of other programs that feel the same way. I wouldn’t be surprised if LD loses competitors to CX/PF over the next decade because of the direction the activity is going.

      • Anonymous

        Yeah, LD is just so exclusionary. we should all do policy where the speed level is even more prohibitive, camps are longer and more expensive, you need tons more evidence and research and costs are much higher. nice!

        • It’s not that it’s “just too hard.” It’s that policy has established norms that LD doesn’t. A well-known circuit judge told me once that LD is like a “pubescent child,” in that there are constant “mood swings” and changing norms. It’s the last couple paragraphs of Dave’s post that hit home with me — there is too much nonsense being spread throughout the activity and not enough established community norms as there are in policy.

          Speed level — have you watched circuit LD nowadays? I promise it’s not much slower than the most competitive policy rounds. IF ANYTHING, policy is easier to flow because nearly every speech has a set structure — case positions in LD change in structure so regularly that it becomes impossible to flow accurately. Judges aren’t getting all 15 analytic justifications for why aff gets RVI’s in the first speech with the random prestandard thrown somewhere in the middle of it (despite what some may say).


          Costs — thanks to the rapid progression to paperless debate, costs for national travel have significantly decreased for policy debaters. Is it still an issue? Yes. But is it much worse (if at all) than in LD? No.

          • Anonymous

            1-why are established norms good? why are these arguments “nonsense being spread” but contrived links to nuke war are not “nonsense”? skep triggers are probably better then most larping link stories.

            2-a) i would bet good money that very few lders at the TOC could match the speed of the ndt a few weeks ago
            b) every speech has a set structure? the (albeit few) usually begin with a 2 minute overview and then “the k flow, the t flow, case, politics…” ect. 
            3-arent you the one who always posts on this site about resource disparities? 7 week camps cost a lot, and the average policy camp costs a lot more than an ld one. also, having the huge resource disparity it becomes even harder to break into policy then it does into LD. “working really hard to succeed” is a hell of a lot less work for some teams than other teams, and othen times extremely prohibitive. 

            4-fine, it cost less for a flight. but (at least near me), there are very few local circuit or even regional policy tournaments. someone in a good area can attend a decent amount of tournaments without even getting on a plane in LD, but in policy that is unheard of

          • Just to weigh in real quick regarding LD v Policy. 

            Yes policy is a lot faster, anyone who doesn’t think so should just watch the 1NC from NDT Finals this year. However this speed isn’t really prohibitive since flowing more than 20-30% of the first 5 or so speeches isn’t really a prerequisite to participating in or judging those debates. The difference in speed is more a reflection of judging convention and evidence reliance than the capabilities of individual participants to go that fast or understand that speed. I have no doubt that there are LDers who can go that fast, but due to the structure and norms of the activity that speed simply doesn’t make sense. If you spread 20 analytics that fast, no judge is going to follow which is also why policy rounds are much easier to keep up with. For the first 5 speeches you’re pretty much just flowing tags and then when it actually matters (the 2NR and 2AR) debaters slow down. The difference in LD is that you’re held accountable for keeping track of every single argument made in every single speech, dropping a one line analytic link turn in LD is likely damning, but in policy its not a big deal.

            Policy is pretty structured, there are established norms as to how arguments function and how different flows interact, and in the vast majority of rounds 2NRs collapse to 1 issue, whether its a CP, K, T, or going for the squo. If a 2NR roadmap looks like “CP, DA, K”, it doesn’t mean they’re going for everything, it just means they’re going to spend the first 20-30 seconds kicking out of the CP and DA, and the rest going for the K. At the end of the round, you really only have to evaluate one flow, which is so hilariously far from the truth in LD where neg debaters feel compelled to go for every argument they have a remote shot of winning. 

            I do think that it probably takes more resources to succeed as a straight up policy debater than it does to succeed in LD, whether these resources are dedicated teammates, a coach, or just financial means, but I also think that the policy community has been fairly open to alternative styles of argumentation that are less resource intensive (how can you not love Loyola EM).

            Also if your asking why the conditional logic argument is nonsense but nuke war links aren’t, the answer is that one is false in every sense of the word, and the other is likely inaccurate but ultimately a debatable opinion. 

  • love you christian

  • Rebar Niemi

    yeah this is true, i am always confused why people run this argument it either opens you up to theory or can’t be applied well because it is false. 

    the fact that we still think such meagre and underdeveloped truth burdens are sufficient to ground reciprocal debate is shocking. 

    dunno why people wanna be ignoble cheaterz.