Chance and Context

Alastair Wilson, Toby Handfield

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The most familiar philosophical conception of objective chance renders determinism incompatible with non-trivial chances. This conception – associated in particular with the work of David Lewis – is not a good fit with our use of the word ‘chance’ and its cognates in ordinary discourse. In this paper we show how a generalized framework for chance can reconcile determinism with non-trivial chances, and provide for a more charitable interpretation of ordinary chance-talk. According to our proposal, variation in an admissible ‘evidence base’ generates a spectrum of different chance functions. Successive coarse-grainings of the evidence base generates a partial ordering of chance functions, with finer trumping coarser if known. We suggest that chance-attributions in ordinary discourse express different chance functions in different contexts, and we sketch a potential contextual mechanism for making particular chance functions salient. The mechanism involves the idea that admissible evidence is available evidence: propositions that could be known. A consequence is that attributions of objective chances inherit the relatively familiar context-sensitivity associated with the modal ‘could’. We show how this context-dependency undermines certain arguments for the incompatibility of chance with determinism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationChance and Temporal Asymmetry
EditorsAlastair Wilson
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)9780199673421
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sept 2014


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