Chance and Context

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Colleges, School and Institutes

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  • Monash University


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
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sep 2014