Future Contingents

Peter Øhrstrøm, Per F. V. Hasle.

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Future contingents are contingent statements about the future — such as future events, actions, states etc. To qualify as contingent the predicted event, state, action or whatever is at stake must neither be impossible nor inevitable. Statements such as “My mother shall go to London” or “There will be a sea-battle tomorrow” could serve as standard examples. What could be called the problem of future contingents concerns how to ascribe truth-values to such statements. If there are several possible decisions out of which one is going to be made freely tomorrow, can there be a truth now about which one will be made? If ‘yes’, on what grounds could something which is still open, nevertheless be true already now? If ‘no’, can we in fact hold that all logically exclusive possibilities must be untrue without denying that one of the possible outcomes must turn out to be the chosen one?[1]

In point of fact, ‘future contingents’ could also refer to future contingent objects. A statement like “The first astronaut to go to Mars will have a unique experience” could be analyzed as referring to an object not yet existing, supposing that one day in the distant future some person will indeed travel to Mars, but that person has not yet been born. The notion of ‘future contingent objects’ involves important philosophical questions, for instance the issue of ethical obligations towards future generations, quantification over ‘future contingent objects’ etc. However, this entry is confined to the study of future contingent statements.

The problem of future contingents is interwoven with a number of issues in theology, philosophy, logic, semantics of natural language, computer science, and applied mathematics. The theological issue of how to reconcile the assumption of God's foreknowledge with the freedom and moral accountability of human beings has been a main impetus to the discussion and a major inspiration to the development of various logical models of time and future contingents. This theological issue is connected with the general philosophical question of determinism versus indeterminism. Within logic, the relation between time and modality must be studied and various models satisfying various assumptions with respect to the structure of time must be developed and investigated. The project of formal semantics for natural languages also has to address the problem of how to ascribe a correct semantics to statements about the future. Finally, it should be mentioned that temporal logic has found a remarkable application in computer science and applied mathematics. In the late 1970s the first computer scientists realised the relevance of temporal logic for the purposes of computer science (see Hasle and Øhrstrøm 2004).
Original languageEnglish
JournalStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Number of pages53
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jun 2011

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