Language, the modal fallacy and the symbolic representation of a conditional

“[W]hat follows from a true premiss must be true” (The Problems of Philosophy, p. 60, link)

Wrote Russell as an example of a principle of logic that is more self-evident than the inductive principle. If we were to formalize this we would perhaps write it like this:

E1. □[([∀P][Q∧Q⇒P])→P]1

Or perhaps just just in propositional logic:

E2. □(P→Q) where “P” means P is true and P implies Q.

As the reader of my blog should know by now, the modal fallacy consists of trusting language and placing the modal operator of necessity in the consequence instead of before the conditional:

E3. P→□Q

However we could also put the modal operator somewhere else in our formalization:

E5. P□→Q

Operators solely ‘work on’ whatever is to the right of them.2 Thus the modal operator in (E5) works on the material conditional and not the proposition to the left of it. Similarly in (E2) the modal operator works on the parentheses-set which is treated as a single entity.

(E5) is closer to normal english (and danish) than (E2) which we can express in normal english like this:

E4. Necessarily, if P follows from Q and Q is true, then P is true.

Consider the sentence:

E5. If P follows from Q and Q is true, then P must be true.

(E5) is a reformulation of (E2). (E5) is worded like it would be by a normal english speaking person. In (E5) it may seem as though the modal operator is intended to work on the consequent. Indeed some people think this and commit the modal fallacy.

However the modal operator may also be thought of as working on the second part of the “if, then” clause, that is, the “then” part. The only problem with this interpretation that I know of, is that it makes the operator work on something that is to the left of it instead of to the right of it: Because “then” is to the left of “must” in (E5).


1Ignoring the complexities of bivalance.

2Monadic operators. Not dyadic operators like implication, consistency etc.

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