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This is a claim from philosophy/logic intro textbook, but it is making factual statements about how people process conditionals when the premises contradict their beliefs:

‘It’s not the case that, if God exists, She answers malevolent prayers.’

[Claim:] surely even an atheist can accept [the sentence above], without contradicting herself!

Basically, the claim here seems to be that someone who doesn't believe the premise "God exists" is true (i.e. an atheist), automatically processes that statement as a counterfactual (rather than indicative) conditional. A [proper] counterfactual supposedly has to be stated as "[it's not the case that] if God existed, She would answer malevolent prayers."

Is there any empirical research if people actually engage in this kind of promotion-to-counterfactual when the premises seem false to them?

(There are a lot of papers in psychology & neuroscience on conditionals [& counterfactuals]... which actually makes it difficult to find if this particular issue has been studied empirically. Note however there is research indicating that [mere] hypothetical conditionals are processed differently than counterfactual ones in various measurable ways: fMRI correlates, what other statements subjects agree are entailed etc. So the question is basically not vacuous whether such promotion [from hypothetical to counterfactual] happens under some circumstances because there seem to be [at least] two different modes of thinking about conditionals, as observed empirically.)

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