Conceivability and Epistemic Possibility

Author(s): M. Oreste Fiocco
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 67, No. 3 (Nov., 2007), pp. 387-399
Published by: Springer
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Erkenn
(2007)
67:387-399
DOI
10.1007/sl0670-007-9057-y
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Conceivability
and
Epistemic Possibility
M. Oreste Fiocco
Received: 20 October 2005/
Accepted:
19
May
2007/Published online: 19
July
2007
?
Springer
Science+Business Media B.V. 2007
Abstract The notion of
conceivability
has
traditionally
been
regarded
as crucial to
an account of modal
knowledge. Despite
its
importance
to modal
epistemology,
there is no received
explication
of
conceivability.
In recent
discussions,
some have
attempted
to
explicate
the notion in terms of
epistemic possibility.
There
are,
however,
two notions of
epistemic possibility,
a more familiar one and a novel one.
I
argue
that these two notions are
independent
of one another. Both are irrelevant to
an account of modal
knowledge
on the
predominant
view of modal
reality. Only
the
novel notion is relevant and
apt
on the
competing
view of modal
reality;
but this
latter view is
problematic
in
light
of
compelling counterexamples.
Insufficient care
regarding
the
independent
notions of
epistemic possibility
can lead to two
problems:
a
gross problem
of conflation and a more subtle
problem
of
obscuring
a crucial fact
of modal
epistemology.
Either
problem needlessly hampers
efforts to
develop
an
adequate
account of modal
knowledge.
I conclude that the familiar notion of
epi
stemic
possibility (and
the
very
term
'epistemic possibility')
should be eschewed in
the context of modal
epistemology.
Keywords Epistemic possibility Conceptual possibility Conceivability
Two-dimensionalism Modal
epistemology
1 Introduction
Modal
knowledge
is
knowledge
of a
proposition
that
represents
some state of affairs
as
being metaphysically possible
(or
impossible), contingent
or
necessary.
The basis
of this
knowledge
is modal
reality.
There are two
opposing
views of the nature of
modal
reality.
On
one,
modal
reality?what
must be and what could be?is
wholly
M. O. Fiocco
(El)
Department
of International Studies
(Philosophy),
The American
University
of
Sharjah,
P. O. Box
26666,
Sharjah,
United Arab Emirates
e-mail: mfiocco@aus.edu
4y Springer
388 M. O. Fiocco
determined
by
the
conceptual
and
linguistic practices
of conscious
beings;
on the
other,
more robust
view,
modal
reality
is
independent
of the
practices
of conscious
beings. Regardless
of which view one
adopts,
the notion of
conceivability
has
traditionally
been
regarded
as crucial to an account of the modal
knowledge
available to
beings
with our
cognitive capacities. Conceivability
is
supposed
to
provide insight
into both
possibility
and
contingency.
Thus,
the
conceivability
of a
proposition, p,
has been
thought
to demonstrate
or,
at
least,
to
provide
some
justification
for the belief
that/7
is
(metaphysically1) possible.
Moreover,
insofar as
the
conceivability
of
p
indicates its
possibility,
the
conceivability
of
p
is
proof
of the
contingency
of
any
true
proposition, q, incompatible
with
p.2
There
is, however,
no standard
explication
of
conceivability.3
Some
attempt
to
explicate
it in terms of
epistemic possibility.
This is
confusing,
for in
contemporary
discussions of modal
epistemology,
there are two
independent
notions of
epistemic
possibility.
One notion is the traditional
one,
based on what is
compatible
with a
particular subject's knowledge
of the
world;
the
other,
of more recent
currency,
is
based on the coherence of
concepts.
On the more robust view of the nature of modal
reality,
neither notion of
epistemic possibility
is
pertinent
to modal
knowledge.
On
the other
view,
according
to which the nature of modal
reality
is determined
by
the
practices
of conscious
beings, only
the
conceptual
notion of
epistemic possibility
is
pertinent;
however,
this view of the nature of modal
reality
is
implausible
in
light
of
compelling counterexamples.
Hence,
the
significance
of the notion of
epistemic
possibility?under
either of its
interpretations?is
dubious in the context of modal
epistemology.
Yet the distinction between the
independent
notions of
epistemic possibility
is
not
insignificant
and the animadversions to
follow,
regarding
the
appropriate
use of
the term
'epistemic possibility',
are not
idly terminological.
Much substantive
philosophical
discussion seems to be based on an
inadequate appreciation
of the
distinctive features of the two notions of
epistemic possibility,
in
particular,
discussions of the
putative significance
and
consequences
of so-called Two
dimensionalism4
Thus,
insufficient care
regarding
the distinct notions and their
bases can lead to two sorts of
difficulty:
a
gross problem
of conflation and a more
subtle
problem
of
obscuring,
with semantical
issues,
the basic
incompatibility
of
conceivability qua epistemic possibility
with what is the
predominant
view of the
nature of modal
reality.
Both
problems needlessly complicate
efforts to
develop
an
adequate
modal
epistemology.
1
This
qualification
is
dropped
henceforth. It should be assumed that the intended sense of
possibility
is
metaphysical possibility,
unless
explicitly
noted otherwise.
"
The use of
propositions
in the text
above,
to characterize modal
knowledge
and the
putative
significance
of
conceivability
to modal
epistemology,
should not obscure the fact that the
present
discussion is
compatible
with a
very
robust view of the nature of modal
reality.
One
might regard
modal
reality
as
grounded
in the natures of
things
or their essences
(see,
for
example
Fine
1994,
Lowe
1998,
Oderberg 2001); however, knowledge
of such natures and essences is most
perspicuously presented
and
discussed as
propositional.
There have
been,
though, significant attempts
to
clarify
and elaborate this
notion,
most
notably,
van
Cleve
(1983),
Yablo
(1993),
Tidman
(1994)
and Chalmers
(2002).
For another
attempt,
which includes
critical discussion of those
just
cited,
see Fiocco 2007.
4
A characterization of this
view,
and some discussion of
it,
follow in
?
6 below.
4?
Springer
Conceivability
and
epistemic possibility
389
2 Two Views of the Nature of Modal
Reality
On one view of the nature of modal
reality,
what must be as it is and what could
have been
(or
could
become)
otherwise is
wholly
determined
by
the
conceptual
and
linguistic practices
of conscious
beings.5
The
only
modal constraints there are on
the world are those
imposed
on it
by
the means conscious
beings
use to
organize
and
describe their
experiences
of it.
So,
for
example,
a
pure sample
of water must be
clear and
potable simply
because it is
part
of the
concept6
water that it is clear and
potable.
Hence,
on this
view,
modal
reality
has a
significant epistemic
feature,
namely,
that it is
entirely
accessible and knowable
apriori.
Furthermore,
the
underlying
natures of
things
are irrelevant to what must be as it is and what could be
otherwise.
On the
opposing
view,
modal
reality
is
independent
of the
conceptual
and
linguistic practices
of conscious
beings.7
Certain features of the world must be as
they
are,
while others could be
otherwise,
and this is so in virtue of the nature of the
things
that have those
features?regardless
of how those
things
are
thought
of,
referred to or described. Modal facts
are,
in this
way,
brute.
Hence,
there are truths
about modal
reality
that are inaccessible
by
mere reflection and can
only
be
discovered
by empirical investigation.
For
instance,
although
its chemical
compo
sition is not
part
of the
concept
water,
on this
view,
water nevertheless must be
H20.
What is knowable
only aposteriori?such
as the chemical
composition
of water?is
indispensable
to
recognizing
the modal status of certain features of the world.
It is this latter view of modal
reality
that underlies and motivates Saul
Kripke's
discussion in
Naming
and
Necessity.
The influence of those
lectures,
in combination
with the
plausible
realism that inheres in a view that
respects
the
objective
nature of
things,
makes this the
predominant
view of the nature of modal
reality.
3
Conceivability
as
Epistemic Possibility
Interest in the notion of
conceivability
is motivated
by
the
presumption
that whether
or not a
proposition
is conceivable indicates whether the state of affairs it
represents
The
view,
or its
underlying
sentiment,
seems to be somewhat ancient and
widespread. However,
I know
of no
place
where it is
explicitly
endorsed,
so it is difficult to
identify
its
origins
or canonical
presentations. Although
it
undoubtedly
has roots that extend
further,
into medieval discussions of
metaphysics,
it was
prevalent throughout
the middle decades of the 20th
century
and is
certainly
suggested by
the work of
Quine
and
Carnap.
See,
the
papers
included in
Quine (1980, 2006); see,
as
well,
Carnap
(1988)
and the
papers appended
to this edition of the work. The view is
operative
in the
contemporary
work of Jackson and Chalmers. See Jackson
(1994, 1998)
and Chalmers
(1996, 2002).
This
last
point
is revisited in
?
4.
6
One should construe the
concept expressed by
a term as a set of
properties
most or all of which are
associated with the referent or extension of that term
by any competent
user of it.
7
There are
many
varieties of robust views of the nature of modal
reality,
that
is,
views on which modal
reality
is not determined
by
the
practices
of conscious
beings,
but rather
by
the natures of
things (or
the
natures of their
counterparts).
See,
for an indication of this
variety,
the
papers
collected in Loux
(1979),
among
which are now-classic
papers
on the
metaphysics
of
modality by
Robert
Adams, David Lewis,
Alvin
Plantinga,
and Robert Stalnaker.
See, also,
those
papers
cited in Note 2 above.
4?
Springer
390 M. O. Fiocco
is
possible.
Consider now an
explication
of
conceivability according
to which a
proposition, p,
is conceivable to a
subject,
S,
if
and
only ifp
is consistent with what
S knows. On this
account,
the
conceivability
of a
proposition
is determined
by
its
relation to a certain
body
of
knowledge.
It is
unpromising,
then,
that this
explication
characterizes a feature of a
proposition
that is
capable
of
providing insight
into
modal
reality,
for
regardless
of which view of modal
reality
one
adopts,
one would
not
expect
a
particular subject's body
of
knowledge
to be relevant to its nature. Even
if modal
reality
were determined
by
the
conceptual
or
linguistic practices
of
conscious
beings,
the
knowledge
or
practices
of one such
being
could
hardly
be
constitutive of this determination.
Thus,
a notion of
conceivability
that is relativized
to a
single subject
can
hardly provide insight
into modal
reality.
Nonetheless,
this
explication
does characterize a
notion,
traditionally
known as
epistemic possibility,
that determines a
legitimate
relative status of a
proposition.
A
proposition, p, (and, secondarily,
the state of affairs
represented by p)
is
epistemically possible,
relative to a
subject,
S,
if
p
is consistent with what S knows
(in
the sense that
nothing
S knows
precludes
the truth
of/?).8 Epistemic possibility
must be
distinguished
from
metaphysical possibility (possibility simpliciter)
according
to which a
proposition, p,
is
possible
if the state of affairs
represented
by
p
could be?not could be as
far
as one
knows,
but could be
simpliciter.
Once this
distinction is
made,
it is obvious that some
epistemically possible propositions,
that
is,
propositions
conceivable in the sense characterized
above,
are
impossible
(necessarily false).
Goldbach's
conjecture
is the
proposition
that
every
even number is the sum of
two
primes.9 Assuming
that for
every
mathematical
proposition,
either it or its
negation
is
determinately
true
and,
if
true,
represents
a
necessary
state of
affairs,
then either Goldbach's
conjecture
or its
negation
is
necessarily
true. The
mathematical
proposition
that is not true is
necessarily
false
and, hence, represents
an
impossible
state of affairs. Given the current state of mathematical
knowledge,
for
any subject,
S,
both Goldbach's
conjecture
and its
negation
are consistent with
what S knows. So some
epistemically possible proposition
is
impossible.
8
This account of
epistemic possibility
is
over-simplified.
These
simplifications,
however,
are irrelevant
to the
purposes
of the
present
discussion. For
thorough
and
sophisticated
discussions of
epistemic
possibility
see
Hacking (1967, 1975);
Teller
(1972)
and DeRose
(1991). Hacking (1967)
can be
regarded
as a locus classicus of
epistemic possibility.
Therein,
Hacking carefully
defines the notion and traces it
back to G.E. Moore
who,
in his
Commonplace Book,
devotes a
good
deal of attention to it.
9
This is a classic
example
in the context of discussions of the nature of
conceivability
and the sense of
this notion relevant to modal
knowledge.
It has been
employed
for different
purposes.
The
example
is first
discussed
by
William Kneale
(1949: 80)
for the
purpose
of
demonstrating
that some "conceivable"
propositions
are
necessarily
false
and, thus,
that the
conceivability
of a
proposition provides
no evidence
of its
possibility.
The
example
has been
revisited,
for
example
in Yablo
(1993:
8
ff.),
for the
purpose
of
clarifying
the
modally
relevant notion of
conceivability.
Yablo
argues
that the
epistemic
sense of
conceivable,
the sense in which both Goldbach's
conjecture
and its
negation
are
conceivable,
is not the
sense of
conceivability
relevant to modal
knowledge?precisely
for those reasons cited
by
Kneale.
Consideration of Goldbach's
conjecture
is also familiar from another
context,
namely,
from
Kripke
(1980: 36-38),
where
Kripke employs
the
example
to
argue
that not all
necessary
truths are known
apriori
and, hence,
that one must
distinguish aprioricity
from
(metaphysical) necessity.
See Hirsch
(1986: 245)
for a caution not to
exaggerate
the relevance of Goldbach's
conjecture
and other mathematical
examples
in this context. The
example
is also discussed in
Worley (2003).
?
Springer
Conceivability
and
epistemic possibility
391
Other
propositions
that are
widely
taken to illustrate this
point
are that
Hesperus
is not
Phosphorus
and that Cicero is not
Tully.
A
subject,
S,
might
have such little
knowledge
of
astronomy
or Roman
history
that these
propositions
are consistent
with what S knows.
They
are, then,
relative to
S,
epistemically possible.
However,
given
that
'Hesperus'
and
'Phosphorus'
are
merely
two names of a
single planet,
Venus,
and that 'Cicero' and
'Tully'
name a
single
Roman
orator,
the
propositions
are not
metaphysically possible,
for
they represent
states of affairs in which a
thing
is distinct from itself.
Another,
perhaps
more
contentious,
example?but
one worth
considering,
because it illustrates the distinction between
epistemic
and
metaphysical possibil
ities without
relying
on
hackneyed examples
and
by placing
it in the
workaday
world,
rather than in the realms of mathematics
or semantics?is the
following:
It is
epistemically possible
to a
subject,
S,
as he
explores
alone a
campus building
the
layout
of which he is
ignorant,
that a hundred
ordinary
human
beings
can sit
comfortably
in the
space actually
behind a
given
door. This
proposition,
however,
represents
an
impossible
state of affairs because the
space
behind the door is in fact
a
very
small
janitor's
closet.10
These
examples
confirm that the
epistemic possibility
of a
proposition
does not in
itself
provide any
evidence of the
possibility simpliciter
of the state of affairs
represented by
that
proposition.
Therefore,
this
epistemic
notion of
conceivability
is
not the one
sought by
those who believe that
conceivability
holds the
key
to modal
knowledge.11
4
Conceptual Possibility
Although
the
foregoing
notion of
epistemic possibility
is irrelevant to modal
knowledge,
this notion and the locutions used to
express
it have been
employed
to
illuminate the natures of
knowledge
and of evidence and
epistemological
skepticism.12
There
is, however,
another notion of
epistemic possibility
that has
received much attention in recent discussions of modal
knowledge
and that is used
to
explicate
an
altogether
different notion of
conceivability. Unfortunately,
the
distinction between these two notions of
epistemic possibility
has in some cases
been
neglected.
10
Note that the actual
space
behind the door could indeed have been
bigger,
in the sense that had the
world been
different,
that
is,
were we in a different
world,
that
space might
have been much
larger.
However,
the
space actually
behind the door could not have been
bigger, given
that the
quantity
of
space
with
respect
to a
particular space
is essential to it. This last
claim,
about one of the essential features of a
given space,
seems to me to be
obviously
true;
if a
given space
had more or less
space
it would be a
different
space?just
as if a
given length (or number)
were
greater
or lesser it would be a different
length
(or number).
1 '
Stephen
Yablo
presents (and rejects)
another
explication
of
conceivability
in terms of
epistemic
possibility:
a
proposition, p,
is conceivable to a
subject,
S,
if and
only
if the
possibility of
the state
of
affairs represented by p
is consistent with what S knows. See Yablo 1993: 20. This notion of
conceivability
is even weaker than the
epistemic
notion considered in the text.
Thus,
it is no more relevant
to modal
epistemology
than that notion is.
12
See the references in Note 8 above.
?Sp]
ringer
392 M. O. Fiocco
The
contemporary
roots of this other notion of
epistemic possibility
are in
Kripke's
lectures,
where he discusses
"qualitatively
identical
epistemic
situa
tions".13 The initial discussion of such situations occurs in the context of
Kripke's
effort to
diagnose
the firm reluctance of
many
to
recognize
the
necessity
of
propositions expressed by
a certain sort of
identity
statement,
to
wit,
those
involving
proper
names.
Kripke
concedes,
using
the
example
of Venus and two of its
names,
that a
subject,
S,
in a context at a moment
prior
to the identification of the referent of
'Hesperus'
with the referent of
'Phosphorus',
could have
truly
asserted
"Hesperus
might
not be
Phosphorus", expressing thereby
that
for
all S
knows,
the referents of
the two names are distinct.
But
Kripke acknowledges
that in some
cases,
such as this
one,
there is
"something
even
stronger"
than the
epistemic possibility (in
certain
contexts)
of the
distinctness of the referents of the two names
grounding
the sense had
by
a
subject,
S,
of the
contingency
of the
identity
statement
employing
the two names. This
"something
even
stronger"
is,
Kripke suggests,
5's awareness of the
possibility
(simpliciter)
of a
subject, Sf, being
in a
"qualitatively
identical
epistemic
situation",
that
is,
a situation that has
perceptually
the same
phenomenal
character,
as the one
in which S
actually
comes to
grasp
the
concept expressed by
one of two
actually
co
referential terms and of S'
being
in a
qualitatively
identical
epistemic
situation to the
one in which S
actually
comes to
grasp
the
concept expressed by
the other co
referential
term,
although
the two terms do not refer to the same
thing.
If such situations are
possible
for a
given
term,
knowledge
of what that term
actually
refers to is not obtained
merely upon grasping
the
concept
it
expresses,
for
that
concept
determines different
things
in different
possible
situations. Conse
quently,
on the
assumption
that it is the nature of the
thing
to which that term refers
that determines the modal status of
any
state of affairs
represented by
a
proposition
expressed by
means of
it,
merely grasping
the
concept expressed by
that term cannot
provide
one with modal
knowledge
of
any
feature of the world. Even without
knowing
what such terms refer
to,
though,
one can reflect
upon
the
conceptual
content of the
propositions expressed by
them and assess whether those
propositions
are coherent or incoherent.
According
to
Kripke,
one
mistakenly judges
the state of
affairs
Hesperus' being Phosphorus
to be
contingent?when
it is in fact
necessary?
on the basis of one's assessment that the
proposition Hesperus
is not
Phosphorus
is
conceptually
coherent.
Despite Kripke's
discussion of
qualitatively
identical
epistemic
situations,
some
are in
danger
of
conflating epistemic possibility,
in the sense characterized in the
preceding
section,
with a sense of
possibility grounded
in
Kripke's
account of the
"something
even
stronger"
that
guides
one when
attempting
to assess certain
propositions
and the modal status of the features of the world
they represent,
for
13
Kripke
(1980: 103-5, 141^-4, 150-53).
One should construe two situations as
being "qualitatively
identical
epistemically"
to a
subject,
if both induce
perceptual
states
having
the same
phenomenal
character,
so that there is no
sensory
evidence
provided by
either state that could
distinguish
between
distinct
objects
in the two situations that have the same
appearances.
?
Springer
Conceivability
and
epistemic possibility
393
some characterize this later sense as
epistemic possibility.
On this other sense of
possibility,
a
proposition,
p,
is
possible,
if the
concepts expressed by
all the terms
employed
to
express p
are
compatible,
in the sense that the
concepts
do not
preclude
one another in such
a
way
as to make one's mundane
conceptual capacities
balk;
in
other
words,
the
concepts
form a
representation
of a state of affairs that is
coherently
describable. This
notion, therefore,
is
clearly
different from the notion of
epistemic
possibility
characterized above and so should be
given
a different name to avoid
needless confusion. It
is,
for obvious
reasons,
best called
conceptual possibility.
5
Epistemic Possibility
versus
Conceptual Possibility
Epistemic possibility
and
conceptual possibility
are
significantly
different in at least
two
ways.
First of
all,
the notion of
epistemic possibility
is relative to a
particular
subject (with
a
specific body
of
knowledge),
but
conceptual possibility
is not
relative in this
way. Assuming concepts
are
objective, mind-independent
entities,
the
conceptual possibility
of a
proposition
in no
way depends
on
any particular
person;
moreover,
insofar as
concepts
are
supposed
to be
public
and not
idiosyncratic,
the
compatibility
of
concepts
is
completely
unaffected
by
what
any
particular person happens
to know.
Secondly,
whereas
epistemic possibility
has an
aposteriori
dimension,
in that
what
aposteriori knowledge
a
subject
has?and comes to have?determines whether
a
given proposition
is
epistemically possible, conceptual possibility
lacks this
dimension.
Aposteriori knowledge,
in
general,
is
completely
irrelevant to the
conceptual possibility
of a
proposition.
Furthermore,
since this latter sense of
possibility
is
grounded
in the
concepts expressed by
terms,
one who has
mastery
of
the relevant
terms,
has all that is
required
to determine whether a
proposition
is
conceptually possible;
hence,
conceptual possibility
is a
purely apriori
matter.
A
proposition
can be
conceptually possible
without
being epistemically possible,
for
example, any conceptually
coherent
proposition incompatible
with what one
currently
knows
(such
as the
proposition
there is now a
rocking
chair in
my office).
A
proposition
can be
epistemically possible
to a
subject,
S,
without
being
conceptually possible,
for
example, any conceptually
incoherent
proposition
employing concepts
not in S's
repertoire (such
as the
proposition
there is an
extended immaterial
being,
to
S,
who has undertaken no
philosophical study).
Therefore,
epistemic possibility
and
conceptual possibility
are not
only
distinct,
but
wholly independent
modalities.
14
See,
for
instance,
Jackson
(1998: 86);
Chalmers
(2002: 157);
Soames
(2004).
Chalmers also calls this
notion of
possibility,
based on
conceptual
coherence, primary possibility.
15
Although
he does so for reasons different than those discussed in the
text,
Stephen
Yablo
distinguishes,
in
passing, epistemic possibility
from
conceptual possibility.
See Yablo
(2002: 442-3).
Yablo is one of
the few
philosophers
in current discussions of modal
epistemology
to make this distinction
(see
also
Yablo 2000:
99ff.). However,
in earlier
work,
Yablo
(1993: 22ff.),
when
discussing Kripke,
Yablo
conflates
epistemic
and
conceptual possibility.
See Yablo's
conceivability^,
presented
and discussed in
Yablo
(1993: ? IX).
4y Springer
394 M. O. Fiocco
6
Conceivability, Conceptual Possibility
and Modal
Reality
There are those who
gloss conceivability
in terms of
conceptual possibility
and
yet
state their
explication
in terms of
"epistemic possibility";
that
is,
they
deem a
proposition, p,
to be conceivable if and
only
if it is
"epistemically possible", yet
mean
by "epistemically possible"
that the
concepts
of the terms used to
express p
cohere in such a
way
as to not make one's mundane
linguistic
or
conceptual
capacities
balk.16 This subversion of the traditional
usage
of
"epistemically
possible" might
be dismissed as
trivial,
an
insignificant terminological quibble,
if it
were not for the fact that much substantive
philosophical
discussion seems to be
based on
it.17
In recent
work,
Frank Jackson
and,
independently,
David Chalmers
develop
and
defend
(toward
different
ends)
a
position
committed to three theses:
(i)
The notion
of
conceivability pertinent
to modal
knowledge
should be understood in terms of
"epistemic possibility" (i.e. conceptual possibility), (ii) Conceptual possibility
is all
there is to
metaphysical possibility.
Nevertheless, (iii)
there are
necessary
aposteriori
truths
and, thus,
some features of the world must be as
they
are in
virtue of features inaccessible
by
mere
reflection.18
The
position
based on these theses is
perplexing,
in that it seems to combine the
two
incompatible
views of the nature of modal
reality
introduced above: The claim
that
conceptual possibility
is all there is to
metaphysical possibility
seems
clearly
to
commit one to the view that the nature of modal
reality
is
wholly
determined
by
the
conceptual
and
linguistic practices
of conscious
beings
and
yet
the claim that there
are
necessary aposteriori
truths seems to commit one no less to the view that there
are truths about modal
reality
that are determined
by
the
underlying
natures of
things
and, hence,
can
only
be discovered
by empirical investigation.
This
position
seems to enable one to obtain modal
knowledge easily, by apriori means?by
merely reflecting
on one's
concepts?and yet
nevertheless be in the
position
to
discover
substantive,
aposteriori
modal truths about the world or
things
in
themselves.
The
apparent
inconsistencies of this
position
are,
in a
sense,
reconciled via
insights provided by
a technical innovation in
logic, namely
two-dimensional
operators,
ones such that the formulae in which
they
occur have to be evaluated at
16
Or,
alternatively, p
is
"epistemically possible"
when
p
"is not ruled out a
priori"
(Chalmers
2002:
157).
17
Those who think of
conceivability
in this
way
are almost
certainly
not
ignorant
of the distinction
between
epistemic possibility (in
the sense of
?
3
above)
and
conceptual possibility.
Chalmers seems to be
aware of the distinction
when,
in
passing,
he cautions one not to confuse his
preferred
notion of
conceivability
to one on which "a statement is conceivable if for all we know it is true"
(Chalmers
1996:
66).
It is
appropriate,
then,
to wonder about the motivation for
ignoring
the
usage
of the term
'epistemic
possibility'
in order to use it to
express
the notion of
conceptual possibility (rather than,
as one would
expect, epistemic possibility).
One
explanation,
the
simplest,
is that those who refer to
conceptual
possibility
as
"epistemic possibility"
do so because the former notion is illuminated
by Kripke's
discussion of
qualitatively
identical
epistemic
states.
18
See Jackson
(1994: 34ff);
Jackson
(1998:
Chap.
3);
Chalmers
(1996, 2002).
4y Springer
Conceivability
and
epistemic possibility
395
two
points
in a
model,
rather than at
just
one.19 Hence,
this
position
in modal
epistemology might
be dubbed Two-dimensionalism. I will not examine Two
dimensionalism here.20
I
will, however,
note that the
position
is
explicitly
based on
the view of modal
reality according
to which its nature is
wholly
determined
by
the
conceptual
and
linguistic practices
of conscious
beings.
The
aposteriori
modal truths
it
recognizes?and
this is
key
to
resolving
its
apparent
inconsistencies?are based
on
knowledge
not of the
underlying
natures
of things,
but rather on
knowledge
of
how words
happen
to be used.
My present purpose
is
simply
to
point
out what
is,
perhaps, perfectly
obvious:
despite accommodating
a certain kind of
aposteriori
modal
truth,
truths
regarding
to
what one's words
happen
to
refer,
Two-dimensionalism is
simply incompatible
with
the
predominant
view of the nature of modal
reality according
to which how
things
are in themselves
ultimately grounds
modal truth. Even without
discussing
the
details of
Two-dimensionalism,
this should be obvious
by
its commitment to the
thesis that
conceptual possibility
is all there is to
metaphysical possibility.
If there is
no distinction between
conceptual possibility
and
possibility simpliciter,
then what
it is for a
proposition
to
represent
a
possible (simpliciter)
state of affairs is
simply
for that
proposition
to cohere in such a
way
as to not make one's mundane
conceptual
or
linguistic capacities
balk;
the
underlying
natures of the
things
the
proposition represents
are irrelevant.
Two-dimensionalism, however,
is much discussed
by
those who
accept (or
seem
to
accept)
the
predominant
view of the nature of modal
reality.21
The view is
examined
precisely
in order to determine whether it
and,
more
specifically,
the
notion of
conceivability
on which it
depends,
are
capable
of
providing
substantive
modal
knowledge regarding things
in the world
(in
particular,
the mind and the
brain).
Clearly, though,
the notion of
conceivability
on which Two-dimensionalism
is
based?conceivability qua conceptual possibility?can provide knowledge only
of one's
concepts
and
representational capacities.
The
only
truths the view can
accommodate that are more than
merely conceptual regard
how words
happen
to be
used,
not
objects
in
themselves,
independent
of
language.
I
suggest
that the interest in
Two-dimensionalism,
despite
its obvious
limitations,
is
spurred,
at least in
part, simply by
use of the term
'epistemic possibility'
in its
formulation. Use of this
term,
in lieu of the more
perspicuous 'conceptual
possibility', suggests,
not
surprisingly,
a
notion,
to
wit,
traditional
epistemic
possibility,
to which
aposteriori knowledge
of
objects
in themselves and their
19
See
Segerberg
(1973)
for the basic idea and some discussion of its
history.
The
philosophical
interest
in such
operators
was
originally
stimulated
by
the observations that
they
were of use in
developing
temporal logic
and that
they appeared
to be
necessary
to
give
a
proper
formal
analysis
of the semantics of
certain sentences in natural
language employing
tense and
temporal operators.
Their use was extended to
modal
logic,
in
part
as a result of
attempts
to formalize the notion of
actuality; (See
Davies and
Humberstone
1980)
the basic idea
underlying
such
operators
has also been used to
provide
a formal
semantic
analysis
of natural
language. (See,
for some of the most famous and influential
examples
of
formal semantic
analyses along
these
lines,
the
papers
on
language
in Lewis
(1983)
and Stalnaker
(1999)).
20
I do this is in detail elsewhere. See
my
"Two-dimensionalism and Modal
Reality".
21
For
just
a few
examples
in this
growing
literature,
see Stalnaker
(2002),
Brueckner
(2001),
and
Balog
(1999).
?
Sprin ger
396 M. O. Fiocco
underlying
natures is
pertinent.
Just as
ignorance
of the
underlying
nature of water
would render
epistemically possible,
in the traditional
sense,
all claims
regarding
this
nature,
ignorance
of the
underlying
nature of mind?whether it be
physical
or
otherwise?renders
epistemically possible
all claims
regarding
this nature. How
ever,
the
underlying
nature of water or mind is irrelevant to the
conceptual
possibility
of claims about such
things;
what is relevant is
only
how such
things
are
conceived to be.
Therefore,
insofar as one
accepts
that modal
reality
is determined
by
the
underlying
natures of
things,
an account of modal
knowledge
that construes
conceivability
in terms of
conceptual possibility
can
provide
no
insight
into modal
reality.
If Two-dimensionalism were
presented
in terms of
conceptual possibility,
one would see more
easily?even immediately?that
the view is
fundamentally
incompatible
with the
predominant
view of the nature of modal
reality.
Alas,
it is
not
presented
in these
terms,
at least not
by
its
proponents. Although
Two
dimensionalism is sometimes
presented
in terms of
conceptual possibility by
its
critics,22
even in these
cases,
the limitations of the view are not
presented directly
(or directly enough,
it seems to
me).
For even when it is
recognized
that the
modality
relevant to
evaluating
Two-dimensionalism is
conceptual possibility,
criticism of the view consists in discussion of subtle semantical
issues,
rather than a
consideration of the views of the nature of modal
reality
that seems the
proper
focus
of a
putative
account of modal
knowledge.
Such
directness,
circumventing
the
semantical
issues,
seems
appropriate,
rather than
merely
obtuse
given
that Two
dimensionalism is
supposed
to
provide insight
into how the world must be or could
be otherwise.
Critical
strategies focusing
on semantic issues
arise,
I
submit,
from the contexts
in which Two-dimensionalism is
presented by
Jackson and Chalmers
and,
moreover,
the basis of
conceptual possibility
in
Kripke's
seminal discussion of
qualitatively
identical
epistemic
states.
Nevertheless,
if one's concerns are
ultimately
with an account of modal
knowledge?or,
even more
specifically,
with
what modal
knowledge
reveals about the
relationship
between mind and
body?
then,
insofar as one
accepts
the view of modal
reality
on which it is determined
by
the natures of
things, conceivability qua conceptual possibility
and, afortiori,
Two
dimensionalism,
are irrelevant.
Moreover,
in the context of modal
epistemology,
a
consideration of subtle semantic issues is
entirely supererogatory.
7 Conclusion
There are two
dangers
when one is not
very
careful to mark the distinction between
epistemic possibility
and
conceptual possibility.
There is the indirect
danger,
discussed
above,
of
changing
the focus of modal
epistemology
from a consideration
of the means of
obtaining knowledge
of a modal
reality independent
of conscious
subjects,
to a consideration of
merely
semantic and related
conceptual
issues. There
22
For
example,
Stalnaker
(2002).
But this is not
always
the case, for see Soames
(2004),
in which
Soames'
critique
of Two-dimensionalism is
presented
in terms of
"epistemic possibility".
?
Springer
Conceivability
and
epistemic possibility
397
is also the direct
danger
of
simply conflating
the
independent
modalities of
epistemic possibility
and
conceptual possibility.
Either
danger needlessly hampers
efforts to
develop
an
adequate
account of modal
knowledge.
For an illustration of the latter
danger,
consider Sara
Worley's gloss
on the
notion of
conceivability
in the context of
evaluating
David Chalmers'
argument
for dualism23: "Whether or not
something
is conceivable for a thinker
depends
on what the thinker knows or
believes,
or what
concepts
or modes of
presentation
he has available or is
using
to think about the situation....'Conceivable'
can be
glossed
as
'thinkable,'
and
surely
what we are
capable
of
thinking depends
on
what
concepts
we have
available,
and what we know or do not know."24 This
gloss clearly
conflates the notions of
epistemic possibility
and
conceptual
possibility.
Therefore,
it is of the utmost
importance
to modal
epistemology
to
separate
these distinct modalities. If one believes that the
key
to modal
knowledge
is
conceivability,
where this notion is
explicated
in terms of
conceptual possibility,
one need
only
assess the coherence of a
proposition
in order to determine
whether it
represents
a
possible
or
impossible
or
necessary
state of affairs. On
this
view,
access to modal
knowledge
is
easy,
but it seems to come too
cheaply:
there are
many conceptual possibilities
that seem
intuitively
to be
impossible,
for
example
that
Hesperus
is not
Phosphorus,
that water is not
H20,
that Goldbach's
conjecture (or
its
negation)
is true. One can obscure the basic
incompatibility
of
(I)
the view that
conceptual possibility
is all there is to modal
reality
with
(II)
the
view that there are substantive modal claims about the natures
of things
in
themselves,
by introducing
semantic
issues,
thereby muddling
the intuitions that
have motivated
many
to
reject
the view that how one
speaks
or conceives of the
world determines what must be or could be otherwise. Such
issues, however,
merely complicate
the matter of modal
epistemology
and can do
nothing
to
reconcile the
incompatible.25
Of
course,
if one believes that the nature of modal
reality
is
wholly
determined
by
the
conceptual
and
linguistic practices
of conscious
beings,
then it is
appropriate
to
explicate
the notion of
conceivability
in terms of
conceptual
possibility.
But if one holds this
view,
one must forswear
any
realist inclinations
and with these
any
ambition to
provide insight
into the world as it is in itself.
Once
one has done
this,
modal
epistemology
seems to lose its
metaphysical
cachet. If
one, however,
believes that some features of modal
reality
are
independent
of the
practices
of conscious
beings,
then an account of conceiv
ability
in terms of
conceptual possibility
is
inappropriate (unless
one does not
regard conceivability
as the
key
to all modal
knowledge).
If one holds this latter
view of modal
reality
and
yet
believes that the
conceivability
of a
proposition
is
indeed an indication of whether the state of affairs
represented by
that
proposition
23
See Chalmers
(1996, 2002).
24
Worley (2003: 17).
25
This is evident in Stalnaker
(2002),
where Stalnaker seems to come to the same conclusion after much
discussion of
ultimately
irrelevant semantic issues.
4?
Springer
398 M. O. Fiocco
is
possible
or
necessary,
one is still in need of an
explication
of the relevant
notion of
conceivability.26
Regardless
of one's view of the nature of modal
reality,
it should be clear that the
traditional notion of
epistemic possibility
is irrelevant to
recognizing
its nature.
Therefore,
this notion?and the name
'epistemic possibility'?should
be eschewed
in the context of modal
epistemology
and,
more
particularly,
when
explicating
or
discussing
the notion of
conceivability.
Acknowledgements
I would like to
express my deep gratitude
to
Anthony Brueckner,
Jonathan
Dancy,
Matthew Hanser and Nathan Salmon for
very helpful
comments on
previous
drafts of this
paper,
as well
as to the two
anonymous
referees for Erkenntnis whose
insightful
comments enabled
many improvements
to the final version.
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