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Friday, May 24, 2024

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I think the path to a solution is to be found in your statement in 4):

Surely there is nothing intrinsically impossible about my swimming now.

Your attempt at a resolution with the gesture towards prior unrealized possibilities in the table seems to unnecessarily restrict your afromentioned (and to my mind: only) basic condition for knowing the possibility of a state of affair.
For a committed determinist, we haven't proven any inherent capacity of the table to actually be somewhere else. It wasn't present when it was two inches off the wall and when it got moved another inch, this is due to the entailment of the position and velocity of the particles in the prior timeslice, not any power in the substance or artifact. The same would be said of your own power to move said table.
This is incompatible with your own suggestion, but I don't think it affects modal knowledge, since the latter goes deeper. JFK might have died of a heart attack and the table might have been in the middle of the room but only, to accommodate the determinist, if the prior states of affairs entail such outcome. And we know this possibility because there's no inherent logical contradiction in the suggestion that the world might be arranged in such a way as to lead to these outcomes. Being is flexible enough to take this shape. And this flexibility of being is compatible with either your or the determinists suggestion.
Modal knowledge only requires logical possibility. And the knowledge that there's a different way in which history might have been arranged is more basic than the intuition that our current history can deviate from a pre-given path.

Dominik,

You bring up determinism. I take determinism to be the view that the actual past together with the actual laws of nature render nomologically possible only one future. Now the actual past might have been different, and the laws of nature might have been different. But given the actual past and the actual laws of nature, it is nomologically necessary that my table be 2" from the wall at the present time t. But surely my table might have been 3" from the wall at t. So while it is nomologically necessary that the table be 2" from the wall at t, it is metaphysically (broadly logically) possible that it be 3" from the wall at t.

Do you see that?

The question is: how do I know that the counterfactual state of affairs is metaphysically possible?

My impression is that you haven't understood my post.

Both you and Dr. Pete assume what is to be proven: namely that we do, in fact, have non-trivial modal knowledge.

Why can't this be true:

□(◇p ⟺ p)

Why can't it be the case that there is only one possible world?

How can we know that it is not so?

Once you sever the epistemic tie between conceivability and possibility, then all you're left with is the hand-waving stipulation of "it's obvious that we have at least some non-trivial modal knowledge - i.e. that we know that there is at least one possible world that is not actual".

But why is it obvious?

Doesn't that just smuggle in "obviousness" as an epistemological substitute for "conceivability"?

My point, I suppose, is that if you accept as a brute fact that there are possible-but-not-actual states-of-affairs, like the positions of tables in kitchens, why can it not be claimed that the class of "modally epistemic brute facts" also includes entities like "Anselm's God"?

It's always seemed obvious to me that it can.

Bill,

well I hope I didn't misunderstand your post, because it doesn't seem that difficult (albeit the solution might be).

Your justification for the reality of modal knowledge in 6) is the fact that you actually moved the table from its original place. You identify this as an agents unrealized capacity at the time it wasn't exercised and this is identical to the tables' possibly different placement. And you see this as a nonolution, since unrealized capacities presuppose the possibilities it's supposed to explain. Did I go wrong here?

My point is that even without this circularity, the argument would fail since in a determinist world the capacity doesn't exist temporarily prior to its exercise. There was no point prior to the actually moving in which there was the unrealized capacity. Or to put it more precisely, there was no such capacity metaphysically robust enough to yield the conclusion that there might have been a difference or alternative possibility.

So my answer to "how do I know that the counterfactual state of affairs is metaphysically possible?" is that we need a substantial notion of being, and the way it can be limited within individuals. I would argue that it is completely sufficient for metaphysical possibility that there's no straight up contradiction present within the idea of a differently placed table. While these possibilities aren't baked into the world we originally talked about, they are a way in which being could be shaped into, in order to create or actualize alternatives. I think that it's thinking about being that yields modal knowledge.


John Doran >>My point, I suppose, is that if you accept as a brute fact that there are possible-but-not-actual states-of-affairs, like the positions of tables in kitchens, why can it not be claimed that the class of "modally epistemic brute facts" also includes entities like "Anselm's God"?<<

I do accept as a fact that there are possible-but-not-actual states-of-affairs, indeed I accept it as a necessary fact (!!; See my comment above), and I also accept that this means that the class of modally epistemic facts includes entities like Anselm's God. But the key is that 1/ possibilities are not actualities, by definition, and 2/ the status of particular possibilities are understood in relation to actuality. The kitchen table is only possibly 3" from the wall. However, in a straightforward sense this possibility can be annulled and made actual by simply moving the table. However, the existence of God is a factual possibility that has Anselmian attributes which make it difficult if not impossible to understand how God could be actual. E.g., omnipresence. As Syndrome in the movie The Incredibles could have said, if God is everywhere than he is nowhere - in actuality.

It is like unto the distinction between a conceptualization of God and an intentionality turned towards his real existence. The Anselmian concepts of God make perfect logical sense, but in what sense can those concepts and God be really existent? The modalities of possibility and actuality capture this intentional turn from concepts to real external, objective being, in which the latter move is problematic with respect to the God concept.

John Doran,

I take it to be a datum, a given, that we have non-trivial modal knowledge. Given the datum, the problem arises as to how we come by such modal knowledge. The problem disappears if there is only one possible world. So you reasonably ask: >>How can we know that it is not so?<<

Why not embrace modal collapse? The possible = the actual = the necessary. Call this view modal Spinozism or modal monism. Can I prove that is false and that modal pluralism is true, i.e., that there are many possible worlds only one of which is actual?

Well, if modal monism is true, and all is metaphysically necessary, then so are my actions and omissions, in which case I am not morally responsible for anything I do or leave undone. If so, then my sense that some of my actions are 'up to me' is an illusion. Could free will be an illusion?

I have a Substack entry on this. It deals with nomological determinism not modal-logical determinism, but I think the arguments contra transfer.

https://williamfvallicella.substack.com/p/could-free-will-be-an-illusion?sd=pf


Dominik writes, >>I would argue that it is completely sufficient for metaphysical possibility that there's no straight up contradiction present within the idea of a differently placed table.<<

But that doesn't answer my question.

It is an actual fact that my table is 2" from the wall at time t. But it is metaphysically (broadly logically) possible that the very same table be 3" from the wall at t. If so, how do I know that?

The question is not: are there merely possible states of affairs? The question is: How do I know that a particular merely possible state of affairs is really possible?

Bill,

last comment to not flood your comment section. You write:

It is an actual fact that my table is 2" from the wall at time t. But it is metaphysically (broadly logically) possible that the very same table be 3" from the wall at t. If so, how do I know that?

No mere event in this world would give you that knowledge, or so is my claim. It boils down to my following claim about possibility:

The realm of (possible) beings is governed by the basic laws of logic and the facts about individual natures.

The former is pretty straightforward: I take the laws of logic to be descriptions of what Being is. Every violation of them is a contradiction and therefore nothing. Hence the most basic requirement in order to be possible is to be in accordance with these most fundamental laws.

The second part governs higher laws. Is it possible to have Selen-based organisms instead of carbon? It seems not. Nonetheless, this impossibility isn't immediately obvious and empirical investigation is of help in discovering these higher laws. The same way the problem of evil might hint at a deeper contradiction at the heart of the ontological argument. We're talking about impossibilities within essences here.

Importantly for the current discussion though, in these examples we actually change something about the intrinsic nature of the object in question, while with the table, we only change a relation. The table remains intrinsically the same. We know that the table actually exists. The modal question here only concerns an extrinsic change. And since this doesn't seem to constitute a violation of any laws, neither basic nor about the nature of the table, shouldn't we be able to conclude that we indeed deal with a really possible state of affairs that would be impossible if we inhabited a strictly deterministic world, but really actual in a world similar to ours/with a different history? I stand by my claim that it is the analysis of existence that yields the knowledge, as long as there is no contradiction of logic or the nature of the being, it seems like we are confronted with an actual possibility.

I concede though that this is more akin to "justified belief", rather than full-blown, infallible knowledge. So it depends on the standard you're setting. But if there's anything special problem with modal knowledge that isn't equally present in every other knowledge claim, then I fail to see it.

Bill & Dominik.

>>It is an actual fact that my table is 2" from the wall at time t. But it is metaphysically (broadly logically) possible that the very same table be 3" from the wall at t. If so, how do I know that?<<

Dominik, I like what you've said on this issue, especially that "it is the analysis of existence that yields knowledge" and that what we need is a "substantial notion of being," although in the former I would substitute "actuality" for "existence."

However, right or wrong, I have been understanding Bill's question differently. He is not so much asking for an account of how an unrealized possibility functions in a particular metaphysic (which Dominik has ably supplied), but for what the basic reality is that grounds an unrealized possibility. In the actuality of the 2" distant table, there is a straightforward objective corollary to the concept. But with an unrealized possibility, there is no objective corollary at all, by definition. So, how are we to make sense of these very useful items in our mental inventory?

Taking his question in this way, I have attempted to ground the reality and knowability of unrealized possibilities in a necessary relation to actuality; essentially, I argue that if the 2" distant table is real and knowable then so must be the unrealized possibilities about that table. Thus, my argument above from Trendelenburg and Kant was an attempt to ground unrealized possibilities as necessary features of thinking and experiencing anything at all.

If that doesn't fly, then how about this: unrealized possibilities of the table are real and knowable because the table is contingent. Necessarily, you can only know that it is contingent because you know (positively, indubitably) that there are alternative possibilities that might have been, like a 3" distant table or that the table might not have been in the room at all. If the 2" distant table is not contingent then it and all other factuals in the world (including ourselves) are necessary and there are no alternative possibilities of anything. If you assume (as I do) that contingency is a fundamental feature of the world as we know it, then unrealized possibilities are real and knowable because they are a necessary element of contingency.

This all comes close, I think, to saying what Bill said in the article, "Perhaps we are forced to say that the concept of an unrealized possibility is a primitive or irreducible concept, one that cannot be illuminated in terms of anything more basic." Except I have attempted to illuminate the concept of unrealized possibilities as essential to the more basic conception of things as contingent or as a necessary feature of thinking anything at all. If neither of these work, then I think we are stuck with the bare assumption that unrealized possibilities must be real and knowable in some indeterminate sense as they are extraordinarily useful in our understanding of things in the world.

Dominik,

My example again: It is an actual fact that my table is 2" from the wall at time t. But it is metaphysically (broadly logically) possible that the very same table be 3" from the wall at t. If so, how do I know that?

Your answer seems to be that you can conceive of the table being in a different location without any contradiction appearing to your thinking. You seem to be saying that the counterfactual state of affairs is really possible because it is conceivable without contradiction and that this conceivability without contradiction suffices for knowledge that the counterfactual state of affairs is really possible.

But conceivability without contradiction is no guarantee of real possibility. I can conceive of an FBI, a floating bar of iron, a bar of iron floating in pure water, but an FBI is not really possible. So logically possibility is a necessary condition of real possibility but not a species of it.

Now van Inwagen and I are assuming that there are real possibilities that are not actual, such as my tables' being in a position other than the position it is in. Given that that is a real possibility how do I know it is if I cannot know it simply by thinking the state of affairs and finding no logical contradiction?

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