Tuesday, 1 August 2017

An Adventure in Linking Necessity to Apriority

There is an important link between necessity and apriority which can shed light on our knowledge of the former, but initially plausible attempts to spell out what it is fall victim to counterexamples. Casullo (2003) discusses one such proposal, argues that it fails, and suggests an alternative. In this post, I argue that Casullo’s alternative also fails, suggest another, argue that that fails too, and then suggest another which I hope is correct.

First proposal

Kripke (1980) showed that it is not always knowable a priori whether a proposition is necessarily true. But, you might think, perhaps it is always knowable a priori whether a proposition has whatever truth value it has necessarily or contingently. To use Casullo’s (2003) terminology, while Kripke showed that knowledge of specific modal status (necessarily true, contingently false, etc.) is not always possible a priori, this leaves open the possibility of apriori knowledge of general modal status (necessary or contingent - and on this usage of ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’, truth value is left open). Perhaps that is the link we are after between necessity and apriority.

The claim that general modal status is always knowable a priori entails the following:

(1) If p is a necessary proposition and S knows that p is a necessary proposition, then S can know a priori that p is a necessary proposition.

(The second conjunct of (1)’s antecedent sidesteps the worry that some necessary propositions may be such that it is unknowable that they are necessary.)

Casullo, following Anderson (1993), argues convincingly that this is false. Consider:

(1X) Hesperus is Phosphorus or my hat is on the table.

This is a necessary proposition, but for all any S could know a priori, it could be necessarily true (if the first disjunct is true), contingently true (if the first disjunct is false but the second true), or contingently false (if both disjuncts are false). So (1) can’t be right.

Second proposal

In an interesting effort to avoid the problem affecting (1), Casullo introduces the notions of conditional modal propositions and conditional modal status:

Associated with each truth functionally simple proposition is a pair of conditional propositions: one provides the specific modal status of the proposition given that it is true; the other provides its specific modal status given that it is false. Associated with each truth functionally compound proposition is a series of conditional propositions, one for each assignment of truth values to its simple components. Each conditional proposition provides the specific modal status of the proposition given that assignment of truth values. Let us call these propositions conditional modal propositions and say that S knows the conditional modal status of p just in case S knows all the conditional modal propositions associated with p. (Casullo (2003), p. 197.)
His proposed link between necessity and apriority is as follows:

(2) If p is a necessary proposition and S knows the conditional modal status of p, then S can know a priori the conditional modal status of p.

Casullo dubs this ‘a version of the traditional account of the relationship between the a priori and the necessary that is immune to Kripke’s examples of necessary a posteriori propositions’ (Casullo (2003), p. 199). It handles (1X) nicely. Calling (1X)’s disjuncts ‘Hesp’ and ‘Hat’, its associated conditional modal propositions will run as follows:

If Hesp is true and Hat is true, (1X) is necessary.
If Hesp is true and Hat is false, (1X) is necessary.
If Hesp is false and Hat is true, (1X) is contingent.
If Hesp is false and Hat is false, (1X) is contingent.

These are plausibly knowable a priori, as required by (2).

But consider:

(2X) Everything is either such that it is either not Hesperus or is Phosphorus, or such that it is either on the table or not my hat.

While it contains connectives, this is not a truth functional compound in the relevant sense, since it does not embed any whole propositions. So on Casullo’s proposal, (2X) will be associated with just a pair of conditional modal propositions. Which ones? A problem here is that there is no very clear positive case for any pair (the account, after all, was probably not formulated with (2X) in mind), but I think it is clear that the only candidate pair which could stand a chance is:

If (2X) is true, it is necessary.
If (2X) is false, it is contingent.

(After all, (2X) is true and necessary, so the other available choice for first member couldn’t be right, and the second member of the pair seems true and knowable a priori.)

Instantiating Casullo’s proposal (2) on (2X), we get:

If (2X) is a necessary proposition and S knows the conditional modal status of (2X), then S can know a priori the conditional modal status of (2X).

But it seems clear that the first conditional modal proposition for (2X), i.e. that if (2X) is true, it is necessary, could not be known a priori. So (2) can’t be right either.

Third proposal

What strikes one initially about the disjunctive counterexample to the first proposal is that it has a component whose general modal status is knowable a priori. But this isn’t true of the counterexample to the second proposal; it has no component propositions at all. What is true about both counterexamples is, not that they have cromponent propositions whose general modal status is knowable a priori, but that they are implied by such propositions.

Let us say that a proposition p possesses a priori necessary character iff it can be known a priori that p is a necessary proposition, i.e. that p has whatever truth value it has necessarily.

Now, I submit that if a proposition whose general modal status is knowable at all is necessarily true, then it is in the deductive closure of a set of true propositions possessing a priori necessary character.

How, though, to generalize this so that it covers all necessary propositions (i.e. necessarily false propositions as well as true ones)? For a few weeks, I thought this would work:

If a proposition whose general modal status is knowable at all is necessary, then it is either in the deductive closure of a set of true propositions possessing a priori necessary character, or it is in the deductive closure of a consistent set of false propositions possessing a priori necessary character.

To cast the point in a form similar to (1) and (2) above:

(3) If p is a necessary proposition and S knows that p is a necessary proposition, then p is either in the deductive closure of a set of true propositions which S can know a priori to be necessary, or it is in the deductive closure of a consistent set of false propositions which S can know a priori to be necessary.

But I have just recently realised that this is false as well.

The problem lies with necessarily false propositions. Requiring consistency of the set of false propositions that implies a putative necessary proposition rules out necessarily false propositions that contradict themselves. E.g. 'It is both raining and not raining' is, and can be known to be, a necessary proposition, but it is not implied by any consistent set of false propositions of apriori necessary character. On the other hand, removing the consistency requirement causes the account to overgenerate, at least on a classical conception of implication; 'I had toast for breakfast' is implied by the set of false propositions of a priori necessary character {'2 + 2 = 4', 'not-(2 + 2 = 4)'}, since that set implies any proposition whatsoever.

Fourth proposal

Now, without wanting to rule out that we could specify a special implication-like relation which behaves as desired, I have nevertheless tentatively given up on bringing in consistency to get a general result which covers not only necessary true propositions but necessarily false ones as well. Instead, I think the thing to do is to exploit the idea that a necessarily false proposition's negation is necessarily true, giving us:

(4) If p is a necessary proposition and S knows that p is a necessary proposition, then either p or its negation is in the deductive closure of a set of true propositions which S can know a priori to be necessary.

Maybe this one is true! Please let me know, by comment or email, if you see a problem.

Thanks to Albert Casullo for helpful and encouraging correspondence on this topic.

References

Anderson, C. Anthony (1993). Toward a Logic of A Priori Knowledge. Philosophical Topics 21(2):1-20.

Casullo, Albert (2003). A Priori Justification. Oxford University Press USA.

Kripke, Saul A. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press.

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