Wednesday 9 March 2016

Five Objections to Sider's Quasi-Conventionalism About Modality

There are a couple of infelicities in the below which have been fixed in the version of this material appearing in chapter 4 of my PhD thesis Necessity and Propositions.

In a recent post I described Sider's quasi-conventionalism about modality, which in my view takes an important step forward with respsect to necessity de dicto but is mistaken in other ways. (My account of necessity de dicto shares a structure with it.) Here I give five objections to Sider's view.

None of these take the form of counterexamples. As Merricks (2013) observes:
[...] Sider’s general approach—as opposed to specific instances of that approach—is immune to counterexample. For suppose that Sider lists the “certain sorts.” You then come up with an absolutely compelling example of a proposition that is necessarily true and not of a sort on the list. Sider need not abandon his overall approach to reducing necessity. Instead, he could just add a new sort to the list to accommodate that example. Or suppose you come up with an absolutely compelling example of a true proposition that is not necessarily true and is of a sort on the list. Sider could just expunge that sort from the list.
1. Necessity does not seem disjunctive or arbitrary (at least, not to this extent).

This is an objection centering on our intuitive grasp of the concept of necessity de dicto. It seems like this is a notion we can grasp, with the help of Kripke’s characterizations as supplemented in this post. Now, when we grasp this idea, it seems we are grasping a single, unified concept: necessary truths could not have been otherwise, no matter how things had turned out. This just doesn’t seem like a disjunctive matter, and nor does it seem like the sort of thing we make one way or the other with any kind of arbitration - although of course there are unclear or borderline cases, which we may perhaps make stipulations about to some extent.

This is not a knock-down objection, of course. Sometimes philosophy can reveal things to be other than they might seem. But I think it is hard to deny, if we are willing and able to grasp the concept of necessity de dicto and careful to hold in abeyance any of our pet theoretical proclivities which may suggest otherwise, that the notion does seem more unitary and less arbitrary than Sider’s theory would have us believe. And I propose that that should count as a mark against Sider’s theory.

Furthermore, insofar as appearance really is different from what Sider says the reality is when it comes to necessity, there is some explanatory work for Sider, or more generally the would-be quasi-conventionalist, to do here: why the discrepancy? As far as I know, no answer has yet been given.

2. The ersatz substitute worry.

A starting point for this worry is the unapologetically ad hoc nature of Sider’s successive extensions of the toy version of his approach that he begins with (where the “certain sort” of propositions he takes as “modal axioms” are just the mathematical truths). This process seems to be one of going back and forth between a growing list of types of propositions, the list at the heart of an increasingly disjunctive account, and our grasp of the real modal notion of necessity. This gives rise to the worry that all we are doing is building an ersatz substitute for the real notion, by looking at the extensional behaviour of the latter and stipulating this behaviour into the account. No matter how far we pursue this strategy, the disjunctive notion we are building will remain fundamentally different in character from the notion whose behaviour we are modelling with it. Supposing that what we want from an ‘if and only if’ style account of necessity de dicto is not some substitute for that notion, but a biconditional which gives us insight into the notion itself, Sider’s approach will never satisfy.

Something of this worry is even suggested by what Sider says about family resemblances, rehearsed in the previous post as point (6). The quasi-conventionalist could simply insist that each of the items on their list of the types of propositions which count as modal axioms is there as a brute fact - that’s just how the notion of necessity works. But, Sider says, the quasi-conventionalist ‘need not be quite so flat-footed’, and is ‘free to exhibit similarities between various modal axioms, just as one might exhibit similarities between things that fall under our concept of a game, to use Wittgenstein’s example’. This move, offered as an optional extra for the quasi-conventionalist, is plausibly in tension with the way Sider’s successively extended accounts are formulated. Just as the concept of a game - allowing for the sake of argument that it is a family resemblance concept - is plausibly not actually captured by any particular disjunction, but is as we might say inherently open-ended, it is also plausible that we should admit that the real “certain sort” or “modal axiom” notion doing the all-important work in Sider’s account - allowing for the sake of argument that it is a family resemblance concept - is not captured by any particular disjunction either.

This of course suggests a variant of Sider’s approach, where it is held that the “modal axiom” notion is a family resemblance concept, and admitted that any definite, disjunctive list of types of propositions could only yield, when plugged into the overall account, an ersatz substitute for the notion of necessity de dicto. This variant is not, or at any rate less, vulnerable to the the ersatz substitute worry. But it is not clear whether it could really satisfy a philosopher who wants insight into the notion of necessity de dicto, let alone a philosopher with Sider’s motivations. For instance, can it really claim to be modally reductive? It might on the contrary seem that the family resemblance notion in question should be counted as thoroughly modal. Furthermore, it may seem to yield an account which is insufficiently insightful - essentially all we are now getting is (Schema) itself, together with the pronouncement that the condition C is given by a family resemblance concept. Is there nothing more which can be said? Relatedly, the question now arises: is it after all true that the notion in question is a family resemblance concept? What reason have we to believe that? (I will suggest, somewhat ironically given that I am on the whole much more admiring of Wittgenstein’s philosophy than Sider is, that it isn’t true. The notion playing this ‘condition C’ role, i.e. the notion which when combined with the notion of truth yields a notion playing Sider’s “modal axiom” role, can be defined in terms of a single necessary and sufficient condition.)

3. No iteration?

When Sider says early on in the modality chapter of his (2011) that the account he offers will be partial, there is a footnote to this remark which runs as follows:
(16) For example, the account defines a property of propositions that do not themselves concern modality, and thus is insufficient to interpret iterable modal operators.
This raises the question: how come, faced with this failure of coverage, Sider doesn’t simply make the same move with modal statements as he does with analyticities, “metaphysical” statements, and natural kind statements - namely include them expressly in the account?

Perhaps the answer is that this would threaten the account’s claim of reductiveness. For it seems that in order to include modal statements on the list, we need the concept ‘modal’.
The question then becomes: is ‘modal’ modal? If it is, Sider’s account is in serious trouble: it cannot, as a matter of principle, handle iterated modality. For remember, it is supposed to be modally reductive. And if iterated modality is a real, legitimate thing, then what use is a theory which gives us - by design - some extensionally correct answers but cannot handle this whole class of cases? It seems such a theory could give us an ersatz substitute for modality at best (to recall the above objection by that name). Its failure, if it is a failure, to be extendable to a salient class of cases should perhaps suggest to us that it is on the wrong track.

So, is ‘modal’ modal? It is an interesting question, and suggests interesting analogous questions about other kinds of concepts. One reason to think it is, is that we don’t seem to have a general way of saying what ‘modal’ means which doesn’t work by way of example. We seem to need examples of modal notions - necessity, or contingency, or possibility, or impossibility, or some combination of them - to do the job. To be sure, we could be said to be mentioning rather than using these notions in our explanations of ‘modal’, but is that any help? Don’t we need to use them in some broad sense in order to mention them in the appropriate way?

Another way out which may occur to the reader is to somehow delineate the modal statements using notions which are distinct from ‘modal’ and the like, but which fortuitously give the right extension. I am pessimistic about this. For a start, I can’t think of any good candidate notions. Furthermore, even if there were notions around which could do the job, wouldn’t using them for this purpose play further into the ersatz substitute worry described above? In particular, it seems like this strategy, while it may help Sider’s account deliver extensionally correct answers, would take the account (even) further from the real meaning of modal expressions, or the real nature of modal notions.

One possible strategy remains to be considered: accepting that ‘modal’ is modal and simply giving up the claim to full modal reductivity. From one angle, this seems not unreasonable; the way that ‘modal’ introduces modality, assuming it does, into the account, seems quite special and different from the way modality would be introduced if a notion of possibility or necessity were directly used. So perhaps there is room to claim that a broadly Siderian quasi-conventionalist account involving the notion of ‘modal’ as an unreduced modal element could still constitute a theoretical advance. I have no knockdown objection to this, but I do want to suggest that once this concession is made, other objections, such as the first two considered here - (i) that necessity does not seem as disjunctive or arbitrary as quasi-conventionalism would have us believe and (ii) the ersatz substitute worry - become all the more acute; I am not sympathetic with the following sort of move, but you might try to argue that biting those bullets is worth it if we get in return a complete reduction of modality, with its attendant payoff in eliminating puzzlement and vindicating certain sorts of metaphysical visions, but you can’t do that anymore under the present strategy. Indeed, the whole spirit of the quasi-conventionalist approach seems to be in tension with allowing such a modal element into the mix.

In sum, there is reason to suspect that iterated modality, and the failure of any existing version of Sider’s approach to cover it, poses a serious threat to Sider’s approach in general.

4. Reductivity a bug, not a feature.

Essentially this objection is raised against Sider’s theory by Merricks (2013). The objection is simply that, if we have reason to think that a modal notion like that of necessity de dicto cannot be reduced to non-modal notions, or if we just intuitively feel that to be right, then we should on that score alone be suspicious of Sider’s theory, since it purports to give a reduction. In making this objection, Merricks cites an argument he gives elsewhere (namely in Chapter 5 of his (2007)) for the conclusion that such modal notions indeed cannot be reduced to non-modal ones.

5. Questionable motivation.

As we said at the outset, Sider’s account is partly motivated by general puzzlement about modality, and partly by a metaphysical vision. Both these facets of the motivation can be made the focus of criticism. The following is not supposed to constitute a sharp, incisive objection, but rather to cast some doubt on these general features of Sider’s approach.

Regarding general puzzlement: yes, modality is puzzling to philosophers. But perhaps this puzzlement is not to be treated exclusively by means of reduction (or, for that matter, by ‘if and only if’ analysis whether modally reductive or not). Indeed, pursuing reduction can even be seen as pursuing an easy way out - albeit one which may be impossible in principle. Perhaps the only real way forward, with parts of our puzzlement at least, is, rather than trying to reduce modality to non-modal terms, to work on our way of looking at modal concepts themselves, using philosophical methods other than reductive analysis. (One method which comes to mind is the method, due to Wittgenstein, of imagining simplified language games and comparing and contrasting them to ours. In the Brown Book some steps are taken towards doing this with modality, but only cursorily. I mention this to give a particularly concrete and well-known example of a possibly helpful method, but this is just one among many - I do not mean to suggest it could suffice all by itself.) Non-modally-reductive accounts of necessity de dicto such as mine do not face this criticism, since they do not aim to clear up all of our puzzlement about modality, or even just some core of it, by means of an ‘if and only if’ style analysis. Nor do they aim even to point the way to such a clearing up. By being less ambitious on that front, they offer a more realistic hope of genuine theoretical progress on our understanding of de dicto modal notions - how they relate to other notions both modal and non-modal.

Regarding the metaphysical vision: it is beyond the scope of this post to criticize Sider’s Hume-influenced, Lewis-influenced metaphysical vision head-on. But we may note that, insofar as there may be grave problems with this sort of metaphysics for all we know given the present state of philosophical inquiry - nothing of the sort may be tenable, ultimately - there may also be problems with a highly ambitious approach to modality which is in service of this sort of metaphysics. More generally, perhaps there is reason to be dubious of any approach to modality based upon a metaphysical vision. One reason may be that the vision is, so to speak, too antecedent to modal considerations: perhaps one should let modal considerations shape one’s approach to metaphysical questions, rather than trying to explain modality (away, if you like) in terms of an approach to metaphysical questions which had its appeal quite apart from, or even in spite of, modal considerations. Another reason may be that the best way to make theoretical progress on the notion of necessity de dicto is to keep sweeping metaphysical visions out of it. We may do better to instead treat our topic along broadly logical lines. One way this may help is that it might free us up to throw a wider variety of conceptual resources at the problem - for instance, semantic notions or other modal notions which may seem problematic against some special metaphysical backdrop but are actually quite in order.

That concludes our list of objections or worries. For two further objections, see Merricks (2013).

I think the cumulative effect of the objections canvassed above should be for us to regard Sider’s theory as highly problematic. But note that none of these objections threaten (Schema). This raises the question: what if these were a more soberly motivated, more theoretically satisfying (Schema)-embodying account available? Some other candidate for the condition C in (Schema) which avoids these objections?

Merricks, Trenton (2007). Truth and Ontology. Oxford University Press.
Merricks, Trenton (2013). Three Comments on Writing the Book of the World. Analysis 73 (4):722-736.
Sider, Theodore (2003). Reductive theories of modality. In Michael J. Loux & Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. Oxford University Press 180-208.
Sider, Theodore (2011). Writing the Book of the World. Oxford University Press.
Sider, Theodore (2013). Symposium on Writing the Book of the World. Analysis 73 (4):751-770.

No comments:

Post a Comment