Monday, 11 September 2017

A New Account of the Conditions Under Which a Proposition is Necessary

The previous posts were quite raw and had me wrestling with new data. In this post, I try to be clearer and more accessible, and give a first outline of a new account of necessity that has emerged from my research on these topics. 

My old account of necessity was:

A proposition is necessarily true iff it is, or is implied by, a proposition which is both inherently counterfactually invariant (ICI) and true.

A proposition P is ICI iff  P's negation does not appear in any (genuine) counterfactual scenario description for which P is held true.

(I.e. if you hold P true, then you won't produce (genuine) CSDs in that capacity (of holding P to be true) according to which not-P.)

(You might wonder about what exactly a CSD is and what it takes for one to be genuine, but this will not be our focus here.)

This account nicely handles an example like 'Hesperus is Phosphorus or my hat is on the table'. This proposition isn't itself ICI - after all, you can hold it true by holding it true that my hat is on the table but Hesperus is not Phosphorus, and in that case you'd be prepared to produce CSDs in which it's false. But it is implied by a true ICI proposition, namely 'Hesperus is Phosphorus'.

The account also handles more complicated cases where there is no component ICI proposition (as there happens to be in the last example). It is enough that a true ICI proposition implies the necessary truth we are interested in.

But this account recently fell, due initially to an example from Jens Kipper (discussed in recent posts here). The example is 'Air is airy'. The point of this sentence is that it denotes something which isn't a natural kind - i.e. has no particular underlying nature - and predicates of it its superficial properties. Since, as it turns out, air isn't a natural kind, 'Air is airy' is necessarily true; there couldn't have been non-airy air, since, as it turns out, what is is to be air is just to be airy. If on the other hand air had turned out to have an underlying nature, like water does, we would regard 'Air is airy' as contingent, like we do 'Water is watery'; there could have been non-watery water, i.e. H20 in a situation where it isn't watery. 

The problem for my old account is that 'Air is airy' is necessarily true, but it is neither ICI nor is it implied by an ICI true proposition. 

(After the Kipper example, I have also come upon an example due to Strohminger and Yli-Vakkuri: 'Dylan is at least as tall as Zimmerman'. Since Dylan is Zimmerman, this is necessary. But it isn't ICI, since you could hold it true while holding that Dylan and Zimmerman are distinct. With this example, you could try to save my account by maintaining that - in a rich sense of 'implies' - this troublesome example is implied by 'Dylan is Zimmerman' (which is true and ICI), so my account gives the right answer after all, provided we have the rich sense of 'implies' on board. But I see little point in this, as this trick doesn't help with 'Air is airy'.)

What I think all this shows is that, in our analysis of necessity, we need, not the notion of implication, but more specialised relevant relationships between propositions. In particular, we need to consider when the truth of a proposition P would make a proposition Q necessary. Or, for a more penetrating analysis, when P would make Q counterfactually invariant.

Let's say that P is a positive counterfactual invariance decider for Q iff Q does not vary across genuine CSDs for which P is held true.

(A proposition P varies across a bunch of CSDs iff it is true according to some of them but not according to others.)

So, for example, 'Hesperus is Phosphorus' is its own positive CI decider; if you hold it true, then, in that capacity of holding it true, you won't produce any genuine CSDs according to which Hesperus is not Phosphorus. ('Hesperus is not Phosphorus' is also a positive CI decider for 'Hesperus is Phosphorus', although it happens to not be true.) But really, these are vacuous cases; since 'Hesperus is Phosphorus' and 'Hesperus is not Phosphorus' are inherently counterfactually invariant, any proposition you like counts (on the above definitions, which may not be optimal) as a positive CI decider for these.

(UPDATE 26/10/2017: This last claim is false. Some random proposition like 'Snow is white' actually doesn't count as a positive CI decider for 'Hesperus is Phosphorus', since you might hold it true but not hold 'Hesperus is Phosphorus' true. If CI deciderhood had been defined by referring to the genuine CSDs in which P (the potential decider) and Q (the potentially decided) are held true, rather than just P. )

The notion comes into its own with non-ICI propositions:

'Hesperus is Phosphorus' a positive CI decider for 'Hesperus is Phosphorus or my hat is on the table'; if you hold the former true, you won't let the latter vary across CSDs.

'Hesperus is not Phosphorus' is a negative CI decider for 'Hesperus is Phosphorus or my hat is on the table'; if you hold the former true, you will let the latter vary across CSDs (depending on whether my hat is on the table or not in the scenarios being described).

'Hesperus is Phosphorus' is a negative CI decider for 'Hesperus is not Phosphorus or my hat is on the table', and 'Hesperus is not Phosphorus' is a positive CI decider for 'Hesperus is not Phosphorus or my hat is on the table'.

Furthermore, this apparatus gives us good things to say about Kipper's counterexample to my old account:

'Air is not a natural kind' is a positive CI decider for 'Air is airy'; if you hold the former true, then the latter won't vary across CSDs.

(UPDATE 26/10/17: This last claim may be faulty, because you could perhaps hold 'Air is not a natural kind' true and also hold 'Air is not airy' true. This depends on how 'airy' is defined - is it part of its meaning that to be airy is to have the actual properties that air has, whatever those are? Then maybe you couldn't really coherently hold it false. But if it's defined in terms of a list of properties that we think air has, then you could get all skeptical the way Kripke does with cats and hold it true that air actually doesn't have these properties and it's some elaborate ruse which makes us think it does. This could be gotten around by narrowing our attention in the definition of positive CI deciderhood to genuine CSDs where, not just P (the potential decider) is held true, but also Q (the potentially decided). However, I don't think that this is required to save the analysis as formulated in this post, since we can just give up on 'Air is not a natural kind' itself being a CI decider (at least all by itself) of 'Air is airy' and instead appeal to 'All there is to being air is to be airy' or even just 'Air is airy and is not a natural kind'.)

(Likewise for the Strohminger/Yli-Vakkuri example: 'Dylan is Zimmerman' is a positive CI decider for 'Dylan is at least as tall as Zimmerman'.)

I think a good account of necessity can now be given as follows:

A proposition is necessary (i.e. necessarily true or necessarily false) iff it has a true positive CI decider.

Note: it seems plausible that CI deciderhood is an a priori tractable matter; whether some P is a CI decider for some Q, and if so whether it is a positive or a negative decider, seem to be the sort of thing we can work out a priori. What we might not be able to know a priori is the truth-values of P and Q.

I will keep working on the best way to present this sort of approach, but I think the essentials are now in place.

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