Thursday 4 October 2018

Notes on Modality II - "Deserving the name", the grandeur of the idea of metaphysical modality, &c.

I want to explore a 'no clear best deserver' view of the - very inchoate - role that the distinction between (metaphysically) necessary vs. contingent truths is supposed to play.

The idea is that once you drill down in the borderlands, you see that there are different ways of going.

So no clear best deserver. But also: it's not clear that anything is a good enough deserver.

The 'no clear best deserver' hypothesis raises questions: why wouldn't everyone agree? Why would this be news?

One reason might be that there really is a best desever. Or that it seemed like there was a clear best but on further reflection there are competitors and it's not clear that any one has the edge. But I think there's more to say about why this might be news. There is something very natural about thinking that there is some single distinction here. There is a strong inclination to think that there some one major, fundamental distinction between the truths that could have been otherwise and the ones that couldn't. 

So if there is a sense in which this is not so - or if we want to be circumspect about it - we could try to tell a positive story about how this comes about.

Also, it is important to remind ourselves that the strong inclination I am speaking of may not be universal, or even normal. (Think of people who encounter this philosophical discourse, feel vaguely skeptical, maybe kind of interested but not particularly compelled, don't sign up for any view in particular, or flirt with some unusual view (an undergrad fellow student of mine defended the view that all truths are necessary in a course essay), and simply move on with their lives and don't ever really think about the matter, except as something some people are concerned with.)

But, at the same time: it's not just some specific problem in some particular subliterature. Versions of it, or closely related things, come up in philosophy at many times and places. And I have the feeling that it springs from a kind of root that also gives rise to certain philosophical thoughts and frames of mind that all sorts of people have.

So, how might it come about? Perhaps: Some kind of drive towards systematic understanding run rampant. Desire to see world as mechanism with discrete states. And the point isn't that that's naive, or probably not true after all, or something like that. But one issue here may be: why should there be one clear best way of seeing the world that way? 

It is possible to get into a frame of mind where it seems like there must in some sense be a single or primary set of facts about the possible states of the world, if there really is a world at all. It is like Wittgenstein's demand for substance, for eternal objects, in the Tractatus. It can seem like if the thing you're demanding weren't so, there would be no world at all, or nothing would be true.

There's something here I want to say in connection with this 'no clear best deserver' idea, along the lines of: how little is said when the idea of metaphysical modality is introduced! How could there be enough specific information there - in phrases like 'really could have been that way' - to narrow things right down to a particular, clear distinction!  It feels completely "lay", really quite free of theory (but of course you can theorise about 'really' or formulate it in terms of 'some fundamental sense' and then theorise about that).

But on the other hand, isn't that a bit fallacious? Can't specific, detailed things come out of arrangements of ordinary, quite general concepts? And don't, for example, specific seeds produce specific trees, despite being so small?

So this thought needs to be stated carefully. There's not some general rule here that's being appealed to. Still I think there's a point here, a way to see something  - a way to break the grip of something.

The words and associated ideas we're using here are quite flexible things, on reflection. 'Things', 'really', 'could'.

You might say there's a kind of naive level of "buying into" the idea of this one major distinction between contingent and necessary truths. Just not thinking about it too much. But then if you've thought about it and seen it threatened or scoffed at or considered uninteresting, but still want to pursue it - OK, now you're after something. Now you have a dream, I feel like saying.

I think, awkward as it is to talk about, there is really no getting away from the fact that there's something fantastic about the idea, something grand. '"How things really could have been" - what could be more interesting than that?!'

* * *

Consider Kripke's suggestive remark at the end of Naming and Necessity about leaving open the extent to which metaphysical modality will turn out to be closer to physical than suspected.

It's remarkable how little investigation or facing up there has been to the issue of how such a thing might be decided. (Williamson talks about 'detailed theoretical investigation' but I can't help but feeling that this is a kind of mirage, like how Russell and the early Wittgenstein palmed off the question of what the logical atoms will turn out to be.)

Decades later, we seem to just have different viewpoints - some rationalists who are far from thinking it coincides more with physical possibility than you might think, and others who are captured by the idea of empirical insight into hard limits (due to what seems to me a kind of misinterpretation of the necessary a posteriori, but working out where the stand offs there lie would be good).

The picture I have now is this: there's a certain inchoate role, inchoate requirement or job description for this idea of the ways things really could have been (metaphysically), and then it recedes into the background when we look at cases and theories. But this needs to be scrutinised more, and this will shed light on skepticism about the notion, and on different positive views.

I don't mind if you settle on a best deserver and are happy with it, but I will want to be clear that this is what is happening, and be wary of an alternative way of thinking about the matter as something which has been investigated and a view found correct. <-- Inadequate, but there is an important feeling here that I don't want any smoke and mirrors.

A large part of the worry is: that this process of coming to rest upon a choice of best deserver gets misrepresented as investigation into how things could have been. A failure to distinguish between getting to a concept and investigating what it applies to. But there are dangers with this hypothesis too.

'Philosophers framed the question of how things really could have been, and detailed philosophical research has led to a convergence on the view that this turns out to be a matter of ...'

In terms of what we want from the term, what gives it its life and feeling of importance - this is so easy to write off as a trifling, preliminary thing. Almost indecent to talk about. But it is very important. And it's amazing how far it reaches, so to speak.