Thursday 25 April 2019

Williamson's Metaphysical Modal Epistemology and Vacuism about Counterpossibles

Timothy Williamson has argued that our capacity for metaphysical modal judgement comes along with our capacity for counterfactual judgement. This passage gives a flavour of his view:
Humans evolved under no pressure to do philosophy. Presumably, survival and reproduction in the Stone Age depended little on philosophical prowess, dialectical skill being no more effective then than now as a seduction technique and in any case dependent on a hearer already equipped to recognize it. Any cognitive capacity we have for philosophy is a more or less accidental byproduct of other developments. Nor are psychological dispositions that are non-cognitive outside philosophy likely suddenly to become cognitive within it. We should expect cognitive capacities used in philosophy to be cases of general cognitive capacities used in ordinary life, perhaps trained, developed, and systematically applied in various special ways, just as the cognitive capacities that we use in mathematics and natural science are rooted in more primitive cognitive capacities to perceive, imagine, correlate, reason, discuss… In particular, a plausible non-skeptical epistemology of metaphysical modality should subsume our capacity to discriminate metaphysical possibilities from metaphysical impossibilities under more general cognitive capacities used in general life. I will argue that the ordinary cognitive capacity to handle counterfactual carries with it the cognitive capacity to handle metaphysical modality. (Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy (2007), p. 136. Found in Section 3 of the SEP article 'The Epistemology of Modality'.)
In order to argue for this, Williamson takes a schematic semantic story about counterfactual conditionals:
Where “A>B” express “If it were that A, it would be that B”, (CC) gives the truth conditions for subjunctive conditionals: A subjunctive conditional “A>C” is true at a possible world w just in case either (i) A is true at no possible world or (ii) some possible world at which both A and C are true is more similar to w than any possible world at which both A and ¬C are true.(Formulation from Sec 3 of the SEP article.)
On the basis of this, he proves the following equivalences:

(NEC) □A if and only if (¬A>⊥)
It is necessary that A if and only if were ¬A true, a contradiction would follow.

(POS) ◊A if and only if ¬(A>⊥)
It is possible that A if and only if it is not the case that were A true, a contradiction would follow.

(Renderings and spellings out from the SEP article. The box and diamond are metaphysical modal operators, and the falsum - which looks like an upside-down 'T' - represents a contradiction.)

But this only works because the schematic theory of counterfactuals Williamson adopts is understood as working against a background of a notion possible worlds, where Williamson understands this as the notion of metaphysically possible worlds. This theory deems true all counterfactuals with metaphysically impossible antecedents, and this is crucial to his demonstation of the equivalences on the basis of his assumed schematic theory.

There are lots of reasons not to adopt a theory of counterfactuals which uses the notion of metaphysical possibility in this way. One reason to move away from a theory like this is if you think that there are counterpossibles - counterfactual conditionals with metaphysically impossible antecedents - which have their truth-values non-vacuously. But you might be agnostic about that. For instance, you might be happy with metaphysical modal distinctions but doubt that there are any clear cases where countepossibles have truth-values non-vacuously. In that case you might see no good reason for the backdrop of worlds or scenarios in a theory of counterfactuals to be exactly the metaphysically possible ones. Or, you might be skeptical about the very distinction between metaphysical possibility and impossibility, in which case you won't want to understand the backdrop in a way that involves that distinction. And it seems that you can get most, or even all, of the theoretical benefits of a Stalnaker-Lewis approach to counterfactuals without using that distinction. It doesn't really seem to play a starring role in the theories. 

If a semantic theory for counterfactuals which does not draw on any bright line between metaphysically possible and metaphysically impossible scenarios is as good or better than the theory that Williamson uses to prove his equivalences, that seriously undermines the equivalences, and in turn Williamson's story about how we get metaphysical modal knowledge.

(And note that this turns on Williamson's understanding his chosen theory so that 'possible world' means 'metaphysically possible world' - even accepting an identically worded theory, but where 'possible world' is understood in a way which does not involve the distinction between metaphysical possibility and impossibility, would make Williamson's equivalences unavailable.)

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