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Modal Epistemology

Edited by Anand Vaidya (San Jose State University)
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Summary Modal epistemology investigates the question: how do we know what is possible and what is necessary?  Metaphysical modality is the main kind of modality that is investigated here. There are five main subquestions in the area: (i) The metaphysical question: what is metaphysical modality? What is it for something to be metaphysically necessary or possible? How is metaphysical modality related to logical and physical modality? (ii) The intentional question: how is that we can have beliefs about what is metaphysically necessary and metaphysically possible?  (iii) The methodological question: what ways, if any, are there for forming reasonable beliefs and / or arriving at knowledge of metaphysical modality? (iv) The psychological question: what methods do we typically use in forming beliefs about metaphysical modality.  (iv) The normative question: how should we go about forming and justifying beliefs about metaphysical modality? Some the leading theories are the following: (a) metaphysical modality is identical to logical modality, it is a priori accessible, and we can use conceivability as guide for forming beliefs about metaphysical modality.  (b) metaphysical modality is identical to physical modality, it is neither a priori nor a posteriori, and we can use counterfactual reasoning in imagination to form beliefs about metaphysical modality. (c) metaphysical modality is neither reducible to logical nor physical modality, it is a priori accessible, but neither conceivability nor counterfactual reasoning is our basic guide. Rather, we come to know about metaphysical modality by reasoning from the essences of entities.  
Key works Historically Descartes defended a rationalist approach to our knowledge of possibility and necessity, while Hume defended an empiricist approach. In recent literature the dominant tradition of exploring the epistemology of modality has been rationalist. The key works in this tradition can be divided base on what kind of account is being offered. For general discussion of the epistemology of modality see Hale 2002. For conceivability-based accounts see Yablo 1993Tidman 1994Chalmers 2002. For skepticism about the epistemology of modality see Van Inwagen 1998. For understanding-based accounts see Bealer 2002 and Peacocke 1999. For counterfactual accounts see Williamson 2009. For essence-based accounts see Lowe 2012.
Introductions For an overview of contemporary research on the epistemology of modality, see Vaidya 2007.
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  1. Duško Prelević (2015). Modal Empiricism and Knowledge of De Re Possibilities: A Critique of Roca-Royes' Account. Organon F: Medzinárodný Časopis Pre Analytickú Filozofiu 22 (4):488–498.
    Accounting for our knowledge of de re modalities is probably the main reason why the proponents of modal empiricism think that their view should be preferred to modal rationalism. In this paper, I address Sonia Roca-Royes' account, which is taken to be a representative modal empiricist view, in order to show that modal empiricism faces serious problems even in explaining our knowledge of possibility de re, something which seems to be the easiest thing to explain on this view. I argue (...)
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  2. Duško Prelević (2015). Zombies Slap Back: Why the Anti-Zombie Parody Does Not Work. Disputatio 7 (40):25–43.
    In his ‘anti-zombie argument’, Keith Frankish turns the tables on ‘zombists’, forcing them to find an independent argument against the conceivability of anti-zombies. I argue that zombists can shoulder the burden, for there is an important asymmetry between the conceivability of zombies and the conceivability of anti-zombies, which is reflected in the embedding of a totality-clause under the conceivability operator. This makes the anti-zombie argument susceptible to what I call the ‘Modified Incompleteness’, according to which we cannot conceive of scenarios. (...)
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  3. Barbara Vetter (forthcoming). Williamsonian Modal Epistemology, Possibility-Based. Canadian Journal of Philosophy:1-30.
    Williamsonian modal epistemology is characterized by two commitments: realism about modality, and anti-exceptionalism about our modal knowledge. Williamson’s own counterfactual-based modal epistemology is the best known implementation of WME, but not the only option that is available. I sketch and defend an alternative implementation which takes our knowledge of metaphysical modality to arise, not from knowledge of counterfactuals, but from our knowledge of ordinary possibility statements of the form ‘x can F’. I defend this view against a criticism indicated in (...)
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Conceivability, Imagination, and Possibility
  1. Torin Alter (2002). Nagel on Imagination and Physicalism. Journal of Philosophical Research 27:143-58.
    In "What is it Like to be a Bat?" Thomas Nagel argues that we cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat or presently understand how physicalism might be true. Both arguments have been seriously misunderstood. I defend them against various objections, point out a problem with the argument against physicalism, and show how the problem can be solved.
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  2. Thomas Atkinson (forthcoming). Conceivability, Possibility and the Resurrection of Material Beings. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion:1-18.
    In his 1998 postscript to ‘The Possibility of Resurrection’ Peter van Inwagen argues that the scenario he describes by which God might resurrect a human organism, even though probably not true, is still conceivable and, consequently, ‘serves to establish a possibility’, namely, the metaphysical possibility of the resurrection of material beings. Van Inwagen, however, has also argued in favour of ‘modal scepticism’ [van Inwagen in, God, knowledge and mystery: essays in philosophical theology, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1995b, pp. 11–12; van (...)
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  3. Andrew R. Bailey, The Unsoundness of Arguments From Conceivability.
    It is widely suspected that arguments from conceivability, at least in some of their more notorious instances, are unsound. However, the reasons for the failure of conceivability arguments are less well agreed upon, and it remains unclear how to distinguish between sound and unsound instances of the form. In this paper I provide an analysis of the form of arguments from conceivability, and use this analysis to diagnose a systematic weakness in the argument form which reveals all its instances to (...)
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  4. John Robert Baker (1983). On the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence. Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 (2):313-320.
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  5. Thomas Baldwin (1998). Modal Fictionalism and the Imagination. Analysis 58 (2):72–75.
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  6. Gerald W. Barnes (2002). Conceivability, Explanation, and Defeat. Philosophical Studies 108 (3):327-338.
    Hill and Levine offer alternative explanations of these conceivabilities, concluding that these conceivabilities are thereby defeated as evidence. However, this strategy fails because their explanations generalize to all conceivability judgments concerning phenomenal states. Consequently, one could defend absolutely any theory of phenomenal states against conceivability arguments in just this way. This result conflicts with too many of our common sense beliefs about the evidential value of conceivability with respect to phenomenal states. The general moral is that the application of such (...)
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  7. Gordon Barnes (2002). Conceivability, Explanation, and Defeat. Philosophical Studies 108 (3):327 - 338.
    Christopher Hill and Joseph Levine have argued that the conceivabilities involved in anti-materialist arguments are defeated as evidence of possibility. Their strategy assumes the following principle: the conceivability of a state of affairs S constitutes evidence for the possibility of S only if the possibility of S is the best explanation of the conceivability of S. So if there is a better explanation of the conceivability of S than its possibility, then the conceivability of S is thereby defeated as evidence (...)
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  8. Gordon Prescott Barnes (2007). Necessity and Apriority. Philosophical Studies 132 (3):495 - 523.
    The classical view of the relationship between necessity and apriority, defended by Leibniz and Kant, is that all necessary truths are known a priori. The classical view is now almost universally rejected, ever since Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam discovered that there are necessary truths that are known only a posteriori. However, in recent years a new debate has emerged over the epistemology of these necessary a posteriori truths. According to one view – call it the neo-classical view – knowledge (...)
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  9. Nora Berenstain (2014). Necessary Laws and Chemical Kinds. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92 (4):631-647.
    Contingentism, generally contrasted with law necessitarianism, is the view that the laws of nature are contingent. It is often coupled with the claim that their contingency is knowable a priori. This paper considers Bird's [2001, 2002, 2005, 2007] arguments for the thesis that, necessarily, salt dissolves in water; and it defends his view against Beebee's [2001] and Psillos's [2002] contingentist objections. A new contingentist objection is offered and several reasons for scepticism about its success are raised. It is concluded that (...)
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  10. Ben Blumson (2015). Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 39 (1):46-57.
    This paper argues: (1) All knowledge from fiction is from imagination (2) All knowledge from imagination is modal knowledge (3) So, all knowledge from fiction is modal knowledge Moreover, some knowledge is from fiction, so (1)-(3) are non-vacuously true.
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  11. Stephen Boulter (2011). The Medieval Origins of Conceivability Arguments. Metaphilosophy 42 (5):617-641.
    The central recommendation of this article is that philosophers trained in the analytic tradition ought to add the sensibilities and skills of the historian to their methodological toolkit. The value of an historical approach to strictly philosophical matters is illustrated by a case study focussing on the medieval origin of conceivability arguments and contemporary views of modality. It is shown that common metaphilosophical views about the nature of the philosophical enterprise as well as certain inference patterns found in thinkers from (...)
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  12. Stephen F. Brown, Thomas Dewender & Theo Kobusch (eds.) (2009). Philosophical Debates at Paris in the Early Fourteenth Century. Brill.
    Focusing on Meister Eckhart, John Duns Scotus, Hervaeus Natalis, Durandus of St.-PourAain, Walter Burley and Petrus Aureoli, this volume investigates the nature ...
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  13. Anthony L. Brueckner (2001). Chalmers' Conceivability Argument for Dualism. Analysis 61 (3):187-193.
    In The Conscious Mind, D. Chalmers appeals to his semantic framework in order to show that conceivability, as employed in his "zombie" argument for dualism , is sufficient for genuine possibility. I criticize this attempt.
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  14. Stephen Andrew Butterfill (2008). Review: Ruth M. J. Byrne: The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. [REVIEW] Mind 117 (468):1065-1069.
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  15. Alex Byrne (2007). Possibility and Imagination. Philosophical Perspectives 21 (1):125–144.
  16. Ruth M. J. Byrne (2005). The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. MIT Press.
    A leading scholar in the psychology of thinking and reasoning argues that the counterfactual imagination—the creation of "if only" alternatives to ...
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  17. Ross Cameron, Response to Dominic Gregory’s ‘Conceivability and Apparent Possibility’.
    forthcoming in a collection of papers (from OUP, edited by Bob Hale) given at the Arché modality conference, St Andrews University, 7th-9th June 2006.
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  18. Roberto Casati (ed.) (1998). European Review of Philosophy, Volume 3: Response-Dependence. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
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  19. A. Casullo (2010). Knowledge and Modality. Synthese 172 (3):341 - 359.
    Kripke claims that there are necessary a posteriori truths and contingent a priori truths. These claims challenge the traditional Kantian view that (K) All knowledge of necessary truths is a priori and all a priori knowledge is of necessary truths. Kripke’s claims continue to be resisted, which indicates that the Kantian view remains attractive. My goal is to identify the most plausible principles linking the epistemic and the modal. My strategy for identifying the principles is to investigate two related questions. (...)
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  20. Albert Casullo (1975). Conceivability and Possibility. Ratio 17 (1):118-121.
    The purpose of this article is to defend Hume's claim that whatever is conceivable is possible from a criticism by William Kneale. Kneale argues that although a mathematician can conceive of the falsehood of the Goldbach conjecture, he does not conclude that it is not necessarily true. The author suggests that by taking into account Hume's distinction between intuitive and demonstrative knowledge, a revised version of his claim can be offered which is not open to Kneale's criticism.
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  21. David J. Chalmers, Mind and Modality.
    What follows are compressed versions of three lectures on the subject of "Mind and Modality", given at Princeton University the week of October 12-16, 1998. The first two form a series; the third stands alone to some extent. All are philosophically technical, and probably of interest mainly to philosophers. I hope that they make sense, at least to those familiar with my book _The Conscious Mind_ . Lecture 1 recapitulates some of the material in the book in a somewhat different (...)
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  22. David J. Chalmers (2004). Epistemic Two-Dimensional Semantics. Philosophical Studies 118 (1-2):153-226.
  23. David J. Chalmers (2004). Imagination, Indexicality, and Intensions. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68 (1):182-90.
    John Perry's book Knowledge, Possibility, and Consciousness is a lucid and engaging defense of a physicalist view of consciousness against various anti-physicalist arguments. In what follows, I will address Perry's responses to the three main anti-physicalist arguments he discusses: the zombie argument , the knowledge argument , and the modal argument.
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  24. David J. Chalmers (2002). Does Conceivability Entail Possibility? In Tamar S. Gendler & John Hawthorne (eds.), Conceivability and Possibility. Oxford University Press 145--200.
    There is a long tradition in philosophy of using a priori methods to draw conclusions about what is possible and what is necessary, and often in turn to draw conclusions about matters of substantive metaphysics. Arguments like this typically have three steps: first an epistemic claim , from there to a modal claim , and from there to a metaphysical claim.
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  25. David J. Chalmers (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford University Press.
    The book is an extended study of the problem of consciousness. After setting up the problem, I argue that reductive explanation of consciousness is impossible , and that if one takes consciousness seriously, one has to go beyond a strict materialist framework. In the second half of the book, I move toward a positive theory of consciousness with fundamental laws linking the physical and the experiential in a systematic way. Finally, I use the ideas and arguments developed earlier to defend (...)
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  26. Bowman L. Clarke (1980). Beard on the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence. Southern Journal of Philosophy 18 (4):501-507.
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  27. Daniel Cohnitz, The Logic of Negative Conceivability.
    Analytic epistemology is traditionally interested in rational reconstructions of cognitive pro- cesses. The purpose of these rational reconstructions is to make plain how a certain cognitive process might eventually result in knowledge or justi?ed beliefs, etc., if we pre-theoretically think that we have such knowledge or such justi?ed beliefs. Typically a rational reconstruction assumes some unproblematic basis of knowledge and some justi?cation-preserving inference pattern and then goes on to show how these two su ce to generate the explicandum.
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  28. Daniel Cohnitz (2012). The Logic(s) of Modal Knowledge. In Greg Restall & Gillian Russell (eds.), New Waves in Philosophical Logic. MacMillan
  29. Daniel Cohnitz (2004). Why Consistentism Won’T Work. In E. Weber & T. DeMey (eds.), Modal Epistemology. Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van Belgie Vor Wetenschappen En Kunsten
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  30. Phil Corkum (2012). Meta-Conceivability. Essays in Philosophy 13 (1):12.
    In addition to conceiving of such imaginary scenarios as those involving philosophical zombies, we may conceive of such things being conceived. Call these higher order conceptions ‘meta-conceptions’. Sorensen (2006) holds that one can entertain a meta-conception without thereby conceiving of the embedded lower-order conception. So it seems that I can meta-conceive possibilities which I cannot conceive. If this is correct, then meta-conceptions provide a counter-example to the claim that possibility entails conceivability. Moreover, some of Sorensen’s discussion suggests the following argument: (...)
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  31. Paul F. Dhooghe & Guido Peeters (1992). The Principle of the Topological Localization of Symbols and the Meaning of the Ultimate-Meaning-a Contribution From the Human Behavioral and Social-Sciences. Ultimate Reality and Meaning 15 (4):296-305.
    A topological model of elementary semiotic schemes is presented. Implications are discussed with respect to the establishment of abstract terms and the search for ultimate meaning.
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  32. John Divers (2004). Review: Conceivability and Possibility. [REVIEW] Mind 113 (450):347-351.
  33. Daniel Dohrn (2010). Hume on Knowledge of Metaphysical Modalities. Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 13.
    I outline Hume’s views about conceivability evidence. Then I critically scrutinize two threats to conceivability-based modal epistemology. Both arise from Hume’s criticism of claims to knowing necessary causal relationships: Firstly, a sceptical stance towards causal necessity may carry over to necessity claims in general. Secondly, since – according to a sceptical realist reading – Hume grants the eventuality of causal powers grounded in essential features of objects, conceivability-based claims to comprehensive metaphysical possibilities seem endangered. I argue that although normal conceivability-based (...)
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  34. Fabian Dorsch (forthcoming). Knowledge by Imagination - How Imaginative Experience Can Ground Knowledge. Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy.
    In this article, I defend the view that we can acquire factual knowledge – that is, contingent propositional knowledge about certain (perceivable) aspects of reality – on the basis of imaginative experience. More specifically, I argue that, under suitable circumstances, imaginative experiences can rationally determine the propositional content of knowledge-constituting beliefs – though not their attitude of belief – in roughly the same way as perceptual experiences do in the case of perceptual knowledge. I also highlight some philosophical consequences of (...)
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  35. Fabian Dorsch (2016). Hume. In Amy Kind (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination. Routledge 40-54.
    This chapter overviews Hume’s thoughts on the nature and role of imagining and focusses primarily on three important distinctions that Hume draws among our conscious mental episodes: (i) between impressions and ideas; (ii) between ideas of the memory and ideas of the imagination; and (iii), among the ideas of the imagination, between ideas of the judgement and ideas of the fancy. In addition, the chapter considers Hume’s views on the imagination as a faculty of producing ideas, as well as on (...)
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  36. Fabian Dorsch (2015). Hume on the Imagination. Rero Doc Digital Library:1-28.
    This is the original, longer draft for my entry on Hume in the 'The Routledge Hand- book of Philosophy of Imagination', edited by Amy Kind and published by Routledge in 2016 (see the separate entry). — Please always cite the Routledge version, unless there are passages concerned that did not make it into the Handbook for reasons of length. — -/- This chapter overviews Hume’s thoughts on the nature and the role of imagining, with an almost exclusive focus on the (...)
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  37. Maurizio Ferraris & Achille C. Varzi (2013). Hylas e Philonous dieci anni dopo. SpazioFilosofico 8 (2):219–227.
    This is a sequel to our dialogue "Che cosa c'è e che cos'è (2003), focusing on the interplay between what there is and what there could be—between actuality and possibility—from the perspective of Hylas (here: the realist philosopher) and from the perspective of Philonous (here: the conventionalist anti-realist).
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  38. M. Oreste Fiocco (2007). Conceivability and Epistemic Possibility. Erkenntnis 67 (3):387-399.
    The notion of conceivability has traditionally been regarded as crucial to an account of modal knowledge. Despite its importance to modal epistemology, there is no received explication of conceivability. In recent discussions, some have attempted to explicate the notion in terms of epistemic possibility. There are, however, two notions of epistemic possibility, a more familiar one and a novel one. I argue that these two notions are independent of one another. Both are irrelevant to an account of modal knowledge on (...)
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  39. M. Oreste Fiocco (2007). Conceivability, Imagination and Modal Knowledge. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (2):364-380.
    The notion of conceivability has traditionally been regarded as crucial to an account of modal knowledge. Despite its importance to modal epistemology, there is no received explication of conceivability. One purpose of this paper is to argue that the notion is not fruitfully explicated in terms of the imagination. The most natural way of presenting a notion of conceivability qua imaginability is open to cogent criticism. In order to avoid such criticism, an advocate of the modal insightfulness of the imagination (...)
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  40. Robert William Fischer (2015). Theory Selection in Modal Epistemology. American Philosophical Quarterly 52 (3):289-304.
    Accounts of modal knowledge are many and varied. How should we choose between them? I propose that we employ inference to the best explanation, and I suggest that there are three desiderata that we should use to rank hypotheses: conservatism, simplicity, and the ability to handle disagreement. After examining these desiderata, I contend that they can’t be used to justify belief in the modal epistemology that fares best, but that they can justify our accepting it in an epistemically significant sense. (...)
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  41. Robert William Fischer & Felipe Leon (2016). The Modal-Knowno Problem. Southwest Philosophy Review 32 (1):225-232.
  42. Antony Flew (1985). 'Personal Identity and Imagination': One Objection. Philosophy 60 (231):123 - 126.
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  43. George S. Fullerton (1886). Conceivability and the Infinite. Mind 11 (42):186-202.
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  44. M. J. García-Encinas (2015). The Role of Intuition in Metaphysics. Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34 (3):79-99.
    In this paper I consider the possibility of a kind of a priori cognition that serves the purposes of metaphysics, given that metaphysics involves the search for modal knowledge. Necessary or, better, modal knowledge is a priori; so metaphysical knowledge is likewise a priori. Here I argue that intuition is the route to modal knowledge in metaphysics, and I insist that conceivability or knowledge of conceptual truths does not lead towards the modal realm of metaphysics.
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  45. Heimir Geirsson (2005). Conceivability and Defeasible Modal Justification. Philosophical Studies 122 (3):279-304.
    This paper advances the thesis that we can justifiably believe philosophically interesting possibility statements. The first part of the paper critically discusses van Inwagens skeptical arguments while at the same time laying some of the foundation for a positive view. The second part of the paper advances a view of conceivability in terms of imaginability, where imaginging can be propositional, pictorial, or a combination of the two, and argues that conceivability can, and often does, provide us with justified beliefs of (...)
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  46. Tamar Gendler (2010). Intuition, Imagination, and Philosophical Methodology. Oxford University Press.
    In this volume, Tamar Gendler draws together fourteen essays that together illuminate this topic. Three intertwined themes connect the essays.
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  47. Tamar Szabó Gendler & John Hawthorne (eds.) (2002). Conceivability and Possibility. Oxford University Press.
    The capacity to represent things to ourselves as possible plays a crucial role both in everyday thinking and in philosophical reasoning; this volume offers much-needed philosophical illumination of conceivability, possibility, and the relations between them.
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