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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 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. 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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  2. Otávio Bueno & Scott A. Shalkowski (2014). Modalism and Theoretical Virtues: Toward an Epistemology of Modality. Philosophical Studies 172 (3):671-689.
    According to modalism, modality is primitive. In this paper, we examine the implications of this view for modal epistemology, and articulate a modalist account of modal knowledge. First, we discuss a theoretical utility argument used by David Lewis in support of his claim that there is a plurality of concrete worlds. We reject this argument, and show how to dispense with possible worlds altogether. We proceed to account for modal knowledge in modalist terms.
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  3. W. R. Carter (2004). Reflections on Non-Naturalized Necessity. Philo 7 (2):156-162.
    Modal properties are notorious epistemic trouble-makers. That theme is very much at the heart of Michael Rea’s thesis that the Discovery Problem (roughly, the problem of explaining how we know when ascriptions of modal properties are true) has no naturalistic resolution. That might encourage the thought that supernaturalism will somehow resolve the problem. This paper argues that supernaturalism is unlikely to offer a solution of the Discovery Problem.
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  4. 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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  5. Mauro Ceruti (2009). Il Vincolo E la Possibilità. R. Cortina.
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  6. Filipe Drapeau Vieira Contim & Sébastien Motta (2012). On Modal Knowledge. Philosophia Scientiae 16:3-37.
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  7. David Eferd, Disjunctive Permissions and Epistemic Modality.
    in Modal Content and Modal Knowledge: Essays on the metaphysics and epistemology of modality, Bob Hale (ed), Oxford University Press.
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  8. Robert William Fischer (2013). Lines of Thought: Central Concepts in Cognitive Psychology. Philosophical Psychology (3):1-5.
    (2014). Lines of thought: Central concepts in cognitive psychology. Philosophical Psychology: Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 445-449. doi: 10.1080/09515089.2012.732338.
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  9. Robert William Fischer & Felipe Leon (eds.) (forthcoming). Modal Epistemology After Rationalism. Synthese Library.
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  10. Dana Goswick (2012). Philosophical Methodology in Modal Epistemology. Essays in Philosophy 13 (1):11.
    This paper examines the legitimacy of two common methodologies within philosophy: thought experiments and conceptual analysis. In particular, I examine the uses to which these two methodologies have been put within modal epistemology. I argue that, although both methods can be used to reveal conditional essentialist claims , neither can be used to reveal the de re essentialists claims they’re often taken to reveal.
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  11. Rebecca Hanrahan (2005). Epistemology and Possibility. Dialogue 44 (4):627-652.
    ABSTRACT: Recently the discussion surrounding the conceivability thesis has been less about the link between conceivability and possibility per se and more about the requirements of a successful physicalist program. But before entering this debate it is necessary to consider whether conceivability provides us with even prima facie justification for our modal beliefs. I argue that two methods of conceiving—imagining that p and telling a story about p—can provide us with such justification, but only if certain requirements are met. To (...)
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  12. Stephen Cade Hetherington (1991). Conceivability and Modal Knowledge. In Tamara Horowitz (ed.), Thought Experiments in Science and Philosophy. Rowman and Littlefield.
    I argue for an analysis of conceivability as a form of modal knowledge: to conceive of p's being true is to know that "Possibly, p" is true.
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  13. Peter Kung, Imaginability as a Guide to Possibility.
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  14. Luís Lóia (2012). Miguel RealeMiguel Reale: The Knowledge of Possibility or the Possibility of Knowledge. Cultura:91-98.
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  15. C. G. Prado (1988). Imagination and Justification. The Monist 71 (3):377-388.
  16. Scott A. Shalkowski (2012). Modal Integration. Philosophia Scientiae 16 (2):85-98.
    Chris Daly défend « l'explicationisme », la position selon laquelle l'inférence a la meilleure explication constitue une façon acceptable de justifier une théorie. Il la défend en tentant de justifier la position explicationiste par ses propres ressources, c'est-a-dire par elle-même. Je soutiens que dans le contexte de la métaphysique, cette défense échoue. L'explicationiste échoue à se justifier par ses propres ressources et l'une de ses premisses centrales ne peut pas être justifiée uniquement de façon externaliste.Chris Daly defends "explanationism", the view (...)
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  17. Ernest Sosa (2012). Modal and Other a Priori Epistemology. Southern Journal of Philosophy 38 (Supplement):1-16.
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  18. Todd M. Stewart (2012). Comments on Robert Fischer's “Modal Knowledge, in Theory”. Southwest Philosophy Review 28 (2):95-99.
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  19. Margot Strohminger, Knowledge of Modality by Imagining.
    Assertions about metaphysical modality play central roles in philosophical theorizing. For example, when philosophers propose hypothetical counterexamples, they often are making a claim to the effect that some state of affairs is possible. Getting the epistemology of modality right is thus important. Debates have been preoccupied with assessing whether imaginability—or conceivability, insofar as it’s different—is a guide to possibility, or whether it is rather intuitions of possibility—and modal intuitions more generally—that are evidence for possibility claims. The dissertation argues that the (...)
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  20. Alfredo Tomasetta (2008). Esistenza Necessaria E Oggetti Possibili: La Metafisica Modale di Timothy Williamson. Cuem.
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  21. Maarten Van Dyck (2005). The Paradox of Conceptual Novelty and Galileo's Use of Experiments. Philosophy of Science 72 (5):864-875.
    Starting with a discussion of what I call Koyré’s paradox of conceptual novelty, I introduce the ideas of Damerow et al. on the establishment of classical mechanics in Galileo’s work. I then argue that although the view of Damerow et al. on the nature of Galileo’s conceptual innovation is convincing, it misses an essential element: Galileo’s use of the experiments described in the first day of the Two New Sciences. I describe these experiments and analyze their function. Central to my (...)
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  22. Timothy Wilkinson (2004). The Presidential Address I—Armchair Philosophy, Metaphysical Modality and Counterfactual Thinking. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 105 (1):1–23.
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  23. Timothy Williamson & Paal Antonsen (2010). Modality & Other Matters: An Interview with Timothy Williamson. Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy 3 (1):16-29.
    An interview with Timothy Williamson on Modality and other matters. Williams is asked three main questions: the first about the difference between philosophical and non-philosophical knowledge, the second concerns the epistemology of modality, and the third is on the emerging metaphysical picture.
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  24. D. G. Witmer (2003). Rea, Michael, World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81 (4):603.
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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. 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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  3. John Robert Baker (1983). On the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence. Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 (2):313-320.
  4. Thomas Baldwin (1998). Modal Fictionalism and the Imagination. Analysis 58 (2):72–75.
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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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  9. Stephen Biggs & Jessica M. Wilson, Abductive Two-Dimensionalism: A New Route to the A Priori Identification of Necessary Truths.
    Chalmers and Jackson (2001) offer an epistemic interpretation of the two-dimensional semantic framework advanced by Kaplan (1979, 1989), Stalnaker (1978), and others. Epistemic two-dimensional semantics (E2D) aims to re-forge the link between necessity and a priority seemingly broken by Kripke (1972/1980). On the E2D strategy, a priori knowledge of certain semantic intensions provides a route to a priori knowledge of a wide range of modal truths---nice outcome, if we can get it. E2D faces the serious challenge, however, that we typically (...)
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  10. 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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  11. 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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  12. 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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  13. Alex Byrne (2007). Possibility and Imagination. Philosophical Perspectives 21 (1):125–144.
    forthcoming in Philosophical Perspectives.
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  14. 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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  15. 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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  16. Roberto Casati (ed.) (1998). European Review of Philosophy, Volume 3: Response-Dependence. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
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  17. 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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  18. David J. Chalmers (2004). Epistemic Two-Dimensional Semantics. Philosophical Studies 118 (1-2):153-226.
  19. 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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  20. 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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  21. 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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  22. Bowman L. Clarke (1980). Beard on the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence. Southern Journal of Philosophy 18 (4):501-507.
  23. 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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  24. Daniel Cohnitz (2012). The Logic(s) of Modal Knowledge. In Greg Restall & Gillian Russell (eds.), New Waves in Philosophical Logic. MacMillan.
  25. 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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  26. 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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