Modal Epistemology

Edited by Anand Vaidya (San Jose State University)
About this topic
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 1998. 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. Modal Objectivity.Clarke-Doane Justin - forthcoming - Noûs.
    It is widely agreed that the intelligibility of modal metaphysics has been vindicated. Quine's arguments to the contrary supposedly confused analyticity with metaphysical necessity, and rigid with non-rigid designators.2 But even if modal metaphysics is intelligible, it could be misconceived. It could be that metaphysical necessity is not absolute necessity – the strictest real notion of necessity – and that no proposition of traditional metaphysical interest is necessary in every real sense. If there were nothing otherwise “uniquely metaphysically significant” about (...)
  2. On Knowing What is Necessary: Three Limitations of Peacocke's Account. [REVIEW]Crispin Wright - 2002 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64 (3):655–662.
Conceivability, Imagination, and Possibility
  1. Nagel on Imagination and Physicalism.Torin Alter - 2002 - 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.
  2. Conceivability, Possibility and the Resurrection of Material Beings.Thomas Atkinson - 2016 - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 80 (2):115-132.
    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 (...)
  3. Conceiving and Imagining.Jody Azzouni - 2015 - The Harvard Review of Philosophy 22:84-99.
  4. The Unsoundness of Arguments From Conceivability.Andrew R. Bailey - manuscript
    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 (...)
  5. On the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence.John Robert Baker - 1983 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 (2):313-320.
  6. Modal Fictionalism and the Imagination.T. Baldwin - 1998 - Analysis 58 (2):72-75.
  7. Conceivability, Explanation, and Defeat.Gerald W. Barnes - 2002 - 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 (...)
  8. Conceivability, Explanation, and Defeat.Gordon Barnes - 2002 - 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 (...)
  9. Necessity and Apriority.Gordon Prescott Barnes - 2007 - 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 (...)
  10. Necessary Laws and Chemical Kinds.Nora Berenstain - 2014 - 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 (...)
  11. Impossible Worlds and the Logic of Imagination.Francesco Berto - 2017 - Erkenntnis 82 (6):1277-1297.
    I want to model a finite, fallible cognitive agent who imagines that p in the sense of mentally representing a scenario—a configuration of objects and properties—correctly described by p. I propose to capture imagination, so understood, via variably strict world quantifiers, in a modal framework including both possible and so-called impossible worlds. The latter secure lack of classical logical closure for the relevant mental states, while the variability of strictness captures how the agent imports information from actuality in the imagined (...)
  12. On Conceiving the Inconsistent.Francesco Berto - 2014 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 114 (1pt1):103-121.
    I present an approach to our conceiving absolute impossibilities—things which obtain at no possible world—in terms of ceteris paribus intentional operators: variably restricted quantifiers on possible and impossible worlds based on world similarity. The explicit content of a representation plays a role similar in some respects to the one of a ceteris paribus conditional antecedent. I discuss how such operators invalidate logical closure for conceivability, and how similarity works when impossible worlds are around. Unlike what happens with ceteris paribus counterfactual (...)
  13. Conceivability and Possibility: Some Dilemmas for Humeans.Francesco Berto & Tom Schoonen - 2018 - Synthese 195 (6):2697-2715.
    The Humean view that conceivability entails possibility can be criticized via input from cognitive psychology. A mainstream view here has it that there are two candidate codings for mental representations (one of them being, according to some, reducible to the other): the linguistic and the pictorial, the difference between the two consisting in the degree of arbitrariness of the representation relation. If the conceivability of P at issue for Humeans involves the having of a linguistic mental representation, then it is (...)
  14. Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy.Ben Blumson - 2015 - 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.
  15. The Medieval Origins of Conceivability Arguments.Stephen Boulter - 2011 - 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 (...)
  16. Philosophical Debates at Paris in the Early Fourteenth Century.Stephen F. Brown, Thomas Dewender & Theo Kobusch (eds.) - 2009 - Brill.
    Focusing on Meister Eckhart, John Duns Scotus, Hervaeus Natalis, Durandus of St.-PourAain, Walter Burley and Petrus Aureoli, this volume investigates the nature ...
  17. Chalmers' Conceivability Argument for Dualism.Anthony L. Brueckner - 2001 - 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.
  18. From Conceivability to Possibility: The Normative Account.F. A. I. Buekens - 2004 - In E. Weber & T. DeMey (eds.), Modal Epistemology. Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van Belgie Vor Wetenschappen En Kunsten. pp. 23--32.
  19. Review: Ruth M. J. Byrne: The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. [REVIEW]Stephen Andrew Butterfill - 2008 - Mind 117 (468):1065-1069.
  20. Possibility and Imagination.Alex Byrne - 2007 - Philosophical Perspectives 21 (1):125–144.
  21. The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality.Ruth M. J. Byrne - 2005 - MIT Press.
    A leading scholar in the psychology of thinking and reasoning argues that the counterfactual imagination—the creation of "if only" alternatives to ...
  22. Response to Dominic Gregory’s ‘Conceivability and Apparent Possibility’.Ross Cameron - manuscript
    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.
  23. The Inconceivable Popularity of Conceivability Arguments.Douglas I. Campbell, Jack Copeland & Zhuo-Ran Deng - 2017 - Philosophical Quarterly 67 (267):223-240.
    Famous examples of conceivability arguments include (i) Descartes’ argument for mind-body dualism, (ii) Kripke's ‘modal argument’ against psychophysical identity theory, (iii) Chalmers’ ‘zombie argument’ against materialism, and (iv) modal versions of the ontological argument for theism. In this paper, we show that for any such conceivability argument, C, there is a corresponding ‘mirror argument’, M. M is deductively valid and has a conclusion that contradicts C's conclusion. Hence, a proponent of C—henceforth, a ‘conceivabilist’—can be warranted in holding that C's premises (...)
  24. The Eightfold Way: Why Analyticity, Apriority and Necessity Are Independent.Douglas Ian Campbell - 2017 - Philosophers' Imprint 17:1-17.
    This paper concerns the three great modal dichotomies: (i) the necessary/contingent dichotomy; (ii) the a priori/empirical dichotomy; and (iii) the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. These can be combined to produce a tri-dichotomy of eight modal categories. The question as to which of the eight categories house statements and which do not is a pivotal battleground in the history of analytic philosophy, with key protagonists including Descartes, Hume, Kant, Kripke, Putnam and Kaplan. All parties to the debate have accepted that some categories are (...)
  25. European Review of Philosophy, Volume 3: Response-Dependence.Roberto Casati (ed.) - 1998 - Stanford: CSLI Publications.
  26. Knowledge and Modality.A. Casullo - 2010 - 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. (...)
  27. Conceivability and Possibility.Albert Casullo - 1975 - Ratio (Misc.) 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.
  28. Mind and Modality.David J. Chalmers - manuscript
    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 (...)
  29. Epistemic Two-Dimensional Semantics.David J. Chalmers - 2004 - Philosophical Studies 118 (1-2):153-226.
  30. Imagination, Indexicality, and Intensions. [REVIEW]David J. Chalmers - 2004 - 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.
  31. Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?David J. Chalmers - 2002 - In Tamar S. Gendler & John Hawthorne (eds.), Conceivability and Possibility. Oxford University Press. pp. 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.
  32. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.David J. Chalmers - 1996 - 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 (...)
  33. Beard on the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence.Bowman L. Clarke - 1980 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 18 (4):501-507.
  34. The Logic of Negative Conceivability.Daniel Cohnitz - manuscript
    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.
  35. The Logic(s) of Modal Knowledge.Daniel Cohnitz - 2012 - In Greg Restall & Gillian Russell (eds.), New Waves in Philosophical Logic. MacMillan.
  36. Why Consistentism Won’T Work.Daniel Cohnitz - 2004 - In E. Weber & T. DeMey (eds.), Modal Epistemology. Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van Belgie vor Wetenschappen en Kunsten.
  37. Meta-Conceivability.Phil Corkum - 2012 - 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: (...)
  38. Logical Properties of Imagination.Alexandre Costa-Leite - 2010 - Abstracta 6 (1):103-116.
    Inspired by Niiniluoto’s account of the logic of imagination, this work proposes a combined logic able to deal with interactions of imagination, conception and possibility. It combines Descartes’ view according to which imagination implies conception with Hume’s view according to which both imagination and conception imply possibility.
  39. The Principle of the Topological Localization of Symbols and the Meaning of the Ultimate-Meaning-a Contribution From the Human Behavioral and Social-Sciences.Paul F. Dhooghe & Guido Peeters - 1992 - 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.
  40. Review: Conceivability and Possibility. [REVIEW]John Divers - 2004 - Mind 113 (450):347-351.
  41. Thought Experiments Without Possible Worlds.Daniel Dohrn - 2018 - Philosophical Studies 175 (2):363-384.
    The method of thought experiments or possible cases is widespread in philosophy and elsewhere. Thought experiments come with variegated theoretical commitments. These commitments are risky. They may turn out to be false or at least controversial. Other things being equal, it seems preferable to do with minimal commitments. I explore exemplary ways of minimising commitments, focusing on modal ones. There is a near-consensus to treat the scenarios considered in thought experiments as metaphysical possibilities. I challenge this consensus. Paradigmatic thought experiments (...)
  42. Fiction and Thought Experiment - A Case Study.Daniel Dohrn - 2016 - Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 35 (3):185-199.
    Many philosophers are very sanguine about the cognitive contributions of fiction to science and philosophy. I focus on a case study: Ichikawa and Jarvis’s account of thought experiments in terms of everyday fictional stories. As far as the contribution of fiction is not sui generis, processing fiction often will be parasitic on cognitive capacities which may replace it; as far as it is sui generis, nothing guarantees that fiction is sufficiently well-behaved to abide by the constraints of scientific and philosophical (...)
  43. Hume on Knowledge of Metaphysical Modalities.Daniel Dohrn - 2010 - 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 (...)
  44. Knowledge by Imagination - How Imaginative Experience Can Ground Knowledge.Fabian Dorsch - forthcoming - 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 (...)
  45. Hume.Fabian Dorsch - 2016 - In Amy Kind (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination. Routledge. pp. 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 (...)
  46. Hume on the Imagination.Fabian Dorsch - 2015 - 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 (...)
  47. Imagining Modernity: Kant's Wager on Possibility.Augustin Dumont - 2017 - Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 38 (1):53-86.
    In the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason (2nd edition), Kant claims that a transcendental cognition is a one ‘that is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our mode of cognition of objects insofar as is this ought to be possible a priori (a priori möglich sein soll)’. In this paper, I argue that Kant scholarship should take into account the specific signification of the term ‘sollen’, which might require us to reconsider the usual distinction between (...)
  48. How to Undercut Radical Skepticism.Santiago Echeverri - 2017 - Philosophical Studies 174 (5):1299-1321.
    Radical skepticism relies on the hypothesis that one could be completely cut off from the external world. In this paper, I argue that this hypothesis can be rationally motivated by means of a conceivability argument. Subsequently, I submit that this conceivability argument does not furnish a good reason to believe that one could be completely cut off from the external world. To this end, I show that we cannot adequately conceive scenarios that verify the radical skeptical hypothesis. Attempts to do (...)
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