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 Inquiry: An Epistemological Study.Gordon Barnes - 2000 - Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison
    The subject of this dissertation is the entitlement to modal beliefs, such as the belief that a proposition is necessarily true, or the belief that a proposition is possibly true. My thesis is that the entitlement to modal beliefs has two dimensions, one active and one passive. In the active dimension, someone is entitled to a modal belief just in case he has conducted the appropriate thought experiments. In the passive dimension, someone is entitled to a modal belief just in (...)
  2. The Origins of Modal Error.Bealer George - 2004 - Dialectica 58 (1):11-42.
    Modal intuitions are the primary source of modal knowledge but also of modal error. According to the theory of modal error in this paper, modal intuitions retain their evidential force in spite of their fallibility, and erroneous modal intuitions are in principle identifiable and eliminable by subjecting our intuitions to a priori dialectic. After an inventory of standard sources of modal error, two further sources are examined in detail. The first source ‐ namely, the failure to distinguish between metaphysical possibility (...)
  3. Modal Epistemology.Otavio Bueno & Scott Shalkowski - 2016 - Routledge.
  4. On Modal Knowledge.Filipe Drapeau Vieira Contim & Sébastien Motta - 2012 - Philosophia Scientae 16:3-37.
  5. Of the Light of Nature, Ed. By J. Brown.Nathaniel Culverwell, John Brown & William Dillingham - 1857
  6. Passage and Possibility: A Study of Aristotle's Modal Concepts.Jane M. Day - 1984 - Philosophical Books 25 (2):81-83.
  7. On the Alleged Knowledge of Metaphysical Modality.Duen-Min Deng - forthcoming - Philosophia:1-17.
    Many metaphysical controversies can be understood as debates over whether some alleged entities are metaphysically possible. No doubt, with regard to these matters, we may have opinions or theories, commonsensical or sophisticated. But do we have knowledge of them? Can we really know that something is metaphysically possible, and if so, how? Several different answers have been offered in the literature, intending to illustrate how we may have knowledge of metaphysical modality. In this paper, I concentrate on a proposal by (...)
  8. C. I. Lewis and the Benacerraf Problem.Bob Fischer - forthcoming - Episteme.
    Realists about modality offer an attractive semantics for modal discourse in terms of possible worlds, but standard accounts of the worlds—as properties, propositions, or causally-isolated concreta—invoke entities with which we can’t interact. If realism is true, how can we know anything about modal matters? Let's call this "the Benacerraf Problem." I suggest that C. I. Lewis has an intriguing answer to it. Given that we’re willing to disentangle some of Lewis’s insights from his phenomenalism, we can take the following line. (...)
  9. The Discovery That Phosphorus is Hesperus: A Follow-Up to Kripke on the Necessity of Identity.M. J. García-Encinas - 2017 - Analysis and Metaphysics 16:52-69.
    It was an empirical discovery that Phosphorus is Hesperus. According to Kripke, this was also the discovery of a necessary fact. Now, given Kripke’s theory of direct reference one could wonder what kind of discovery this is. For we already knew Phosphorus/Hesperus, and we also knew that any entity is, necessarily, identical to itself. So what is it that was discovered? I want to show that there is more to this widely known case than what usual readings, and critics, reveal; (...)
  10. Imagining Possibilities.Dominic Gregory - 2004 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69 (2):327-348.
    This paper argues that the imaginability of propositions of a certain kind under certain special circumstances implies their possibility. It then attempts to use that conclusion in doing some modal epistemology. In particular, the paper argues that the conclusion justifies some ascriptions of possibility and that it promises to justify some ascriptions of impossibility.
  11. Knowledge of Possibility and of Necessity.Bob Hale - 2002 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 103 (1):1-20.
  12. How Do We Know Necessary Truths? Kant's Answer.Hanna Robert - 1998 - European Journal of Philosophy 6 (2):115-145.
    It is traditionally held that our knowledge of necessity is a priori; but the familiar theories of a priori knowledge – platonism and conventionalism – have now been discredited, and replaced by either modal skepticism or a posteriori essentialism. The main thesis of this paper is that Kant's theory of a priori knowledge, when detached from his transcendental idealism, offers a genuine alternative to these unpalatable options. According to Kant's doctrine, all epistemic necessity is grounded directly or indirectly on our (...)
  13. Epistemology and Possibility.Rebecca Hanrahan - 2005 - Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie 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 (...)
  14. Epistemology and Possibility.Rebecca Hanrahan - 2005 - 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 (...)
  15. Evidence for Possibility.Rebecca Roman Hanrahan - 1998 - Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    Consider the claim: Our actions are free if and only if we could have done otherwise; or the claim, We are essentially mental substances because we can exist without our bodies. Both of these claims, along with countless others, employ a notion of possibility. If this notion is to have a place in philosophy, we must be able to justify our modal claims. We need an epistemology of possibility. It is often assumed that the imagination is the key here. The (...)
  16. Chalmers on the Apriority of Modal Knowledge.C. S. Hill - 1998 - Analysis 58 (1):20-26.
  17. Thought Experiment: On the Powers and Limits of Imaginary Cases Tamar Szabó Gendler Studies in Philosophy New York: Garland Publishing, 2000, Xvii + 258 Pp., $75.00. [REVIEW]Neb Kujundzic - 2002 - Dialogue 41 (02):407-.
  18. Metaphysical Knowledge.E. J. Lowe - 2002 - Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale (4):453--471.
  19. Knowledge of Necessity: Logical Positivism and Kripkean Essentialism: Stephen K. McLeod.Stephen K. Mcleod - 2008 - Philosophy 83 (2):179-191.
    By the lights of a central logical positivist thesis in modal epistemology, for every necessary truth that we know, we know it a priori and for every contingent truth that we know, we know it a posteriori. Kripke attacks on both flanks, arguing that we know necessary a posteriori truths and that we probably know contingent a priori truths. In a reflection of Kripke's confidence in his own arguments, the first of these Kripkean claims is far more widely accepted than (...)
  20. The Role of Necessity in Empirical Knowledge.Jennifer Ruth Nagel - 2000 - Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh
    Does empirical knowledge of contingent matters presuppose knowledge of necessity? According to many contemporary epistemologists, the answer is 'no'; indeed, many are skeptical that there is such a thing as knowledge of necessity at all. Some would argue that there simply is no such thing as necessity; others would argue that our awareness of necessity should not count as knowledge because necessity is not something we discover in the world, but something we project onto it. My dissertation, however, aims to (...)
  21. Continuity as a Guide to Possibility.Joshua Rasmussen - 2014 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92 (3):525-538.
    I propose a new guide for assessing claims about what is possible. I offer examples of modal claims that are, in a certain intuitive respect, ?continuous? with one another. I then put forward a general, defeasible principle of modal continuity that can account for our intuitions about those examples. According to this principle, statements that differ by a mere quantitative term don't normally differ with respect to being possibly true. I offer a precise statement of the principle, and then I (...)
  22. Von Wright, Rationalism and Modality.L. C. Rice - 1977 - International Logic Review 15:53.
  23. The Philosophy of Philosophy, by Timothy Williamson.Luis S. Robledo - 2008 - Disputatio.
  24. A Review of Timothy Williamson's the Philosophy of Philosophy. [REVIEW]Gillian Russell - 2010 - Philosophical Books 51 (1):39-52.
  25. What Might Be and What Might Have Been. Schnieder, Schulz & Steinberg - manuscript
    In describing and classifying things we often rely on their modal characteristics. We will in general not have a satisfactory account of the nature and character of an object, unless we specify at least partly how the thing might be or cannot be, and also how it might have been or could not have been. In his contribution to the Second Jerusalem Philosophical Encounter,1 Strawson addressed the issue of how to understand such ascriptions of modal characteristics. Although his paper is (...)
  26. "Passage and Possibility: A Study of Aristotle's Modal Concepts" by Sarah Waterlow. [REVIEW]Lynne Spellman - 1986 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 46 (4):688.
  27. Modal Epistemology.Peter Van Inwagen - 1998 - Philosophical Studies 92 (1):67--84.
    Many important metaphysical arguments validly deduce an actuality from a possibility. For example: Because it is possible for me to exist in the absence of anything material, I am not my body. I argue that there is no reason to suppose that our capacity for modal judgment is equal to the task of determining whether the "possibility" premise of any of these arguments is true. I connect this thesis with Stephen Yablo's recent work on the epistemology of modal statements.
  28. Knowledge Elicitation Using a Multi-Modal Approach.M. J. Winfield, A. Basden & I. Cresswell - 1996 - World Futures 47 (1):93-101.
    (1996). Knowledge elicitation using a multi‐modal approach. World Futures: Vol. 47, Unity and Diversity in Contemporary Systems Tinking: Systematic Pictures at an Exhibition, pp. 93-101.
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. 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 (...)
  4. On the Conceivability of God's Non-Existence.John Robert Baker - 1983 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 (2):313-320.
  5. Modal Fictionalism and the Imagination.T. Baldwin - 1998 - Analysis 58 (2):72-75.
  6. 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 (...)
  7. 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 (...)
  8. 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 (...)
  9. 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 (...)
  10. Impossible Worlds and the Logic of Imagination.Francesco Berto - forthcoming - Erkenntnis:1-21.
    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 (...)
  11. On Conceiving the Inconsistent.Francesco Berto - 2014 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 114:103-21.
    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 (...)
  12. Conceivability and Possibility: Some Dilemmas for Humeans.Francesco Berto & Tom Schoonen - forthcoming - Synthese:1-19.
    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 (...)
  13. 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.
  14. 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 (...)
  15. 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 ...
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. Review: Ruth M. J. Byrne: The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. [REVIEW]Stephen Andrew Butterfill - 2008 - Mind 117 (468):1065-1069.
  19. Possibility and Imagination.Alex Byrne - 2007 - Philosophical Perspectives 21 (1):125–144.
  20. 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 ...
  21. 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.
  22. The Inconceivable Popularity of Conceivability Arguments.Douglas I. Campbell, Jack Copeland & Zhuo-Ran Deng - forthcoming - Philosophical Quarterly.
    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 (...)
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