Modal Knowledge, Evolution, and Counterfactuals

In Robert William Fischer & Felipe Leon (eds.), Modal Epistemology After Rationalism. Dordrecht (2017)
Thomas Kroedel
Universität Hamburg
The chapter defends an evolutionary explanation of modal knowledge from knowledge of counterfactual conditionals. Knowledge of counterfactuals is evolutionarily useful, as it enables us to learn from mistakes. Given the standard semantics for counterfactuals, there are several equivalences between modal claims and claims involving counterfactuals that can be used to explain modal knowledge. Timothy Williamson has suggested an explanation of modal knowledge that draws on the equivalence of ‘Necessarily p’ with ‘If p were false, a contradiction would be the case’. He postulates a cognitive process that draws on this equivalence and that is supposed to underlie our modal judgements. The existence of this cognitive process would, however, have consequences that conflict with results from empirical psychology. The chapter argues that the equivalence of ‘Necessarily p’ with ‘For all q, if q were true then p would be true’ should instead be used to explain knowledge of necessity. This explanation requires giving an account of how we know truths of the form ‘For all q, if q were true then p would be true’. In order to provide such an account, the chapter draws on a different suggestion by Williamson about knowledge of generalizations. According to this suggestion, we come to know truths of the form ‘All Fs are G’ by imagining a generic F and judging that it is G. Applied to our case, the suggestion would be that we come to know that p is counterfactually implied by all propositions (and hence that p is necessary) by entertaining a generic proposition and judging that it counterfactually implies p. It would even suffice to entertain a generic possible proposition and judge that it counterfactually implies p, for it can be shown that the claim ‘For all possible q, if q were true then p would be true’ is equivalent to the original claim ‘For all q, if q were true then p would be true’ and hence is equivalent to ‘Necessarily p’. It might seem that, from an evolutionary perspective, probabilistic reasoning is just as useful as reasoning involving counterfactuals. The chapter argues, however, that this would not undermine the envisaged explanation of modal knowledge. The chapter concludes by suggesting avenues of empirical research that might shed light on the cognitive processes that actually underlie our evaluations of modal claims and on the relation between these processes and those involved in counterfactual reasoning. The results of such empirical research would be highly relevant epistemologically, since they will ultimately determine which (if any) equivalence between modal claims and claims involving counterfactuals should be used to explain our modal knowledge.
Keywords modal knowledge  counterfactual conditionals  evolutionary epistemology  metaphysical modality
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