Unable to Do the Impossible

Mind 1 (2018)

Anthony Nguyen
University of Southern California
Jack Spencer has recently argued for the striking thesis that, possibly, an agent is able to do the impossible—that is, perform an action that is metaphysically impossible for that person to perform. Spencer bases his argument on (Simple G), a case in which it is impossible for an agent G to perform some action but, according to Spencer, G is still intuitively able to perform that action. I reply that we would have to give up at least four action-theoretical principles if we accept that G is able to do the impossible. We may be best off retaining the principles and thus rejecting Spencer's intuition that G is able to do the impossible. I then consider an argument for the claim that G is able to do the impossible that goes through the Snapshot Principle. I, however, deny that any true variant of the Snapshot Principle shows that G is able to do the impossible. Moreover, the counterexample to the Snapshot Principle that I develop also suggests that G is unable to do the impossible in (Simple G). The most natural explanation for why an agent is unable to perform some action in this counterexample extends to (Simple G). Next, I develop three error theories for why we might initially share Spencer's intuition that G is able to do the impossible in (Simple G). Finally, I consider a couple other "G-cases" of Spencer's and find them all wanting. Perhaps we are unable to do the impossible.
Keywords action theory  ability  modal metaphysics  possibility  counterfactuals  Snapshot Principle
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Reprint years 2018
DOI 10.1093/mind/fzy053
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