From Conceivability to Possibility: An Essay in Modal by Anders Berglund

By Anders Berglund

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Modal inference: it is not possible for water to be some other physical stuff than H2O. At this point, van Inwagen raises the question of how we come by our basic modal knowledge. One tempting answer, van Inwagen ventures, is that we come by the basic modal knowledge that a statement S (say, “water is XYZ”) is possible by constructing and intellectually examining a scenario in which S is true. That is, we, in one sense of the term, conceive of S. But this does not really explain how we know that S is possible, van Inwagen argues: what if the scenario we come up with is itself impossible?

For example, it has been suggested that Antoine Arnauld’s (1612–1694) criticism of Descartes’ argument against mind-body identity can be developed into an extreme skepticism towards all modal knowledge claims whatsoever (see Yablo 1990: 159–62 and 1993: 16). This position can be referred to as modal skepticism. Other philosophers have maintained that we can come to know the truth-value of a comprehensive class of modal statements. This position could be called modal dogmatism. Descartes is perhaps the best-known modal dogmatist.

In this respect, van Inwagen takes a different course than the philosophers who have argued that the (intellectual) construction of a scenario in which S is true is the ultimate ground on which possibility judgments should be based. van Inwagen thus seems to have much in common with philosophers who appeal to intuition. However, van Inwagen’s suggestion that modal knowledge originates from a combination of different types of knowledge is similar to some accounts that do involve appeals to conceivability.

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