The Mystery of Modality. Thought of the Day 78.0

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The ‘metaphysical’ notion of what would have been no matter what (the necessary) was conflated with the epistemological notion of what independently of sense-experience can be known to be (the a priori), which in turn was identified with the semantical notion of what is true by virtue of meaning (the analytic), which in turn was reduced to a mere product of human convention. And what motivated these reductions?

The mystery of modality, for early modern philosophers, was how we can have any knowledge of it. Here is how the question arises. We think that when things are some way, in some cases they could have been otherwise, and in other cases they couldn’t. That is the modal distinction between the contingent and the necessary.

How do we know that the examples are examples of that of which they are supposed to be examples? And why should this question be considered a difficult problem, a kind of mystery? Well, that is because, on the one hand, when we ask about most other items of purported knowledge how it is we can know them, sense-experience seems to be the source, or anyhow the chief source of our knowledge, but, on the other hand, sense-experience seems able only to provide knowledge about what is or isn’t, not what could have been or couldn’t have been. How do we bridge the gap between ‘is’ and ‘could’? The classic statement of the problem was given by Immanuel Kant, in the introduction to the second or B edition of his first critique, The Critique of Pure Reason: ‘Experience teaches us that a thing is so, but not that it cannot be otherwise.’

Note that this formulation allows that experience can teach us that a necessary truth is true; what it is not supposed to be able to teach is that it is necessary. The problem becomes more vivid if one adopts the language that was once used by Leibniz, and much later re-popularized by Saul Kripke in his famous work on model theory for formal modal systems, the usage according to which the necessary is that which is ‘true in all possible worlds’. In these terms the problem is that the senses only show us this world, the world we live in, the actual world as it is called, whereas when we claim to know about what could or couldn’t have been, we are claiming knowledge of what is going on in some or all other worlds. For that kind of knowledge, it seems, we would need a kind of sixth sense, or extrasensory perception, or nonperceptual mode of apprehension, to see beyond the world in which we live to these various other worlds.

Kant concludes, that our knowledge of necessity must be what he calls a priori knowledge or knowledge that is ‘prior to’ or before or independent of experience, rather than what he calls a posteriori knowledge or knowledge that is ‘posterior to’ or after or dependant on experience. And so the problem of the origin of our knowledge of necessity becomes for Kant the problem of the origin of our a priori knowledge.

Well, that is not quite the right way to describe Kant’s position, since there is one special class of cases where Kant thinks it isn’t really so hard to understand how we can have a priori knowledge. He doesn’t think all of our a priori knowledge is mysterious, but only most of it. He distinguishes what he calls analytic from what he calls synthetic judgments, and holds that a priori knowledge of the former is unproblematic, since it is not really knowledge of external objects, but only knowledge of the content of our own concepts, a form of self-knowledge.

We can generate any number of examples of analytic truths by the following three-step process. First, take a simple logical truth of the form ‘Anything that is both an A and a B is a B’, for instance, ‘Anyone who is both a man and unmarried is unmarried’. Second, find a synonym C for the phrase ‘thing that is both an A and a B’, for instance, ‘bachelor’ for ‘one who is both a man and unmarried’. Third, substitute the shorter synonym for the longer phrase in the original logical truth to get the truth ‘Any C is a B’, or in our example, the truth ‘Any bachelor is unmarried’. Our knowledge of such a truth seems unproblematic because it seems to reduce to our knowledge of the meanings of our own words.

So the problem for Kant is not exactly how knowledge a priori is possible, but more precisely how synthetic knowledge a priori is possible. Kant thought we do have examples of such knowledge. Arithmetic, according to Kant, was supposed to be synthetic a priori, and geometry, too – all of pure mathematics. In his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant listed ‘How is pure mathematics possible?’ as the first question for metaphysics, for the branch of philosophy concerned with space, time, substance, cause, and other grand general concepts – including modality.

Kant offered an elaborate explanation of how synthetic a priori knowledge is supposed to be possible, an explanation reducing it to a form of self-knowledge, but later philosophers questioned whether there really were any examples of the synthetic a priori. Geometry, so far as it is about the physical space in which we live and move – and that was the original conception, and the one still prevailing in Kant’s day – came to be seen as, not synthetic a priori, but rather a posteriori. The mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauß had already come to suspect that geometry is a posteriori, like the rest of physics. Since the time of Einstein in the early twentieth century the a posteriori character of physical geometry has been the received view (whence the need for border-crossing from mathematics into physics if one is to pursue the original aim of geometry).

As for arithmetic, the logician Gottlob Frege in the late nineteenth century claimed that it was not synthetic a priori, but analytic – of the same status as ‘Any bachelor is unmarried’, except that to obtain something like ‘29 is a prime number’ one needs to substitute synonyms in a logical truth of a form much more complicated than ‘Anything that is both an A and a B is a B’. This view was subsequently adopted by many philosophers in the analytic tradition of which Frege was a forerunner, whether or not they immersed themselves in the details of Frege’s program for the reduction of arithmetic to logic.

Once Kant’s synthetic a priori has been rejected, the question of how we have knowledge of necessity reduces to the question of how we have knowledge of analyticity, which in turn resolves into a pair of questions: On the one hand, how do we have knowledge of synonymy, which is to say, how do we have knowledge of meaning? On the other hand how do we have knowledge of logical truths? As to the first question, presumably we acquire knowledge, explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious, of meaning as we learn to speak, by the time we are able to ask the question whether this is a synonym of that, we have the answer. But what about knowledge of logic? That question didn’t loom large in Kant’s day, when only a very rudimentary logic existed, but after Frege vastly expanded the realm of logic – only by doing so could he find any prospect of reducing arithmetic to logic – the question loomed larger.

Many philosophers, however, convinced themselves that knowledge of logic also reduces to knowledge of meaning, namely, of the meanings of logical particles, words like ‘not’ and ‘and’ and ‘or’ and ‘all’ and ‘some’. To be sure, there are infinitely many logical truths, in Frege’s expanded logic. But they all follow from or are generated by a finite list of logical rules, and philosophers were tempted to identify knowledge of the meanings of logical particles with knowledge of rules for using them: Knowing the meaning of ‘or’, for instance, would be knowing that ‘A or B’ follows from A and follows from B, and that anything that follows both from A and from B follows from ‘A or B’. So in the end, knowledge of necessity reduces to conscious or unconscious knowledge of explicit or implicit semantical rules or linguistics conventions or whatever.

Such is the sort of picture that had become the received wisdom in philosophy departments in the English speaking world by the middle decades of the last century. For instance, A. J. Ayer, the notorious logical positivist, and P. F. Strawson, the notorious ordinary-language philosopher, disagreed with each other across a whole range of issues, and for many mid-century analytic philosophers such disagreements were considered the main issues in philosophy (though some observers would speak of the ‘narcissism of small differences’ here). And people like Ayer and Strawson in the 1920s through 1960s would sometimes go on to speak as if linguistic convention were the source not only of our knowledge of modality, but of modality itself, and go on further to speak of the source of language lying in ourselves. Individually, as children growing up in a linguistic community, or foreigners seeking to enter one, we must consciously or unconsciously learn the explicit or implicit rules of the communal language as something with a source outside us to which we must conform. But by contrast, collectively, as a speech community, we do not so much learn as create the language with its rules. And so if the origin of modality, of necessity and its distinction from contingency, lies in language, it therefore lies in a creation of ours, and so in us. ‘We, the makers and users of language’ are the ground and source and origin of necessity. Well, this is not a literal quotation from any one philosophical writer of the last century, but a pastiche of paraphrases of several.

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