Transcendentally Realist Modality. Thought of the Day 78.1

22jun

Let us start at the beginning first! Though the fact is not mentioned in Genesis, the first thing God said on the first day of creation was ‘Let there be necessity’. And there was necessity. And God saw necessity, that it was good. And God divided necessity from contingency. And only then did He say ‘Let there be light’. Several days later, Adam and Eve were introducing names for the animals into their language, and during a break between the fish and the birds, introduced also into their language modal auxiliary verbs, or devices that would be translated into English using modal auxiliary verbs, and rules for their use, rules according to which it can be said of some things that they ‘could’ have been otherwise, and of other things that they ‘could not’. In so doing they were merely putting labels on a distinction that was no more their creation than were the fishes of the sea or the beasts of the field or the birds of the air.

And here is the rival view. The failure of Genesis to mention any command ‘Let there be necessity’ is to be explained simply by the fact that no such command was issued. We have no reason to suppose that the language in which God speaks to the angels contains modal auxiliary verbs or any equivalent device. Sometime after the Tower of Babel some tribes found that their purposes would be better served by introducing into their language certain modal auxiliary verbs, and fixing certain rules for their use. When we say that this is necessary while that is contingent, we are applying such rules, rules that are products of human, not divine intelligence.

This theological language would have been the natural way for seventeenth or eighteenth century philosophers, who nearly all were or professed to be theists or deists, to discuss the matter. For many today, such language cannot be literally accepted, and if it is only taken metaphorically, then at least better than those who speak figuratively and frame the question as that of whether the ‘origin’ of necessity lies outside us or within us. So let us drop the theological language, and try again.

Well, here the first view: Ultimately reality as it is in itself, independently of our attempts to conceptualize and comprehend it, contains both facts about what is, and superfacts about what not only is but had to have been. Our modal usages, for instance, the distinction between the simple indicative ‘is’ and the construction ‘had to have been’, simply reflect this fundamental distinction in the world, a distinction that is and from the beginning always was there, independently of us and our concerns.

And here is the second view: We have reasons, connected with our various purposes in life, to use certain words, including ‘would’ and ‘might’, in certain ways, and thereby to make certain distinctions. The distinction between those things in the world that would have been no matter what and those that might have failed to be if only is a projection of the distinctions made in our language. Our saying there were necessities there before us is a retroactive application to the pre-human world of a way of speaking invented and created by human beings in order to solve human problems.

Well, that’s the second try. With it even if one has gotten rid of theology, unfortunately one has not gotten rid of all metaphors. The key remaining metaphor is the optical one: reflection vs projection. Perhaps the attempt should be to get rid of all metaphors, and admit that the two views are not so much philosophical theses or doctrines as ‘metaphilosophical’ attitudes or orientations: a stance that finds the ‘reflection’ metaphor congenial, and the stance that finds the ‘projection’ metaphor congenial. So, lets try a third time to describe the distinction between the two outlooks in literal terms, avoiding optics as well as theology.

To begin with, both sides grant that there is a correspondence or parallelism between two items. On the one hand, there are facts about the contrast between what is necessary and what is contingent. On the other hand, there are facts about our usage of modal auxiliary verbs such as ‘would’ and ‘might’, and these include, for instance, the fact that we have no use for questions of the form ‘Would 29 still have been a prime number if such-and- such?’ but may have use for questions of the form ‘Would 29 still have been the number of years it takes for Saturn to orbit the sun if such-and-such?’ The difference between the two sides concerns the order of explanation of the relation between the two parallel ranges of facts.

And what is meant by that? Well, both sides grant that ‘29 is necessarily prime’, for instance, is a proper thing to say, but they differ in the explanation why it is a proper thing to say. Asked why, the first side will say that ultimately it is simply because 29 is necessarily prime. That makes the proposition that 29 is necessarily prime true, and since the sentence ‘29 is necessarily prime’ expresses that proposition, it is true also, and a proper thing to say. The second side will say instead that ‘29 is necessarily prime’ is a proper thing to say because there is a rule of our language according to which it is a proper thing to say. This formulation of the difference between the two sides gets rid of metaphor, though it does put an awful lot of weight on the perhaps fragile ‘why’ and ‘because’.

Note that the adherents of the second view need not deny that 29 is necessarily prime. On the contrary, having said that the sentence ‘29 is necessarily prime’ is, per rules of our language, a proper thing to say, they will go on to say it. Nor need the adherents of the first view deny that recognition of the propriety of saying ‘29 is necessarily prime’ is enshrined in a rule of our language. The adherents of the first view need not even deny that proximately, as individuals, we learn that ‘29 is necessarily prime’ is a proper thing to say by picking up the pertinent rule in the course of learning our language. But the adherents of the first view will maintain that the rule itself is only proper because collectively, as the creators of the language, we or our remote answers have, in setting up the rule, managed to achieve correspondence with a pre-existing fact, or rather, a pre-existing superfact, the superfact that 29 is necessarily prime. The difference between the two views is, in the order of explanation.

The adherents regarding labels for the two sides, or ‘metaphilosophical’ stances, rather than inventing new ones, will simply take two of the most overworked terms in the philosophical lexicon and give them one more job to do, calling the reflection view ‘realism’ about modality, and the projection view ‘pragmatism’. That at least will be easy to remember, since ‘realism’ and ‘reflection’ begin with the same first two letters, as do ‘pragmatism’ and ‘projection’. The realist/pragmatist distinction has bearing across a range of issues and problems, and above all it has bearing on the meta-issue of which issues are significant. For the two sides will, or ought to, recognize quite different questions as the central unsolved problems in the theory of modality.

For those on the realist side, the old problem of the ultimate source of our knowledge of modality remains, even if it is granted that the proximate source lies in knowledge of linguistic conventions. For knowledge of linguistic conventions constitutes knowledge of a reality independent of us only insofar as our linguistic conventions reflect, at least to some degree, such an ultimate reality. So for the realist the problem remains of explaining how such degree of correspondence as there is between distinctions in language and distinctions in the world comes about. If the distinction in the world is something primary and independent, and not a mere projection of the distinction in language, then how the distinction in language comes to be even imperfectly aligned with the distinction in the world remains to be explained. For it cannot be said that we have faculties responsive to modal facts independent of us – not in any sense of ‘responsive’ implying that if the facts had been different, then our language would have been different, since modal facts couldn’t have been different. What then is the explanation? This is the problem of the epistemology of modality as it confronts the realist, and addressing it is or ought to be at the top of the realist agenda.

As for the pragmatist side, a chief argument of thinkers from Kant to Ayer and Strawson and beyond for their anti-realist stance has been precisely that if the distinction we perceive in reality is taken to be merely a projection of a distinction created by ourselves, then the epistemological problem dissolves. That seems more like a reason for hoping the Kantian or Ayerite or Strawsonian view is the right one, than for believing that it is; but in any case, even supposing the pragmatist view is the right one, and the problems of the epistemology of modality are dissolved, still the pragmatist side has an important unanswered question of its own to address. The pragmatist account, begins by saying that we have certain reasons, connected with our various purposes in life, to use certain words, including ‘would’ and ‘might’, in certain ways, and thereby to make certain distinctions. What the pragmatist owes us is an account of what these purposes are, and how the rules of our language help us to achieve them. Addressing that issue is or ought to be at the top of the pragmatists’ to-do list.

While the positivist Ayer dismisses all metaphysics, the ordinary-language philosopher Strawson distinguishes good metaphysics, which he calls ‘descriptive’, from bad metaphysics, which he calls ‘revisionary’, but which rather be called ‘transcendental’ (without intending any specifically Kantian connotations). Descriptive metaphysics aims to provide an explicit account of our ‘conceptual scheme’, of the most general categories of commonsense thought, as embodied in ordinary language. Transcendental metaphysics aims to get beyond or behind all merely human conceptual schemes and representations to ultimate reality as it is in itself, an aim that Ayer and Strawson agree is infeasible and probably unintelligible. The descriptive/transcendental divide in metaphysics is a paradigmatically ‘metaphilosophical’ issue, one about what philosophy is about. Realists about modality are paradigmatic transcendental metaphysicians. Pragmatists must in the first instance be descriptive metaphysicians, since we must to begin with understand much better than we currently do how our modal distinctions work and what work they do for us, before proposing any revisions or reforms. And so the difference between realists and pragmatists goes beyond the question of what issue should come first on the philosopher’s agenda, being as it is an issue about what philosophical agendas are about.

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