Matthew and Elisa asked me to provide a guest post on a project I am working on. I just spent the last two weeks in Europe, first Belgrade, Serbia and then Aarhus, Denmark working on one of my main areas of research, the epistemology of modality. What has struck me the most over the 15 years I have worked on the topic is how little attention is given to this topic in comparative philosophy. But maybe I just don’t know enough. So, I am looking for help. To understand what I am exploring read 1-3 below. If you are further interested in the issue and want to see where I am coming from look at 4-6. Any help would be appreciated. I plan to write a major article on this topic.
1. The Core Questions in the Epistemology of Modality
The epistemology of modality is primarily concerned with the following questions:
Modal Sorting: how do we come to know what is possible, necessary, and essential for a given entity or kind of entity?
Modal Mechanism: what single mechanism or set of mechanisms provides us with justification for believing that a proposition either is possible, necessary or essential?
Modal Skepticism: what is the extent of human modal knowledge? Is it limited to ordinary possibilities, such as the possibility that a cup located at one place can be located elsewhere, or are extraordinary possibilities, such as the possibility of disembodied consciousness, also accessible with justification?
Modal Architecture: in the range of the possible, the necessary, and the essential, is one more basic than the others, such that it provides the basis for knowledge of the others. For example, is necessity more basic than possibility, such that we first come to know about necessity, and then derive possibility form it?
2. The Comparative Questions for Classical Indian Philosophy
What does classical Indian philosophy have to say about the epistemology of modality? Here are the basic questions:
Identification of Texts and Philosophers: Which Texts and Which Philosophers addressed the epistemology of modality?
Comparative Question: How do classical Indian philosophical views about the epistemology of modality relate to Western philosophical views?
Centrality: If classical Indian philosophy does not engage the epistemology of modality as seriously as Western philosophy does, what is the best explanation for that? If it does engage it, what is the centrality of it to classical Indian philosophy?
Indirect Answer: If classical Indian philosophy does not engage the epistemology of modality directly, is there an answer to another question that does provide an answer to questions in the epistemology of modality? That is not a general question about knowledge or perception, but something more specific about how we access necessity and mere possibility.
3. My Current Thoughts
My current thoughts are the following:
- Classical Indian philosophy has an indirect answer the central questions in the epistemology of modality because it is not a central topic in the classical Indian philosophy because modal arguments are not a central part of the Indian philosophy.
- The indirect answer will come from classical Indian debates on observation of co-presence and co-absence in inference. This makes classical Indian philosophy a solid contributor to the current turn toward modal empiricism and a rather strong opponent to the rationalism of the past 20 years.
- There is an interesting and important story about why classical Indian philosophy does not engage this question, and it sheds light on an important difference between how classical Indian philosophy conceives of itself relative to Western philosophy.
But the real question is: For those in the know, since I know so little, where can I go to get more information? And what are the answers to the questions I have raised?
4. The Recent History in Western Philosophy
In the past 20 years (1994 to 2014) the dominant program in analytic epistemology and philosophy of mind has focused on rationalism, the attempt to explain modal knowledge in terms of a priority. The strongest proponents of this view are David Chalmers, George Bealer, Christopher Peacocke, and Laurence Bonjour. However, there has been a growing number of philosophers, such as Timothy Williamson and Bob Hale, that have pushed for a mixed view on which some of our modal knowledge is a priori, some a posteriori, and some neither a priori nor a posteriori. And some philosophers, such as Otavio Bueno and Sonia Roca-Royes have pushed further for a form of modal empiricism where our knowledge of possibility is either derived from similarity judgments or modality is fundamental and not to be explained in terms of something more basic, such as possible worlds.
5. The Main Theories in Western Philosophy
We derive knowledge of possibility from conceiving of various states of affairs.
We derive knowledge of possibility from counterfactually imagining what would happen if certain actual facts were not the case.
We derive knowledge of possibility from first considering the essential natures of the relevant entities under consideration.
We come to know that something is possible through direct intuition of possibility.
We can come to know the essences of an entity through free variation in imagination where we abstract away from particular properties of an entity until we come to arrive at a model or an invariant of the entity. The invariant gives us the essence, whereby we then deduce what is possible for the entity.
We come to know that it is possible for x to be F because x is similar to y, and we have observed that y is F.
6. The Centrality to Western Philosophy
The debate over the epistemology of modality is at the heart of Western philosophy, both Analytic and Non-Analytic, both classical and contemporary.
Consider the following classical cases:
St. Anslem argued for the existence of God on the basis of the inconceivability of God’s non-existence because the definition of God included existence as an essential property.
Rene Descartes argued for the separation of mind and body on the basis of the conceivability of his mind existing independently of his body because the definition of mind is that it is essentially thinking while that of body is that it is essentially extended.
George Berkeley argued for idealism, understood as the claim that to exist is to be perceived, based on the inconceivability of an entity existing while being perceived by no one.
Edmund Husserl held that the essences of entities could be arrived at through free variation in imagination and that essentialist knowledge was central to a phenomenological philosophy.