Monday, March 10, 2008


one comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of opinions. it is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these preexisting opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system...among my common opinions that philosophy must respect (if it is to deserve credence) are not only my naive beliefs in tables and chairs, but also my naive belief that these tables and chairs might have been otherwise arranged. realism about possible worlds is an attempt, the only successful attempt i know, to systematize these preexisting modal opinions.

david lewis
'possible worlds'

i am going to try to restate this as sensibly and as generously as i can: modal realism is not a way of interrogating or justifying my prephilosophic beliefs about possibility, but of systematizing them. and, more broadly, systematization (not critical analysis or justification) of my most fundamental beliefs is the proper goal of philosophy in general.

this is the part where i would generally turn to capitol letters and exclamation points to get across my emphatic disagreement. because, at the outset, i really couldn't disagree more strongly. but in the past few weeks david lewis-- with his whimsical analogies, warm talent for clear explication, and disarming willingness to concede uncertainty-- has totally won me over. won me over to the degree that despite my disagreement (did i mention that it is emphatic?) with these sentiments-- which underwrite his entire theory-- i feel, when i read them, something which could better be captured by a question mark than an exclamation point-- albeit a deeply consternated question mark.

i agree with lewis about the existence of tables and chairs-- there they are, and after a few usefully invigorating and challenging arguments with the skeptic about brains in vats and evil demons, there they still are, and i have no more use for philosophical theories that aim to cast doubt on the matter. but our claims about what's possible, while pervasive-- as essential to our daily talk as regular old claims about what just is-- are not, as lewis claims, improper objects of (potentially undermining) critical reflection.

i do believe that a sense of the possible is as centrally useful to human beings as our sense of sight or touch-- but it's also (and i don't know how to state this gravely enough) a trickier sort of sense-- a sense not anchored to things in the actual world, by which we reach both the highest highs of imagination, and the lowest lows of self-righteous cruelty. it seems to me that we have every reason to ruthlessly examine a sense like that.

(also i'm working slowly on and off on a post about this bit of analysis, which i'm both drawn to and skeptical of.)

1 comment:

Lowry said...

LG -- I can only agree about the need to examine the sense of possibility critically. One of the things I'm constantly thinking about, in the background of my project, is how we go about planning how we're going to interact with the rest of nature. It seems clear to me that our sense of possibility has gotten us into a world of environmental trouble for at least two evident reasons: one, we believe we can control things we don't actually understand (i.e., we don't know that there's more to know until the unintended consequence happens), and two, we have way more power -- thanks to our technologies -- than we have caution.

Our model of nature needs to include how much we DON'T know, which is otherwise called humility. But that's hardly the way we are used to working in this here Western culture of ours.