Thursday, September 17, 2009

Modal accounts

Modal accounts—and I take counterfactual ones to be a special case—typically do not get at the heart of what is going on. Consider for example the account of free will in terms of the Principle of Alternate Possibility (PAP), or the account of causation in terms of counterfactuals. Both fail, and in both cases there either are counterexamples or there are cases that are so close to being counterexamples that they significantly lower our confidence in the claim that there are no counterexamples. Yet PAP and the counterfactual account of causation do get something right. I think what is going on in both cases, and maybe in cases of other modal accounts, is that the account confuses explanans with explanandum (or, more fluently, cause with effect). It is because I am free that I typically have alternate possibilities, and it is because A caused B that were B not to have occurred, A would not occur.

Typically, explanatory and causal relations can be blocked—the explanans can be had without the explanandum. So one can have A causing B without the counterfactual, and one can have freedom without alternate possibilities. But these are not going to be standard cases. Now if causal determinism of the standard variety were generally true, then surely we would not be the possessors of a faculty innately capable, in the right external circumstances, of producing events with alternate possibilities. And so we would not be free. So an argument from PAP to indeterminism can still be made, despite counterexamples to PAP.

Modal or counterfactual stories like PAP may show that a view—say, compatibilism—is false, but they typically fail to get at the essence of why the view is wrong. (When an argument against a view is given that fails to get at the essence of what is wrong with the view, it can trigger a large literature of attempts to tweak the view, nitpick about problems with the argument, etc.) Here's another example. The knowability paradox argument against anti-realism. From the claim that everything can be known by beings like us, we can prove the absurdity that everything is known by beings like us (just apply the claim that everything can be known by beings like us to the proposition that p is an unknown truth). This is a perfectly good argument, but it fails to get at the essence of what is wrong with anti-realism, and that is a part of why instead of being simply taken as a perfectly good argument as it should be, it is taken to be a paradox.


Anonymous said...

Could a confusion of explanans with explanandum also be behind the notion of sets as well? It is not because x and y are in a particular set that they are substances, but rather that they are in the set that they are because they are substances?

Alexander R Pruss said...

But does anyone explain substancehood in terms of set membership?

Anonymous said...


Sorry I got away from the modality question.

I think that the association of a substance with set is related to the categorial notion of substance. Appealing to the notion of set has been used to explain the notion of a substance. For example, 1) it has been said that a given substance can be sufficiently accounted for as a particular set of properties. Or, 2) one could hold that a substance is a thin particular that is such because it belongs to a set that includes all individual substrata.

I'm wondering if such a characterization collapses the idea of explanans and explanandum. Take 1): instead of saying that there is a substance x because there is a set of properties, it seems more likely that there is a set of properties because there is a substance x.

However, on second thought, it may not be so much a relation of explanans to explanandum but that the two are independent (the set of all substances seems to be just as much of an authentic set as the set of my sleeve and the dark side of the moon, if I understand it correctly). So, just as substance cannot be the cause of a particular set, so too picking out a set cannot be the explanation for a particular substance.

But this is only a notion that I have: thank be to philosophical blogs for such exercises! As usual, great post.

Heath White said...

A modest proposal: the analysis of _having a certain property P_ in terms of _being in the set of P things_ (advocated by some near-nominalists, e.g. Quine) gets things backwards.

I thought this post was perceptive, Alex. Your comment about "large tweaking literatures" made me think of the Gettier problem in epistemology: perhaps the right conclusion is that JTB is not the analysis of knowledge, but a normal consequence of knowledge.

This is one of those helpful heuristics for where problems really lie, that young philosophers need to cultivate.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yea and amen.

(I once was responding to a talk by Al Plantinga and on a first glance I had nothing to disagree with. So I asked Al what I should say if that turns out to be the case. His suggestion was "Yea and amen." However, I eventually found things to disagree with.)

Andrew Jaeger said...


I take it that when you say, "So an argument from PAP to indeterminism can still be made, despite counterexamples to PAP." You are taking PAP to be defined as merely a sufficient but non-necessary condition for freedom, right? For, if we took PAP to be "XYZ _iff_ QRS", and we know QRS is false, then if we are still going to maintain part of this principle as true, we will have to modify the principle...for example, "XYZ _if_ QRS." So we can still maintain a version of PAP and recognize its counter-examples as sound, provided PAP is not stated in terms of a necessary condition.

If that is how we take PAP, it seems reasonable to still use it in an argument for indeterminism even though there are counter-examples to it. We shouldn't let the debate of whether or not PAP is also a necessary condition get in the way of the fact that it is a sufficient condition.

If that is the case, then it seems similar things are at work in the counterfactual case (where the counterfactual analysis of causation although not necessary for causation, may still be a sufficient condition for causation) and the JTB case (where JTB although is not sufficient for knowledge, yet it still may be a necessary condition for knowledge).
It seems that we should not let the fact that each of the mentioned criteria fail to meet necessary AND sufficient conditions for a position 'X' obfuscate the fact that they still meet [or come very close to meeting] ONE of the conditions (be it the necessary or sufficient condition). Because the fact that it is one of the two may still hold argumentative weight.

So it seems there is a "common trend" to ignore sufficient conditions for X as sufficient conditions (e.g., PAP, counterfactual analysis of causation).

Martin Cooke said...

Hi Alex,

I agree with you and Heath about reductions.

On Free Will, I would it say it was because God was free that those He makes to be similarly free have alternative possibilities, rather than that it is because we are free that we usually have alternative possibilities. The latter seems to me to get it the wrong way round. If there were alternatives, we could choose randomly or in a reasonable way, so as you say we do not seem to get what we want with free will. But at least there would be the openness there, in the ontology. For the alternatives to arise because of your freedom, your freedom would have be a very creative sort of freedom. Maybe it is (as God's is), but then I would prefer to say it was because of your creativity, rather than because of your freedom.

That was perhaps a bit confused; do you see what I mean?