I’ve posted a draft of a new paper that, among other things, defends Lewis against the charge that he needs to employ primitive modality in order for his modal realism to be successful, thus undermining his claims to reduction. One thing I argue is that Lewis’s objectors fail to adequately distinguish two tasks: giving an account of what possibility is, and giving an account of the extent of possibility. The tasks are crucially different and, in my opinion, neither requires for its success the meeting of the other. In particular, an account of what possibility is can stay silent on the extent of what is possible.
So consider the Lycan/Shalkowski objection that Lewis needs a modal understanding of ‘world’ to ensure that there is the correct correspondence between worlds and possibilities, necessary for the material adequacy of Lewis’s account of possibility as truth at a world. Lycan says that Lewis needs ‘world’ to mean ‘possible world’ to rule out the inclusion of impossible worlds in Lewis’s ontology. Shalkowski says Lewis needs the notion of a world to be modal to ensure that the space of worlds is complete: that there are no worlds missing.
I think that’s wrong. What ensures that there are no impossible worlds is Lewis’s account of what possibility is. To be possible just is to be true at a world, so there’s simply no question of there being an impossible world for Lewis. Whatever worlds there happen to be, those worlds will all be possible and none of them impossible, because that’s just what possibility is. Similarly, there’s no question of there being a world missing – of there being a possible circumstance with no corresponding world. But what accomplishes this is not a modal understanding of ‘world’ but, again, Lewis’s account of what possibility is.
It just falls out from Lewis’s analysis that there’s no impossible world, and no possible circumstance unrepresented by a world. Now, here’s what doesn’t fall out from the analysis: that there’s no world with a round square as a part, or that there’s a world with a talking donkey as a part. But contra what Lycan and Shalkowski think, this doesn’t mean that Lewis’s analysis leaves it open that there are impossible worlds or not worlds enough for possibility. If it turns out that there’s a world containing round squares then this is not for it to turn out that there’s an impossible world, according to Lewis’s analysis – it’s for it to turn out that round squares are possible after all! Likewise, mutatis mutandis, if it turns out that there’s no world containing a talking donkey.
Now, Lycan and Shalkowski might complain that any analysis of modality that says that round squares are possible and talking donkeys impossible is not acceptable. Well maybe that’s right. But Lewis’s analysis of course doesn’t say this: it just doesn’t settle that round square are impossible or talking donkeys possible. But that’s fine: the account of what possibility is needn’t settle these claims about the extent of possibility. To demand that Lewis’s analysis settle these facts is to demand too much of analysis: it’s to confuse the two tasks that should be kept separate.
You might think that we need to be able to acquire warrant for thinking that there are no worlds with round squares and that there are worlds with talking donkeys if Lewis’s analysis is to be warranted in the first place. Well, again, that’s fine: Lewis has given us an argument for thinking that the space of worlds is like this. (Namely, that the posit that it is so is theoretically beneficial.) But it’s nothing about the meaning of ‘world’ or the nature of worlds that settles that the space of worlds is so, and nor need it be, since an account of what possibility is needn’t entail an account of the extent of possibility.
I think a similar thing is going on in Divers and Melia’s objection to Lewisian realism. Their argument is as follows. They assume that it’s possible for there to be alien natural properties, and so Lewis’s principle of recombination doesn’t give us a complete account of what worlds there are. Now, it seems that if there could be alien natural properties, there should be no finite bound on the number of possible alien natural properties out there. It seems ad hoc to say there are exactly 17, or a billion, alien natural properties in the multiverse; and so it seems that if we accept the possibility of alien properties in the first place, we should hold that for any finite natural number n, there are at least n alien properties to be found across the space of worlds. But once this is granted, argue Divers and Melia, there is no way to give in non-modal terms a complete account of what worlds there are. For we can’t just say that there are infinitely many alien natural properties spread across the worlds; or that for any finite n there is a world where n distinct alien natural properties are instantiated. Why not? Well, to satisfy those tenets there has to be, across the space of worlds, a denumerable sequence of alien natural properties P1, P2, . . ., Pn. Now, let S be the set of all the worlds that there are. S satisfies both those tenets, of course; but so does the set S* which is the subset of S containing all the members of S except those worlds where, say, P1 is instantiated. Because with P1 missing, there are still of course infinitely many alien properties left; so any tenet you laid down to tell you that there were infinitely many alien natural properties out there in the space of worlds won’t be able to discriminate between it being P1, P2, . . ., Pn that exist across the worlds or merely P2, . . ., Pn that exist. And so there is no tenet you can lay down that will completely yield all the worlds that there are. Unless, of course, we say something like ‘All the possible alien natural properties are instantiated somewhere across the space worlds’. And so the only way to completely say what worlds there are is to invoke primitive modality.
I think Divers and Melia’s argument that the Lewisian is not going to be able to give a complete account of the space of worlds in non-modal terms is pretty convincing. But unlike them, I see no reason to think this casts doubt on the reductive ambitions of the theory. Why should we demand that the Lewisian be able to give a complete non-modal account of what worlds there are? Given the Lewisian analysis, that’s to demand a non-modal account of the space of possibilities. But why should we demand this? To say what it is to be possible is one thing, to say what is possible another. Maybe no complete account of the space of possibility can be given: that should lead us only to epistemic humility, not to abandon a reductive account of what it is to be possible.
The paper goes into these issues in more detail, as well as making some methodological remarks about how to assess whether something can appropriately be included in a reductive basis. Comments on any of it would be welcome.