Friday, April 10, 2015

Modal Realism and the Serviceability Argument

Here's a quote from David Lewis: "Why believe in a plurality of worlds? -- Because the hypothesis is serviceable, and that is a reason to think that it is true."

Question for David Lewis and other modal realists: Lots of worlds are serviceable, not just the metaphysically possible ones. Many times when we do semantics, discuss language, give thought experiments, etc., worlds which are strictly logically possible but not metaphysically possible are helpful. For example, one of the ways that intensional semantics deals with oblique transitive verbs, control verbs, etc. is by invoking worlds where, for instance, water is not H2O, or where Hesperus is not Phosphorus. Presumably these are not metaphysically possible worlds, but rather 'logically' possible worlds. (Sometimes metaphysically possible worlds are called 'broadly' logically possible worlds; by 'logically' possible worlds I mean what are sometimes called 'strictly' logically possible worlds.)

Do these exist too, in exactly the same way as the metaphysically possible ones? If yes, then we run into problems. After all, isn't it only the metaphysically possible worlds which can exist? If not, then what is the distinction between metaphysical possibility and mere logical possibility supposed to mean? In fact, if merely logically possible worlds exist just like the metaphysically possible ones then there is no distinction. But there is, of course, a distinction.

At the very least, aren't the metaphysically possible worlds the only ones which could be actual? But if 'actual' is indexical as Lewis thinks, and the logically possible worlds exist on a par with the metaphysically possible ones, then any of these worlds could be actual.

Personally, I think there's just as good reason to admit the existence of logically impossible worlds as there is to admit the existence of possible worlds (though I don't think there's much reason to admit the existence of either).  If we really needed possible worlds, I think we'd need impossible ones too. But if logically impossible worlds are serviceable too then that makes things even worse for the modal realist. After all, what would it mean to say that a logical contradiction actually holds true in a concrete world just like ours? Clearly there are no such concrete worlds, since whatever concretely exists must at least be possible. But even if one resists the need for impossible worlds, the metaphysically possible worlds are a proper subset of the strictly logically possible ones, and it should be clear that these latter are "serviceable" too.

In sum, if Lewis's argument works for the existence of concrete metaphysically possible worlds, then it works for the existence of metaphysically impossible worlds too. But these can't exist concretely; that's the whole point of making some metaphysically possible and others not. Hence, Lewis's argument does not work. This can be taken as either reason to abandon the 'serviceability' criterion of existence, or as reason for rejecting concrete possible worlds. I'm inclined to reject both.

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