Towards a non-uniform epistemology of modality

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Philosophy

Abstract

The proposed project is on modal epistemology. Modality is the area in philosophy that studies the nature of things and, relatedly, the notions of necessity, possibility and essence. Epistemology is the science of knowledge. Modal epistemology is, therefore, a philosophical sub-discipline which aims to answer questions about the source of our modal knowledge. How do we know, for instance, that the table I'm writing on could break? Or that I could have a car accident? How do we know that (or whether) humans are essentially humans? Could perhaps Socrates exist being a dog?
These questions are challenging. For I can see that the table is brown and rectangular, I can feel, through touch, that is rather cold. But I do not see or feel-I do not perceive-its possibility of breaking. On what grounds-epistemic grounds-then, do I say that it can break? Similarly, suppose I perceptually know that my neighbour, my father, and my favourite singer, all had car accidents. But if I myself have never had one, on what epistemic grounds do I say that I can have one? And to give another example: We know that Socrates is human (and perhaps also that he has always been and will always be). But what sort of evidence could we have for the stronger claim that he is essentially human?
The dominant view in the literature has been-and continues to being-that perception does not constitute our access to modal facts and, as a result, empiricism has not been very popular among modal epistemologists. Instead, rationalism, implemented in various ways, has been in the lead. For instance, the conceivabilists defend that our access to the modal realm is through (mental) acts of conceiving. They think, to put it crudely, that the fact that we can conceive of the table as broken is what grounds our judgement (and knowledge) that the table can break; and that the fact that we can't conceive of Socrates as being a dog (or a cat, or a giraffe...) ultimately grounds our judgement that he is essentially human.
An advantage of the rationalists is that, because their elucidations of modal knowledge do not involve empirical elements, they can hope for a uniform modal epistemology: that is, they can hope that modal knowledge about concrete entities can be elucidated in the same way as modal knowledge about abstract entities. This being so, our knowledge, for instance, that number two is essentially a number would also be elucidated, according to a conceivabilist, in terms of the fact that we can't conceive of it being any other kind of entity.
In the past several years, the current applicant has argued against the rationalist views one finds in the literature. The results of that research suggest that, after all, a uniform modal epistemology might not be available and that, for the case of concrete entities, empiricism deserves proper attention/exploration.
This project is to do, roughly, two things: first, to sketch an empiricist modal epistemology for the case of concrete entities and, second, to explore the shape a modal epistemology for abstract entities might need to have such that it's not susceptible to the same objections other rationalist accounts are believed to be susceptible to. As for the former, the applicant is working with the conviction that our knowledge that this table can break is grounded in (knowledge of) the fact that we've seen other (similar) tables broken. The task is to defend that and why this latter piece of knowledge, in combination with ampliative methodology, can constitute appropriate epistemic foundations for modal knowledge. The story to be developed here, however, won't transfer to abstract entities, and this makes the second part of the project an urgent task. A satisfactory modal epistemology for abstract entities will need to be very different in nature and the current project is to defend that, under a certain conception of abstract entities, such epistemology will need to be subsumed under an epistemology of existence.

Planned Impact

The proposed project falls within the so-called 'theoretical philosophy'. Its suggested research is highly specialised and it will be, I believe, largely inaccessible to an untrained audience. As such, it is difficult to conceive of clear, specific ways in which the current project, or its outputs, could impact the non-academic sphere. Having said this, however, the project is on modal epistemology and it is not difficult to realize ways modal epistemology, as a whole, can impact the non-academic world.
A lot of our decision-making processes, for instance, rest on modal premises. We decide to use the safety-belt when driving because we're aware we *can* have a car accident and we know that the use of the safety-belt helps diminishing the human damages of accidents. Or, to give a larger-scale example, governments opt for certain environmental policies because they believe that the climate change tendency *can* be, if not reverted, at least decelerated. Having such modal premises raised to the epistemic status of knowledge (as opposed to the weaker status of belief) will matter when it comes to claiming the rationality of our decisions, and modal epistemology is helping us understand the mechanisms (and methodology) by means of which we attain knowledge of modal truths. In a similar vein, knowledge representation in AI (artificial intelligence) will benefit from the findings of modal epistemology and modal logic as pieces of reasoning that rest on modal premises are ubiquitous.
While it is true that such impact does not depend specifically on the current project--or, for that matter, on any one particular project on the topic--, it is also true that this does not mean (and it would be fallacious to infer) that the current project has no role to play in such impact. But because of the (I would say) holistic nature of the impact that modal epistemology has, it is very difficult to quantify or measure the impact that this particular project will have.
Despite this, there are steps that can be taken to try to maximize the direct impact that the suggested project can have; mostly through dissemination to non-academic audiences. This is not always possible, as the degree of simplification that would sometimes be needed in theoretical philosophy in order to make a project intelligible to a non-specialised audience would be so high that the distinctive traits of the project would be lost in the simplification. To some extent, the second part of the research project--the one devoted to the epistemology of modality for abstract entities--falls under this rubric. But not, I believe, the first part--that of developing an epistemology of modality for concrete entities. It is not too difficult to offer a simplified version of the central problems in modal epistemology and of the empiricist line of solution I want to defend for the case of concrete entities without compromising the spirit of the proposal, thereby making the research and its outputs to some extent accessible to the non-academic public. The current applicant has already taken steps in this direction in the past and, as the Pathways to Impact file explains, she is planning analogous steps as far as the current project is concerned.

Publications

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Description Key findings:
The project is on modal epistemology. Modality is the area in philosophy that studies the nature of things and, relatedly, the notions of necessity, possibility and essence. Epistemology is the science of knowledge. Modal epistemology is, therefore, a philosophical sub-discipline which aims to answer questions about the source of our modal knowledge. How do we know, for instance, that the table I'm writing on could break? Or that I could have a car accident? How do we know that (or whether) humans are essentially humans? Could perhaps Socrates exist being a dog?
As described in the summary of the research proposal, the intellectual objectives of the research project were two-fold:
1- Sketching an epistemology of modality for concrete entities
2- Shaping an epistemology of modality of abstract entities.
I have fully achieved these aims and the outputs of this research have already appeared or are forthcoming, as chapters, in two international edited collections.
These results are innovative in at least two important ways. First, the epistemologies suggested for concrete and for abstracta entities, which I have developed under the scope of this award, are, compared to one another, very different in nature. This calls into question a presumption of uniformity present in the literature until recently. According to this presumption, one could do with one epistemology of modality that would apply across the board, irrespective of the nature-concrete or abstract-of the objects at issue on each occasion.
Second, it puts forward a non-rationalist epistemology in the case of concrete entities, and this also calls into question the widely accepted belief that our epistemic access to modal facts is, not only uniform, but also (fundamentally) a priori.
As such, there are two important respects in which, as anticipated in the proposal, the research project developed manages to challenge beliefs that have been dominant in the literature.
Exploitation Route Future directions: Within the scope of the award, I organised a conference held in Stirling in October 2015. The aim of that conference was to explore the new (and future) directions in the epistemology of modality. It became evident from the contributions by the several speakers that people are receiving with interest the suggestion that a non-uniform (and partly non-rationalist) epistemology is worth exploring. The suggestion, also put forward by others such as Bob Fischer, Felipe Leon Margot Strohminger, and Barbara Vetter among others, have been taken up and there have been (and, expectedly, will continue to be) developments both by detractors and advocates.
Sectors Education

 
Description To identify clear impact activities and pathways to impact on the non-academic sphere has proved challenging in relation to the current research, given its highly theoretical nature. This was already anticipated, and explained, in the research funding application. There, I distinguished between impact specifically of the research to be undertaken under the award and impact of the epistemology of modality more generally. There are things to be said to help identifying impact in the latter sense, but it is more difficult to do so as far as impact of the specific research proposal is concerned. The following explains why. A lot of our decision-making processes, for instance, rest on modal premises. We decide to use the safety-belt when driving because we're aware we *can* have a car accident and we know that the use of the safety-belt helps diminishing the human damages of accidents. Or, to give a larger-scale example, governments opt for certain environmental policies because they believe that the climate change tendency *can* be, if not reverted, at least decelerated. Having such modal premises raised to the epistemic status of knowledge (as opposed to the weaker status of belief) will matter when it comes to claiming the rationality of our decisions, and modal epistemology is helping us understand the mechanisms (and methodology) by means of which we attain knowledge of modal truths. In a similar vein, knowledge representation in AI (artificial intelligence) will benefit from the findings of modal epistemology and modal logic as pieces of reasoning that rest on modal premises are ubiquitous. While it is true that such impact does not depend specifically on the research developed under the current project-or, for that matter, on any one particular project on the topic-it is also true that this does not mean (and it would be fallacious to infer) that the current project has no role to play in such impact. But because of the (I would say) holistic nature of the impact that modal epistemology has, it is very difficult to quantify or measure the impact that this particular project will have. Despite this, I have taken steps during the duration of the research project to try to maximize the direct impact that the suggested project can have; mostly through dissemination to non-academic audiences. As anticipated in the application, and as already agreed with the Logos Research Group and the Institute of Catalan Studies, IEC (both in Barcelona) I presented my research in April 2015 as a contribution to a series of talks on Cinema and Philosophy. This series is one of several that the two institutions just mentioned have been organizing aimed at high school philosophy teachers with a view to providing them with the latest results of their research as well as with pedagogical tools that they can then use to convey those results to their students. The talks are usually given by different academics and it is a requisite that the contributed talks are designed in a way that would make them accessible, not only to the immediate targeted audience (high school teachers) but also to their students, thereby providing the teachers with the means of conveying, intelligibly, the results of current academic research to their students. My collaboration with Logos and the IEC are ongoing, and I expect to have future further chances of disseminating my research (as I have been for the past 9 years). Another research project I am currently a member (funded by the John Templeton foundation) has dedicated impact activities (again, mostly dissemination activities) that will allow me to disseminate the research of the current developed under this award and beyond.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Modality and modal knowledge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As anticipated in the application, and as already agreed with the Logos Research Group and the Institute of Catalan Studies, IEC (both in Barcelona) I presented my research in April 2015 as a contribution to a series of talks on Cinema and Philosophy. This series is one of several that the two institutions just mentioned have been organizing aimed at high school philosophy teachers with a view to providing them with the latest results of their research as well as with pedagogical tools that they can then use to convey those results to their students. The talks are usually given by different academics and it is a requisite that the contributed talks are designed in a way that would make them accessible, not only to the immediate targeted audience (high school teachers) but also to their students, thereby providing the teachers with the means of conveying, intelligibly, the results of current academic research to their students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Workshop: Directions in the Epistemology of Modality 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact As planned in the application, I organised an international workshop on the epistemology of modality, which took place in Stirling in October 2015.
The main aim of the workshop was to explore the future directions in the epistemology of modality and it drew together philosophers from the UK, Europe and the EEUU. A full programme can be found here: https://sites.google.com/site/epistemologystirling/programme

There were 8 speakers. 6 invited plus 2 which were selected following a graduate call for papers. Speakers were invited so as to have a balance between advocates and detractors of what is becoming to be known in the literature as a "non-rationalist turn" in modal epistemology, and this balance proved to be very stimulating during the talks and their subsequent discussions.

Emphasis was put to attract graduate students both as speakers (the graduate papers were the only ones with planned invited comments by a senior figure in the field) and as audience (we managed to secure graduate bursaries to cover accommodation and conference meals).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://sites.google.com/site/epistemologystirling/