Davd Lewis’ Modal Realism is misleadingly named. A better name for his view would be ‘Possible Worlds Realism.’ This is because while many people are realists about modality, or modal facts, not many people are realists about the entities that the modal facts are analyzed in terms of—viz., possible worlds. Here’s why: it has been widely agreed that it is extremely theoretically useful to analyze modal talk in terms of possible worlds as follows: possibly p iff in some possible world, p; necessarily p iff in all possible worlds, p. Further, without such a reduction, the notions of ‘possibly’ and ‘necessarily’ would have to be taken as primitive, which is seen as an ontological mystery (and, thus, a theoretical burden). However, if the possible worlds analysis of modal terms is adopted, we now have a new problem: we are seemingly quantifying over possible worlds and, if we are good Quineans, we are now committed to having such worlds in our ontology. Moreover, we are now pressed to say just what these possible worlds are.Lewis boldly claims that possible worlds are of the same ontological kind as the actual world—where the actual world, he claims, is intuitively anything that is spatio-temporally and causally connected with us, here. More technically, the actual world—like other possible worlds—is a maximal, consistent set of spatio-temporally and causally connected stuff. Anything that is any spatial or temporal distance from us is part of our world; anything that’s not, isn’t. Other possible worlds, Leiws claims, are just like ours. They are maximal, consistent sets of spatio-temporally and causally connected stuff. Anything that is any spatial or temporal distance from (world-bound) people in other possible worlds is part of their world; anything that’s not, isn’t. Individuals in these possible worlds—including our own—are world-bound; they cannot move from one world to the next. By definition, any world or place they could ‘get to’ would be somewhere in their own world.
Lewis thinks that the main reason to be a modal realist is because doing so is so theoretically beneficial. In other words, if analyzing modal terms in terms of possible worlds is so useful, and such an analysis honestly requires quantification over possible worlds, then (as any good Quinean knows) this is enough to posit possible worlds in our ontology. Put yet another way, Lewis is committed to the following general, Quinean principle: if our best theory about the world quantifies over certain entities, then we are committed to having such entities in our ontology. Our best theory of modality, Lewis claims, is committed to possible worlds, so we mustn’t deny that there really are such things.Lewis parallels this move about ontological commitment to the debates in the ontology in mathematics. At least on the surface, mathematics quantifies over abstract entities such as sets, numbers, functions, etc. However, even though having such entities in our ontology might be ontologically costly, doing so provides us with so much theoretical benefits that the price seems worth it. Put more generally, there is always a trade-off between theoretical benefits and ontological costs. If the benefits received outweigh the costs, then it is seen as a worthwhile trade. Lewis thinks that not only is the trade worthwhile when it comes to modal realism, but what’s more, no other theory about modality will fare near as well. [More on this last point below.]
To help massage our (likely) resistance to his view, he makes a distinction between qualitative and quantitative ontological costs. Since, according to Lewis, possible worlds are not ontologically different kinds of things, his modal realism is only demanding a quantitative ontological cost. He claims that his view simply posits more of what we already think there is. All (or most) of us are already committed to the actual world, no matter what one’s view of modality or possible worlds. So, in committing oneself to modal realism, Lewis thinks, you are simply committing yourself to more of what is already in your ontology. Instead of one world, there’s many. But it’s not as if the many worlds are anything spooky or new or are a kind of entity that we should be suspicious of, on ontological grounds. Modal Realism, then, isn’t claiming that there are totally different kinds of things (like, say, dualism would if one is a materialist). Thus, Lewis thinks that (i) the theoretical benefits are worth the ontological costs of modal realism and (ii) that the ontological costs aren’t as great as they might initially seem anyway, since it is only a quantitative, not a qualitative cost.
modal realism, Lewis thinks, we get
way to reduce or analyze our somewhat mysterious, intensional modal
non-mysterious, extensional talk of possible worlds. If we had
understanding what it meant for something to be possible or necessary,
words, possible worlds will help us, conceptually, to understand modal
We know what it is for someone to be lounging on the beach, for
example. And we
seemingly know what it would be for someone very much like me (in the
ways) to be lounging around on the beach. This is enough, then, Lewis
to understand what it is for it to be possible that I am lounging on a
For, so long as there is a possible world in which a counterpart of me
someone very much like me in relevant ways) is lounging around on a
is what makes it true that it’s possible that I could be lounging
around on a
beach. This gets us into issues about his counterpart theory, which I
Theory: One of the
of Lewis’ modal realism is his adoption of counterpart theory. Lewis
that possible worlds are concrete, like the actual world, and that many
individuals that live in these possible worlds are concrete as well,
individuals in the actual world are. However, because individuals are
world-bound—because individuals cannot travel or get to a different
world than the one they are in—the relation between individuals in
possible worlds cannot be one of identity. For, if it were, then we
able to have someone in more than one possible world.
Further Details of the View
But then, how does Lewis
evaluate counterfactuals? Recall
that for Kripke, to say that (1)--
Counterparts also help us
account for de re,
as opposed to de dicto
possibilities. [More on this
later if I have time.]
Trans-World Identity: There are two sorts of problems that people seem to have in mind when they talk about the problem of trans-world identity. One is epistemological, the other, metaphysical. The epistemological worry runs as follows: if we are inclined to think that possible worlds are like distant countries or planets, then we might think that we will have a problem finding or picking out certain individuals. For if we only have the external, physical properties to go by, we will have a difficult time discerning certain objects from the qualitative duplicates of those objects. But intuitively, there is a difference between, say, Nixon, and someone who merely looks like Nixon, and has all the external, descriptive features of Nixon. So the epistemological worry involved in the problem of trans-world identity is that we will not be able to tell an individual from his look-a-like when we are searching through all of the possible worlds. (By the way, this is the worry that Kripke seems most concerned with when he’s discussing trans-world identity in Naming and Necessity. It also seems that this is related to one of Lewis’ worries about linguistic ersatzism concerning the (seeming) lack of descriptive power or descriptive resources that the ersatzer has at his disposal.)
worry, however, involves whether
relation that’s held between people in different possible worlds can
one of identity. For example, if we thought that possible worlds were
things, that they really were something like very far way and distant
then there seems to be a difficulty in saying that one and the same
can occupy two or more different possible worlds. We say that it’s
that I am on a beach in
Quantifier Restriction: An initial worry some might have with Lewis’ modal realism is the following: “when we say there are things, we mean to be committed to them, ontologically, but we also mean that these things actually are. Whenever we are ontologically committed to things, in other words, we are ontologically committed to them existing in the actual world. So it doesn’t make sense to say that purple gnomes and magic beans and innumerably many fat men in doorways are, but that these thing are not actual, like Lewis wants us to do.”
In response to this sort of worry, Lewis argues that our use of ‘there are’ is contextually sensitive. Imagine, for example, that we were at a party and after looking at the sorry contents (or lack of contents) of the fridge, someone exclaims: “There’s no more beer!” Surely, we will think that what this someone is saying is true; after all, his exclamation is what motivates a bunch of us to pile in a car and head out on a beer run. But we do not thereby think that he meant that there is no more beer anywhere. That is part of the reason we left for the store to get more beer; we thought there was more to be had. It’s just that there wasn’t anymore beer at the party. Examples like these abound, Lewis thinks. What we are doing in such cases, he explains, is trading on contextually sensitive quantifiers. When we use quantifier words such as ‘everything’, ‘nothing’, ‘there are’, ‘most’, etc., we can restrict our quantifiers in each case to include just the things around here, or those things a bit further out, or we can use them completely unrestrictedly and talk about everything, everywhere. This is what is happening, Lewis thinks, when we talk about what there is. When we say that there are no purple gnomes or magic beans or innumerably many fat men in the doorway, our quantifiers are restricted to the actual world, and all of what we think is in it. When we force our quantifiers wide open, however, and want to account not only for what there actually is, but what there is tout court, then we will, Lewis thinks, say that there are purple gnomes and magic beans and whatever else we think is possible as well as what’s actual. Or at least, this is what we will say if Lewis is right.
So, Lewis thinks that he has given a fairly plausible explanation for why we have the intuition we do regarding the apparent equivalence of claims about what we think exists and what we think actually exists. As examples such as the beer case show, quantifier restriction is a subtle matter and can often go unnoticed. Moreover, he thinks that his explanation partly explains why it is that our modal claims in general are so flexible. In the section above on counterparts, I explained how it could be that in one context we think that it is possible that I speak Finnish, and in another context we think it is not possible that I speak Finnish. Endorsing quantifier restriction nicely accounts for the fact that we think that there’s different grades of modality—e.g., epistemic, physical, metaphysical, logical modality, etc.
‘Actual’ is an
Indexical: Another distinguishing
feature of Lewis’ modal realism is his claim that ‘actual’ is an
aid our intuitions here, Lewis considers parallel indexicals such as
‘now.’ If I say in
So what makes our world so special on Lewis’ view? Nothing, really, except that we’re in it. It’s just as if one was a four-dimensionalist about time. The only thing special about ‘now’ is that it is the time that we’re in. But, metaphysically, it’s not any different than ancient
Why Modal Realism is Better than the Alternatives: Lewis thinks that modal realism is better than any of its competitors for several reasons. Concentrating just on the realist alternatives for now, Lewis thinks that his view is better than any of the ersatz views mostly because his view seems to have fewer descriptive limitations and more descriptive resources than the alternatives.
Briefly, an ‘ersatzer’ (as Lewis himself calls them), or an ‘abstract modal realist’ (as they tend to call themselves), claims that there are possible worlds, but that these worlds are not concrete in the way that Lewis thinks. Rather, they are abstract sorts of things—although, exactly what kind of abstract thing varies according to the abstract modal realist view under consideration. However, Lewis thinks that there are two main problems for ersatzers in general, stemming from the fact that they only have so many descriptive resources at their disposal.
To see his worry, imagine that there is a world just like this one, except that every billion years it descriptively repeats itself, where this repetition eternally recurs both forwards and backwards (i.e., the world has always been repeating itself, and always will). Then, in every cycle there will presumably be someone very much like me who will be typing these words on a computer very much like this one. Intuitively, though, despite the descriptive similarities, there could be one of them that is me, not just someone very much like me. It seems, anyway, that I could exclaim in one of the eras, “Hey! It’s me!”. But, of course, on the linguistic ersatzer’s picture, all of the other duplicates of me could exclaim the same thing, or utter a similar sentence, and so there would be no way to descriptively distinguish me from any of my counterparts. In other words, it looks like me and all of my duplicates in this world are descriptively indiscernible. Nonetheless, there’s an intuition that despite the indiscernibility, one of them is me, whereas the others are not. But an abstract modal realist is going to have difficulty describing this difference, because without difference in description, a (linguistic) ersatzer has no way to account for the (intuitively) ontological difference. Since Lewis doesn’t rely on sentences or descriptions in this way—since he can have individuals, de re—he can make a distinction between an individual and a descriptively indiscernible duplicate. This shows, he thinks, a sizable advantage of his view over competing views.
Another problem has to do with ‘alien properties.’ We might think, for example, that there could have been properties totally different from ones that there actually are—so different, in fact, that they are not built out of anything in the actual world. But if this is right, then the abstract modal realist is seemingly going to have difficulty accounting for such a possibility, since his worlds are presumably made up out of descriptions (or pictures or something else) of things that actually exist. The abstract modal realist, in other words, has a sort of combinatorial approach to possible worlds in that all of the possibilities are built out of actual elements or properties here in the actual world. But if this is right, then it looks like he will not have the descriptive resources to allow for the possibility of truly alien properties.
claim that the theoretical benefits outweigh
the ontological costs.
Too Epistemically Mysterious: One concern we might have with Lewis’ Modal Realism is that it is too epistemically mysterious. Lewis claims that what ground our modal truths are the things that happen in spatio-temporally and causally isolated possible worlds. But, how, we might wonder, can something that happens in a world that is spatio-temporally and causally isolated from us have any effect whatsoever in the modal properties we have here and now. What’s more, even if this view of modality were true, how could we ever know what was happening in other possible worlds? If other possible worlds are spatio-temporally and causally isolated from us, then how could I ever find out what other people are really doing in other possible words? And if we have no way of finding out what they are doing, then how can we ever find out what the modal truth are, and so how can we know whether anything is possible or necessary?
Lewis’ response here is to invoke what’s known as Benacerraff’s Dilemma. In the philosophy of mathematics, for example, we can either deny that our talk of mathematics is useful (or deny that it really is quantifying over mathematical entities), or we could deny that the only way we can come to know things is causally. In the one case, we are letting our metaphysics be guided by an empiricist epistemology, in the other, we are letting our epistemology be guided by our metaphysics, or at least letting our epistemology be guided by the sorts of entities that our language quantifies over. If we find mathematics and mathematical talk indispensable, and irreducible, however—i.e., if we can’t find a way to reduce such talk to something more metaphysically friendly—then we might be inclined to plunk down for mathematical entities in our ontology rather than an empiricist-friendly epistemology. It’s all a matter of trade-offs and theoretical benefits, Lewis thinks. And like philosophy of mathematics, Lewis argues, we should decide in favor of metaphysics over epistemology in the case of modality and possible worlds.
The Argument from Concern: This objection can be rather simply stated, and I think originated with Rosen (in his Modal Fictionalism article). It goes like this: “Look, I care about whether I could have been a millionaire, or could have gone out with that one guy if I would have just let him beat me at pool, or could have passed the metaphysics exam if I would have studied just a bit more diligently, etc. I care, in other words, about certain modal facts about me, about what I could and could not have done, or what is possible or not possible for me to do in the future. But I do not care about what someone very much like me in some possible world way too far away does! I don’t even really care about what someone very much like me one state over is doing. So why should I care what someone very much like me in a spatio-temporally and causally isolated possible world is doing? That I care for one thing so very much (e.g., my own modal facts), and care about the other so very, very little (e.g., some stranger very much like me in another possible world) shows that the ‘two’ facts cannot be the same thing.
I don’t know
Lewis addresses this sort of worry; I
don’t think he does in Plurality of
Worlds, at least. But there’s an obvious problem with the above
reasoning: it commits the
be identical to Clark
Stare: There’s not much
here, since it’s not really an argument. Nonetheless, the ‘argument’ of
the incredulous stare basically goes: “You believe in concrete possible
spatio-temporally and causally isolated from us, and this
is what is supposed to ground modal facts? WTF?!?!” Followed
by an incredulous stare...
I suppose Lewis
can shrug his shoulders, scratch his head, or simply whistle dixie in