Modal Epistemology

I think so. Before we try, though, let’s get some perspective on what we’re doing. When we start wondering what we can build, we’re starting to think about LEGO modal epistemology. Modal epistemology is the study of how we know how things could and must be—ideas that take a bit of unpacking.

Let’s begin with the “modal” bit. Consider these truths: I drink a pot of coffee every morning, sharks aren’t mammals, two and two is four, there are no LEGO plates with exactly 4,289,387 studs on them. But not all truths are made equal: some are contingent, others necessary. Contingent truths could have been false. I might not have coffee tomorrow (I can quit anytime I want!), and the good folks in Billund could have made a plate with exactly 4,289,387 studs—they’ve just never had a reason to do it. Necessary truths, by contrast, couldn’t be false. Two and two, for example, could never equal five.5 Contingency and necessity are two modes of truth, and they’re the modes we care about when we do modal epistemology.

Epistemology is the study of how and what we know. On the “how” side, we ask questions like: what does it take to know that Ole Kirk Christiansen founded the LEGO Group? Presumably, you’re going to acquire that knowledge via testimony—that is, someone’s going to tell you about Christiansen’s exploits. Seems straightforward, but there are puzzles nearby. What if the person’s a pathological liar? OK: the person’s got to be a reliable witness. Do you have to know that he’s a reliable witness? Does that mean you can’t learn things from strangers? No: you can definitely learn things from strangers. You just can’t have any evidence that the guy is a pathological liarthat’s what would undermine knowledge. So... does that mean you can know that Christiansen founded the LEGO Group based on the testimony of a pathological liar—as long as you don’t have any evidence that he isn’t a liar? As you can see, things get messy pretty quickly.

On the “what” side, we ask questions about particular cases. Earlier, I said we know that the good folks in Billund could have made a plate with exactly 4,289,387 studs. Is that true? Maybe it isn’t: a brick with that many studs would be awfully large, and perhaps there are limits to the mold-size that their machinery can handle. Or perhaps their machinery could handle it, but the size would require breaking their rules about plate thickness (3.2mm, vs. 9.6mm for bricks). And if they did that, would they still be making a true LEGO plate?

Anyway, modal epistemology has the same two parts. Some of it is the study of how we know that some things are contingent and others necessary. Let’s assume that we do know that the good folks in Billund could have made a plate with exactly 4,289,387 studs. How’d we figure that out? The other part of modal epistemology concerns how much we know about what’s contingent and necessary. To date, the tallest LEGO tower is just over thirty-five meters high. How high could you go? A hundred meters? Very likely. A thousand? Maybe. Ten thousand? Well, at some point, it’s going to collapse under its own weight—the base will be crushed by the weight of the superstructure—and if I had to bet, the last number crosses that line. In any case, even if we know that we couldn’t build a ten-thousand- meter tower, there are plenty of numbers in between a thousand and ten thousand where we aren’t sure what to say. And so we’ve found one gap in our modal knowledge, at least where LEGO towers are concerned.

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