MODALITY FOR THE EMPIRICIST

The result is a form of empiricist realism about modality that steers a path between reduction and reification. The pressure to reify comes partly from an argument that goes like this: if intermediate structures do not represent patterns in the manifold of actual fact, then what do they represent? And we are given two options: either they represent something non-categorical or they do not represent anything at all.[1] PPS’s to FEP’s do not fit clearly into either of these categories. Part of the point of the discussion here was to break down this simple dichotomy. There is, in my view, no more compact story in principle that relates beliefs about modal structures to categorical facts than one that says how these beliefs are formed and the role they play in our cognitive and epistemic lives.

Is this simply instrumentalism? Yes and no. It does hold that modal structures are instrumental in the sense that they represent the world in a form that is poised to play a role in practical and epistemic inference. But it is not the kind of instrumentalism sometimes associated with Duhem according to which instrumental structures are empty nodes in a formal calculus that do not have any representational significance of their own. It is much closer to the instrumentalism of Dewey, according to which all belief is both contentful and geared toward action (Godfrey-Smith 2010). It does not matter much for my purposes what philosophical vocabulary is used to describe this, except that we should refuse to say that this account entails that there are no such things as laws or chances. We should say that the account that we have given tells us what laws and chances are. And we should add that once we understand what laws and chances are, we will see that forming beliefs or making claims about laws and chances does not commit us to the existence of possible worlds, or any other kind of ontologically substantive posit. Everything that there is to know about laws, chances, and other scientific modalities is given in the account of how beliefs about chances are formed, their inferential implications, and the role they play in our practical and epistemic lives. The philosophical vocabulary that I prefer to describe the account is deflationism. Deflationism holds that there is a substantive story about the formation of beliefs about laws and chances, and the role they play in our epistemic and practical reasoning. But the laws and chances themselves are just, so to speak, shadows of law and chance beliefs.[2]

It should be acknowledged, however, that there are other sources of the pressure to reify. One such pressure comes from the basic non-Humean intuition that laws act as the iron enforcers of regularity in nature. I have said nothing to address this intuition here. It has to be addressed by providing an alternative account of what makes our world hospitable to inductive practices. That is a rather different topic. Here I have been mostly focused on providing a non-reductive empiricist account of modal belief.

  • [1] Here is a characteristic statement of the options (reading “categorical” for “non-modal”) due to Shalkowski(1994, 670): “If modality is grounded in reality, it is either a primitive or a non-primitive feature of that reality.If it is primitive, then there is nothing non-modal in virtue of which reality possesses modal characteristics—there are no non-modal facts that wholly constitute modal facts. If it is not primitive, then there is somethingnon-modal in virtue of which modality is present in reality—there are non-modal facts that wholly constitutemodal facts.”
  • [2] The metaphilosophical framework has been developed by a number of people. See, in particular, Price (2011)and Thomasson (2015). In this framework, correspondence, representation, and truth are all deflated. Althoughthe availability of deflationism deflects pressure to reify that comes from the felt need to provide truthmakersfor modal beliefs, there is a pressure to reify that appeals to the basic non-Humean intuition that the regularity in nature is inexplicable without modal connections among events. I take that pressure seriously, but it is abattle to be fought on other grounds.
 
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