The Epistemic Idleness of Conceivability

In Otávio Bueno & Scott A. Shalkowski (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Modality. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 167-179 (2018)
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Abstract

One’s involvement with the world seems limited merely to things as they are; hence, modal knowledge—knowledge of what could be or must be simpliciter—should be perplexing. Traditionally, the notion of conceivability has been regarded as crucial to an account of modal knowledge. I believe one has a good deal of such knowledge (though perhaps less than others presume one has). I maintain, however, that conceiving is utterly idle in acquiring modal knowledge: the conceivability of a proposition can provide no evidence whatsoever that what it represents is possible. To show this, I first examine the basis of modal knowledge. I consider what conceivability in general is supposed to be and argue, in light of the preceding considerations, that conceivability is not epistemically efficacious, in the sense of providing evidence, on any proposed specific account. I then maintain that there could be no account of conceivability on which it is epistemically efficacious, that the very idea of the conceivability of a proposition being evidential is misguided. I conclude with some brief recommendations for pursuing a satisfactory modal epistemology.

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M. Oreste Fiocco
University of California, Irvine

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