Impossible Worlds

Dissertation, University of Notre Dame (1999)
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The theory of possible worlds has permeated analytic philosophy in recent decades, and its best versions have a consequence which has gone largely unnoticed: in addition to the panoply of possible worlds, there are a great many impossible worlds. A uniform ontological method alone should bring the friends of possible worlds to adopt impossible worlds, I argue, but the theory's applications also provide strong incentives. In particular, the theory facilitates an account of counterfactuals which avoids several of the implausible results of David Lewis's account, and it paves the way for the analogues of Kripkean semantics for epistemic and relevant logics. On the theories of possible worlds as abstract objects, worlds bear a strong resemblance to propositions. I contend that if there are distinct necessarily false propositions, then there are likewise distinct impossible worlds. However, one who regards possible worlds as concrete objects must not recognize impossible worlds, in part because concrete worlds cannot misrepresent certain features of reality, as some impossible worlds must. Accordingly, I defend and develop a theory of impossible worlds as maximal impossible states of affairs. Impossible worlds perform admirably in the analysis of counterfactuals with impossible antecedents. I argue that, contrary to standard accounts, not all counterpossibles are trivially true, and I develop a Lewis-style semantics which allows this result. The point is crucial, since many views presuppose that some counterpossibles are substantive philosophical truths. Finally, I show that impossible worlds hold great promise for doxastic and relevant logics. Epistemic logic needs a domain of propositions which is not closed under strict implication to avoid the problem of logical omniscience, and relevant logic needs such a domain to avoid the famous paradoxes of implication. In sum, impossible world theory promises natural, elegant solutions to philosophical problems in numerous areas where possible worlds alone flounder. These solutions come to most possible world theorists at no cost, since the existence of impossible worlds is entailed by theses they already hold.

Author's Profile

David Vander Laan
Westmont College


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