Thinking Impossible Things

In Sten Lindström & Pär Sundström (eds.), Physicalism, Consciousness, and Modality: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind. Umeå, Sverige: pp. 125-132 (2002)
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“There is no use in trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass. It is a rather common view among philosophers that one cannot, properly speaking, be said to believe, conceive, imagine, hope for, or seek what is impossible. Some philosophers, for instance George Berkeley and the early Wittgenstein, thought that logically contradictory propositions lack cognitive meaning (informational content) and cannot, therefore, be thought or believed. Philosophers who do not go as far as Berkeley and Wittgenstein in denying that impossible propositions or states of affairs are thinkable, may still claim that it is impossible to rationally believe an impossible proposition. On a classical “Cartesian” view of belief, belief is a purely mental state of the agent holding true a proposition p that she “grasps” and is directly acquainted with. But if the agent is directly acquainted with an impossible proposition, then, presumably, she must know that it is impossible. But surely no rational agent can hold true a proposition that she knows is impossible. Hence, no rational agent can believe an impossible proposition. Thus it seems that on the Cartesian view of propositional attitudes as inner mental states in which proposition are immediately apprehended by the mind, it is impossible for a rational agent to believe, imagine or conceive an impossible proposition. Ruth Barcan Marcus (1983) has suggested that a belief attribution is defeated once it is discovered that the proposition, or state of affairs that is believed is impossible. According to her intuition, just as knowledge implies truth, belief implies possibility. It is commonplace that people claim to believe propositions that later turn out to be impossible. According to Barcan Marcus, the correct thing to say in such a situation is not: I once believed that A but I don’t believe it any longer since I have come to realize that it is impossible that A. What one should say is instead: It once appeared to me that I believed that A, but I did not, since it is impossible that A. Thus, Barcan Marcus defends what we might call Alice’s thesis: Necessarily, for any proposition p and any subject x, if x believes p, then p is possible. Alice’s thesis that it is impossible to hold impossible beliefs, seems to come into conflict with our ordinary practices of attributing beliefs. Consider a mathematical example. Some mathematicians believe that CH (the continuum hypothesis) is true and others believe that it is false. But if CH is true, then it is necessarily true; and if it is false, then it is necessarily false. Regardless of whether CH is true or false, the conclusion seems to be that there are mathematicians who believe impossible propositions. Examples of apparent beliefs in impossible propositions outside of mathematics are also easy to come by. Consider, for example, Kripke’s (1999) story of the Frenchman Pierre who without realizing it has two different names ‘London’ and ‘Londres’ for the same city, London. After having arrived in London, Pierre may assent to ‘Londres is beautiful and London is not beautiful’ without being in any way irrational. It seems reasonably to infer from this that Pierre believes that Londres is beautiful and London is not beautiful. But since ‘Londres’ and ‘London’ are rigid designators for the same city, it seems to follow from this that Pierre believes the inconsistent proposition that we may express as ‘London is both beautiful and not beautiful’.
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