Contingentism in Metaphysics

Philosophy Compass 5 (11):965-977 (2010)
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In a lot of domains in metaphysics the tacit assumption has been that whichever metaphysical principles turn out to be true, these will be necessarily true. Let us call necessitarianism about some domain the thesis that the right metaphysics of that domain is necessary. Necessitarianism has flourished. In the philosophy of maths we find it held that if mathematical objects exist, then they do of necessity. Mathematical Platonists affirm the necessary existence of mathematical objects (see for instance Hale and Wright 1992 and 1994; Wright 1983 and 1988; Schiffer 1996; Resnik 1997; Shapiro 1997 and Zalta 1988) while mathematical nominalists, usually in the form of fictionalists, hold that necessarily such objects fail to exist (see for instance Balaguer 1996 and 1998; Rosen 2001 and Yablo 2005). In metaphysics more generally, until recently it was more or less assumed that whatever the right account of composition—the account of under what conditions some xs compose a y—that account will be necessarily true (for a discussion of theories of composition see Simons 1987 and van Inwagen 1987 and 1990; the modal status of the composition relation is explicitly addressed in Schaffer 2007; Parsons 2006 and Cameron 2007). Similarly, it has generally been assumed that whatever the right account is of the nature of properties, whether they be universals, tropes, or whether nominalism is true, that account will be necessarily true (though see Rosen 2006 for a recent suggestion to the contrary). In considering theories of persistence it has been widely held that whether objects endure or perdure through time is a matter of necessity (Sider 2001; though see Lewis 1999 p227 who defends contingent perdurantism). And with respect to theories of time it is frequently held that whichever of the A- or B-theory is true is necessarily true. A-theorists often argue that there is time in a world only if the A-theory is true at that world (see for instance McTaggart 1903; Markosian 2004; Bigelow 1996; Craig 2001) while B-theorists often argue that the A-theory is internally inconsistent (Smart 1987; Mellor 1998; Savitt 2000 and Le Poidevin 1991). Once again, we find a few recent contingentist dissenters. Bourne (2006) suggests that it is a contingent feature of time that it is tensed, and thus that the A-theory is contingently true. Worlds in which there exist only B-theoretic properties are worlds with time, it is just that time in those worlds time is radically different to the way it is actually. Other defenders of the B-theory, though not expressly contingentists, do offer arguments against versions of the A-theory that try to show that such A-theories theories are inconsistent with the actual laws of nature (see for instance Saunders 2002 and Callender 2000); these arguments, at least, leave room for the possibility that the A-theories in question are contingently false (at least on the assumption that the laws of nature are themselves contingent, an assumption that not everyone accepts). Despite some notable exceptions, necessitarianism has flourished in many, if not most, domains in metaphysics. One such exception is Lewis’ famous defence of Humean supervenience as a contingent claim about our world. Lewis does not argue that necessarily, the supervenience base for all matters of fact in a world is nothing but a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact. Rather, he thinks that we have reason to think that our world is one in which Humean supervenience holds (see Lewis 1986 p9-10 and 1994). Another exception to the necessitarian orthodoxy is to be found in the lively debate about the modal status of the laws of nature. Here, if anything, contingentism has been the dominating force, with it generally being held that there are possible worlds in which different laws of nature hold (this view is defended by, among others, Lewis 1986 and 2010; Schaffer 2005 and Sidelle 2002). Necessitarian dissenters hold that the laws of nature are necessary, frequently because they think it is necessary that fundamental properties have the causal or nomic profiles they do (see for instance Shoemaker 1980 and 1988; Swoyer 1982; Bird 1995; Ellis and Lierse 1994). Nevertheless, when it comes to thinking about the nature of the laws themselves, the necessitarian presumption is back on firm footing. Though there is disagreement about whether the laws are generalisations that feature in the most virtuous true axiomatisation of all the particular matters of fact (often known as the Humean view of laws and defended by Ramsey 1978; Lewis 1986 and Beebee 2000) or whether laws are relations of necessity that hold between universals (a view defended by Armstrong 1983; Dretske 1977; Tooley 1977 and Carroll 1990) no one has seriously suggested that it might be a contingent matter which of these is the right account of laws. The necessitarian orthodoxy is not surprising since metaphysics is largely an a priori process. While a priori reasoning may be used to determine whether a proposition is necessary or contingent, it is not well placed (in the absence of a posteriori evidence) to determine whether a contingent proposition is actually true or false. Since metaphysicians aim to tell us which principles are true in which worlds, on the face of it the discovery that metaphysical principles are contingent seems to make part of the task of metaphysics epistemically intractable. In what follows I consider two reasons one might end up embracing contingentism and whether this would lead one into epistemic difficulty. The following section considers a route to contingent metaphysical truths that proceeds via a combination of conceptual necessities and empirical discoveries. Section 3 considers whether there might be synthetic contingent metaphysical truths, and the final section raises the question of whether if there were such truths we would be well placed to come to know them.
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