Empirically-Informed Modal Rationalism

In Robert William Fischer & Felipe Leon (eds.), Modal Epistemology After Rationalism. Synthese Library. pp. 29-45 (2017)
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Abstract
In this chapter, it is suggested that our epistemic access to metaphysical modality generally involves rationalist, a priori elements. However, these a priori elements are much more subtle than ‘traditional’ modal rationalism assumes. In fact, some might even question the ‘apriority’ of these elements, but I should stress that I consider a priori and a posteriori elements especially in our modal inquiry to be so deeply intertwined that it is not easy to tell them apart. Supposed metaphysically necessary identity statements involving natural kind terms are a good example: the fact that empirical input is crucial in establishing their necessity has clouded the role and content of the a priori input, as I have previously argued. For instance, the supposed metaphysically necessary identity statement involving water and its microstructure can only be established with the help of a controversial a priori principle concerning the determination of chemical properties by microstructure. The Kripke-Putnam framework of modal epistemology fails precisely because it is unclear whether the required a priori element is present. My positive proposal builds on E. J. Lowe’s work. Lowe holds that our knowledge of metaphysical modality is based on our knowledge of essence. Lowe’s account strives to offer a uniform picture of modal epistemology: essence is the basis of all our modal knowledge. This is the basis of Lowe’s modal rationalism. I believe that Lowe’s proposal is on the right lines in the case of abstract objects, but I doubt that it can be successfully applied to the case of natural kinds. Accordingly, the case of natural kinds will be my main focus and I will suggest that modal rationalism, at least as it is traditionally understood, falls short of explaining modal knowledge concerning natural kinds. Yet, I think that Lowe has identified something of crucial importance for modal epistemology, namely the essentialist, a priori elements present in our modal inquiry. The upshot is that rather than moving all the way from modal rationalism to modal empiricism, a type of hybrid approach, ‘empirically-informed modal rationalism ’, can be developed
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