Epistemic Modals and Alternative Possibilities

Erkenntnis 83 (5):1063-1084 (2018)
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Abstract
Indicative judgments pertain to what is true. Epistemic modal judgments pertain to what must or might be true relative to a body of information. A standard view is that epistemic modals implicitly quantify over alternative possibilities, or ways things could turn out. On this view, a proposition must be true just in case it is true in all the possibilities consistent with the available information, and a proposition might be true just in case it is true in at least one possibility consistent with the available information. I report three experiments testing this view of epistemic modals. The results show that although modal judgments are sensitive to information about alternative possibilities, the standard quantification theory mischaracterizes the ordinary meaning of modals. I then report two more experiments testing the hypothesis that epistemic modals express willingness to attribute knowledge based on the available information. The results support this hypothesis. The results also show that the difference between “inside” and “outside” probabilistic information, familiar from the judgment and decision-making literature, affects epistemic modal judgments.
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Archival date: 2020-06-30
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