Monday, June 30, 2014

Williamson's Necessitism and Anselmian Theism

Timothy Williamson has recently argued for necessitism, according to which anything that exists in one possible world exists in every possible world; that is, that every possible being is a necessary being. However, that doesn't mean that every possible being has the property of being concrete at every possible world (and so there are plenty of worlds at which we are mere abstract objects).

If true, necessitism would to have interesting implications for certain views in philosophy of religion. For example, it would mean that if an Anselmian being exists, then it is just one among infinitely many other necessary beings. Of course, one could reply that an Anselmian being still retains its unique and superlative status in virtue of being the only being who exists concretely at every possible world. Perhaps that's a difference that matters. Still, it seems to me that it would chip away at at least some of an Anselmian being's greatness.

1 comment:

Steve Maitzen said...

Williamson's position is so wildly implausible on its face that I can't see how it's worth taking seriously unless it purports to solve some serious problem that stumps all facially more plausible positions. As far as I know, Williamson never claims this virtue for his position. Instead, he defends it on the grounds that it fits the best with what he says is the simplest and strongest form of modal logic, namely, classical S5 plus the Barcan Formula. In that case, it's easy to one-up him by saying that not only does every possible being exist necessarily, but every possible truth is necessarily true -- i.e., necessitarianism -- in which case all we need is classical predicate logic with identity, the kind of logic Williamson correctly insists we already understand better than any other kind. We don't even need modal logic. Hard to get simpler than that! All we sacrifice is the commonsense view that something or other could have gone differently.

Williamson's position also seems not to recognize that common sense is the basis of classical logic, the logic that Williamson has been correct to defend against its critics. Why think that the string of symbols that constitutes (for example) an application of modus tollens captures valid reasoning? Not for any syntactic reason -- not because of the pattern that the symbols form -- but because common sense, thinking as hard as it can, can't see how the form of reasoning represented by those symbols could possibly fail.

Sorry to rant, but Williamson here reminds me of physicist Sean Carroll, who recently said that we should take the Schroedinger equation at face value even if it requires us to believe in zillions of parallel universes in which physical duplicates of me are typing this comment right now, common sense be damned. In the linked comment, I one-upped him by declaring that we should take an even simpler Newtonian equation at face value even if it means having to believe that macroscopic objects routinely move backward in time. If there's a principled difference between Carroll's position and my parody, I can't see it.

For all his undeniable brilliance, Williamson (like Lewis) is too often comfortable defending views that the rest of the philosophical world (let alone the rest of the non-philosophical world) finds simply incredible. To quote two critics: "Williamson contends that English usage determines a precise if unknown amount of money such that anyone with that amount of money or less satisfies 'poor', and anyone with even a penny more satisfies 'not poor'. We don't for a moment suppose that this doctrine is contradictory, but we nonetheless find it incredible that our casual and careless practices establish a partition of such astonishing exactitude" [McGee and McLaughlin, "Logical Commitment and Semantic Indeterminacy: A Reply to Williamson," Linguistics and Philosophy 27 (2004): 123–136].

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