I was reading Peter van Inwagen’s essay “I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come” since I got stuck in vortex of airline incompetence at O’Hare airport on my way from Rochester to the Pacific SCP in San Diego. My only solace in having to spend 15 hours in an airport instead of hanging out with my friends was that PVI himself was diverted by the same SNAFU.
At any rate, he there discusses his intriguing early essay “The Possibility of the Resurrection” (which, in spite of the title has been misconstrued in its purpose). He says
My goal in “The Possibility of Resurrection,” was to argue for the metaphysical possibility of the Resurrection of the Dead. My method was to tell a story, a story I hoped my readers would grant was a metaphysically possible story.
He had said the same thing in the postscript to the version collected in the volume by the same title. This caught my attention more than the first time I read the essay because in Ed Wierenga’s seminar this week we discussed the logical or quasi-logical relationship between conceivability and possibility in connection with a Humean argument for the impossibility of necessary existents. I recalled PVI’s “modal skepticism” expressed briefly in the introduction to Part One of God Knowledge and Mystery and then later more thoroughly in “Modal Epistemology” in Ontology, Identity, and Modality.
That the stated method could achieve the stated end–that the telling of a story could establish something as possible–suggests an answer to Yablo’s question “Is Conceivability a Guide to Possibility?” that, interestingly, is parallel to PVI’s own answer to the Special Composition Question.
In _Material Beings_ PVI wends his way between the Scylla and Charibdis of the two extreme answers–nihilism and universalism. Likewise, though most philosophers either say that conceivability entails (or in every case prima facie justifies) possibility or that the two bear no logical relation one to another, PVI says that sometimes conceivability supports possibility and sometimes it does not.
I’m worried, though, about the specific criterion he suggests: “ordinary propositions about everyday matters,” for the Resurrection Story seems anything but quotidian. I’ll put the rest beneath the fold.
To be sure, if we take the criterion as it stands, the Resurrection Story seems clearly not to pass muster:
(VCT) That S can conceive that P is evidence for the possibility of P only if P is an ordinary proposition about a matters quite familiar to S.
Hole-and-corner stories about brainstems in far-off galaxies are not very familiar (well, except perhaps for frequent watchers of the X-files).
Still, it seems that there is a plausible intuitive difference between the claims of the following sort.
A. God could preserve the brain intact, transport it to a clandestine locale, and rebuild around it at a latter date.
B. There could be a sheet of iron as clear as glass.
C. Maximal Greatness is possibly instantiated.
B-type claims–consider also the possibility of a naturally purple cow–presuppose that certain propositions about physics are true, propositions, moreover, which we know very little if anything about–including their content! Look at it this way: modality is relational. Broadly logical modality depends on what’s true in worlds other than the actual world, nomic modality–the kind in play in B-type claims–depends on the actual laws of physics (and, possibly, higher-level laws governing emergent phenomena). When we make B-type claims, we are asserting that the modalized proposition is consistent with the actual laws of physics. This seems foolhardy without considering the details to at least some degree.
A-type claims seem very similar in this regard, indeed it appears that really A is just a species-token of a genus which encompasses both it and B, the generic qualities of which I have just described. So what differentiates A and A-type claims?
What suggests itself to me up front is that the claim in A–though far from mundane–only involves atomic processes that are in themselves mundane, in particular moving things from one place to another. Contrariwise, B-type propositions advert to matters such as translucency and molecular structure which we know to be complicated and we know ourselves not to understand. To understand A it is not necessary to understand such things, with B it’s different. [I must say that I think a clever individual could tease out some serious complications with this thought, in fact, I considered posting that the Resurrection Story didn’t meet PVI’s own criterion of (VCT), but, well, I wasn’t clever enough.]
If this is correct then it could be seen as a defense of (VCT)–for “van Inwagen’s Conceivability Thesis”–as it stands.
But what about C? It seems plausible to me that C actually meets the conditions of (VCT). None of the atomic parts are hard to understand and property exemplification can’t be the troublesome part. I wouldn’t be surprised if a cleverer person than me could make good on this thought.