van Inwagen on Possibility
February 18, 2006 — 16:35

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Afterlife  Comments: 5

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.

  • Trent-
    I think there are a couple of things maybe you could help me clear up about PvI’s modal epistemology. I’m pretty familiar with “Modal Epistemology” (ME) in Ontology, Identity, and Modality, but I don’t recall any conceivability stuff from Material Beings. Maybe I’ve read you wrong but it seems like you are drawing VCT from Material Beings. If so it would seem odd because from what I recall of the former work I don’t see PvI as being committed to VCT. In ME it is argued that we have basic non-inferential modal knowledge. I just know that the table could be moved two inches to the left. This basic modal knowledge combined with the facts of the world can broaden our modal knowledge. Logic and mathematics can broaden our modal knowledge further, e.g. what is logically impossible is metaphysically impossible. Modal questions regarding ordinary propositions about everyday matters would seem to be covered by our basic modal knowledge, or some broadening of it.
    Modal questions beyond ordinary propositions about everyday matters are going to take some kind of conceivability to possibility move. PvI thinks Yablo is headed in the right direction with:

    A proposition p is conceivable for me just in the case that I can imagine a possible world I take to verify p

    We should note that conceivability here seems to be understood as envisaging, not concept manipulation. Now, there are at least two ways that one can be a modal skeptic. 1.) You can think that the move from conceivability to possibility is illicit. 2.) You can think that the move from conceivability to possibility is legitimate, but that, despite their claims, people often fail to really conceive of a matter. PvI in ME seems to be a modal skeptic of the second type.
    Let’s grant that A-C are not candidates for basic modal knowledge. The question then is can we really imagine a world at which A-C are true. I’m not sure that B is restricted to nomological possibility, but I know I cannot imagine clear iron. I also don’t think I can imagine C because I cannot get a picture of instantiation of a non-perceptual property, much less maximal greatness. So, what about A? Well I can well imagine a brain, and a brain outside of a body. I can imagine such a brain being hidden away from view in a box, across the ocean, or behind the moon. I can also imagine the same brain being thrust back in a skull. Given PvI’s account A seems on real solid ground regarding possibility, but B&C seem dubious at best.

    February 19, 2006 — 1:56
  • February 19, 2006 — 2:14
  • Trent,
    I don’t see why you say B-type claims are all claims about nomic possiblity. I certainly don’t read the possiblity of transparent steel as true only if nomically possible. Maybe you think that if the laws are sufficiently different, we wouldn’t be talking about steel, but something else steel-like. But this needs argument.
    Further, aside from its modal possibility, if something like A is necessary for our survival or resurrection, then we are all in big trouble.
    A. God could preserve the brain intact, transport it to a clandestine locale, and rebuild around it at a latter date.
    The matter from which my brain is composed–and recomposed over time with protein turnover–is matter that may well have composed (at least parts of) the brains of many others over our long history. A post mortem, atom for atom material reconstruction of one brain (or, of course, body) will almost certainly preclude a similar reconstruction for all.
    I can’t imagine how (C) is going to meet the standard in VCT, and for a fairly obvious reason. Consider the even more familiar proposition (P):
    P. It is possible that I am in less-than-perfect company.
    And suppose that I am in less-than-perfect company just in case every existing being has (at least) some small imperfection or other. (P) seems at least as easy to conceive as (C). But if (P) is true, then (C) isn’t. If a maximally great being is possible, then there is no world in which anyone is in less-than-perfect company. Credit where credit is due–the example is Bill Rowe’s.

    February 19, 2006 — 8:21
  • Mike-
    Isn’t it at least possible that God could restrict the atomic exchange of one small portion of the medulla oblongata? (Pick your part of the brain I just love the chance to say medulla oblongata!) If I recall correctly I think PvI says it may be the case that God preserves just one small portion of our brain necessary for identity.

    February 19, 2006 — 11:15
  • Matthew,
    I think you’re suggesting that there is (might be?) some portion P of each person’s brain such that no part of P is shared by P’ in another, yes? As far as I can see this is an empirical question. But, just a priori, I doubt it (i.e., I’m happy to wager on what we’d find after investigation). Whatever composes P will likely compose something else; I think there’s not much question about that. I can’t imagine that it could not compose that crucial identity-preserving portion P’ in another person. And I don’t doubt this because I doubt that there is such an identity-preserving portion of the brain (though I certainly doubt that, too)!

    February 19, 2006 — 11:54