In the kingdom of the abstruse

Sat 31 Oct 2009 02:30 PM

I am teaching a course in metaphysics this semester. After starting with 'On What There Is', we've been working through The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. I used a book from the same series in my epistemology class a couple of years ago. They strike a nice balance between including contemporary scholarship and addressing longstanding issues in the field, and they're at about the right level for these advanced-undergrad/intro-grad courses.

Naturally, we spent some time on David Lewis' view that possible worlds are concrete objects. After the first day we spend discussing it, I surveyed student responses to the view. Given three choices, these were the results:

10 at least somewhat plausible

6 not sure

2 utterly untenable

I was gratified at their open-mindedness, although some of the reception was probably due to the fact that I'd spent the last hour answering their puzzled questions about the view.

And it's no surprise that they would have questions. It is an abstruse and kooky view. Nevertheless, metaphysics is the stronghold of abstruse and kooky in philosophy - which is itself already the kingdom of the abstruse. The dictionary I have close to hand gives 'an abstruse philosophical inquiry' as the specimen phrase for 'abstruse.' So kookiness couldn't itself be an objection -

But, lo! It is.

A standard reply to Lewis' view is the incredulous stare. Ted Sider writes

It is an interesting question why most philosophers so vehemently reject Lewisian worlds.... Perhaps I speak for the majority when I say that I do not really know why I find the incredulous stare compelling; I only know that I do.[194]

When we discussed the incredulous stare, several students asked how it's even an argument. The answer, of course, is that it's not. It is an objection by ridicule rather than by argument.*

Where Sider talks about the view of "the majority", Thomas Crisp puts matters in stronger terms. He dismisses without argument "that brand of possible world realism peculiar to Lewis" [240].**

One reason that I'm teaching metaphysics is for the chance to think more about these issues. I have never actually taken a course in analytic metaphysics; everything I know has been picked up en passant. Nevertheless, I have always found Lewis' view appealing. Now I've talked myself into believing it.

So, as I mentioned to my students, Crisp's descriptor should at least be ammended to include me.

* Thomas Reid thought of our God-given capacity for ridicule as the natural counterpart to reason. Where appropriate, we should make arguments. But there are other times where we should just respond to a view with ridicule. There may be something to this, but it was not one of Reid's better ideas.

** I read this as meaning that no one but Lewis holds the view. If Crisp didn't mean to say that, then he could have just called it "Lewis' brand of possible world realism."


from: M

Sat 31 Oct 2009 03:04 PM

I agree with Quentin Smith who argues that the incredulous stare is "an informal logical fallacy, one species of the ad hominem fallacy".


from: William

Sun 27 Dec 2009 01:18 PM

When I took my metaphysics class and we went over possible worlds, that was the same rejection that was typically noted of Lewis' theory. In fact, the textbook we used was written by Prof. Sider, so I can see why. However, I think the weirdness has to do with two factors (which may be prevalent in other metaphysical theories). First, possible worlds reminds may remind us of old fairy tale stories. So, maybe, we do not respect possible worlds because we think its just a recanting of those stories. Second, we can have no epistemic grip on possible worlds. I found this topic common in my metaphysics class. Surely, we are in search of truth, and truth does not matter if we can be affected by it epistemically. But not even having the possibility to be epistemically affected by an object may make us doubt its existence and consider those who believe in its existence as pretty kooky. However, these two strands of thought, I believe apply to many metaphysical views that are not considered kooky. So, what is it that makes Lewis' view more kooky, than for instance Kant's view of things-in-themselves?

My two cents.