Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Carroll on the relation between conceivability and possibility

In Wittgenstein, Tom Ricketts said something that reminded me that I need to write up a few more posts on Through the Looking-Glass. I'll quote the important bit:
"'You needn't say "exactly,"' the Queen remarked. 'I can believe it without that. Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day.'
'I can't believe that!' said Alice.
'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'
Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said, 'one can't believe impossible things.'
'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. There goes the shawl again!'"

If we grant that believability is sufficient for conceivability (which strikes me as prima facie plausible), then Carroll endorses the idea that conceivability does not entail possibility. However, we can still conceive of and believe in impossible worlds (although Carroll doesn't go in for worlds talk). Don't think we can? The White Queen replies: just try harder; maybe shut your eyes and breath deeply. It seems to me, (and this may get overly geeky), that Carroll would further reply to someone who says that such and such a scenario is inconceivable, in much the same way as Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."


Justin said...

Daniel Nolan has a paper on the subject in which he argues that reasoning about impossible worlds is important for philosophy and can be accommodated without revising logic. Roughly once a year, I reference it while realizing that I can't remember anything it says. Then I read it, but have a year in which to forget.

"Impossible Worlds: A Modest Approach" Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, Vol 38 No 4 Fall 1997.

GF-A said...

You write: "Carroll endorses the idea that conceivability does not entail possibility."

Nothing philosophical hangs on this question, but: why do you think Carroll identifies with the Queen, and not with Alice, who believes the opposite?

Also: Do you think Alice means by 'impossible' anything close to what philosophers mean? I would guess that metaphysicians would not say that the queen's being 101 is impossible.

Shawn said...

I'm not sure why I was identifying Carroll with the Queen. I think part of it is that the other characters say odder things than Alice and I find it easier to identify those with things Carroll might say since in his non-fiction he sounds somewhat odd.

I'll agree that Alice doesn't mean the same thing by "impossible" that philosophers mean, i.e. she's not considering alethic modality, I think it is reasonable to take the Queen to be saying that. Otherwise it is kind of hard to see what's funny in it. This is probably somewhat influenced by my seeing Carroll as speaking through the Queen and other non-Alice characters.

Shawn said...

I will check out that Nolan paper. I will be slightly slightly disappointed if he makes no mention of something by Lewis Carroll though.

N. N. said...

If sense and possibility amount to the same (a la Wittgenstein), then putting 'impossible things' into words results in nonsense. A nonsense cannot be believed.

Shawn said...

The early Wittgenstein probably would not have been a fan of Carroll. I have no clue if he read any of Alice's adventures, but, just as pure speculation, I'm doubtful he would have been thrilled.

Does the coincidence of sense and possibility in Wittgenstein come out of the Tractatus when he says the limits of my language are the limits of my world? It seems like often people do believe impossible things (e.g., who doesn't believe unicorns could possibly exist?). Are there any well argued defenses of the idea that people cannot believe impossible (in the sense of alethic modality) things?

N. N. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
N. N. said...

As far as I know, there is no evidence that Wittgenstein had read Carroll prior to 1930. There are many references to Carroll in Wittgenstein's middle and later writings (e.g., Philosophical Investigations, Section 13).

The coincidence of sense and possibility is expressed in several places. TLP 3.02, for example, states that 'A thought contains the possibility of the situation of which it is the thought. What is thinkable is possible too.' There is a more explicit statement in the notebooks, but I can't seem to remember its whereabouts.

In 1930 Wittgenstein put it thusly: '"Possibility" is what is represented by a proposition having sense (grammar is the expression of what is possible…)' (from Desmond Lee's notes).

[Is there a way to edit comments without deleting them and reposting the edited version?]

I don't think Wittgenstein would consider the existence of unicorns an impossibility. According to the Tractatus (6.375), the only impossibility is logical impossibility.

Jennifer said...

Does "thinkable" (of TLP 3.02) mean "possible to believe"? Surely early Wittgenstein would grant that it's possible to have false beliefs about obscure points of mathematics, beliefs which couldn't possibly be true.

Shawn said...

There doesn't seem to be any way to edit comments once they've been posted. I can't even find any admin tools to let me edit comments in any way.

Knowing where Wittgenstein expresses his views on sense and possibility is helpful. I was wondering, more generally, if there have been any explicit arguments for a view of this sort. There is likely one in Wittgenstiein that I haven't been able to reconstruct yet. But, other people have held this view as well (I think; not sure).

I haven't made sense of TLP Wittgenstein's views on mathematical truth. Does he accept logicism like Russell is trying to defend? That would lead to a coincidence between logical and mathematical truth. He probably would admit the possibility of false beliefs about mathematical things, but he does also have the odd idea that a good theory of judgment should render senseless all false judgments. (That last sentence is me talking off the top of my head; I will need to consult my notes from class to make sure of that point if it is controversial.)

It gladdens me that TLP Wittgenstein doesn't think unicorns are impossible. That argument of Kripke's has always sat unwell with me.