Modal Knowledge, Evolution, and Counterfactuals

  • Thomas KroedelEmail author
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 378)


The chapter defends an evolutionary explanation of modal knowledge from knowledge of counterfactual conditionals. Knowledge of counterfactuals is evolutionarily useful, as it enables us to learn from mistakes. Given the standard semantics for counterfactuals, there are several equivalences between modal claims and claims involving counterfactuals that can be used to explain modal knowledge. Timothy Williamson has suggested an explanation of modal knowledge that draws on the equivalence of ‘Necessarily p’ with ‘If p were false, a contradiction would be the case’. He postulates a cognitive process that draws on this equivalence and that is supposed to underlie our modal judgements. The existence of this cognitive process would, however, have consequences that conflict with results from empirical psychology.

The chapter argues that the equivalence of ‘Necessarily p’ with ‘For all q, if q were true then p would be true’ should instead be used to explain knowledge of necessity. This explanation requires giving an account of how we know truths of the form ‘For all q, if q were true then p would be true’. In order to provide such an account, the chapter draws on a different suggestion by Williamson about knowledge of generalizations. According to this suggestion, we come to know truths of the form ‘All Fs are G’ by imagining a generic F and judging that it is G. Applied to our case, the suggestion would be that we come to know that p is counterfactually implied by all propositions (and hence that p is necessary) by entertaining a generic proposition and judging that it counterfactually implies p. It would even suffice to entertain a generic possible proposition and judge that it counterfactually implies p, for it can be shown that the claim ‘For all possible q, if q were true then p would be true’ is equivalent to the original claim ‘For all q, if q were true then p would be true’ and hence is equivalent to ‘Necessarily p’.

It might seem that, from an evolutionary perspective, probabilistic reasoning is just as useful as reasoning involving counterfactuals. The chapter argues, however, that this would not undermine the envisaged explanation of modal knowledge. The chapter concludes by suggesting avenues of empirical research that might shed light on the cognitive processes that actually underlie our evaluations of modal claims and on the relation between these processes and those involved in counterfactual reasoning. The results of such empirical research would be highly relevant epistemologically, since they will ultimately determine which (if any) equivalence between modal claims and claims involving counterfactuals should be used to explain our modal knowledge.


Conditional Probability Modal Logic True Belief Evolutionary Explanation Probability Zero 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Adams, E. W. (1975). The logic of conditionals: An application of probability to deductive logic. Dordrecht: Reidel.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bealer, G. (2004). The origins of modal error. Dialectica, 58, 11–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Byrne, R. M. J. (1997). Cognitive processes in counterfactual thinking about what might have been. In D. Medin (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation, advances in research and theory (Vol. 37). San Diego: Academic.Google Scholar
  4. Casullo, A. (2003). A priori justification. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Casullo, A. (2010). Knowledge and modality. Synthese, 172, 341–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chalmers, D. (2002). Does conceivability entail possibility? In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Conceivability and possibility. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  7. Cohnitz, D. (2003). Modal skepticism: Philosophical thought experiments and modal epistemology. In F. Stadler (Ed.), The Vienna Circle and logical empiricism: Re-evaluation and future perspectives. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  8. Crane, T. (2003). The mechanical mind. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 168–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Evans, J., & Over, D. (2004). If. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Geirsson, H. (2005). Conceivability and defeasible modal justification. Philosophical Studies, 122, 279–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Glynn, L. (2010). Deterministic chance. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 61, 51–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Goldman, A. I. (1986). Epistemology and cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Goldman, A. I. (1992). Liaisons: Philosophy meets the cognitive and social sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  15. Goldman, A. I. (1999). A priori warrant and naturalistic epistemology. Philosophical Perspectives, 13, 1–28.Google Scholar
  16. Griffin, M. V. (1999). Leibniz on God’s knowledge of counterfactuals. Philosophical Review, 108, 317–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hájek, A. (2003). What conditional probability could not be. Synthese, 137, 273–323.Google Scholar
  18. Hale, B. (2002). Knowledge of possibility and of necessity. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hawthorne, J. (2004). Knowledge and lotteries. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  20. Hill, C. (2006). Modality, modal epistemology, and the metaphysics of consciousness. In S. Nichols (Ed.), The architecture of the imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Jackson, F. (1982). Epiphenomenal qualia. Philosophical Quarterly, 32, 127–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jenkins, C. (2008). Modal knowledge, counterfactual knowledge and the role of experience. Philosophical Quarterly, 58, 693–701.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Johnson-Laird, P. N., & Byrne, R. M. (2002). Conditionals: A theory of meaning, pragmatics, and inference. Psychological Review, 109, 646–678.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kment, B. (2006). Counterfactuals and the analysis of necessity. Philosophical Perspectives, 20, 237–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Komatsu, L. K., & Galotti, K. M. (1986). Children’s reasoning about social, physical, and logical regularities: A look at two worlds. Child Development, 57, 413–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kroedel, T. (2012). Counterfactuals and the epistemology of modality. Philosophers’ Imprint, 12, 1–14.Google Scholar
  27. Kung, P. (2010). Imagining as a guide to possibility. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 81, 620–663.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kung, P. (2016). You really do imagine it: Against error theories of imagination. Noûs, 50, 90–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lange, M. (2005). A counterfactual analysis of the concepts of logical truth and necessity. Philosophical Studies, 125, 277–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Langland-Hassan, P. (2015). Imaginative attitudes. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 90, 664–686.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Leitgeb, H. (2012a). A probabilistic semantics for counterfactuals. Part A. Review of Symbolic Logic, 5, 26–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Leitgeb, H. (2012b). A probabilistic semantics for counterfactuals. Part B. Review of Symbolic Logic, 5, 85–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lewis, D. (1973). Counterfactuals. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  34. Machamer, P. K., Darden, L., & Craver, C. F. (2000). Thinking about mechanisms. Philosophy of Science, 67, 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Malmgren, A.-S. (2011). Rationalism and the content of intuitive judgements. Mind, 120, 263–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Mandel, D. R., Hilton, D. J., & Catellani, P. (Eds.). (2005). The psychology of counterfactual thinking. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Miller, S. A., Custer, W. L., & Nassau, G. (2000). Children’s understanding of the necessity of logically necessary truths. Cognitive Development, 15, 383–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Morris, M. W., & Moore, P. C. (2000). The lessons we (don’t) learn: Counterfactual thinking and organizational accountability after a close call. Administrative Science Quarterly, 45, 737–765.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Peacocke, C. (1999). Being known. Oxford: Clarendon.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Peacocke, C. (2011). Understanding, modality, logical operators. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 82, 472–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Pust, J. (2004). On explaining knowledge of necessity. Dialectica, 58, 71–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Quine, W. V. O. (1969) Natural kinds. In Ontological relativity and other essays. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Railton, P. (1978). A deductive-nomological model of probabilistic explanation. Philosophy of Science, 45, 206–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rescher, N. (1990). A useful inheritance: Evolutionary aspects in the theory of knowledge. Savage: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  45. Roese, N. J. (1994). The functional basis of counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 805–818.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (Eds.). (1995a). What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  47. Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1995b). Functions of counterfactual thinking. In N. J. Roese & J. M. Olson (Eds.). (1995a).Google Scholar
  48. Salmon, W. (1989). Four decades of scientific explanation. In P. Kitcher & W. Salmon (Eds.), Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science, vol. XIII: Scientific explanation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  49. Schechter, D. (2010). The reliability challenge and the epistemology of logic. Philosophical Perspectives, 24, 437–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Shtulman, A., & Carey, S. (2007). Improbable or impossible? How children reason about the possibility of extraordinary events. Child Development, 78, 1015–1032.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1999). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Sosa, E. (2000). Modal and other a priori epistemology: How can we know what is possible and what impossible? Southern Journal of Philosophy, 38, 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Williamson, T. (2005). Armchair philosophy, metaphysical modality and counterfactual thinking. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 105, 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Williamson, T. (2007). The philosophy of philosophy. Malden: Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Williamson, T. (2013). How deep is the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge? In A. Casullo & J. Thurow (Eds.), The a priori in philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Yablo, S. (2008). No fool’s cold: Notes on illusions of possibility. In Thoughts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations