Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Why Possible Worlds Aren't

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Why Possible Worlds Aren't

Article excerpt

Here is an uncommon argument for doubting the existence of possible worlds. It calls into question the whole spectrum of supposed possible worlds, from Lewis's radically plural real worlds to the world-stories of Adams and Plantinga. More than that, it challenges the tacit presuppositions of most of those who have attacked such views. Yet despite its strangeness I cannot but think this unorthodox position is correct. I shall furnish metaphysical reasons for thinking that it is, and then proceed to show why the possible worlds taken for granted in contemporary discussions are based on a misconception, a metaphysical mistake that we would be better off without.

I rest this unusual claim on the ground of a metaphysics that is at odds with the metaphysical viewpoint implied in the theories of possible worlds. I suggest a different and, I think, superior way of conceiving the world, experience, and what we mean by possibility.

We are faced here with the deliberate choice of philosophic first principles, not with demonstrations proceeding from commonly acknowledged or even tacitly presupposed principles. So there can be no knockdown argument for such a choice, only reasons for thinking it better than its alternatives. Lewis himself has noted that "one man's reason is another man's reductio,"(1) and, after arguing against "ersatz" substitutes for his thoroughgoing modal realism, he advises: "Join the genuine modal realists; or foresake genuine and ersatz worlds alike."(2) On the view that I shall propose, Lewis's modal realism turns out to be itself a reductio rather than a reason, and so I must set it aside with all its variants, ersatz or otherwise.

Philosophic beginnings are chosen, but their consequences are not. As Gilson put it "Philosophers are free to lay down their own sets of principles, but once is is done, they no longer think as they wish they think as they can."(3) These first principles are chosen not only for their initial plausibility, but most importantly because they appear to make more intelligible sense of experience than do their opposites. Consonance with experience is the final criterion for accepting or rejecting any philosophic standpoint. As Whitehead mentioned, it has been said that systems of philosophy are never refuted, they are only abandoned, either by reason of the mutual incoherence of their principles or because they are inadequate to account for experience as we find it.(4)

I begin this consideration, then, by recommending the plausibility of three metaphysical principles that suggest themselves, both initially and in their consequences, as characterizing our immediate, ongoing, changing experience.


Three Principles of Becoming and Being.(5) These principles are meant to express, at least partially, the character of human experience viewed in terms of its changing patterns over time. They link the dynamism of activity with its own formal patterns; they link temporal actuality with possibility.

PRINCIPLE (A): Past actuality, whether immediate or remote, is definite, exact, unambiguous.

Lady Macbeth observed that what's done cannot be undone. But also, what's done, being done, has its own definite character. Though knowledge of the past fades, including knowledge of one's own past self, this past is not in itself ambiguous. We have to cope in the present with what has in fact been decided, by us and by others, in the past. The pattern of that past is settled, now and always. And how does this settled pattern come about?

PRINCIPLE (B): Present actuality involves a process of determination whereby from the indefiniteness of what might be (the range of possibility), there is created the definiteness of what actually is (actuality).(6)

Take the writing of a philosophic essay. It is a process by which more general initial thoughts take on the definition of exact formulation, a process by which the vagueness of what might be written takes on the definiteness of what is written. …

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