Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go.
As I mentioned last week, the past several entries into The Philosopher’s Lexicon have all been double entries, focused not on one single vocabulary word per post, but on words that come in pairs, special distinctions in how we view and describe reality, thought, and knowledge. But these pairs don’t neatly align with each other, and as such, some cross-over explanation is needed. They way philosophers pick and choose from these distinctions is often key to their view of reality and knowledge.
Last week, we covered the ways we can think in terms of Ontology and Epistemology, and a few weeks before we covered the De Dicto/De Re distinction. This week, we’ll move on to logical and causal possibility. While some repetition is inevitable, I will attempt to work systematically, contextualizing each distinction against the others, and as such each part of this series will be shorter than the last.
Without further ado, Part Three deals with what these distinctions mean in terms of propositions of logical and causal possibility.
In terms of Analytic and Synthetic Reasoning:
Roughly speaking, it can be easy to match logical possibility with analytic reasoning, and causal possibility with synthetic reasoning. Analysis is required to determine logical possibility, and an understanding of causal possibility is what allows us to synthesize and incorporate new information into our line of thinking. But analysis is also required in synthesis, as causal possibility presupposes logical possibility; even if we believe that there are phenomena that exist outside of our rational schema, our ability to explain causal relationships depends upon that schema. Any phenomena that exists outside of reason may be collected as data, but without analytical cogency, cannot be synthesized into a coherent causal explanation.
The only place that these two sets of distinctions do not overlap is that synthetic reasoning need not be consulted when determining logical possibility.
In terms of a priori and a posteriori knowledge:
This one is a bit tricky. The obvious connections are between logical possibility and a priori knowledge, and between causal possibility and a posteriori knowledge, but as usual, this depends on what philosophers you consult.
If logical possibility aims primarily to determine what we are capable of thinking without contradiction, then for those who believe we are born with reason a priori would indeed find that as the source of our ability to do so. However, for those who do not believe we are born with any a priori knowledge, the rational capacity that allows us to think through logical possibilities would be drawn from a posteriori experience, even if it need not follow the dictates of that experience. Basically, even without a priori knowledge, we can draw out patterns from our a posteriori experience that we can then use to determine future possibility, even when it isn’t grounded causally. This, essentially, would become a weak understanding of a priori – rather than framing it as innate knowledge, it would be only knowledge that has been learned previously, rather that explicitly verified.
To put it more simply, if one believes that logic itself is learned a posteriori, then logical possibility will derive from learned experience, even if it does not consult the causal possibility that also governs that experience. Reason would be more of an abstraction from the limits of experience than a function in its own right.
Causal possibility requires both this logic and explicitly a posteriori information, as it hinges upon the laws of nature and the complexity of causal chains as they exist in the world. Thus, if someone believes that logic is a priori, then casual possibility requires both a priori and a posteriori knowledge; but if logical possibility can be drawn from a posteriori knowledge in some, either to create weak a priori knowledge or else ground reason as something taught and learned, then strong a priori – which refers to innate knowledge or an innate capacity to reason – is not necessary. In fact, in this version of things, causal possibility would be primary, giving rise to logical possibility as we learn more and more information that allows us to extrapolate away from the limits of finite experience to imagine logical possibilities beyond what we can observe.
The next installment of The Philosopher’s Lexicon will bring us to the end of our Map of Distinctions. Tune in for the grand finale, to be posted in the coming weeks.