Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'De re' and 'De dicto' modalities

There is certainly a lot of food for thought in this module, it is one of my favourites so far.

"What are we to make of these expressions of laws (axioms, properly basic propositions)?
We could either treat them as de re necessities - necessities that exist 'in the world'. Necessary relations between objects or events in the world. Or, we can conclude something else:...."

I hadn't come across the distinction between de re and de dicto before.

Wikipedia defines de dicto as 'of the word' and de re 'of the thing'. According to Stanford Encyclopedia, the distinction can be drawn in several different contexts. I suspect that the context of epistemological modality is most relevant here?

Stanford gives the following explanation: "Humans have a natural tendency to modalize. A tendency to think about, assert, and evaluate statements of possibility and necessity. To modalize is to either entertain a modal thought or to make a modal judgment. Modal thoughts and judgements either explicitly or derivatively involve the concept of possibility, necessity, or essence. Prima facie there exists a plurality of kinds of modality. Our natural discourse and theoretical discourse allows for various things to be spoken of as being epistemically possible (necessary), logically possible (necessary), conceptually possible (necessary), metaphysically possible (necessary), physically possible (necessary). And even when we speak of things being physically possible (necessary) we speak of physical possibility in a number of different ways, such as the difference between theoretical physical possibility and technological possibility. Although philosophically controversial, we intuitively distinguish between de re and de dicto modality. De re modality is modality that is predicated of an object, and attaches to the object independently of language. De dicto modality is modality that is predicated of a statement, and attaches to the statement."

My thoughts are that, taking gravity as an example, once it becomes a universal law it must (attempt to) express something about the world. I am therefore leaning towards the de re modality. However, having taken on board that Wittgenstein argues there are no de re necessities, I am left wondering if this is correct.

Science could be characterised as a search for the truth about the physical world. In a similar fashion, philosophy could be characterised as truths about something else - knowledge, reasoning, virtue etc. In my view, most of "ologies" are not just seeking "models" which abductively are "best fits" to experience, or useful to us in one way or another. What we are trying to do is explain the way the world actually is, i.e. arrive at necessary and not contingent truths. The question then comes back to what do we mean by necessity?

If there is in fact a real world out there, which operates according to universal laws, then surely it must be possible in theory to find out what these laws are. Once we have done this, our work is done. On this basis, I think an argument can be constructed for de re necessity?

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