PHIL 850.001 – Research Seminar in Philosophy of Science

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Instructor: John T. Roberts. This course meets W 1:00 to 3:30 p.m. in CW 213.

Physical Necessity, Metaphysical Necessity and Some Norms

Physical necessity (or alternately: natural, nomic, or nomological necessity) is the modal status associated with the laws of nature; metaphysical necessity is (according to the received view in contemporary analytic philosophy) the strongest kind of necessity there is.  The traditional view is that physical necessity is weaker than metaphysical necessity, for there are genuine possible worlds in which the laws of nature are different from how they are in the actual world, and those worlds are physically impossible but metaphysically possible — and by contrast (the traditional view continues), there are no worlds that metaphysically impossible but physically possible (because nothing is a possible world at all if it isn’t at least metaphysically possible).  Recently, however, many philosophers have been interested in the question of whether some or all of the laws of nature might really be metaphysically necessary after all.  So the topic of the nature of the relation between metaphysical and physical necessity — and more broadly, whether there are “levels of necessity,” and if, how they are related to one another — has become a hot topic.

On the traditional view, necessity itself (setting aside deontic necessity) is usually understood to be a thoroughly non-normaitve, “descriptive,” concept.  But in the last century there were a few philosophers (e.g. Ryle, Sellars, Brandom) who argued that modality is itself grounded in something normative.  A small number (in particular, as far as I can see, approximately two) contemporary philosophers have been trying to revive this idea for metaphysical and/or physical necessity.

Thus, the topics of physical necessity, metaphysical necessity, and normativity have recently been overlapping in some interesting philosophical literature.  This seminar will be about all that.

We will begin by reading some good recent review articles to help everyone get up to speed on the key issues about laws of nature, physical necessity, counterfactuals, and related topics, and how all these things are related to metaphysical necessity and possibility.  The we will read a number of recent works, some published and some not, about these issues.  The readings will include recent papers by Alexander Bird, Alice Drewery, Ned Hall, Marc Lange,  Barry Loewer, Marcus Schrenk, Amie Thomasson, Jessica Wilson, Zanja Yudell, and perhaps others.  We will also read through a new book manuscript by the instructor.

This course may be used for either the Metaphysics/Epistemology/etc. distribution area requirement, or for the Logic & Philosophy of Science distribution requirement, depending on the topic of one’s term paper.  Students are strongly urged to consult with the instructor well ahead of time to make sure their intended paper topic will get them the area requirement they want.