The a priori seems to be on the rise of late, especially with defenders like Richard Chappell championing the cause. According to Chappell an ideallly rational being would have access to all the metaphysical possibilites. Given that we can ideally (or coherently) conceive something we can infer that the thing in question is metaphysically possible. This is, of course, the basis for the zombie argument against materialism. Since we can coherently concieve of a zombie world (a world where there are beings like us in every physical way except that they lack conscious experience) that shows that consciousness cannot be a physical property.
The standard (Kripkean) objection to this line of argument is to try to distinguish between metaphysical and epistemic possibility. Some things that are epistemically possible (i.e. seem coherently conceivable) turn out to be impossible (a classic example is to point out that before you learn that the square root of 1,987,690.000 is 1409.855 (rounded up to the nearest thousandth) it is concievable that it be other than 1409.855 but once we find out what it is it is impossible for it to be otherwise. According to the materialist one of these things is the zombie world. While it seems that we can coherently concieve of such a world, we are actually missing some contradiction, or physical difference between our world and the zombie world and so it is not actually (ideally/coherently) concievable.
Chappell objects to this line of argument for (at least) two reasons. The first has to do with the theoretical extravagance of the materialist’s claim that the identity between (say) H2O and water is necessary. It posits an unexplained strong necessity, wheras the modal rationalist (the one who thinks that it is a metaphysical possibility that water could be other than H2O, not just an epistemic possibility) doesn’t have to posit something like this. All that she needs to posit is a single uniform space of possibilities that we describe in various ways. The materialist has to posit a space of epistemically possible worlds and a seperate space of metaphysically possible worlds. Parsimony and simplicity seem to favore that modal rationalist here.
The second is an attack on the claim that calling something a rigid designator settles the dispute. As Chappell says,
Perhaps our term ‘consciousness’ is, like ‘water’, a rigid designator. But who cares about the words? Twin Earth still contains watery stuff, even if we refuse to call it ‘water’, and the Zombie World still lacks phenomenal stuff (qualia), even if we stipulate that our term ‘consciousness’ refers to some neurophysical property (and so is guaranteed to exist in this physically identical world).
Yes it will, IF we have settled the issue in favor of Chapell’s view and we then think that we are genuinely concieving of a real metaphysical possibility. If there is a question as to whether these kinds of possibility are distinct then Chapell has done nothing more than beg the question.
This is evidenced when he says,
Kripke himself noticed something along these lines. While we can imagine a world where watery stuff isn’t truly water, it’s incoherent to imagine a world where “painy” stuff isn’t truly pain. To feel painful is to be painful.
Pointing out that Kripke begs the same queston as you are beging is not a way to absolve yourself of beging the question. There is a legitimate case to made that being in pain and feeling pain are in fact two seperate things. The evidence for this comes, not from a priori reflection on the nature of pain, but from evidence from cognitive science.
But suppose that you are not moved by this evidence and you still maintain that a priori analysis reveals that the zombie world is metaphysically (not just epistemically) possible. Is this a coherent position? One objection that immediately pops up is that on this view it seems that we can concieve of various possible worlds that result in contradiction. So, I seem to be able to concieve that God necessarily exists and that God necessarily doesn’t exist (or that numbers do and don’t necessarily exist). Since the claim that conceiveability entails possibility entails that God (or numbers) both necessarily exists and doesn’t exist only one of those possibilities can be a real metaphysical possibility; the other must be an epistemic possibility.
Chappell is of course aware of this objection and tries to deal with it in the post linked to above. Here is what he says,
I agree with Chalmers that the most attractive response for the modal rationalist here is to hold on to their strong position, and instead deny the… conceivability intuitions found, for example,…above. It isn’t at all clear that a necessary being, or a shrunken modal space, is coherently conceivable in the appropriate sense. The modal rationalist will want to hold that their position is not just true, but a priori. They would then expect opposing views to be refutable a priori, and hence not feature in any a priori coherent scenario. Of course, it would beg the question to merely assert: “the thesis is true and hence has no successful counterexamples”. But that is not what’s going on here. Rather, I hope to show that the modal rationalist can explicate their commitments in a way which makes clear exactly why, on their view, the meta-modal cases in question are not taken to be genuinely conceivable. If successful, this should suffice to undermine the charge of internal inconsistency or self-refutation.
The problem with this line of argument is that it commits the very ‘fallacy’ that Chappell accuses the Kripkeans of making. The strategy that he is here proposing is that of trying to show that there is some possible state of affairs that seems conceivable but which, on reflection, is not in fact metaphysically possible (i.e. that there are possibilities that (seem)concievable but are not metaphysically possible). But if there are possibilities that (seem) concievable but not metaphysically possible then we need an independent argument that the zombie world is not one of these worlds. No such argument has been given. Rather what Chappell does is to assume that it is in fact coherently concievable; but this cannot be assumed if there are any possibilities which (seem) concievable and are not metaphysically possible. Chappell’s own view commits him to there being such possibilites, so by his own view the modal argument against materialism is suspect.