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Explanation and modality: on why the Swampman is still worrisome to teleosemanticists


In a series of papers, Papineau argues that the Swampman scenario is not even the start of an objection to teleosemantics as a scientific reduction of belief. It is against this claim that I want to argue here. I shall argue that our intuition about the scenario questions the adequacy of the conceptual foundations of teleosemantics, namely, success semantics and the etiological conception of biological function, on which the explanatory power of the theory rests. In the course of argument, some general connections between explanation and modality will be developed that shed a new light on Kripke’s analysis of necessary a posteriori propositions. The upshot will be that teleosemanticists should tackle the Swampman objection head-on.

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  1. See, for example, Cummins (1975) and Nanay (2014) for alternative accounts of biological function.

  2. Here I am lazily using, and will continue to use, ‘P’ ambiguously. The first occurrence of ‘P’ should be replaced by a sentence and the second should be considered as a name of the proposition expressed by the sentence.

  3. I believe that my remark is in agreement with Mark Greenberg (2005, p. 314): “On biological teleological theories, in contrast to non-normative historical or biological theories, certain historical facts are alleged to be determinants of content because they are a source of function. So biological teleological theories have a distinctive explanation of why historical facts are basic determinants of content.”

  4. It is worth noting that in his original paper, Davidson himself endorses the conclusion, suggesting that a belief can be formed only “in a context that would give it the right” truth condition or any truth condition at all (p. 414). To a certain extent, I am sympathetic to Davidson’s view. For the purpose of this paper, my personal view is less important than the analysis of the problem; so I will not be concerned so much with this alternative view.

  5. As we shall see below (§6), Papineau’s argument was partly anticipated in Neander (1996).

  6. This much seems to be what most defenders of teleosemantics would agree on, despite some possible difference in details concerning the notion of scientific reduction. See, for example, Millikan (1993, p. 15; 1996, p. 110) and Neander (1996, pp. 124–125).

  7. Some have argued that there actually are Swampman-like creatures. See, for example, Peters (2014).

  8. This is different from the claim that (a) is necessary, because the superficial properties might not be realized by R in another possible world.

  9. My remark here is not intended as a criticism of Schulte’s view. I only wish to point out a possible disagreement. In fact, some of the properties of water that Schulte takes to be superficial, such as high viscosity and higher electrical conductivity than most of other non-metallic liquids, can be taken as basic properties of water, but they do not seem to me to be properties by which we typically recognize water, at least outside science laboratories. Also, I do not mean to deny that some of the superficial properties can be basic.

  10. A general principle suggested in this discussion is that if a property \(\Phi \) explains part of the nature of \(\Psi \) then it is necessary that every \(\Psi \) is \(\Phi \). Here, to be sure, the notion of explanation should properly be understood as the constitutive one, i.e., one that concerns what makes up a certain property. The principle should seem highly plausible because the nature of \(\Psi \) must necessarily belong to \(\Psi \); hence whatever constitutes the nature of \(\Psi \) must also belong to \(\Psi \) necessarily. In this connection, see pp. 14–15 and footnotes 11 and 14 below. I thank an anonymous referee from this journal for pressing me to state the principle explicitly.

  11. In their paper “Essential Properties Are Super-Explanatory: Taming Metaphysical Modality” (Godman et al. 2020, pp. 326–329), Marion Godman, David Papineau, and Antonella Mallozzi argue that kinds involve what they call superexplanatory properties. For example, the property of having the chemical composition of \(\mathrm{H}_2\mathrm{O}\) is superexplanatory of the kind water in the sense that the former explains most of the common properties of water. They further argue that the superexplanatory properties of a kind constitutes the necessary and sufficient condition for membership in the kind in the strict sense; in other words, for any kind K, and any property (or, a cluster of properties) E, if E is superexplanatory with respect to K, then

    $$\begin{aligned} \square (K(x)\equiv E(x)). \end{aligned}$$

    Notice that, according to this account, both (N1) and (N2) ought to be true if we interpret H as the property of having the chemical composition of \(\mathrm{H}_2\mathrm{O}\) and W as the property of being water. Now, they do not explicitly discuss teleosemantics in the paper. However it should be clear that if the teleosemantic thesis is to be understood as that the property of being a selectional state is superexplanatory of belief (or, more broadly, representation), then it immediately follows that beliefs are necessarily selectional states.

  12. I thank the anonymous referee for pressing me to consider this objection.

  13. This route was taken by Godfrey-Smith (2006).

  14. For example, it is clear that Schulte and Papineau are interested in giving a constitutive explanation of the representational nature of beliefs. For textual evidence, see Schulte (2020, fn.20) and Papineau (2016, pp. 114–116). See also Millikan (1996) and Neander (1996), who also understand teleosemantics as a theory of the real nature of beliefs.

  15. A version of this argument can be found in Schulte (2020, fn. 36).

  16. This is how Schulte himself replies to the argument in the same footnote. I thank the anonymous referee for pressing me to consider this reply.

  17. See, for example, Loar (1990, pp. 84–85) and Hill (1997, p. 62)

  18. In the light of this argument, Kripke’s Requirement can plausibly be generalized to the necessary propositions in general, whether a priori or a posteriori, though it might seem superfluous in the case of necessary a priori propositions.

  19. See ibid., pp. 124–125 for his discussion about gold. I believe that there is no essential difference between the two cases of water and gold. See also ibid., pp. 140–142 and pp. 150–151 for his discussion of epistemically equivalent situations. Strictly speaking, Kripke is concerned with the converse problem, namely whether a chemical substance with the chemical composition of \(\mathrm{H}_2\mathrm{O}\) can possibly not be water. But it can be given a similar treatment.

  20. Kripke (1971, pp. 16–17) claims that for some propositions P, we can know “by a priori philosophical analysis” the conditional of the form “if P then necessarily P,” and gives as an example the proposition that the table is not made of ice. However, he does not further elaborate what he means by “a priori philosophical analysis.” The current discussion suggests that in the case of water and \(\mathrm{H}_2\mathrm{O}\), the subject of a priori philosophical analysis is scientific concepts such as chemical substance and chemical composition; roughly, the truth of (W3) can be ascertained solely on the basis of the observation that chemical substances are in part defined by their chemical compositions. In this connection, see footnote 22 below. I believe that a similar account can be given to other well-known examples, such as the necessity of identity and of origin (Kripke 1980, p. 109 and pp. 113–114), although they do not necessarily involve scientific concepts. But a proper investigation into this issue must wait for another day.

  21. Note again that Kripke himself discusses the converse, namely the apparent possibility of having C-fiber stimulation without having the phenomenal quality. See ibid., p. 154. See also footnote 19 above.

  22. Nor does it follow that pain is quain. For this conclusion, we need to assume that pain is nothing over and above whatever feels like it. Kripke explicitly assumes this, but it is dispensable according to the current analysis.

  23. The current analysis of Kripke’s argument against the mind-body identity theory is quite different from what we may call the orthodox interpretation that the apparent possibility of pain without C-fiber stimulation cannot be explained away because we are thinking of pain “directly” by its phenomenal quality. This is in contrast to the \(\mathrm{H}_2\mathrm{O}\) theory of water, according to this line of interpretation, because we often think of water via some associated descriptive content (say, “the colorless, odorless,...liquid that we find in lakes.”). See, for example, Loar (1997), Levine (2001), Papineau (2002), Garcia-Carpintero and Macià (2006) for this line of interpretation. As opposed to the orthodox interpretation, the current analysis suggests that the argument hinges not so much on whether we think of pain directly or via some descriptive content as it does on the conceptual connection between phenomenal states and the accompanying neural (brain, physical, etc.) states. I cannot go into the exegetical details here for reasons of space.

  24. Now one might worry that it is illegitimate to assume (B1) because as we have seen in Sect. 4 Papineau explicitly refuses to make this assumption. Let me get clear about the dialectic. I have already argued that teleosemanticists should somehow establish (BC). Here I am considering whether it can be done by employing Kripke’s strategy which, as far as I know, is the only way of establishing the necessity of a posteriori propositions. So the point is that if teleosemanticists are to employ Kripke’s strategy to establish (BC), then they would have to make the semantic assumption of (B1). As far as I can see, moreover, assuming (B1) does not necessarily go against the spirit of scientific reduction in Papineau’s sense. According to Papineau, recall, the \(\mathrm{H}_2\mathrm{O}\) theorists are concerned not with our ordinary concept of water but rather with that chemical substance that we typically call ‘water’. So (W1) should be acceptable to them if only as a theoretical stipulation. Similarly, teleosemanticists are interested in the actual states that we typically call ‘belief’. So (B1) should also be seen as acceptable, again, at least as a theoretical stipulation.


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Correspondence to Dongwoo Kim.

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Special thanks to David Papineau for reading multiple versions of the paper and providing many helpful comments and discussions. I would also like to thank Tomasz Zyglewicz for providing useful comments on a previous version of this paper. The paper has also benefited from helpful questions and comments from Sergei Artemov, Paul Dekker, Melvin Fitting, Jiwon Kim, Rohit Parikh, Brian Porter, Graham Priest, David Taylor, Yale Weiss, and other participants in the Fifth PLM Conference at the University of St Andrews and in the Logic and Metaphysics Workshop at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I am deeply grateful for extensive and constructive comments from three anonymous referees from this journal.

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Kim, D. Explanation and modality: on why the Swampman is still worrisome to teleosemanticists. Synthese 199, 2817–2839 (2021).

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  • Teleosemantics
  • Representation
  • Swampman
  • Reduction
  • Explanation
  • Necessary a posteriori