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Modal logic, philosophical issues in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-X005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

Article Summary

In reasoning we often use words such as ‘necessarily’, ‘possibly’, ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘must’ and so on. For example, if we know that an argument is valid, then we know that it is necessarily true that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. Modal logic starts with such modal words and the inferences involving them. The exploration of these inferences has led to a variety of formal systems, and their interpretation is now most often built on the concept of a possible world.

Standard non-modal logic shows us how to understand logical words such as ‘not’, ‘and’ and ‘or’, which are truth-functional. The modal concepts are not truth-functional: knowing that p is true (and what ‘necessarily’ means) does not automatically enable one to determine whether ‘Necessarily p’ is true. (‘It is necessary that all people have been people’ is true, but ‘It is necessary that no English monarch was born in Montana’ is false, even though the simpler constituents – ‘All people have been people’ and ‘No English monarch was born in Montana’– are both true.)

The study of modal logic has helped in the understanding of many other contexts for sentences that are not truth-functional, such as ‘ought’ (‘It ought to be the case that p’) and ‘believes’ (‘Alice believes that p’); and also in the consideration of the interaction between quantifiers and non-truth-functional contexts. In fact, much work in modern semantics has benefited from the extension of modal semantics introduced by Richard Montague in beginning the development of a systematic semantics for natural language.

The framework of possible worlds developed for modal logic has been fruitful in the analysis of many concepts. For example, by introducing the concept of relative possibility, Kripke showed how to model a variety of modal systems: a proposition is necessarily true at a possible world w if and only if it is true at every world that is possible relative to w. To achieve a better analysis of statements of ability, Mark Brown adapted the framework by modelling actions with sets of possible outcomes. John has the ability to hit the bull’s-eye reliably if there is some action of John’s such that every possible outcome of that action includes John’s hitting the bull’s-eye.

Modal logic and its semantics also raise many puzzles. What makes a modal claim true? How do we tell what is possible and what is necessary? Are there any possible things that do not exist (and what could that mean anyway)? Does the use of modal logic involve a commitment to essentialism? How can an individual exist in many different possible worlds?

Citing this article:
McKay, Thomas J.. Modal logic, philosophical issues in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-X005-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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