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Size and Modality

March 25, 2009

There’s this thing that’s been puzzling me for a while now. It’s kind of related to the literature on indefinite extensibility, but the thing that puzzles me has nothing to do with sets, quantification or Russell’s paradox (or at least, not obviously.) I think it is basically a puzzle about infinities, or sizes.

First I should get clear on what I mean by size. Size, as I am thinking about it, is closely related to what set theorists call cardinality. But there are some important differences.

(i) Cardinality is heavily bound up with set theory, whereas I take it that size talk does not commit us to sets. For example, I believe I can truly say there are more regions than open regions of spacetime, even if I’m a staunch nominalist. Think of size talk as analogous to plural quantification: I am not introducing new objects into the domain (sizes/pluralities), I am just quantifying over the existing individuals in a new way.

(ii) Only sets have cardinalities. I believe you can talk about the sizes of proper class sized pluralities.

(iii) Points (i) and (ii) are compatible with a Fregean theory of size. But Fregean sizes, as well as cardinalities, are thought to be had by pluralities (concepts, sets) of individuals in the domain. In particular: every size, is the size of some plurality/set. I reject this. I think there are sizes which no plurality has – I think there could have been more things than there in fact are, and thus, that there are sizes which no plurality in fact has. So sizes are inherently bound up with modality on this view – sizes are had by possible pluralities.

(iv) Frege and the set theorists both believe sizes are individuals. I’m not yet decided on this one, but Frege’s version of Hume’s principle forces the domain to be infinite, which contradicts (i) – that size talk isn’t ontologically committing. Interestingly, the plural logic version of HP is satisfiable on domains of any size – thus size’s can be always be construed as objects, if needs be. But I’m inclined to think that size talk is fundamentally grounded in certain kinds of quantified statements (e.g., “there are countably many F’s”.)

I’m going to mostly ignore (iv) from hereon and talk about sizes like they were objects, because as noted, you can consistently do this if needs be (given global choice.) That said, I can’t adopt HP because of point (iii). It’s built into the notation of HP that every size is the size of some plurality. Furthermore, Hume’s principle entails there is a largest size. (Cardinality theory say there is no largest cardinality, but this is because of an expressive failure on it’s part – proper classes don’t have cardinalities.) However, if we accept the following principle:

  • Necessarily, there could have been more things.

it follows from (iii) that there is no largest size.

I think this is right. It just seems weird and arbitrary to think that there could be this largest size, \kappa. Why \kappa and not 2^\kappa? Clearly, it seems, there are worlds, that have this many things (think of, e.g. Forrest-Armstrong type constructions.) If not, what metaphysical fact could possibly ground this cutoff point?

What I don’t object to is there being a largest size of an actual plurality. I’m fine with arbitrariness, so long as it’s contingent. But to think that there is some size that limits the size of all possible worlds seems really strange. Just to state the existence of a limit seems to commit us to larger sizes – it’s like saying there are sizes which no possible world matches.

Here is a second principle about sizes I really like. Any collection of sizes has an upperbound. This is something that Fregean, and in a certain sense, cardinality theories of size share with me, so I’m not going to spend as long defending it. But intuitively, if you can have possible worlds with domains of sizes \kappa for each \kappa \in S, then there should be a world containing the union of all these domains – a world with at least Sup(S) things.

So this is what I mean by size. Here is the puzzle: this conception of size seems to be inconsistent. To see this we need to formalise a bit further. Take as our primitive a binary relation over sizes, < (informally “smaller than”.) For simplicity, assume we are only quantifying over sizes. Here are some principles. You can ignore 3. and 4. if you want, 1. and 2. are obvious, and 5. and 6. we have just argued for.

  1. \forall x \neg x < x
  2. \forall xyz(x<y<z \rightarrow x<z)
  3. \forall xy(x<y \vee x=y \vee x>y)
  4. \forall xx\exists x(x \prec xx \wedge \forall y(y \prec xx \rightarrow x \leq y))
  5. \forall x \exists y x<y
  6. \forall xx\exists x\forall y(y \prec xx \rightarrow y \leq x)

The first three principles say that < than is a total order, which is pretty much self evident. The fourth says it’s a well order. (The inconsistency to follow doesn’t require (3) or (4).) The fifth encodes the principle that there is no largest size, and the sixth says that every collection of sizes has an upper bound.

These principles are jointly inconsistent: let xx be the plurality of self-identical things. By (6) xx has an upper bound, k. By (5) there is a size larger than k, k<k+. Since k+ is in xx, and k is an upperbound for xx, k+ \leq k. Thus k<k by (2) and logic, which is impossible by (1).

There are roughly three ways out of this usually considered. Fregean theories reject (5), cardinality theory (with unrestricted plural quantifiers) deny (6) and indefinite extensibilists do something funky with the quantifiers (I’ve never really worked out how that helps, but it’s there for completeness.) Also note, the version of (6) restricted to “small” (roughly, “set-sized”) pluralities is consistent.

My own diagnosis is that the above formulation of size theory simply fails to take account of the modal nature of sizes. If we are pretending that sizes are objects at all (which, I think, is also not an innocent assumption), we should remember that just because there could be such a size, doesn’t mean in fact there is such a size. This is the same kind of fallacious reasoning encoded in the Barcan formula and its converse  (this is partly why it is very unhelpful to think of sizes as objects; we are naturally inclined to think of them as abstract, necessarily existing objects.)

Anyway – a natural way to formulate (1)-(6) in modal terms would be in a second order modal logic, perhaps with a primitive second level size comparison relation. For example (1) would be ‘necessarily, if the xx are everything, then there aren’t more xx than xx‘, (2) would be ‘necessarly for all xx, necessarily for all yy, necessarily for all zz, if there are more zz‘s than yy‘s and more yy‘s than zz‘s there are more zz‘s than xx‘s’ and (5) would be ‘necessarily, there could have been more things’. The only problem is, how would we state (6)?

I’ve been toying around with propositional quantification. Let me change the primitives slightly: instead of using \Box p, \Diamond p to talk about possibility and necessity, I’ll interpret them as saying p is true in some/every accessible world with a larger domain than the current world. Also, since I don’t care about anything about a world except the size of it’s domain, let us think of the worlds not as representing maximally specific ways for things to be, but as sizes themselves. Thus the intended models of the theory will be Kripke frames of the following form: \langle W, R \rangle where (i) the transitive closure of R is a well order on W, and (ii) for each w in W, R is a well order on R(w). (We’re going to have to give up S4, so we mustnt assume R is transitive on W, although it’s locally transitive on R(w) for each w in W.) Propositions are sets of worlds, so the range of the propositional quantifiers differ from world to world, since R is non-trivial.

Call R a local well order on W iff it satisfies (i) and (ii). I’m going to assert without defence (for the time being) that the formulae valid over the class of local well orders, will be the modal equivalent of (1)-(4) holding (I expect it would be fairly easy to come up with an axiomatisation of this class directly and that this axiomatisation would correspond to (1)-(4). For example, the complicated one, (4), would correspond to \forall p(\Diamond p \rightarrow \exists q\forall r(\Box(r \rightarrow p) \rightarrow \Box(q \rightarrow \Diamond r))).)

The important thing is that it is possible to state (5) and (6) directly, and, it seems, consistently (although we’ll have to give up on unrestricted S4.) [Note: I may well have made some mistakes here, so apologies in advance.]

  1. \Box p \rightarrow p
  2. \forall pqr(\Diamond(p \wedge \Diamond(q \wedge \Diamond r)) \rightarrow \Diamond(p \wedge \Diamond r))
  3. \forall p(\Diamond p \rightarrow \exists q\forall r(\Box(r \rightarrow p) \rightarrow \Box(q \rightarrow \Diamond r)))
  4. \Box\exists p(p \wedge \Diamond \neg p)
  5. \forall p \Diamond\exists q(q \wedge \neg p)

(I decided halfway through writing this post it was simpler to axiomatise a reflexive well order, so the modal (1)-(4) above don’t correspond as naturally to the original (1)-(4) – I’ll try and neaten this up at some point).

What is slightly striking is the failure of S4. Informally, if I were to have S4 I would be able to quantify over the universal proposition of all worlds, take its supremum by (6), and find a world not in the proposition by (5). This would just be a version of the inconsistency given for the extensional size theory above.

Instead, we have a picture on which worlds can only see a limited number of world sizes – to see the larger sizes you have to move to larger worlds. At no point can you “quantify” over all collections of worlds – so, at least in this sense, the view is quite close to the indefinite extensibility literature. But of course, the non-modal talk is misleading: worlds are really maximally specific propositions, and the only propositions that exist are those in the range of our propositional quantifiers at the actual world – the worlds inaccessible to the actual world in the model should just be thought of as a useful picture for characterising which sentences in the box and diamond language are true at the actual world.

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One comment

  1. […] characterizing A phenomenology of dread, while Possibly Philosophy introduces a puzzle concerning Size and Modality and Matters of Substance highlights The Age of […]



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