Easy possibility

Tim Williamson has made use of a notion of ‘easy possibility’ in his modal account of knowledge – some event is an easy possibility if it could easily have happened. Where did this notion come from? It seems plausible that ‘event x could easily have happened’ is an anthropomorphic generalization from ‘person p could easily have performed action a’. I’m going to briefly explore the consequences of this.

Easiness is at least a partially normative concept; as well as circumstances, competence plays a role in deciding whether a is easy for p. So consider an exceptionally competent archer – if a clear path to a target at 20 metres distance is available, he will always be able to easily hit it. An incompetent archer in exactly the same circumstances would not find it easy to hit the target. So easiness of an action is (obviously) agent-relative. But when we use the phrase ‘could easily have happened’, which agent is it relativized to?

It’s easy (apologies for the pun!) to see that it can’t be any contingent agent. We can apply the notion of easy possibility to particle-interactions well before any life existed: it could easily have been that more interactions occurred in the first nanosecond of the universe than actually did occur in the first nanosecond. An idealized human agent won’t do either. If an idealized human agent were around in the early universe, they would die before having the chance to tweak any particles. It looks like we’re going to have to wheel in God.

If God was the relevant agent, it would give a pretty satisfying reductive account of easy possibility. Something could easily have happened if it would not have required much effort for God to change things so that it happened. Maybe the idea is that God would only have had to alter the position of a particle one millionth of a micro-metre, and more interactions would have occurred in the first nanosecond than actually did occur.

Why not take this as a conceptual analysis of the notion of easy possibility? Event e could easily have occurred iff it would have been easy for God to change things so that e occurs. Obviously ‘easy’ is a vague term, but then so plausibly is the extension of easy possibility; no problems there. I think this looks like the bare bones of a good analysis. Indeed, I think it’s a worryingly good analysis for the friend of easy possibility; through the association with an idealized agent, it casts doubt on whether easy possibility has a place in naturalistic modal metaphysics.

Easy possibility

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