Short rant on possible worlds

My first introduction to possible worlds came after a question I raised that, boiled down to its essentials, made the following claim.

Contingent events are those that can be otherwise.

Past events, as past, cannot be otherwise.

Past events, as past, are not contingent.

The immediate response came from someone who objected “but every past event can be otherwise, and it in fact is otherwise, in another possible world!”

This is where, as the kids say, I got off the bus.

My responder thought I made an obvious oversight or was stuck in a hopeless aporia that could only be set right by the recognizing possible worlds; but from the moment he spoke until now possible worlds have struck me as fetishism, superstition, and the madness of crowds.

So is possibility temporal? I say it is, PW analysis says it isn’t. One can have a PW analysis that changed by the temporal progress of the real world, but I’m pretty sure there would be a problem with this.* For the moment, what I’m critiquing is any PW analysis that sees, for example, past events as permanently possible in some PW. I’ve got three arguments:

1.)  If you ask me whether raw cookies can be baked, there is no answer to this that doesn’t relate them to time. There is an obvious contradiction in saying that raw cookies can be baked now or at one and the same time since this would mean “to be raw” could be “to be cooked”. I also can’t act on the past – say by throwing something there in the oven –  and if a state requires something impossible then the state itself is impossible. Thus, raw cookies can be baked only relative to their future. But possible worlds analysis does not allow for these temporal qualifications.

2.) If there are PW’s,  all possibilities are true at once. But of what are they all true? They can’t all be true of this same thing in the real world, since, as just shown, this changes throughout time. So they must be true of a different thing from what is in the real world. But then what use are they for describing the possibilities of the real world? It’s nonsense to claim that when we say “this dough can be baked” we mean that “something else is baked.”

3.) If there are possible worlds, possibilities are actual. But the possible and the actual are contraries, and so the claim “the possible is actual” is the same as saying the straight is the curved – an impossibility that doesn’t become more palatable by saying it occurs in some other world. It is true that the straight is possibly curved, but if we use this to explain the statement that is true in another possible world then we introduce another possible world on top of the one we’ve already posited – a turtle on top of a turtle on top of a turtle forever.


*If one saw PW’s as just modalities of the real world, and as continually updated by the progress of the real world this would evade everything I’m saying here. But under such a description the possible worlds would be constantly changing, and so a PW would itself be relative to another PW, ad infinitum. 

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