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11/11/2014

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"Claiming that we are able to do otherwise, or denying that we are able to do otherwise, are both modal claims about deterministic worlds. In order to figure out which of these claims is accurate we need to be able to employ modal reasoning."

Okay, I think now I'm worried about (4) of my reconstruction of the argument, namely the claim that incompatibilist accounts of the ability to do otherwise require us to hold fix the past and the laws when determining what an agent is able to do. When incompatibilists try to figure out whether an agent can do otherwise in a deterministic world, it seems to me that they DO use counterfactual reasoning. In particular, they ask questions like: "What would the world be like if the agent were to do something she is determined not to do?" Then they go look at the worlds where the antecedent comes out true, and they discover that those worlds all have different pasts or different laws. It's precisely because those other worlds have different pasts/laws that the incompatibilist concludes that the agent isn't able to do otherwise, since no one is able to do something such that, if she were to do it, the past or laws would have to have been different.

Why doesn't that count as modal (and hence counterfactual) reasoning?

Charles,
Thank you for your commentaries about my response. I think that you really understood my point. I really think that we can know things without empirical evidence, too. An for that we need of the our human experience that is, at least, more complex than empirical evidence. I only wanted to put attention in a mode to think, and in what you say in your response: we need to reflect on modalities to arrive to a notion of necessity which free us of the concept of a priori knowledge.

Neal,
I like the response, but I don't think it could work. . It seems like they are claiming that they reasoned counterfactually, and by doing so discovered that they were reasoning counterfactually and that was the problem. After all, what it is to reason counterfactually in a deterministic world is to consider worlds where the laws or the past are different. If all modal reasoning is a species of counterfactual reasoning then on this response when the incompatibilist is trying to discover whether the ability to do otherwise is possible in a deterministic world, she begins by employing modal reasoning. Then, somewhere along the way she recognizes that she is reasoning modally. Then she complains that we can't do otherwise in a deterministic world because in order to determine whether or not we can we have to reason modally. That seems like it can't be right. How can we conclude that we are unable to do otherwise in a deterministic world by claiming that it is inappropriate to use the resources for modal reasoning in a deterministic world.

Charles,

Would you say the same thing about incompatibilists who distinguish between abilities and opportunities? Clearly even incompatibilists will use counterfactual reasoning to figure out what (general) abilities an agent has, even in a deterministic world. Holding fixed the past and the laws isn't necessary for that. But in the context of the debate over compatibilism, we're wondering not just whether the agent has the (general) ability to do otherwise, we're also wondering whether the agent has the opportunity to exercise that ability. And the incompatibilist of this variety will want to say that "having the opportunity" requires a same-past-same-laws world in which the agent exercises the ability that she has.

Neal,
I guess the short answer is I don't know whether I'd say the same about opportunities as I do about abilities. It depends upon whether the concept of 'opportunity' has to be a modal concept. If the answer is yes, then this same argument would block that response. I have a tendency to think that the concept of an opportunity has to be a modal concept....but I'm not confident about that, nor have I done anything here to argue for that claim.

Yet, As I see it there are two distinct questions. One is whether we are able to do otherwise in a deterministic world. As far as this argument, that is all I intend to defend. The classical free will debate is over whether an agent is able to do otherwise in a deterministic world. If I can show that the answer to that question is yes, compatibilists win the classical debate. Given that today both incompatibilists and most people who call themselves compatibilists think that incompatibilists won the classical debate, I think that would be a huge victory. But, certainly, it isn't enough to resolve all the issues we care about when we care about free will.

I think that what we ought to claim about the ability/opportunity distinction depends upon what the laws of nature are. It seems that in the laws of nature literature the two main positions today are the Humean position and the neo-Aristotelian position. I think many people in the free will literature would agree that the Humean position makes compatibilism easier (although I don't think the Humean position on its own is sufficient for defending compatibilism). I think that the neo-Aristotelian position blocks one from employing the ability/opportunity distinction. While these are not the only views on laws of nature, they are the two biggies today. Both are very compatibilist friendly. Besides the fact that the Humean account and the neo-Aristotelian account are the two biggies today, I think I can also defend the claim that (at least among currently existing accounts of laws of nature) they are the only two that stand a chance of being right. In my next post I intend to explore exactly this issue. Since I plan on addressing this sort of an issue in the next post, I don't really want to say much more about it here other than to agree with you that nothing I have said in this post blocks the incompatibilist from adopting this response to my argument. Doing so, they'd be admitting that they lost the classical free will debate, but they may not be too concerned because they may still win the debate over whether indeterminism is required for moral responsibility. Compatibilists need to do more than merely show that the ability to do otherwise is consistent with determinism.

Charles,

Thanks for the follow-up. This has been a fruitful exchange. One last thought: I don't think my incompatibilist will have to admit that she has lost the classical free will debate, because the distinction between ability and opportunity is supposed to correspond to the distinction between general ability and specific ability, and the debate isn't about whether determinism would rule out the general ability to do otherwise. (I think everyone admits that it wouldn't.) When we're wondering whether the person in a piano-less room has the general ability to play piano, there's no problem in going to worlds where that person is in a room with a piano. But when we're wondering whether that person has the specific ability (opportunity) to play piano, we hold fixed that she's in a piano-less room. Incompatibilists think that being determined not to play the piano is the same as being in a piano-less room.

To determine whether someone has a specific ability, we've got to reason modally (and hence, I'll grant, counterfactually). But what would we have to find out about the relevant sphere of worlds in order to conclude that the person *lacks* the ability? Well, we'd have to find out that in none of those worlds does the person perform the action in question. And now the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists is what the relevant worlds are. I take it that what you've been arguing is that the only relevant worlds will be worlds with different pasts or laws. But I think I'm still stuck on why that's the case. To determine general abilities, and facts about reasons-responsiveness, and so on, sure. But what about the piano-less room?

Neal,
I wanted to thank you again for your comments. All the people posting here are greatly helping me clarify exactly what I want to say when I try turning this post into a more flushed out paper…and you are certainly forcing me to think a lot deeper about this than I have been before. The way I initially thought about the argument was that all I wanted to do was show that we have the ability to do otherwise in a deterministic world. Now, someone might grant this and then claim that we lack the opportunity. As I initially conceived of this argument, I thought that responding to this maneuver would require a separate and necessary argument for the compatibilist. The more I think of your recent posts, I no longer think that is true. Instead, I am now tempted to claim that the argument that I have in this post equally shows that opportunities cannot be added into the requirement without facing the same difficulty.
In my last response to you I claimed that whether or not the same argument could be employed against opportunities depends upon whether ‘opportunity’ is a modal concept. If it is, then I could replace the term ability with opportunity in everything that I claim in these posts and the argument would be as effective. The one thing I hadn’t spent much time thinking about before your posts was whether it is as obvious that ‘opportunity’ is a modal concept as it is that ‘ability’ is a modal concept. Now, I am convinced that ‘opportunity’ is a modal concept. After all, when we think about whether someone has an opportunity to X we are not merely asking whether or not they X’ed. Instead, we need to think of a range of relevant worlds. The incompatibilist might tell us that the appropriate range is those worlds with the same laws and past as our own. What the incompatibilist certainly ought not claim is that having the opportunity to X just is Xing, and determining whether someone has the opportunity to X does not require us to engage in modal reasoning. If this is right, then the question of whether an agent has the opportunity to X in a deterministic world is a modal question. If it is a modal question, then the same argument I employ above can be used to show that accounts of opportunities that force us to consider worlds with the same laws and the same past as our own cannot be employed to resolve this question. I am certain that if my argument that holding the laws and past fixed when determining whether an agent is able to do otherwise succeeds and ‘opportunity’ is a modal concept, then the same argument shows that incompatibiilst constraints on opportunities are problematic. While I am not certain, I am close to certain that ‘opportunity’ is a modal concept. So, in the course of the last few hours thinking about your posts has led me to think that the argument in this post is as successful against incompatibiilst accounts of opportunity as it is against incompataibilist accounts of ability.

I think I'm willing to grant that opportunity is a modal concept. The pianist in a piano-less room lacks some sort of ability when it comes to playing piano. How do we explain this? Well, we look around at the worlds in which she plays the piano, and we see that they all involve very different circumstances than she currently finds herself in. Since they all involve circumstances in which there is a piano in her room, and since there actually is no piano in her room, she can't play the piano (in the opportunity sense).

Incompatibilists want to say the same thing. I'm determined not to play the piano, even though there's a piano right in front of me. Can I nevertheless play? Well, look around at the worlds in which I do play. They all involve different pasts and different laws. So, I can't play the piano (in the opportunity sense), even though I'm a pianist. This sure looks like modal (even counterfactual) reasoning to me.

But perhaps now we're just repeating ourselves. I'll look forward to your next post.

I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about 'opportunity,' Charles! The concept perplexes me. And thanks to you and others for a very interesting discussion.

I wanted to get back to Neal's questions if I may. I've been struggling to try to understand the general/specific ability distinction, and struggling to understand in what sense there are specific abilities and why we should care about them.

Let’s go back to the bike-less room. I can wrap my head around an "ability" to ride a bike that I lack in a bike-less room but in as much as this ability is modal, it reflects the Kantian modality of existence. That is, if there is no bike in the room, I won’t be riding a bike. To try go from that clear observation to a claim that I can't ride a bike, strikes me as egregious. The fact that I am in a bike-less room does not render me as-if I were a 5-year old, with no bike-riding abilities. It is just that I won’t be riding a bike because there is no bike to ride. Does the absence of a bike do anything to me at all? If not, why think it gives me a lack of ability?

Hi Joe,

I think the thought is that we want to be able to distinguish someone who's in a room with a bike, and won't ride, from someone who's in a room without a bike, and won't ride. It could be that in both cases, they won't ride because they don't want to. But it might also be that the person in the bike-less room wants to ride, and would if he could, but still he won't ride. Why won't he? Because he can't. There's no bike to ride.

If you're in the room with him and you demand that he ride a bike, he won't just protest by saying: "No I won't!" He'll say: "I can't!" And he won't be claiming to be a 5-year-old.

Neal ,
I doubt that the reason it makes sense to claim that someone in a room without a piano lacks the opportunity to play a piano is because there are no worlds with the same laws of nature and past as our own where the agent plays the piano. Consider an indeterministic world where there is no piano. Wouldn’t you want to claim in that world that the agent also lacks the opportunity to play the piano? Yet, there very well may be worlds with the same laws and past as that world where the agent immediately begins to play the piano. After all, if the laws merely state probabilities for where atoms would move, there is a non-zero chance that the atoms in front of the agent arrange themselves into the shape of a piano at precisely that moment. So, the agent does have the opportunity to play the piano here and now….or at least it isn’t prohibited by the laws and the past. I don’t mean to be defending a simple counterfactual view of abilities or opportunities, but to get a very rough stab about what the incompatibilist ought to say here about the indeterministic world without the piano is something like, it is false that “If the agent decided to play the piano here and now he would do so.” While there are very remote world (consistent with those indeterministic laws and past) where the agent does play the piano here and now, the fact that they are remote entails that he lacks the opportunity. It seems that we can say the same thing in a deterministic world. My argument above is that if modal reasoning requires counterfactual reasoning then we cannot resolve a modal question about a deterministic world when only considering worlds with the same laws and past as our own. If the argument works for abilities, then it also works for opportunities.

Joe,
I am equally deeply confused about the opportunity distinction. Consider a case where someone’s finger is in perfectly working order. Is that person able to flip a light switch? Here it seems like we ought to say yes. Is the person able to flip the light switch on the other side of a locked door? Well, here I think it depends on what we are asking. Are we asking whether the person has the ability to merely flip that switch? If so, the answer is yes. But, I can also think of a clear sense in which we might want to say no. Yet, contrary to Vihvelin’s claim, this does not show us that there is an ambiguity in the term ‘able’. Instead, there are two distinct abilities. One is an ability to flip the switch. The other is the ability to carry out a plan that results in the switch being flipped. Now, in order to carry out that intention, the agent will have to pick the lock, break the door, or do something else in order to approach the light switch. The reason it makes sense to claim that the agent lacks the ability to flip that switch is because the agent lacks the ability to pick the lock. There are not two different concepts here, one the compatibilist account of ‘ability’ and the other the incompatibilist constraint of ‘opportunity’. Instead, it seems to me that the difference is between an ability to carry out a simplistic action and the ability to carry out a more detailed plan. So, I think that adding in opportunities merely confuses the issue.

To help motivate this, think of a case where someone is completely normally functioning. That agent has the ability to turn on a light by flipping a switch. Now, imagine an agent who is almost completely paralyzed but can move his finger only a millimeter. Does this agent retain the ability to flip the switch? While I think the right answer is no, once we add in the concept of opportunities then the answer seems to become yes. After all, if the switch were right next to the agent and near the point of almost switching to the on position, then the agent’s capacity to move the switch a millimeter would be a case of flipping the switch. Since such an agent successfully flipped the switch, the agent was able to flip the switch. Yet, if this agent is able to flip the switch then an agent that is intrinsically identical to that agent but doesn’t have a switch that is near the tipping point is also able to flip the switch. It seems if we make use of the opportunity distinction we ought to claim that while the nearly paralyzed agent has the ability to flip the switch, she lacks the opportunity to do so. It seems to me that adding the opportunity constraint limits agent’s abilities to only basic acts.

Thanks to both of you! I'll have to read and think some more but I wanted to quickly respond to Neal. If there is no bike, it seems wrong, at least in the usual context, to respond that one lacks the ability to ride a bike. You might say, "You can't ride a bike" but it would be odd to say "You no longer have the ability to ride a bike." That would strike us as strange. So there is something to the point I'm trying to make.

Compare: "I can't come to dinner, since I'm busy." This has little to do with ability, for you can always cancel your plans.

Now we're talking! I mean about abilities and opportunities, which in my own work (mostly in the pedagogy of FW as pertains to my FW focused Intro as published) are both real issues. Upthread I asked if Chandra's double-slit inquiry might be parsed as an opportunity question as opposed to an ability one for electrons. Let me lay some cards on the table: I think freedom questions must be ones about the existence of a relationship between relata of abilities, which are ordinarily known as powers and the like, and opportunities, which are wider circumstances that allow the exercise of those powers. Freedom only exists when that relationship between abilities and opportunities may (modally?) obtain. But while both are interrelated, as intrinsically internal and external factors (ability and opportunity respectively), both are required for freedom to exist. (I demure on the issue whether the plural of opportunities is necessary for freedom--Frankfurt says no.)

Usain Bolt locked in a small room is not free to run a world-class 100m. He lacks the opportunity to do so (like the pianoless genius.) But clearly he has the ability as demonstrated in previous runs. But Al--who once ran close to world-class times--(brag--once at 11 flat)--at 61 clearly cannot thus imprisoned. He lacks the ability (the musically clueless with a piano). Neither is free to run world-class 100 ms, but for different reasons.

Ability and opportunity are internal and externally posed states of affairs metaphysically, but clearly related so as to produce further states of affairs of freedom. So I'd say.

Joe,
What would you say about the following case? At your fastest sprinting speed you can reach a bike in five minutes. There is no other way to get to the bike except a fast run. Now consider the following claim: "I am not able to ride a bike in the next four minutes, but I am able to ride a bike in the next ten minutes." Isn't there an interpretation that makes this sentence true and seems to be about agent's abilities? If so, doesn't this suggest that there is some ambiguity in sentences like "I am able to ride a bike in the next five minutes." I don't think the ambiguity comes from the word 'able' but in what it is an ability to do. Yet, if I were convinced that the ambiguity had to be stemming from the term 'able' I'd be tempted to accept the opportunity distinction.

Alan,
Why think that we need both abilities and opportunities to explain these cases? Usain has the ability to run a 100 m. Doing so takes many steps. Yet, locked in the room we have good reason to claim that Usain is not free to run a 100m. Why not? Well, in order to do so, Usain would have to carry out a significantly more complex plan of action than were he unchained. In order to run a 100m he would have to first pick the lock and escape the room, and then run. When we claim he is unable (in the sense that includes opportunities) aren't we just claiming that he is unable to carry out a much more complex plan of action that includes picking the lock? Isn't claiming that he is unable to run a 100m in his current circumstances just saying he is unable to carry out a plan of action that concludes with him successfully completing the 100m? Yet, if all that changes is the content of what it is an ability to do, and not a different kind of ability, then those who grant that we have the ability to do otherwise in deterministic worlds cannot reply that we lack the opportunity. After all, when we refer to opportunities we are merely referring to abilities to do more complex things.

Great posts, Charles! Bit late to the conversation and did not read the earlier comments, so forgive me if any of what I say here is redundant.

About Alan’s distinction between abilities and opportunities, and specifically about his example of Usain Bolt, why not say that presently having the ability to run a world-class 100m requires that one presently simultaneously have the opportunity to do so?

UB’s prior success at running a world-class 100m guarantees just one thing: his prior success. Although his prior success might increase the likelihood of a repeat, it does not guarantee anything about the present, or future.

About (what seems to me to be) Charles’s attempt to reduce opportunity to “abilities to do more complex things”: Let’s assume that when UB is locked in the room, none of his physical and psychological features have been altered in any way. And let’s also assume that the room no longer has any doors or windows or other means of entrance or exit. Given that the room is the size that it is and is fully enclosed, there is insufficient physical space for anyone, or anything, to traverse 100m, let alone in world-class time. Intuitively, there is good reason to say that this physical limitation has nothing to do with UB: he has undergone no change whatsoever.

So, what have we eliminated? His ability to run 100m in world-class time, or the opportunity for him, or anyone, to do so? It seems to me that we have eliminated the opportunity for anyone to run 100m, while UB’s abilities remain fully in tact.

Michael,
Thanks for the comments...really good to hear from you. While I think my argument here is just as effective against opportunities as abilities, I am very interested in this issue. I'd agree that nothing we did changed any of UB's abilities....I'd also agree that it makes sense to claim that the problem is that we removed his opportunity to run. What I can't understand is why we think this requires creating a new modal notion since we already have all the necessary resources to resolve these cases from concepts at the core of action theory. We can ask about the ability to run a 100m. That ability does not change when we lock the room. We can ask about the ability to pick a lock. That ability does not change when we lock the room. We can ask about the ability to carry out his intention to run a 100m here and now. The difference between carrying out the intention to run a 100m and merely running a 100m is merely a difference in how complicated of a series of actions UB carries out. Running a 100m requires moving one's legs in certain ways. Yet, carrying out an intention to run a 100m requires a more complicated action plan. Also, notice, what action plan is required will depend upon his circumstances. When the door is unlocked, the the has the ability to carry out a plan of action that results in running a 100m. When the door is locked, he lacks the ability to carry out a plan of action that results in running a 100m. Yet, let's not be confused by language here. We are not claiming that his abilities change when we lock the door. Instead, what action plan would be required for running the 100m changed. When the door is locked, he would have to be able to unpick the lock. It is precisely because he lacks the ability to pick locks that he lacks the ability to run a 100m when the door is locked. When the door is unlocked, then carrying out a plan of action that results in running a 100m would not require the step of picking the lock. So, he can carry out such a plan of action. I'm perfectly fine with people claiming that the natural thing to claim here is that we remove his opportunity to run a 100m. What I don't understand is what the argument is that this provides us with a different kind of ability. We can capture everything we want to say about these cases while just referring to standard abilities and then incorporate what we want to say about opportunities by considering the ability to carry out plans of action (or intentions). There is no new ambiguity in these cases....it is the sam ambiguity everyone who studies the philosophy of action should already be aware of. We already talk about the ability to perform simple actions and the ability to carry out our intentions (action plans).

Thanks for the helpful reply. Since I've not followed much of the thread, I'm unsure whether what I have to say is closely related to your interests here, Charles, so please feel free to disregard. My intuitions originate in how I want to individuate the notion of having an ability and having an opportunity.

About the former, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to say the following. When UB is locked in a small room with no entrance or exit:

(a) UB has the ability to run 100m in world-record time.

I understand this as a claim about a past event in which UB performed precisely this action. So, here “UB has the ability to A” means “UB has successfully A-ed at least once”. We can call this Retrospective Ability.

However, another reading allows us to say that when he is locked in a small room with no entrance or exit:

(b) UB does *not* have the ability to run 100m in world-record time.

If successfully exercising the ability to run 100m in world-record time requires that one traverse 100m, then, given the physical size of the room in which he is currently located and the lack of exit therefrom, UB does not presently have that ability. Here, “UB does not have the ability to A” means “Given that the circumstances prevent A from occurring, UB does not have the ability to A”. We can call this Circumstantial Ability.

I think both readings of "ability" can be true, provided that we clearly distinguish between Circumstantial and Retrospective Ability.

About your remarks concerning the carrying out of an intention or action plan: It seems to me that you carry out your intention to run 100m the moment when you have successfully run 100m, and your successfully running 100m is not equivalent to your opportunity to do so. The opportunity is at least partially a matter of the environmental conditions that enable you to carry out your intention, but those conditions are not one and the same thing as your successfully carrying out that intention. If so, again, opportunities are not abilities.

Michael,
The most amazing thing happened last night. I woke up this morning with the powers of Flash Gordon. While I have not yet run a world record 100m I am now able to do so. It is extremely important when thinking about ontology not to be bewitched by semantic ascent or epistemological issues. Our evidence for the claim that UB is able to run a world record 100m may be his past performance. But, it is important to keep separate what his ability consists in and what our evidence for him having that ability is. (As far as I see it, thinking about abilities and seeing where some theorists are making errors in their accounts of agent's abilities becomes extremely easy if while thinking about this topic you hear the voice of John Heil chanting repetitively "ontologically serious.")


He has the ability to run a 100m because of certain skills that he possesses. He does not lose those skills when locked in the room. So, he retains the ability to run the 100m in the room. When people point to the fact that he can't run the 100m they provide exactly the reason that he can't but then seem to fail to recognize that we already have an explanation for this. He lacks the ability to pick a lock. Regardless of whether the door is locked or open, he lacks that ability. Now, in order to leave the room and run a 100m he would need both the ability to pick the lock and the ability to run the 100m. So, he lacks the ability to carry out his intention to run a 100m when locked in the room. No new senses of ability are needed here.

Hi Charles,

Thanks for the response, this is helpful. As you know, I, too, am keenly aware of the need to avoid conflating metaphysical with epistemic and linguistic issues. If you look again at the distinction that I sketched between Retrospective and Circumstantial Ability, I think you'll see that there’s no conflation between metaphysical and non-metaphysical issues.

And the point in setting up the UB example the way that I did – explicitly imagining the room as having *no* lock to pick, *no* way in or out – was to highlight one salient difference between having an ability to do such-and-so, and having an opportunity to do such-and-so. Note that when we imagine there is no way to exit the room, there is no lock for anyone to pick, nor any door for them to exit, etc. If not, then there is no corresponding ability that UB lacks such that successfully exercising it would allow him to get out of the room. He lacks the requisite opportunity to exercise the abilities that he possesses, or so it seems reasonable to me to say.

Hope that helps to clarify some of what I said. I look forward to your next post!

Hi Charles,

I agree with Michael that (b)

(b) UB does not have the ability to run the 100m in world-record time

is true when UB is locked in the room and cannot escape. I'm not sure whether you agree with this or not. (I think you do agree, but I'm not sure.) Your view might be that (b), given the setup of the case, is typically used to express the same proposition that we would express with an utterance of (b*)

(b*) UB does not have the ability to [run the 100m in world-record time when he is locked in the room].

And we all agree that UB lacks this when-ability. The idea, then, is this: if (b) does, given the contextual background, express the same proposition as (b*), then the truth of (b) doesn't show that there is a (narrow) ability to run the 100 m that UB has, but another (wide) ability to run the 100 m that he lacks. He has the ability (full stop) to run the 100 m, but he lacks the ability (full stop) to [run the 100 m when locked in the room]. That is, it is not the case that for some act X, UB is able (in one sense) to X and unable (in another sense) to X.

Two points in reply. First, the wide/narrow view is compatible with this claim that you want to make: when UB lacks the ability to run the 100 m this is so in virtue of the fact that he cannot pick the lock. The fact that the door is locked and that UB doesn't have the key is an opportunity defeater for UB. On Kadri's view, as I understand it, UB lacks the wide-ability to run the 100 m in virtue of that opportunity-defeating fact. The fact that we have an explanation as to why UB lacks the ability the run the 100 m is not enough to show that there are no wide-abilities--the wide ability theorist can agree with you about the relevant sort of explanation. (Also, note that the narrow/wide theorist will agree with you that, in one sense, UB retains the ability to run the 100 m.)

Second, it does seem right that whenever an agent lacks an ability in virtue of lacking an opportunity, there will be some more precise when-ability that the agent lacks. Nonetheless, it isn't at all clear to me why we should believe that (b) expresses, in the context at hand, the same thing as (b*). And here is some reason to think that claims of inability due to lack of opportunity are not semantically equivalent to more precise claims of lack of when-ability. I might come to know that UB is currently unable to run the 100 m on the basis of testimony. You tell me: either UB is locked in a room, or chained to a chair, or temporarily paralyzed, or in the presence of a fink who would prevent UB from running were he to try. But I don’t know which of these conditions obtains. So I don't know which when-ability UB now lacks. But I definitely know that UB is unable to run the 100 m. This suggests that when I truly assert: "UB is unable to the 100 m" I have not asserted the proposition expressed by (b*) (or any other precise when-ability claim). And when you assertively utter (b) and I thereby come to know the proposition (or one of the propositions) you expressed, I have thereby come to know the proposition you expressed by uttering (b*). If this is right, then there is a proposition, one that I have come to know, that involves an attribution of inability to UB that cannot be articulated in when-ability terms. And I don't see how we can characterize this but by saying that it's the wide ability to run the 100 m.

Sorry, the third to last sentence of my 11:37 comment is missing a negation. It should read as follows: And when you assertively utter (b) and I thereby come to know the proposition (or one of the propositions) you expressed, I have NOT thereby come to know the proposition you expressed by uttering (b*).

Michael,
I think your account very clearly conflates epistemology with metaphysics. Consider your claim: "“UB has the ability to A” means “UB has successfully A-ed at least once”." Here, you seem to be conflating our reason to believe that UB has the ability with what constitutes the ability. Certainly, our evidence that UB has the ability to run an amazing 100m is his past performance. Yet, his past performance has nothing to do with what grounds his ability. Consider the case where I wake up with the powers of Flash Gordon....but haven't run a record 100m yet. Isn't it clear in this case that I am able to run a world class 100m even though I have yet to do so? If so, then having the ability to run a world class 100m cannot consist in past performance. Past performance is only epistemically relevant. It is what convinces us that UB has the ability, but isn't what the ability itself is.

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