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By questioning a long held philosophical principle, William Simmons ’04 (Trenton, N.J.) will challenge the pillars of philosophy in a unique faculty-led research project.

Simmons, a double major in English and philosophy, will collaborate as an EXCEL Scholar next semester with Julie H. Yoo, assistant professor of philosophy. In EXCEL, students work closely with faculty on research while earning a stipend. The two will attempt to support the minority viewpoint about logical and physical possibility and conceivability.

“In philosophy, when someone says X is possible, whether it be an action, like ‘Bill running four miles is possible’ or a thing existing, like ‘It is possible a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people-eater exists, they mean one of two things,” explains Simmons. “Either they mean that it is physically possible for X or logically possible for X.”

The classical distinction between the two has been that something is physically possible if it doesn’t break any laws of nature, like those described by physics, chemistry, and biology. Something is logically possible if it doesn’t break any rules of logic. Certain things are physically impossible but logically possible. For example, it is not physically possible for a person to jump to the moon but it is logically possible. It just isn’t possible in our world given the laws of nature.

“Something that is logically impossible would be two plus two equals five or a square circle or a door that is both open fully and closed fully at the same time,” says Simmons. “We can’t even picture these things being true.”

The traditional test to judge whether something is logically or physically possible is the test of conceivability. According to this principle, something is logically possible if one can coherently conceive it. And if it is inconceivable, then it is not logically possible.

“This distinction is still crucial to the method of philosophy,” says Yoo. “However, it is time to reevaluate the distinction, which is what Bill is doing.”

“Professor Yoo and I are sympathetic to this minority viewpoint, and we wish to study the current literature and then publish our own paper on the issue with original thoughts, defending the minority view and questioning the validity of the conceivability test,” says Simmons.

Simmons decided to conduct the project after taking Yoo’s Introduction to Philosophy course.

“One of the first times she mentioned physical and logical possibility I was confused as to how they were really different,” says Simmons. “I understood the reasoning behind it, but something just didn’t make sense about it all. I felt differently about the matter. So I wrote a short essay which Professor Yoo liked, and now I’m going on to explore the topic in depth.”

Yoo says that this topic is sophisticated and fairly obscure. Her goal is to have Simmons present the research at an undergraduate conference.

“Bill is so talented, so intelligent, and hard working,” says Yoo. “He’s a great, very mature kid who’s really talented in philosophy and grasps the issues well.”

Simmons says that he’s excited about working with Yoo because she has a tremendous amount of knowledge, is a great professor, and encourages students to think independently.

“I am excited to work with a great philosopher, who has a similar view on the issue,” says Simmons. “I’ll be researching a minority viewpoint. Hopefully, I’ll be able to say something original about it. It’s exciting to think that we could be part of a movement that could change the long standing philosophical pillars of understanding or at least question them.”

Simmons has interned with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office Sex Assault Unit. He is active in a number of service programs through Lafayette’s Landis Community Outreach Center, including Boys and Girls Club and Kids in the Community. He is a lawyer and witness for the Mock Trial team and works as a Writing Associate for the College Writing Program. He has also participated in intramural flag football.

Categorized in: Academic News