When I profess realism about possible worlds, I mean to be taken literally. Possible worlds are what they are, and not some other thing. If asked what sort of thing they are, I cannot give the kind of reply my questioner probably expects: that is, a proposal to reduce possible worlds to something else.(Lewis , p.85)
I can only ask him to admit that he knows what sort of thing our actual world is, and then explain that possible worlds are more things of that sort, differing not in kind but only in what goes on at them.
This passage contains, or implies, the heart of David Lewis's modal realism. It explicitly states three of his six central doctrines about possible worlds, and implies at least one of the remaining three. The three doctrines explicitly formulated are:
- 1. Possible worlds exist -- they are just as real as our world;
- 2. Possible worlds are the same sort of things as our world -- they differ in content, not in kind;
- 3. Possible worlds cannot be reduced to something more basic -- they are irreducible entities in their own right.
- 4. `Actual' is indexical. When we distinguish our world from others by claiming that it alone is actual, we mean only that it is ours -- we live here.
Here, where we live, DFW wrote unselfconsciously about the elitism of professional tennis, the sport he knew best. Writing about Michael Joyce, then #64 in the world, at the Canadian Open, he said that he realised that he did not even play the same game as J; that he did not mention that he had played tennis, that Joyce, being a nice guy, would probably have been happy to hit a few balls back and forth, but to do so, to go on the same court with him, would have been obscene. (Here's DFW on Roger Federer as Religious Experience; an assessment of DFW as sportswriter can be found here.)
Here, where we live, DFW did not bring the same standards to writing. He disliked texts that show contempt for the reader, whether by being unabashedly avant-garde or unabashedly commercial. He wanted to write texts that would challenge readers but be enjoyable enough to encourage them to take up the challenge - no easy proposition.
I contemplate this; I then contemplate, with some bafflement, critical response to DFW's collection of stories, Oblivion, generally perceived as difficult. Wyatt Mason, in the LRB, described them as "uncompromisingly difficult", went on to gesture at the immense effort required of the reader to puzzle out what was going on:
Imagine a reader being schooled by Wallace. See the reader sit there, Oblivion in hand, already crafting an official complaint in his head, unconvinced before an apparently pompous narrator. Let’s acknowledge and appreciate this reader’s inability to see such a narrator otherwise. For why should the reader be swayed? Why should he grant Wallace any of his demands for surfeit goodwill, when the reader feels, not unreasonably, that Wallace is making unreasonable demands?
Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out, when big novel number three thumps into the world, were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.
This (just to be clear) was a sympathetic review defending DFW from misunderstanding and hostility from James Wood.
Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It's a rum old place. Oblivion doesn't strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy's Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I've no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.
If David Lewis was right, there are an infinite number of possible worlds as real as this one; there are an infinite number of possible worlds with a person genetically identical to DFW. If you believe in modal realism, suicide in the particular world you happen to inhabit probably doesn't look like that big a deal: in this particular world, through circumstances beyond my control, I find myself cabined, cribbed, confined, but an infinite number of alter egos have different histories. If there is any set of circumstances at all in which a person genetically identical to me can be a great writer, that person actually exists in at least one other possible world. Perhaps there is no set of circumstances in which this person, here, now, can match that alter ego or even come close. But if those infinite others all exist, perhaps it doesn't matter if one dies here, now. (I'm not convinced that this is rational - it's a bit like saying that I don't mind dying as long as my twin has a wonderful life on Mars - why exactly does bringing my twin into the picture make a difference? Rational or not, the thought that this particular botched self might not be all that there is is strangely comforting. [I am not, of course, referring at this point to DFW.])
To the best of my knowledge, David Lewis was unique in being a true believer in modal realism. Most people who work in this field use possible worlds as some kind of figure of speech; they don't think they're as real as Canada or Mars. So there's no reason whatever to think that DFW was a modal realist. On the contrary, he probably thought that this world, here, now, was all there is. This world, here, now, was self-evidently not good for him; there were things he needed that it didn't give him. But he seems to have thought that in this world, here, now, many people had been cheated by the educational system into thinking they didn't like literature; that many people could be brought to surpass what they thought they could do, if someone was willing to take the trouble. We were lucky to have had him.