Naturalism Without Mechanism

As there is occasional interest in the relation between science and metaphysics here, I thought I’d share this article: “Metaphysics of Metamorphosis“, by the philosopher of science John Dupre. Dupre argues that metaphysics that takes science seriously — what he calls “naturalistic metaphysics” — will give us a very different picture of reality than what we get from traditional a priori metaphysics:

This project of science-based metaphysics, sometimes referred to as ‘naturalistic metaphysics’, has been surprisingly controversial. The philosophers James Ladyman at the University of Bristol and Don Ross at the University of Cape Town offered a forceful defence in their book Every Thing Must Go (2007). As that book illustrates, the debate can be technical and vitriolic. Consequently, I won’t defend naturalistic metaphysics from its critics so much as show you how it helps us inch towards an answer to one of the oldest chestnuts in the history of philosophy: is reality made up of things that somehow change over time, or are things just temporary shapes that our perception plucks out from a flux of unruly, unfolding processes?

Dupre argues that adopting scientific metaphysics as our method of doing metaphysics will yield a very different account of what is real: that what is fundamentally real are not things but processes. (In history-of-philosophy terms, one can imagine this as the triumph of Heraclitus over Parmenides and all of the post-Parmenideans: Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle.)  But giving up on “things” and “thingishness” as the ultimate constituents of reality means re-thinking what we are talking about when we talk about mechanisms:

‘Thingness’ has a very real impact on scientific work by motivating the search for mechanisms. A mechanism is a precisely arranged set of stable things whose interactions generate a phenomenon of interest. Scientists often see uncovering mechanisms as the gold standard of scientific insight. This approach certainly has its benefits: not everything can be examined at the same time, and science depends on careful attention to well-defined parts of the whole.

The upshot of process metaphysics isn’t that we should refrain from talking about mechanisms, but that we need to be very careful in specifying the kinds of contexts in which mechanistic explanations make sense. In other words, naturalistic metaphysics turns out to be antithetical to mechanistic metaphysics. This may seem odd, but as Dupre sees it, this is precisely what happens when we make our naturalistic metaphysics responsive to biology and not just to (classical) physics:

There’s room for both epistemologists and metaphysicians under the tree of knowledge. But when it comes to the living world, both kinds of philosopher could do with making room in the shade for the humble scientist. Learning from this third colleague, we see that biology is not fashioned from bits of Lego, carefully sculpted to play a precise part in exactly one bit of machinery. Rather, living things are processes that are capable of assuming many protean forms: dynamic, ever-changing, but balancing, for a time, on just the right side of chaos.

I’ll add that Dupre doesn’t talk about physics, since his specialty is philosophy of biology. But from what little I know of philosophy of physics, it’s processes all the way “down” — and, in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, it’s also processes all the way “up”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

57 thoughts on “Naturalism Without Mechanism

  1. Neil Rickert: They are actually related, though apparently you don’t see that.

    Yeah, I don’t see it, either. I thought I was talking about “cognitive anchors”: states of the cognitive system that systematically co-vary with states of the environment, to ensure a dynamic coupling of the organism-environment system. But then you introduced trees as “anchored to the world”, which makes me wonder if you mean literal immobility.

  2. Kantian Naturalist: Yeah, I don’t see it, either. I thought I was talking about “cognitive anchors”: states of the cognitive system that systematically co-vary with states of the environment, to ensure a dynamic coupling of the organism-environment system. But then you introduced trees as “anchored to the world”, which makes me wonder if you mean literal immobility.

    Our representation systems need to be anchored to the external world, in the sense that we want them to be about that external world. Without such anchoring, our representations would be tied to us. If we, like the tree, were physically anchored to the external world, that would automatically anchor the representations.

    Intentionality is a problem precisely because we are mobile. The computer that runs the traffic lights at an intersection are automatically about what is happening at the intersection because of the fixed causal connections provided by the traffic sensors. We are mobile, so we have no fixed causal connections with the world. That’s why we need a cognitive system and cognitive anchors, so that at least we can tie our representations to the external world.

    This is probably where ideas of dualism arise. What our representations are about has to be causally detached from the body.

  3. As an advocate of the Ann Elk approach to the theory of mind, I’d like to offer a conjecture on thinking. The conjecture, which is mine (unless someone else thought of it first) is that any thinking entity is incapable of elucidating, just by thinking about it, how any thinking entity, of an equal capability in thinking, thinks. I think it may be asymptotic. The effort required to progress in understanding the entity approaches infinity as the the entity being studied approaches the thinking ability of the entity doing the studying. (Caveats for collective effort!)

    Any philosophy of mind should bear in mind studies on how thinking seems to work in reality. Daniel Kahneman has researched (in the sense of actually experimenting) his ideas of type 1 and type 2 thinking. It dovetails neatly with Iain McGilchrist’s seemingly widely ignored life’s work on the divided nature of brain function. Higher thought processes appear to occur in the left and right hemispheres but these are almost separate, linked only by a bridge of neurons (corpus callosum) that appears to function as much as an inhibitor to communication between hemispheres as a facilitator.

  4. Maybe off-topic but while looking for info regarding the differences in view over the similarities and differences in human and chimp society between Frans de Waal and Michael Tomasello, I came across several articles authored by Larry Anhart. Here, for example. Just wondering if KN had seen them.

  5. Alan Fox:
    Maybe off-topic but while looking for info regarding the differences in view over the similarities and differences in human and chimp society between Frans de Waal and Michael Tomasello, I came across several articles authored by Larry Anhart. Here, for example. Just wondering if KN had seen them.

    I have not! The article you linked to was well-written and I think did justice to their views.

    The slightly deeper issue between de Waal and Tomasello is whether morality is primarily affective or cognitive. Tomasello points to the cognitive differences between humans and chimps as indicating the major differences between human ethics and chimpanzee ethics; de Waal points to the affective similarities between us and other primates.

    That said, there are some serious methodological problems with both de Waal and Tomasello. We should be very cautious in endorsing their conclusions.

  6. Neil Rickert: What our representations are about has to be causally detached from the body.

    Wait, what?

    What does “causally detached from the body” even mean? Why does intentionality require that?

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