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”.