Scientific Metaphysics & Its Consequences

In a recent comment, Fifthmonarchyman engaged with my accusation that his remarks on what brains can’t do is based on his ignorance of neuroscience. He responded by saying

it’s not about neuroscience it’s about ontology.

Brains don’t comprehend because they are not minds. I would think that someone so enamored with philosophy would have a handle on different categories of existence.

It is precisely as a philosopher that I want to express my complete rejection of the assumptions implicit in this remark.

The key assumption here is that there is a basic distinction between science and metaphysics. There are many ways of parsing this distinction, but here’s one that seems fairly commonplace. Science tells us the particular details about how something happens, but metaphysics tells us about the general structure of reality.  If you want to know what causes hurricanes, you should ask a meteorologist — but if you want to know what is for something to <I>be</I>, you should ask a metaphysician.

There is something to this, but one is easily misled. Thus one might then come to think that there is a basic categorical distinction between mental things — those things that can reason, infer, comprehend, and decide — and physical things — those things that are described in mathematical terms and whose behavior is governed by laws of physics.

And this basic categorical division, which is arrived at in doing metaphysics, is too general and pervasive to be challenged by any scientific theory. It is too ‘deep’.  Science presupposes metaphysics, therefore science cannot challenge metaphysics.

I quite agree that science presupposes metaphysics, and I am not happy with the positivists who want to liberate science from all metaphysics. (I believe a close examination of the fate of logical positivism in the hands of Quine and Sellars reveals why this was a mistake.)  But I dispute the “therefore”. From the idea that science presupposes metaphysics, it does not follow that science cannot also challenge metaphysics.

For Descartes, the distinction between res cogitans (thinking things) and res extensa (extended stuff) was required in order for him to accept and reconcile an Augustinian conception of the mind and free will with a Galilean conception of matter (though Descartes rejected atomism and was severely critical of Christian atomists, such as Gassendi).

Descartes required the former in order to legitimize the authority of the Catholic Church with regard to mind and agency and thought and the latter in order to legitimize the authority of the new mathematical physics with regard to natural sciences. (To use Stephen Jay Gould’s term, Descartes was the first person to come up with NOMA — Non-Overlapping MagisteriA.)

It made sense for Descartes to urge an ontological divide between the mental and the physical because of the problems he was trying to solve.

The question is, should we continue to accept that metaphysical divide?

Now we need to get a bit more clear on the idea of “basic categories of existence”.  How do we know what the basic categories are?  How do we know that the basic categories are the mental and the physical?  What justifies that distinction as an metaphysical distinction?

I want to say that all categories, however ‘basic’ or ‘general’, are grammatically disguised metalinguistic sortals. This means that a sentence like “Kantian Naturalist is an individual” is just the same as saying “‘Kantian Naturalist’ is a proper name”, and “desks are objects” is just the same as saying “‘desk’ is a noun”. A category is just a way of indicating the kind of semantic role that a word has in a language.

This nominalistic way of thinking about categories has profound consequences for the relation between science and metaphysics.

In the first instance, the function of linguistic roles is to detect, classify, describe, explain, and predict the goings-on in our perceptual environments. We revise our concepts as needed in order to better cope with whatever we meet with in experience. But if all categories are classification of linguistic roles, then our awareness of them is generated by reflecting on those linguistic roles in their pragmatic functions. And that means that categories cannot be immune to revision based on experience. As our science changes (as indeed it must), then so does our metaphysics.

From this briefly sketched position, it makes no sense to insist that the basic categories of 17th-century metaphysics are set in stone, fixed for all time, no matter what any subsequent science shows.

For how could that be the case? In order for basic ontological categories to be fixed for all time, unrevisable come what may, we would need to have some mode of access to those categories. We would need to have some way of piercing the veil of phenomena and beholding the noumena, or some way of getting at reality other than by poking and prodding at it with our senses and instruments.

We need, in short, to suppose that we have a cognitive power to transcend all causal transaction with particulars and simply see the fundamental categorical structure of reality.

The problem, however, is simply this: there is no evidence that we have any such power. To suppose that we have such a cognitive power is simply to invoke magic.

To reject magical thinking in all its forms is to recognize that we have no mode of access to reality except by poking and prodding it with our senses, bodies, and instruments; that our interrelated families of concepts are ways of organizing the barrage of sensory stimuli in order to cope better with whatever comes next; that even the most basic and general of categories are just metalinguistic devices for classifying words; and that there is no hard-and-fast line to be drawn between the orderly manipulation of the world (science) and the systematic conceptualization of that world (metaphysics).

In other words, a scientific metaphysics is also a completely historicized metaphysics. There is no pou sto, no Archimedean lever, no fixed point on which everything else depends  — neither metaphysical nor epistemological nor semantic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

40 thoughts on “Scientific Metaphysics & Its Consequences

  1. But hasnt modern physics challenged our notions of metaphysics by demonstrating that what we thought were fundamental inviolate rules of reality were just convenient rules of thumb?
    Physics hasn’t told us how to improve our metaphysics its just told us that metaphysics isn’t quite grounded in reality.
    As I see it, brains need sets of rules and algorithms to function. That set of rules is reality. But that doesnt mean there isn’t any external reality, there must be. Its just not the thinly perceived yet tangible object we think it is.

  2. Let me just say, KN, that I find you to be more readable and understandable when you speak in your own voice. It’s a good voice. 90 percent less jargon.

    I will ponder what you have said.

  3. If you want to know what causes hurricanes, you should ask a meteorologist — but if you want to know what is for something to be, you should ask a metaphysician.

    If you want to know what it is for something to be, then take two aspirin chocolate bars and call me in the morning. (And no, I am not giving out my phone number).

    I want to say that all categories, however ‘basic’ or ‘general’, are grammatically disguised metalinguistic sortals. This means that a sentence like “Kantian Naturalist is an individual” is just the same as saying “‘Kantian Naturalist’ is a proper name”, and “desks are objects” is just the same as saying “‘desk’ is a noun”. A category is just a way of indicating the kind of semantic role that a word has in a language.

    That seems solipsistic to me. That is to say, it leaves out reality.

    Language itself depends on an ability to implicitly recognize phonemic categories. So I don’t see categories as coming from language. Rather, I see categories as what we construct in our most basic interactions with reality.

  4. Neil Rickert: That seems solipsistic to me. That is to say, it leaves out reality.

    Language itself depends on an ability to implicitly recognize phonemic categories. So I don’t see categories as coming from language. Rather, I see categories as what we construct in our most basic interactions with reality.

    I would put it otherwise — our awareness of the categories comes from reflecting on language because categories are our implicit interactions with reality, and most importantly for many purposes, those interactions that are mediated by language.

    While I don’t doubt that a raven has an implicit categorical ontology grounded in its interactions with its environment (including other ravens), it cannot become aware of its categories, nor revise them fluidly, and certainly not become of itself as revising its categories. That requires metacognition and probably a public language.

    And while of course the recalcitrance of the real is of the utmost importance, I am not too sure if reality itself as a categorical structure. That suggestion strikes me as entirely too theological.

  5. REW: But hasnt modern physics challenged our notions of metaphysics by demonstrating that what we thought were fundamental inviolate rules of reality were just convenient rules of thumb?

    I agree that one of the big philosophical revolutions to come out of 20th century physics was the idea that “laws of physics” are the constitutive statements of a theory about physical nature. This makes it harder to determine what makes one set of laws a better approximation of reality than another set of laws. Harder, but not impossible.

    Physics hasn’t told us how to improve our metaphysics its just told us that metaphysics isn’t quite grounded in reality.

    Certainly the conflict between the manifest image (how we experience ourselves and the world as a result of our biological and cultural histories) and the scientific image (how the world in itself is disclosed to be in our best scientific models) is one of the most serious and deepest of philosophical issues.

    As I see it, brains need sets of rules and algorithms to function. That set of rules is reality. But that doesnt mean there isn’t any external reality, there must be. Its just not the thinly perceived yet tangible object we think it is.

    I think to think of the job of brains as making best guesses about the parts of the hidden causal and modal structure of reality that are relevant to the satisfaction of an animal’s goals and needs based on the play of energy across its sensory surfaces.

    What’s interesting about human beings is that we have developed techniques for constructing better models that allow us to make increasingly better guesses

  6. If you want to know what causes hurricanes, you should ask a meteorologist — but if you want to know what is for something to be, you should ask a metaphysician.

    The answer is–what? Seems to me that no satisfactory answer to that question has been given. I don’t really see much of value in metaphysics, or ontology. Why should I ask a metaphysician about reality, rather than a scientist? A meteorologist who can predict aspects of a hurricane exhibits actual expertise at answering the question at hand, while I can think of no similar evidence that a metaphysician provides meaningful answers.

    I’m not just dumping on philosophy, which I think does have some value (not nearly so sure about metaphysics, however) in discussing what terms mean, what language actually relates, as well as delving into logical matters. But to suggest that a meteorologist is to hurricanes as a metaphysician is to knowledge of what it is to be is surely a poor analogy, especially since there’s no evidence that the latter is even a sensible question, let alone a question that has been answered. And, even if philosophy is of value as I tend to think, what it does lack is any good meritocratic evaluation of its participants, and popularity frequently dominates thinking. At least one ought to be skeptical of the claims made by metaphysicians.

    We need, in short, to suppose that we have a cognitive power to transcend all causal transaction with particulars and simply see the fundamental categorical structure of reality.

    The problem, however, is simply this: there is no evidence that we have any such power. To suppose that we have such a cognitive power is simply to invoke magic.

    This is where everything gets quite tangled up, because we in fact do have structures (categorical? Depends on definition) that come prior to observation of the world. It’s not magic, it’s the limitations of perception and cognition, as well as the need to start somewhere.

    So is causation itself a category, as Kant thought? Well, it doesn’t seem to really be a matter of reality, or at least we can’t determine it to be. QM and all of that. And then, what counts as a “cause” has changed through time, with efficient causation as the only meaningful kind becoming doctrine around the time of Galileo and Newton. Nevertheless, we do think in terms of causes, and causality does hold quite well until one gets to the quantum world, at which point we at least can no longer show that it holds.

    Unfortunately for FMM, though, if we were going to hold to ontological categories we’d have as much reason to hold to causality (at least outside of QM) as we have to suppose that mental causes and other causes are separate, with the physical informing the mental and the mental causing physical changes.

    Why don’t we just assume that motion has to come from animals, as the ancients did (wind might ultimately derive from the gods, as might rain, as indeed was earlier believed)? If categories are real and remain through time, let’s just stick with what we knew once, that life causes motion and nothing else does. That’s about as sensible as assuming that only minds (not brains) can choose, and nothing else can. It’s true that brain processes aren’t as explicitly and exactly understood as guns and supernovae are, but what we know certainly points to neurons recruiting other neurons (a highly simplified scenario, but referring to something that has quite good evidence of happening) until one particular “decision” dominates the brain, and an action occurs.

    In the end, the old category of causality is much better served by including the brain/mind as being within the causal complex of our world, while the old category of “mind” vs. “the physical” is best discarded along with animism and its sense that motion is always caused by animals/spirits. It’s not impossible that more is going on than neurological activity, but the evidence for anything else certainly is not in evidence, while the marked ability of physical causes to produce brain and mental changes is attested by an abundance of evidence.

    Glen Davidson

  7. KN said.

    In order for basic ontological categories to be fixed for all time, unrevisable come what may, we would need to have some mode of access to those categories. We would need to have some way of piercing the veil of phenomena and beholding the noumena, or some way of getting at reality other than by poking and prodding at it with our senses and instruments.

    I say,

    I completely agree. The mode of access you are looking for is called revelation

    KN says,

    We need, in short, to suppose that we have a cognitive power to transcend all causal transaction with particulars and simply see the fundamental categorical structure of reality.

    I say,

    no we don’t need this kind of cognitive power we simply need someone with access to the fundamental categorical structure of reality to “speak” to us.

    The good news that is exactly what takes place.

    KN says,

    To reject magical thinking in all its forms is to recognize that we have no mode of access to reality except by poking and prodding it with our senses, bodies, and instruments;

    I say,

    How did you come to recognize that you had no mode of access to reality other than the empirical?

    Did you do it by use of your senses, body, and instruments? Exactly how did that work?

    peace

  8. GlenDavidson: the old category of “mind” vs. “the physical” is best discarded along with animism and its sense that motion is always caused by animals/spirits.

    What?

    animism is the idea that entities in nature—such as animals, plants, and often even inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence.

    It’s has much more in common with the idea that brains choose than with the idea that only minds can do stuff like that.

    Animism as I understand it does not hold that spirits cause motion. It holds that physical things are minds.

    check it out

    quote:

    More simply, it is the belief that “everything is conscious” or that “everything has a soul.”

    end quote:

    from here

    http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Animism

    peace

  9. fifthmonarchyman: What?

    animism is the idea that entities in nature—such as animals, plants, and often even inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence.

    It’s has much more in common with the idea that brains choose than with the idea that only minds can do stuff like that.

    Animism as I understand it does not hold that spirits cause motion. It holds that physical things are minds.

    Why don’t you know better?

    Of course it’s not just about “spirits” causing motion, but it generally does include that.

    check it out

    quote:

    More simply, it is the belief that “everything is conscious” or that “everything has a soul.”

    end quote:

    from here

    http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Animism

    You’re certainly ignorant. Part of the point of animism is that it “explains” motion that doesn’t come from more obviously “inspirited” beings.

    Glen Davidson

  10. fifthmonarchyman: I completely agree. The mode of access you are looking for is called revelation

    Damn. The system is stuck in that playback loop again.

    no we don’t need this kind of cognitive power we simply need someone with access to the fundamental categorical structure of reality to “speak” to us.

    There is no fundamental categorical structure of reality.

  11. Kantian Naturalist: I would put it otherwise — our awareness of the categories comes from reflecting on language because categories are our implicit interactions with reality, and most importantly for many purposes, those interactions that are mediated by language.

    I don’t think that’s quite right. Our awareness is awareness of categories, even without the involvement of language. But perhaps you were talking about our awareness of our awareness of categories. And that probably does depend on our reflecting on language.

    And while of course the recalcitrance of the real is of the utmost importance, I am not too sure if reality itself [h]as a categorical structure.

    I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t. But I see that our resident Calvinist theologian disagrees.

  12. Does God make these distinctions? I think everything to God is just one science.
    We don’t see heaven but its as real as what we do see. Just details in the equation.
    Our universe is a special case. Not another thing separate from the rest.
    So science is involved in miracles and so on.
    If our immaterial souls are interacting with the material then thats proof its all one operation.

  13. It’s a nice OP, but it never gets beyond an argument from ignorance with respect to the original claim, which is that fifth is ignorant of what modern neuroscience tells us about what the brain can do, therefore …

    It also begs the question over whether our senses are the only thing we have for prodding the world around us: “or some way of getting at reality other than by poking and prodding at it with our senses and instruments.” We also have reason.

    Finally, categories. Surely there is reasonable doubt about whether only science can provide us with categories. Perhaps science does in fact depend on these categories.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categories_(Aristotle)

  14. Mung:It also begs the question over whether our senses are the only thing we have for prodding the world around us: “or some way of getting at reality other than by poking and prodding at it with our senses and instruments.” We also have reason.

    This is like saying that eating and drinking aren’t our only sources of sustenance, because we also have digestion. It seems like a category error.

  15. Flint: It seems like a category error.

    Yes, well, that was what fifth said.

    May the OP deliver us from category errors!

    Let’s categorize category errors!

  16. Mung: It also begs the question over whether our senses are the only thing we have for prodding the world around us: “or some way of getting at reality other than by poking and prodding at it with our senses and instruments.” We also have reason.

    I balk at the suggestion that “reason” is some sort of “faculty” that contrasts with “the senses” (which are also not a “faculty”). That’s one of the many things that 17th and 18th century philosophers (including Kant) were badly wrong about.

    Instead, I think we should recognize the following three distinct dimensions of the cognitive experience of rational animals:

    1. carnal sensitivity: the passivity of our sensuous receptivity to the world, falling anywhere in a wide spectrum ranging from what is conducive to enhancing our engagement with the world to what is damaging to our capacity to engage with the world in a meaningful way. (Here I’m thinking about what pain does and how pain destroys meaning. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how torture, humiliation, and cruelty are relevant to understanding how our sensual engagement with the world is intersubjectively mediated and why that matters for an adequate philosophical anthropology.)

    2. The perceptuo-practical dimension of intentionality: the dispositions and occasions of formal and material inferences implicit in ongoing, smooth, competent perceptually guided bodily action — whether the actions are part of the maturational development of a human being (e.g. walking and running) or deliberately acquired skills (e.g. riding a bike). This dimension of intentionality involves concepts, whether understood at the personal/creaturely level as nodes in an inferential nexus or explained at the subpersonal level as top-down flows of information in a neurocomputational system. The domain of the kind of strategic rationality that we share with other animals.

    3. The socio-linguistic dimension of intentionality. the dispositions and occasions of formal and material inferences implicit in ongoing, smooth, competent social and especially linguistic interactions, paradigmatically in deliberation: what is it that we (as a group) are going to do? This involves intention-alignment — a crucial point nicely made by Andy Norman in his recent “Why We Reason: Intention Alignment and the Genesis of Human Rationality (draft here and a blog commentary here). Socio-linguistic intentionality involves, at the neuro-computational level, “top-to-top” information exchange across brains.

    Given these distinctions, the idea that we have “reason” as an independent source of information about the world looks like this:

    can the kind of deliberative rationality that fully actualizes our socio-linguistic intentionality also function as a source of information about the world’s causal and modal structures independent of all carnal sensitivity?

    Put in those terms, the answer I suggest is “no”. In that regard the empiricists (and Kant) were right and the rationalists were wrong.

    But what the empiricists got wrong, and the rationalists (and Kant) got right, is that the passivity of our sensual responsiveness to the world is never sufficient for cognitive experience, knowledge (even ‘low-grade’ knowledge), reasonable action, etc. — since all of that requires the exercise of concepts.

    The key distinction I want to make here is between the two dimensions of intentionality, and accordingly the two dimensions of conceptuality. This is not a zero-sum game. Some concepts are so intimately tied up with the performance of skilled action that expressing them in words can be very difficult (Dreyfus has made much of this point — too much, I would say). Other concepts are so thoroughly bound up with language, and especially with formal inferences, that it has been tempting over the millennia to reify these concepts as referring to abstract objects.

    The main point I would stress, however, is Peirce’s point (in “The Fixation of Belief”) that it is only in science that we can be sure that we are really testing our beliefs, because we are deliberately constructing an artificial situation that elicits the recalcitrance of reality, due to the causal and modal structure of that reality. That gives science — if done correctly, which it very often is not! — a distinct epistemic status compared to ideology, myth, story, poetry, etc.

    The reason why I think metaphysics itself ought to be scientific is because science provides a constraint on metaphysics — a constraint on our models by the causal and modal structure of the world — that cannot be achieved simply by bringing formal and material inferential systematicity into our favored world-conceptions.

    Finally, categories. Surely there is reasonable doubt about whether only science can provide us with categories. Perhaps science does in fact depend on these categories.

    I didn’t deny that Aristotelian-Kantian idea that in one sense science depends on categories. What I insisted is that science can also give us reasons for revising those categories.

  17. fifthmonarchyman: link please

    peace

    Animism

    A belief that natural objects are animated by spirits is animism. The term comes from the Latin word for soul (anima). This belief can take diverse forms. Things in nature may all have within them different spirits–each rock, tree, and cloud may have its own unique spirit. Alternatively, all things in nature may be thought of as having the same spirit. This latter version of animism was characteristic of many Native American cultures. In both forms of animism, the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender. A belief in a powerful, mature, protective “mother nature” is an example. The spirits may be benevolent, malevolent, or neutral. They can be lovable, terrifying, or even mischievous. They can interact with humans and can be pleased or irritated by human actions. Therefore, people must be concerned about them and will try to avoid displeasing them.

    Initially, animatism and animism may seem to be the same thing. In fact both beliefs are often found in the same culture. The difference, however, is that the “power” of animatism does not have a personality–it is an impersonal “it” rather than a “he” or “she” with human-like characteristics. Spirits are individual supernatural beings with their own recognizable traits.

    http://anthro.palomar.edu/religion/rel_2.htm

    The word animated comes directly from the same Latin root (anima). It is, in fact, where the whole concept of spirit-infused motion comes from.

  18. phoodoo:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    How in the heck does one proclaim another philosopher to be “wrong?”What in the world does that mean in philosophy?

    Conceptual coherence and explanatory adequacy.

    The error of empiricism lies in conflating sensations and images with thoughts. Thoughts have syntactical structure and semantic content. Sensations and images have neither. Hume fails to distinguish a private sequence of sensations and images from an assertion governed by public norms of syntax and semantics. That’s just a mistake.

  19. phoodoo: Are you stating this as an empirical fact?

    I’m stating it as a conceptual error. I certainly don’t think that all claims are empirical claims. (Did you really think that I thought that all facts are empirical facts? Or are you attributing a straw-person position to me because that’s easier to engage with than taking the time to read what I write?)

    My position is that just that our comprehensive world-pictures ought to be as informed as possible by scientific theories, because scientific theories (under ideal epistemic conditions) exemplify rational responsiveness to the recalcitrance of reality. When science is done well, we can be confident that we are fitting our models to the data and not the data to the model.

    Put otherwise, even with the various semantic, epistemic, and axiological (value-based) problems of under-determination, we can still have good reasons, consistent with the ideals of scientific inquiry, for preferring one theory (or research program) over its rivals or predecessors.

  20. There is something to this, but one is easily misled. Thus one might then come to think that there is a basic categorical distinction between mental things — those things that can reason, infer, comprehend, and decide — and physical things — those things that are described in mathematical terms and whose behavior is governed by laws of physics.

    What little we know of reality is that there are connections of how we choose to conceptualize things and how it affects the physical world. If we choose to perceive a photon as a particle, it makes it behave like a particle, not just for us but for other observers.

    If we collectively choose not to perceive a particular photon as either wave or particle, it remains in an uncertain state until someone breaks ranks from the collective and decides for the rest of us what it should be. Amazingly, the process can be reversed and one’s choice of mental conception can be erased. We call that quantum erasure….

    If we were hypothetically extrapolate this to the universal level, one might conclude there is some ultimate MIND that defines reality by its mental images. I cited one such scientist, Richard Conn Henry, at a prominent university in a prominent science journal (and a few others) here:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-quantum-enigma-of-consciousness-and-the-identity-of-the-designer/

    But we don’t necessarily have access to the supposed universal MIND. But we do see a few instances where our minds have influence on physical reality. Richard Conn Henry cited some very interesting experiments where our choice of how to conceive of physical particles affects the physical properties of the particles.

    http://www.newdualism.org/papers/R.Henry/436029a.html

    in ‘Renninger-type’ experiments, the wave function is collapsed simply by your human mind seeing nothing. The Universe is entirely mental.

  21. stcordova: If we choose to perceive a photon as a particle, it makes it behave like a particle, not just for us but for other observers.

    It’s like we’re all a bunch of cells!

    Design Paper Hits a Home Run

    I wonder what happens when two different observers choose to perceive the photon differently.

  22. Kantian Naturalist: 1. carnal sensitivity: the passivity of our sensuous receptivity to the world, falling anywhere in a wide spectrum ranging from what is conducive to enhancing our engagement with the world to what is damaging to our capacity to engage with the world in a meaningful way.

    What if our sensuous receptivity is not passive at all, but active? What if the universe is participatory?

    http://futurism.com/john-wheelers-participatory-universe/

    I question the view that we are passive receptors and the sort of reasoning that view is based on and the sorts of things that follow from such a view. But don’t ask me why. 😉

  23. Kantian Naturalist: The reason why I think metaphysics itself ought to be scientific is because science provides a constraint on metaphysics — a constraint on our models by the causal and modal structure of the world — that cannot be achieved simply by bringing formal and material inferential systematicity into our favored world-conceptions.

    Those sounds like good reasons for why our metaphysics ought not be a scientific metaphysics.

  24. Mung,

    I think that some degree of passivity is necessary for articulating the idea that reality is discovered rather than made. If our world-picture is wholly our construction, completely unconstrained by the world, then the very concept of “the world” becomes meaningless, and we will have completed the move from idealism to postmodernism. I’d rather avoid that, and I’m surprised you don’t want to as well.

    Mung: Those sounds like good reasons for why our metaphysics ought not be a scientific metaphysics.

    My thought here was that if metaphysics consists only of bringing formal and material inferential systematicity into our favored world-conceptions, we will end up with too many mutually inconsistent metaphysical positions. Is that not a problem?

    Maybe it’s not, but I think it is.

    I think that if we’re interested in truth, and interested in having a metaphysics that is even likely to be true, we’re going to need a publicly available criterion of assessing metaphysical positions.

    My candidate here is that since scientific practices are themselves epistemically grounded in intersubjective reports on publicly available phenomena, then consistency with the sciences is a plausible epistemic constraint on metaphysical positions.

    Again — to repeat myself — that is not to say that there is not also a sense in which scientific theories also presuppose metaphysics. It is to say that science and metaphysics are reciprocally constraining. What we aspire to here is fully adequate mutuality between science and metaphysics — or, as I like to put it, between our account of what is (science) and our account of what ‘what is’ is (metaphysics).

  25. Kantian Naturalist: Or are you attributing a straw-person position to me because that’s easier to engage with than taking the time to read what I write

    I’d actually assumed somebody was reading this site out loud to phoodoo.

  26. OMagain: I’d actually assumed somebody was reading this site out loud to phoodoo.

    Granted. One of the many reasons why I’ve put both phoodoo and FMM on “ignore commenter”, for the time being. I can only handle their constant stream of self-satisfying bullshit for short periods at a time.

  27. Kantian Naturalist: It is to say that science and metaphysics are reciprocally constraining.

    I would posit that the only relevant metaphysical positions are those that sit just at the extreme boundary of our testable knowledge. The example of the collapse of a wave-function above sits at such a boundary. Any metaphysical assertions beyond that point quickly become unhinged from any concept which can be reasoned with our limited set of senses.

    The line which identifies the boundary between ‘knowable’ and ‘unknowable’ is useful. Beyond that lies nothing but the ultimate gap into which theologians do so love to insert their necessary being.

  28. A very nice review of a new book in scientific metaphysics, The Event Universe. In particular:

    ——————————————————
    A significant aim of McHenry’s historical situating is to highlight differing views on the relationship between science and metaphysics. He contends that, while descriptive metaphysics views “philosophical enquiry as a sort of self-contained activity of conceptual analysis immune to revision by science,” revisionary metaphysics, on the other hand, views “metaphysics as the general end of theory on a continuum with science” (5). McHenry contends that these differing attitudes toward science bring the former to embrace a substance ontology and the latter an event ontology. Specifically, because it is “an indispensable part of the conceptual scheme of common sense,” descriptive metaphysics conceives of substance as a “basic class of entity” (5). On the other hand, if one starts as Whitehead does with the evidence of physics provided by the likes of Maxwell, Einstein, and Heisenberg, then ordinary language and common sense are of little use. “Revisionary metaphysicians reserve the right to overthrow our common-sense categories in the effort to construct a comprehensive, unified scheme that is consistent with advancing science” (5). Thus, McHenry contends, it is the attempt to construct a metaphysics that is adequate to the discoveries of electromagnetism, relativity theory, and, later, quantum mechanics, that makes a compelling case for the rejection of a substance ontology in favor of an event ontology.

    As McHenry rightly notes, this close relationship between science and metaphysics makes the speculative impulse of contemporary revisionary metaphysics importantly different than the grand system builders of the past. As he colorfully puts it, the “metaphysical megalomania in the likes of Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel and Bradley is thereby cured by a naturalised approach inspired by the American pragmatists, Pierce, James and Dewey. The quest for certainty is abandoned both in philosophy and science” (5). Pierce and Whitehead are particularly good examples of this new approach to speculative philosophy, according to which a metaphysical theory is seen as a “working hypothesis” that should continually be tested for its applicability and adequacy to concrete experience.

    Conceived in this manner, metaphysics as ‘first philosophy’ must surrender its traditional claim to a truth beyond the empirical realm of scientific investigation. A plea for open systems replaces the alleged finality of absolute principles or the sacrosanct status of the common-sense conceptual scheme (8).

    On this model, both physics and metaphysics do not attempt to create closed, necessary, apodictic systems of truths immune to revision, but they conduct fallible, open-ended pursuit of ever-more-adequate accounts of reality.
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    however, it is also the case that

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    One of the valuable contributions of McHenry’s book is that it serves as a response to the consistently ignorant statements of some theoretical physicists regarding the irrelevance of philosophy. Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson and others would do well to take to heart McHenry’s claim that “Physics without speculation is sterile. Some metaphysical daring is required to break the spell of custom and conjure fresh perspectives — ones that will need to be formulated specifically and result in the possibility of testing to be taken seriously” (86). I can think of no better way to conclude this review than to quote from Quine’s own 1995 letter regarding McHenry’s proposal for the present project: “The ambitious project which he now envisages is of precisely the sort that I like to picture as the next flowering of philosophy and science: a merging of rigorous, logically sophisticated methodology and ontology with the physicists’ findings and quandaries in cosmology and quantum mechanics” (ix). There is ample reason to believe that this volume merits Quine’s praise.
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