Friday, June 5, 2009

Notes to Every Thing Must Go

This Summer I am reading Ladyman & Ross (et al) *Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized* (OUP, 2007) in a reading group with the eminent philosopher of physics, Fred Muller (and hopefully a few others who did not show up for our discussion of the long polemical first chapter) in Amsterdam. Ladyman & Ross are preaching to the choir with us; we enjoyed having a spade being called a spade (surely Kim and Lewis deserve some flack! But why make fun of Andreas Hutteman?). But although we enjoyed the unabashed admiration of Russell, Nagel, and Hume, to our surprise we found plenty of problems with the book. Anyway, perhaps some of my notes may stimulate discussion. I'll number them.
1. (p. 16): The role of mathematics has a funny status in the argument in three ways.
1A: I wonder how L&R view philosophy/metaphysics of mathematics. Is the question, 'what is a number' illegitimate metaphysics? I don't see how it contributes to unification of the sciences, so probably not.
1B: Mathematics is somehow listed with the sciences in contrast to a priori metaphysics. But a large chunk of a priori metaphysics is motivated by developments in (modal) logic. Do L&R tacitly distinguish between mathematics (good) and modal logic (bad)? Do they just deny modal realism? Now while I am suspicious of possible world semantics (etc), what if it turned out to be heuristically fruitful for further developments in modal logic to accept metaphysically robust theses? Should we rule it out?
1C: Many of their arguments against far-fetched metaphysics may also be directed at topics in mathematics (the vast majority?) that have no hope of ever being applied to our world. Why can't we be tolerant of a priori metaphysics in the same way we are tolerant of much of mathematics?
2 (p21): L&R are against abstract composition ("philosophical fetish") and mereology more generally; I applaud them. (I have never understood why folks abandon set theory for mereology.) Yet, given their goal for naturalistic metaphysics (increasing unification/explanation), it looks like they rule out a very promising naturalistic enterprise: creating a taxonomy or classification of "composition relations studied by the special sciences." This does not increase unification, but it might well expose fundamental structural similarities. It is funny that structural realists are blind to alternative ways of doing naturalistic metaphysics.
3 (p22): a nit-pick (or typo). They distinguish between laws of functional interdependence and statements of regularities. Aren't these the same? Perhaps they meant to distinguish between laws of functional interdependence and statements of causal regularities (this is suggested by context).
4 (p23): I am all for criticizing Australian arm-chair naturalistic (physicalist) metaphysics. But is Armstrong really silly for thinking that everything that exists is in space and time? Spacetime may well be emergent from some more fundamental structure, but this is still very much at the level of speculation. It looks like L&R sometimes use the appeal to 'science' or 'physics' to promote controversial and contested views. (A propos, 4B: the criticism of Armstrong is ironic, because L&R spend a lot of time bashing emergentist theories.)
5 (p26): one line of attack on analytic metaphysics is the claim that scientists have no reason to be interested in it (it is often implied that it is embarrassing, laughable, etc). But surely, scientists have no reason to be interested in structural realism either? (Not to mention debates over structural realism!)

Next time more, with special comment on the delicious irony that the enemies of naturalistic metaphysics are bashed for their A-Level chemistry/physics, while the edifice of Ladyman & Ross rests on...a (knowingly) naive sociology of science.


  1. Not having read Ladyman and Ross, I am puzzled by this report of some of their views. I take it Eric that you would sympathize with the presuppositions of my second question, but not with those of the first.

    1. What's wrong with mereology? Suppose that I am dealing with populations -- either in economics or in population genetics. These entities consist of individual people/organisms. I can't say populations are sets, because sets are abstract entities that don't e.g. have biomass and don't stand in causal relations. So isn't it natural for me to say that populations are mereological sums of organisms?

    2. A while ago I asked a question about Australian metaphysics -- the thesis that all matter is proto-conscious. I think the derivation (which is traced to Russell, by the way) is interesting, and brings out something quite insightful about the fundamental laws of physics. However, I have the gravest suspicion of the conclusion -- though I don't know how to exclude this. OK: but isn't there a difference between this metaphysical thesis and the following:

    Sets have no mass.
    Qualia are not identical with physical events.
    Perceptual states have intentional content.
    All massive objects exist in spacetime.

    The above may be contestible, but I don't think they are silly. In general, I don't think that propositions should be rejected simply because they are metaphysical and a priori. As in any other domain, propositions have to evaluated one-by-one. Some metaphysical propositions are methodologically questionable, others are simply factually questionable.

  2. I apologize for obscurity in some of my remarks, Mohan. I figured that I was last to read the book among folk on this site.

    Following your numbering.
    1. First, I agree that in the philosophy of special sciences mereology might be useful. (Having said that, I do worry that nature and society may be weirder than the mereological apparatus on hand.) Does anybody use mereology in the metaphysics of the special sciences? (Certainly Bill Wimsatt's work in philo bio on complex organization in the life sciences does not lend itself to mereology.)
    Second, L&R object to mereology as a tool in general metaphysics--they largely draw on quantum entanglement to deny over-simple claims about part-whole relationships.

    2. We agree on more than you think. I affirm a strong version of the principle of tolerance (or something akin to Feyerabendian anarchism). So, yes, I agree that propositions (including a priori ones) have to evaluated one by one. By contrast it's L&R that have a sweeping argument against a priori metaphysics--in my remarks on L&R's views on mathematics, I tried to indicate that I wonder how they can sustain that and allow research into mathematics or logic. Having said that, I share their wish for more work in contemporary metaphysics based on working knowledge of some the sciences.

  3. Good, we are in agreement. Do keep us all posted on further instalments of your group discussions.