Sunday, November 8, 2009

A philosopher defends metaphysics

In a NDPR review of Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology Oxford UP, 2009 David Chalmers, David Manley, Ryan Wasserman (eds.), Elizabeth Barnes writes:

That the questions asked by metaphysicians should simply be left to physicists is not a criticism that those not generally skeptical of philosophical inquiry should take seriously. As philosophers, we tend to value the methodology of our own discipline and (whether justified or not) think that this methodology can make uniquely valuable contributions. Philosophy of language should not be abandoned for linguistics, aesthetics should not be abandoned for art criticism and art history, philosophy of mind should not be abandoned for psychology and cognitive science, and so on. There are often more empirical disciplines concerned with the same subject matter, but that doesn't mean the philosophy is in bad standing. Or so say the philosophers, anyway.

Barnes fails to address a missing alternative: that metaphysics should be informed and constrained by relatively up to date physics (and other sciences).


  1. Sorry—I'm not seeing in what sense your suggestion is an alternative to what Barnes says. All she argues is that the (presumably a priori) methodology of philosophy is not obviously flawed, and without general scepticism about philosophy we have no specific reasons to reject that methodology. This seems entirely reasonable to me. She doesn't say anything about whether other methodologies might also contribute to answering distinctively philosophical questions.

    What you say is only an alternative if you think that the 'philosophy informed and constrained by relatively up to date physics' is in conflict with other ways of doing philosophy—but where's the argument for that? No one has ever argued that philosophers *must* ignore physics. And I think we need more argument for the claim that philosophers must *never* proceed without considering physics—argument that would be distinctively philosophical, and to which the relevance of physics is tangential at best as far as I can see.

  2. Antony,
    Let's return to Barnes' argument. It really has three components:
    1) There is a philosophical methodology;
    2) This methodology is applied in domains that are also subject of a science;
    3) The relationship between Metaphysics and physics is no different than those other domains.

    All three steps are controversial.
    First, where (outside Oxford?) is this a priori method of philosophy to be found? Not in philosophy of language (which draws on and has many interesting connections with linguistics), not in aesthetics (which sometimes draws on cognitive science--when one is not trying to fruitlessly define art) not in philosophy of mind (which draws on and has many interesting connections with cognitive science). Of course, folk do philosophy of mind in many different ways (some is quite informed by various empirical sciences some not). So, no amount of table-pounding about "distinctively philosophical" argument can substitute for these facts.
    On a historical point: if the method of philosophy is really a priori (which I deny) then it is a consequence of success of physics [I call this Newton's Challenge to philosophy].
    Second, the relationship between philosophy and its domain specific counterpart science is different for each domain and is debated within each domain--it ranges from fruitful interaction (philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, Continental aesthetics and performances) to indifference (philosophy of economics) to occasional hostility (remember Weinberg on philosophy of science?).
    Third, I read in Barnes a tacit argument for the claim that analytic metaphysics can proceed in its domain while ignoring physics. (Viz., if the method is sound it can also be applied in metaphysics.) But why should metaphysics be able to proceed in this fashion -- that is, ignoring physics -- if 'we' do not encourage scientific ignorance in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, etc?
    Fourth, why not think synthetic a priori argument is flawed? It does not have a glorious history. (Why think our reasoning capacities map onto being as such?)
    Fifth, perhaps physics (complexity theory, information theory, etc) can be useful in training up intuitions in metaphysics?

  3. Eric,

    First of all, as blog administrator, let me remind everyone that points that may seem to be ad hominem (such as your "outside of Oxford" remark in your last comment) should be avoided on this blog.

    Second, I agree with Antony that you are attacking a straw-person. Barnes is only saying that if one thinks that the questions asked by metaphysicians should simply be left to physicists, then one should also think that questions asked by philosophers of language, mind and art should be left to respectively linguists, cognitive scientists, and art critics and historians. Now, this is only as conditional thesis that she thinks many would use as a premise in a modus tollens because they deny its consequent. Of course, if you don't deny the consequent, then you do not need to deny the antecedent. But nothing in what you say seem to be an argument against the conditional.

    In any case, Barnes is certainly not saying anything to the effect that all those philosophical disciplines should not be informed by the corresponding non-philosophical disciplines.

  4. First, I had no idea my 'Oxford' comment was an hominem remark. I should do better background checks on folks on the blog. Mea Culpa anyway.

    Second, This discussion has some unreality over it. The point of my comments has to with the status of metaphysics (not the status of other philosophic disciplines)--so I find Gabrielle's last defense of Barnes a red herring.

    Third, yes, I am attacking a straw-man if one were to take Barnes' words *out of context* of how (much of) analytic metaphysics is practiced (and the rest of her review). [Barnes makes no mention of the much smaller field of the metaphysics of science.] Maybe I should have quoted more of the review. Barnes is defending the standing of *contemporary* analytic metaphysics, which, in practice conceives of itself and according to Barnes' review is (a priori?) "basic ontological inquiry." It's in the context of defending that enterprise that she offers her conditional and analogical argument. The question I am raising is can 'basic ontological inquiry' be practiced in good faith without knowledge of the sciences?

    Now, Anthony asks rhetorically, has anybody offered an argument that metaphysics must ignore science? (I hope somebody has, but in this age of 'naturalism' can we expect it to resonate.) I am concerned with the practice of contemporary metaphysics, which happily ignores physics (or introduces toy examples from physics--here I fully agree with Ladyman et al). In my comments I simply wished to point out that Barnes' analogy cuts against her--we don't want to encourage ignorance of science in other domains of philosophy, so why can metaphysics get away with it?

  5. Eric,

    The point of my comments has to with the status of metaphysics (not the status of other philosophic disciplines)

    That's partly the problem. The point of your comments does not seem to have much to do with the point of Barnes' argument.

    yes, I am attacking a straw-man if one were to take Barnes' words *out of context* of how (much of) analytic metaphysics is practiced (and the rest of her review).

    I have read Barnes' (really nice) review before reading your post and, even taking the argument in the original context, I don't see any reason to assume that she is denying that that metaphysics should be informed and constrained by relatively up to date physics (and other sciences).

    Let's be clear--I agree that analytic metaphysics would benefit from being more familiar with science and especially fundamental physics, but this does not seem to be a good reason to think that metaphysicians should turn into physicists or philosophers of physics and, as far as I can see, that is all Barnes is arguing for.

    Let me also add that some people (Tim Maudlin for one) are good at both games and don't seem to think that playing one precludes them from playing the other or from playing both at the same time. You seem to think it does, or at least that one game is so much better than the other that there would be no point in playing them both. So, at least on one thing, you seem to agree with Ladyman after all.

  6. I wonder if physics is here assumed to have some special relationship to metaphysics. I.e., that it is dealing with "things" at the most "fundamental" level available to science, with only metaphysics being still closer to the problem of "being qua being".

    The value of studying science for metaphysics is, to my mind, that it offers more rigorous experiences to analyze the "conditions of the possibility" of. This leads to more precise formulations of what "must be" if experience is to be possible (which it of course is).

    But I don't see physical entities as ontologically more fundamental than even everyday things like apples and stars. You don't better understand the metaphysics of the apples you buy in the supermarket by knowing about their physical microstructures.

  7. That is, I don't think physics (or any science) can or should constrain metaphysics. But it may well occasion metaphysically illuminating work.

  8. Hello, my name is Vincent Badreough,
    A word please----
    Now see here, some of my most cherished friends are straw-men and I cannot abide any ad hominem attacks directed toward them either as individuals or as a group. While I find that they may at times confuse an issue, they always enrich the dabate and in addition make loyal mates. They in no way deserve derision, overt or veiled--of the sort evident in these posts. Too often have I seen a straw-man erected only to be knocked down in his prime by unfeeling raciocinators.
    I insist straw-men (and straw-women for that matter) be treated with all the dignity they deserve, extending also to their relations the red herring, the presuming of the consequent and others. Please forgive my stridency on this issue; I simply feel that we have a moral obligation to defend the persecuted minority philosophical entities among us.
    Put yourselves in their position!

  9. Hello, Vincent Badreough again,

    with a Post script-----

    Please excuse the above spelling error-- --"dabate" instead of "debate"--the error proves the sincerity of my effort to bring justice to the issue. I sacrifice all --including spelling--when defending the helpless!