Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pleas for pluralism

A few times during the exchange over the last few days I murmered that reflection on science casts doubt on a certain kind of single best language with monotonic (is that a word?) "interpretation" that appears to be taken for granted in doing metaphysics by many post-Lewisians. In part this doubt is due to a draft paper by Erik Curiel (against rigidity) I have been reading. For example, I first learned from Erik Curiel (now at LSE--he should not be implicated in my views) that according to the Standard Model, "the phenomena it treats can always be described in any of a competing number of ways, as there is a many-to-one relation between groups of particular particles and their fundamental interactions on the one hand and irreducible representations of symmetry groups on the other."


  1. Of course, you are aware of the fact that this is an epistemological issue while the question of whether there are natural properties is a metaphysical one, right?

  2. An irrep does not single out an interaction, that is true. An irrep can be used to identify any physical system, composite or simple, provided it has as properties the relevant group-invariants, so in THAT
    sense there is a many-to-one mapping. Is that meant here?

    What I don't see is the relation between this and what you conceive as the erection of an ideal language for metaphysics. The Standard Model is written in the one language of QFT, embellished with words like `particle'; it is not a multitude of languages such as to pose a problem for constructing a single language for metaphysics.

    Related point. Physics is our most general science, but it also employs lots of specific concepts. Analytic metaphysicians want only general concepts, so general that a multitude of ways of filling in the details by science (physics) is possible. But general and open to many fillings lies close to being empty. Is there thus some gap between analytic metaphysics and philosophy of physics that cannot be bridged?

  3. Fred,
    Here's how I see the dialectic. Some prominent metaphysicians are exploring features (ideology and ontology) of the final language that is supposed to capture how objective reality is carved at its joints. I agree that physics has as a regulative ideal that this unified, final language is possible. (Right now there is no consensus over the content of that language.)
    I claim that reflection on the current formal languages of science suggest that even if physics were able to develop a final single language, it will be open to multiple interpretations.
    Also, in agreement with your suggestion, there is a gap between the kind of concepts that reflection on physics will promote as objects of study and the kind of concepts that (Lewisian) analytic metaphysicians tend to focus on. The jury is out of that gap can be bridged. (But again there are some people in the metaphysics of science who believe they can bridge the gap.)
    Katherine Hawley, whose work has been called to my attention since I started blogging about this, writes with knowledge about the virtues of analytic metaphysics even from the perspective of philosophy of science. But I have not had time to explore her work in depth.