Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More on Science and Metaphysics

Two things on the relationship between science and metaphysics, apropos of the recent discussions on this blog (which I've followed with interest and wish I had more to contribute to):
  1. Although I doubt there are many who read this blog who don't already read Leiter's, the recent entry on Jack Ritchie's Understanding Naturalism (and the NDPR review) seems very relevant, and their is a discussion going on in the comments of Leiter's blog.
  2. Craig Callender has a draft of a paper on his website called Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science, and I'm sure it would add something to the discussion (and Craig would likely appreciate feedback on it).
Wish I could take the time to say more about these difficult and interesting issues, but it will have to wait, as grading beckons.


  1. As for 1), it seems very relevant to me that one of Ritchie's main conclusions is that proper naturalism should take the form of a'deflationary methodological naturalism', inspired by Fine's NOA, that should 'try not to read things into science' (p. 3). I wonder what those self-proclaimed naturalists who, for example, endorse strong metaphysical theses such as ontic structural realism, think about this (not to say that they are incoherent, just that maybe there are some important methodological distinctions to be drawn here). On the other hand, Ritchie also seems sympathetic to the sort of ontological pluralism some have defended in previous discussions in this blog, but I wonder how this squares with Ritchie's own deflationary attitude.
    On a different note, I think the best reaction to this sort of deflationism available to those who want to do metaphysics is to insist that science and metaphysics aim at the same thing (the truth - I dare say - about the structure and nature of the material world), but have different domains of applications: what is conceptually/metaphysically possible and what is nomologically possible, respectively. I don't see why - even in a naturalist framework - one should exclude the other, nor why we should think one is reducible to the other.
    2) Callender's paper is indeed very good, but it relies heavily on the claim that there is no criterion of metaphysical equivalence available while equivalence among scientific theories is not problematic. This is not entirely true (see Kristie Miller's 'What is Metaphysical Equivalence?' I think in Philosophical Papers, 2004). In any event, this claim too seems, at least implicitly, to point to the need for a detailed analysis of metaphysical/conceptual as opposed to nomological modality.

  2. Matteo - on (1), if the metaphysician answers in the way you suggest, doesn't that amount to a denial of naturalism? If there is a special realm of investigation for philosophy (conceptual/metaphysical possibility), doesn't that break the continuity w/ science that the naturalist aims at? And would this investigation use essentially different methods from scientific ones?

  3. Matthew, I would think that the realm of investigation is the same - namely the material world. And if one doesn't reduce science to experiment, the methods will also be relevantly similar (for example, unobservable families of things will be posited as the best explanation for certain observable facts). However, if the domain of possibilities inquired into by metaphysicians is larger than that of scientists, clearly there is no reduction.
    Anyway, my point was that the only consistent alternative to this is to be a radical naturalist and just claim that the extra-possibilities metaphysics deals with are of no interest, which seems to be Ritchie's claim.
    Perhaps what I call 'radical naturalism' is the only naturalism, but it seems to me that this is far from agreed upon.
    Notice, incidentally, that radical naturalism à la Ritchie prevents from interpreting scientific theories, and even from asking typical philsci questions such as that regarding realism and antirealism. I prefer to think that there in fact is a more moderate naturalism.

  4. By the way, if methods have to be scientific ones in the strict sense, and there is no interesting difference between metaphysical and nomological possibility, why even use the definition 'naturalised metaphysics'? Just call it 'science'!

  5. Matteo: I'm still suspicious of positing two distinct types of fact, even if they are facts about the same "realm." I can imagine a family of phony claims to "naturalism" which posit, say, soulish facts and physical facts, while insisting that both are facts about the same world, but nevertheless the "soulish" facts are beyond the ordinary reaches of science. Perhaps this is behind my suspicion of understanding metaphysics primarily in terms of modality (i.e., is there really any room for a distinctive form of modality between logical possibility, conceivability, and nomological possibility?), though I've never thought of it in these terms.

    This need not end up as a "radical" naturalism that's entirely reductive about metaphysics; there's plenty of room for metaphysical questions. But they're not questions about a special kind of fact (metaphysical possibilities). They're questions about the same kind of facts that scientists ask, at a distinctive level of generality, perhaps. Examples: scientists are engaged in discovering true theories/claims about the world, while metaphysicians examine the criteria of ontological commitment which help us determine what objects those theories/claims commit us to; scientists investigate what causes there are, while metaphysicians investigate what a cause is (likewise laws, etc.).

  6. Matthew, I think I agree with you, at least partly. I would equally be suspicious of metaphysical claims presenting their object matter as in principle out of the reach of science. However, using your terminology, isn't the question, say, of what a cause is clearly concerned with a metaphysical, rather than scientific 'fact'? I guess when you talk of levels of generality you point exactly to the non-identity of domains that I was defending by talking of different modalities. Indeed, even if one only admits of logical, conceptual and nomological modality, science is clearly interested in the last one, while metaphysics, equally clearly, goes beyond it (consider the usual example of the claim 'physical laws may be different in a different possible world').

  7. Just to respond to Matteo's initial comment:
    1) I never really understood how Fine's NOA dictum to take science 'as it is' worked in practice. Everett always claimed he was, in a sense, taking QM 'as it is' and the many worlds interpretation is not typically regarded as deflationary metaphysics!
    2)As Matteo well knows, I have long argued that one can read both a metaphysics of individuals and one of non-individuals into QM, so, far from representing a 'strong' metaphysical position, Ontic Structural Realism is an attempt to be appropriately deflationary by pulling back from a metaphysics of objects to one of structures (without supposing there are objects 'behind' the structure).
    At the LSE realism conference last year I tried to articulate the sense in which we should be appriopriately deflationary (deflate but not too far!) but I need to work on this some more (so, I tried to link it to what Langton has said about 'humility' in these matters).

  8. Steven,

    Just to make this clear, I am far from agreeing with Ritchie about this 'take it as it is' business. Still, he seems to coherently develop one form of naturalism that is clear from the word go about what it says re. metaphysics: i.e., nothing. On the other hand, I think, naturalised metaphysics must still be given a definition we all agree on.
    As for your claim about the 'metaphysical weakness' of ontic structural realism, you know I disagree with you there... I am familiar with your argument from underdetermination, but am still not convinced that it is the most deflationary hypothesis. With deflationary I think you mean that it is the hypothesis that adds less to the data coming from science and experience in general, but I don't see that, and at best structuralism appears to me as one of the viable metaphysical alternatives (of course you'll have further arguments and evidence here, but let us not deviate from the aim of Matthew's original post...)

  9. Matteo,
    Sure. I need to read Ritchie's book carefully but one aspect that intrigues me is his attitude of metaphysical agnosticism (which chimes with some things that John Worrall has said for example). An obvious question is to what extent can one be a metaphysical agnostic and still a realist about, e.g., minds, particles, whatever? Certainly the grounds given for adopting this attitude seem to be weak, that we have to give up our concepts and conceptions of what is possible in the light of scientific change. That seems to push us towards fallibilism about metaphysics not agnosticism.
    Ditto for his view of physicalism: granted that we 're pretty sure that (some of) QM and GR will be superseded, it seems a very strong claim to conclude that the content of physicalism is unclear.
    Still, I take his point that many metaphysical naturalists are unclear on the content and methodology of science - definitely room for improvement there!