Friday, June 18, 2010

A few other reflections on Dorr's review of Ladyman & Ross

Last week I blogged a bit about Cian Dorr's review of Ladyman & Ross

I had a few more reflections:
1. At one point in his review Dorr writes, "If anyone can ever succeed in explaining category theory in a way that the larger philosophical community can understand"
I think a text that does this exists: Steve Awodey's (aptly named) Category Theory (OUP, 2006).

My remaining comments are about Dorr's concluding *Apologia* for analytic metaphysics.
2. Dorr writes, "Opening up some works of analytic metaphysics, the authors found a lot of arguments they didn't like. They concluded that they had nothing to learn from this tradition, and went on to write a book of metaphysics that is largely uninfluenced by anything written in mainstream metaphysics from the last forty years. But in focusing only on the arguments, they have missed what is best and most distinctive about the tradition they set themselves against: its gradual raising of the standards of clarity and explicitness in the statement of metaphysical claims. It is this, rather than any supposed consensus about the appropriate methods of argument, that constitutes analytic metaphysics's strongest claim to be part of the story of the advance of human knowledge."
There can be no doubt that Dorr is right to say that L&R attempted to bypass contemporary metaphysics and in doing so missed out on some important virtues.
I was amused to see, however, that Dorr's defense of contemporary metaphysics, (which echoes a claim made in a very illuminating review of L&R by Kathleen Hawley,, *turns not on the arguments or its progress toward truth*, but rather on the raising of standards of clarity and explicitness. This is very much in the spirit of David Lewis (who only gets mentioned in a footnote by Dorr), who had taught that we can get clear on the costs and benefits of certain metaphysical moves (see his lovely underrated methodological dialogue with Stephanie Lewis, Holes). Yet, it echoes the claim by the Scholastics against the philosophical newcomers of the 17th century. Compared to the sophisticated distinctions and clarifications of the Scholastics, Descartes and Galileo and the other "new philosophers" were really philosophical amateurs (and objectively lowered the standards of philosophical argument as anyone who has looked at Suarez can tell you). (Hawley, incidentally, defends analytic metaphysics for its neo-scholastic virtues--this seems to me the most promising and also most credible approach.)

3. Dorr continues "Ironically, analytic metaphysicians have been much more gripped by the kinds of concern that motivated Hume and the positivists than are the authors of Every Thing Must Go. Much of what is distinctive about the analytic way of doing metaphysics is meant to guard against the danger that we might accidentally lapse into nonsense, or launch into disputes that turn out to be merely verbal. This explains the focus, dominant since Quine, on theses that can be stated using familiar everyday words ('there are no numbers', 'everything with more than one part is alive', and so on). When analytic metaphysicians do introduce technical vocabulary without defining it explicitly in ordinary terms, their approach tends to be tentative and defensive: they propose logical constraints on the new vocabulary, and attempt to draw connections between it and questions expressed in more familiar terms, in the hopes of thereby imposing enough discipline on its use to fend off the charge of unintelligibility. This applies, in particular, to discussions about the "fundamental" and the "derivative". Concerned that such discussions have, in the past, come unmoored from any standards of meaningfulness -- most notoriously, in the work of the British Idealists to which Russell and Moore were reacting (and which, interestingly, has many echoes in Every Thing Must Go) -- metaphysicians who are willing to talk in these terms at all have attempted to impose some discipline, by requiring those who want to claim that X is more fundamental than Y to describe an adequately expressive language for talking about X without mentioning Y. In the work of philosophers as disparate as Russell, Carnap, Prior, Armstrong and Fine, this constraint has been enormously fruitful: it has given us a much more fine-grained understanding of the range of possible views about the fundamental nature of the world, and of the challenges they face."
This paragraph is full of quite breathtaking even ironical historical claims. A) If by "positivists" Dorr means either Comte and his followers or (more likely) the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle then much of contemporary metaphysics runs afoul of the verificationist and scientistic commitments of both movements. B) Much contemporary scholarship has tried to read as a kind of naturalist, but I agree with Don Baxter that Hume was a genuine metaphysician. But Hume wished to constrain his metaphysics by considerations of utility (just read his Introduction to the Treatise and his criticism of the false claim to exactness by geometry) in order to improve the human sciences, and I don't think that by those lights much contemporary metaphysics will pass muster. C) Note how Dorr links L&R with the failings of the British Idealists. I do wonder if Dorr has gone back to the British Idealists to see if they really are as unintelligible (as our analytic founding mythology maintains). D) Dorr is right to say that a wide variety of analytic philosophers have explored the technical details and characteristics of formal languages. But the question is has this really "given us a much more fine-grained understanding of the range of possible views about the fundamental nature of the world"? Why think that? Here there is a commitment (inherited, by the way, from the Idealists) that somehow the study of the structure of language has anything to teach about the range of ways in which the world can be. But (ever since Locke) if the history of physics has taught us anything, it is that the world keeps surprising us in ways that force us to develop (or deploy) ever new (and stranger) languages. (Call this my pessimistic meta induction about the very possibility of characterizing the fundamental language.)

Finally, Dorr concludes with the following:
4. "Alas, the alienated approach of Every Thing Must Go seems likely, if it has any effect at all on analytic metaphysicians, merely to confirm a few more of them in their impression that no one has yet shown how developments in the sciences might be relevant to their concerns."
I was a bit amazed by this last claim because there have been quite a few people (several of them contributors to this blog) who have embraced a project along the lines of the metaphysics of science or issues in causation. Moreover, there has been quite lively analytic literature in the philosophy of space/time that deals with recognizably metaphysical questions. So this made me wonder what the "concerns" are that Dorr is alluding to? For, the whole point of L&R's project is to claim that if metaphysical concerns are not in some way responsive to (or motivated by) the sciences then they are not really worthy of interest. Now I have criticized L&R for this dogmatism on this blog before. But contemporary metaphysicians often want it both ways: on the one hand they appeal to scientific virtues of various sort and claim to be studying a topic that relates to "the fundamental nature of the world," yet, on the other hand, when scientifically informed criticism arises they claim it is irrelevant to their (unspecified) "concerns." (Again, I think Hawley meets that challenge in her review.)

Okay, this went on too long, alas.


  1. I second the Steve Awodey mention but would also like to call to attention some illuminating papers on his website.

    In particular, I recommend "From sets to types to categories to sets" and "An answer to G. Hellman's question `Does category theory provide a framework for mathematical structuralism?'"

    The former has a self-explanatory title, but does a nice job showing the relationship between category theory and more standard areas in the foundations of math. The latter directly addresses the relationship between category theory and structuralism in the philosophy of math.

    See for links to both.

  2. Really interesting comments, thanks for posting this. One question: what did you think of Dorr writing the following:

    "But very often, 'intuition' talk is playing no such distinctive role. Often, saying 'Intuitively, P' is no more than a device for committing oneself to P while signaling that one is not going to provide any further arguments for this claim. In this use, 'intuitively . . . ' is more or less interchangeable with 'it seems to me that..."

    He is here replying not only to L&R, but also to the experimental philosophers. I am not terribly impressed by his counter argument here. I think intuition has a much more pervasive, and unfortunate, use in metaphysics (the twin earth stuff seems a prime example).

  3. Great suggestion, Shane! (You have a cool website!)
    Anonymous, the passage you are responding to was singled out for agreement by Brian Weatherson in his blog: . So it fits the self understanding of leading metaphysicians. I believe, alas, that we must explore the role of intuition on a case by case basis, and I would not wish to generalize about its function. (In some standard twin earth cases intuition can teach us something about how we appear to think reference works.)

  4. Hi Eric,

    Interesting stuff there. Just a really minor quibble on the last point---I don't read the claim that the impact of L&R on metaphysicians will be "merely to confirm a few more of them in their impression that no one has yet shown how developments in the sciences might be relevant to their concerns" as endorsing the idea that metaphysicians have nothing to learn from the sciences. What he says, anyway, is compatible with him thinking that some metaphysicians should pay *more* attention to the sciences, but that the L&R book would have the unfortunate effect of turning people off from this laudable methodology. It's also compatible with the view that both metaphysics of science and more aprioristic metaphysics are both valuable activities, that should be interacting in interesting ways, but that the likely effect L&R is to alienate the two parties. (I don't really want to attribute to Cian particular attitudes to these questions---though from what I know of his research interests and projects I think he's unlikely to be an a-prioristic-metaphysics-only guy. I just wanted to point out that what he says in the review is relatively neutral on this front).

  5. Actually, the paragraph just before the one you quote is relevant here:

    ".... This is a great pity, from the point of view of anyone who shares the authors' belief that analytic metaphysics has much to learn from a more informed engagement with modern physics and philosophy of physics. If this desirable interaction is to take place, it will have to be pushed forward by philosophers with a foot in both camps, who combine a rigorous understanding of the space of interpretative possibilities opened up by the physical theories with a metaphysician's patience for fine distinctions and quibbling objections.[9]"

    The footnote being to Maudlin's "The metaphysics within physics".

  6. Robbie, you are right, of course. I got carried away, and failed to notice the more judicious interpretation. (Certainly Dorr's interest in physics cannot be denied.)

    But...with all due respect to Maudlin (whom I admire), I reject the "foot in both camps," approach as the only way forward. Why can't the philosophers of science not claim that metaphysicians should be reading and engaging with their leading lights (Malament on space time, Norton on causation/induction, etc), whose work often shows the constrains on any possible metaphysics? (Not to mention that Dorr never responds to L&R's rather damning evidence of a lot of the silly things to be found in analytic metaphysics.)

    Moreover, something that went unnoticed in the reviews (by Dorr and Hawley) of L&R is this: this book pulls together a lot of great material through references to a lot of great papers in HPS * Philo science. While the HPS/phil. science community cannot match the depth and sophistication of the more unified discourse of analytic metaphysics, there are a lot of treasures on the content, context, and significance of the sciences to be found in the pages of L&R. I think L&R should be applauded for trying to bring a lot of it together.

  7. Thanks Eric. Two quick plugs:
    one for Elaine Landry's work on category theory (she works in both phil. maths and structuralist oriented phil sci)
    the other for Metascience, the book reviews journal in which Hawley's review appeared, as part of a symposium on L&R.

  8. And surely one of the reasons for all the 'silly things' illuminated by L&R is this 'focus, dominant since Quine, on theses that can be stated using familiar everyday words ('there are no numbers', 'everything with more than one part is alive', and so on).' Everyday words bring along everyday metaphysics and encumber us with the microbangings of little billiard balls that L&R insist is so utterly inappropriate for understanding modern physics.
    But perhaps such laughably antiquated ontological pictures can be kicked to the side and the various frameworks that analytic metaphysics has constructed plundered for useful moves, inter-level relations, twists on truth etc. The alternative to peaceful co-existence and mutual support is pillage and plunder as the phil physics hordes sweep down from their austere steppes to take what is useful and carry it off to help explicate the sense in which tables are not fundamental but 'there are tables' can still be regarded as true; or in which blobjectivism provides a metaphysics for QFT (actually I'm not sure about that one!). From the perspective of the philosopher of physics as marauding Viking, perhaps it doesn't matter if many/most/some metaphysicians have a world view that isn't even Newtonian, much less Einsteinian or Gellmannian, as long as they keep coming up with shiny stuff we can use!

    As for the comparison with idealism, British or otherwise - just another cheap shot. The more appropriate historical comparison, as some of us have been banging on about for years now, is with the likes of Cassirer and Eddington. But to appreciate the similarities and differences you need a lot more historical sensitivity than is on display in most of of the reviews I've seen.

  9. Anonymous @ Friday, June 18th and Eric,

    To forgo intuitions in favor of just stating your premises seems a bit like building on nothing instead of sand. If I can use any premise I want, metaphysics is trivial; so there will have to be some restrictions on the premises. I'd venture that in the sciences, the restrictions stem from experiments and observations. The question is then where the restrictions in metaphysics stem from.

  10. @Sebastian.
    1. You raise an important question. L&R think that fruitfulness in empirical science should somehow constrain metaphysical proposals. This is why they introduce the 'Principle of Naturalistic Closure' (PNC): "Any new metaphysical claim that is to be taken seriously at time t should be motivated by, and only by, the service it would perform, if true, in showing how two or more specific scientific hypotheses, at least one of which is drawn from fundamental physics, jointly explain more than the sum of what is explained by the two hypotheses taken separately." I think we can extend the PNC to intuitions that motivate metaphysical claims.
    Now, I have criticized this proposal in this blog in the past. (In short: a) I think it rules out too much; b) in the way they articulate PNC they rely on dubious sociological criteria; c) fundamental physics is privileged in question-begging-ways.)
    2. Now it might be tempting as an alternative to PNC to set up intuitions as an epistemic source of premises (as you may seem to wish to do). But as I mentioned above, Dorr and Brian Weatherson (this time with link, I hope: do not take the use of intuition as indicative of the (epistemic) source of premises, but rather as a stylistic/rhetorical signal that one asserts something baldly (if not boldly) as a premise. I am willing to take Dorr's and Weatherson's word for it. (They are, after all, leading practitioners of the genre.) I assume that like our logical empiricist grandparents, contemporary metaphysicians are agnostic about the source of these premises. Presumably they generally are restricted by other bits of *reasonably attractive philosophy*--uncontested parts of the Lewisian framework.
    3. Finally, I am completely agnostic on what would either be a good source of premises in metaphysical argument or what constrains them. But I think we have no reason to expect human intuition to be particularly helpful in areas of metaphysics far removed from mid-size objects and moral affairs. I do think that a premise that is (or clearly risks being) at odds with best-current science requires added argument (so as not to be in bad faith).
    4. WHat I like about contemporary analytic metaphysics (when the pretense is dropped that either as a community it exhibits the scientific virtues in action or its results are compatible with the deliverances of end-of-times science) is that it explores arguments and distinctions in extreme fine-grained detail. It's a beautiful, elite art, pleasing to its practitioners and (well trained) audience and potentially useful mental gymnastics to future lawyers, computer scientists (and other students of philosophy). All its restrictions are self-imposed and, in some sense, arbitrary.

  11. Robbie Williams says:

    "What he says, anyway, is compatible with him thinking that some metaphysicians should pay *more* attention to the sciences, but that the L&R book would have the unfortunate effect of turning people off from this laudable methodology."

    Hmm we are supposed to be worried that analytic metaphysicians will be turned off the right methodology because they will conflate it in general with the particular exemplar of it we are they not so good at making fine distinctions after all?

  12. Eric,

    I actually did not want to defend the use of intuitions (and I agree that even if there was something to intuitions about non-empirical claims, their terrible track record in untypical situations would suggest that they are no good for philosophical questions). I just wanted to point out that nothing does not seem to be an improvement over intuitions. If I can baldly assert whatever I want, then metaphysics is really easy, because I can just assert what I want to prove. I don't think Dorr or Weatherson want to skip the honest toil. So there must be some restriction on the premises that takes the place of intuitions.

    And regarding our logical empiricist grandparents, at least Carnap is clear that for science and philosophy, the restrictions stem from observations and pragmatic considerations (first simplicity of the overall laws, then, in connection with explication, fruitfulness). `Reasonable attractive' just seems to me like `intuitively appealing', unless it just means `pragmatically advantageous', which would again be Carnap's position.

    And just to put my cards on the table: At the moment, I think Carnap's conventionalist view (as far as I understand it) is basically right, so that we should choose languages according to convenience and from case to case. That would also avoid the contentious demands that L&R place on the language, or, as they call it, the metaphysical claim.

  13. @Sebastian.
    1. I meant to suggest that that our logical empirist forefathers would have been agnostic about context of discovery (that is, the epistemic source of the premises). We agree, however, that for Carnap the choice of a language/framework stems from observations and pragmatic considerations.
    2. You misrepresent my gloss on contemporary metaphysicians; I added "uncontested parts of the Lewisian framework" (i.e., the best game in town with a lot of arguments on all fronts that cohere in various ways, etc). That is much more than "intuitively appealing."
    3. I think L&R's PNC is closer to Carnap than you think. (It certainly is much closer than the contemporary anylytic metaphysicians' insistence that metaphysics must be about a final language.) For the PNC cashes out "observations and pragmatic considerations (first simplicity of the overall laws, then, in connection with explication, fruitfulness)" in terms of fruitfulness to future science. Of course, the PNC is much more restrictive than Carnap's principle of tolerance (and L&R not committed to explication as a philosophic ideal), but I read L&R's PNC as being compatible with the introduction of many formal languages.
    4. We are both conventionalists, Sebastian, in that we do not demand a single, final language, and that the choice of any particular language (in philosophic analysis/explication) is a matter of pragmatic decision from case to case. It is my sense that this position is not taken very seriously among analytic metaphysicians (despite the claim to being heir to a Carnapian tradition [see Dorr, above]) nor, I often fear, by very many philosophers of science, but maybe I am wrong about this.