The Empiricist Bias

The influences of empiricism are tangible in much of what counts as mainstream analytic philosophy today, and of course explicitly so in the works of those working within the neo-Humean framework. One aim of this book is to elucidate how empiricist thinking has filtered down to the presuppositional depth-structure of the debate, to the degree that causal realists have now inadvertently assimilated ideas that originate from the empiricist reduction of core ideas that are found in the causal realist traditions. I have already mentioned some ways that this expresses itself, but I’d like to add here that others have expressed similar thoughts. Barry Smith (2005) and Ingvar Johansson (2016) have argued that first-order predicate logic, advocated by Quine as the language of philosophy, favours a neo-Humean framework. Smith coined the term ‘Fantology’ to denote this neo-Humean bias. Mumford & Anjum (2015a), and Johanna Seibt (2018), have independently argued for the same conclusion, but focusing on how the acceptance of a certain kind of logic has worked against the acceptance of powers-based and process ontologies, respectively. The question to be asked is of course why first-order predicate logic was accepted so easily by the philosophical community. The answer is, arguably, because philosophy was already geared toward a neo-Humean view of both science and philosophy as primarily descriptive rather than explanatory.

Now, what could really be wrong with the idea that we shouldn’t postulate what goes beyond the observable or measurable? Isn’t that also a kind of naturalism? Yes, but there is a huge difference between saying (i) that we should base our views about the world on observations/ measurements and that all our theories must be empirically adequate, and (ii) that we should describe the world only in terms of the observable/ measurable, and never go beyond that to theorise about what the world is really like such that it appears to us in observations in the way that it does. To begin with, the second option is saying that in hindsight people never ought to have hypothesised about any of the things we now consider observable but weren’t when they hypothesised about them.

Another interesting example of when prior commitments affect the appreciation of philosophical views—and which helps to understand why contemporary philosophers are not comfortable with presentism, the view that only the present exists, the future not yet, and the past no longer—is that it is difficult to deal with presentism in the language of first-order predicate logic. At least if first-order predicate logic is meant to function like Quine prescribed, notably to specify our existential commitments (for arguments to this effect, see Ohrstrom & Schärfe 2004; Seibt 2018). Sure, one can introduce temporal operators, but on Quine’s understanding, such operators must operate on something existing, wherefore the use of past-tense operators to talk about Chrysippus being in the market place yesterday is still to quantify over existents (there exists an x such that Px). Indeed, as Peter Ohrstrom and Schärfe argue, it was concerns about Quine’s idea about ontology that drove Arthur Prior to develop a temporal logic of a different kind. Ultimately the point is that the philosophical community, arguably, only accepted a logic construed to quantify univocally over entities in a neo-Humean ‘mosaic of local matters of fact’ because the community was already sympathetic towards such ideas.

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