About the Method of My Project

I take it that a naturalist approach is appropriate to the kind of scrutiny I propose to undertake of powers-based accounts of causation. After all, the proponents of such accounts aim to provide an account of how causation works in the world we inhabit, and by and large assume that their accounts must be empirically adequate; i.e. compatible with the (true) theories and findings of the empirical sciences. I insert ‘(true)’, because it is not naively assumed that the empirical sciences already have all the answers, while metaphysics is doomed to uncritically receive the input from the empirical sciences to try to make the best of whatever it says. It is assumed that metaphysics, as it always has done, is capable of critical scrutiny of the way the empirical sciences make sense of their own theories, and can provide them with very useful feedback that allows them to get closer to the truth (not only the other way around). But I’d better spell out in a little more detail than I did above what I take to be a naturalist approach in metaphysics, i.e. the way the empirical sciences and metaphysics are continuous and yet distinct approaches to the same subject matter.

Allowing myself a healthy dose of oversimplification (more detail in Ingthorsson 2020), the empirical sciences each focus on a particular segment of reality and focus on the understanding of the particular phenomena within that segment. Physics focuses on the elementary particles, their properties, and the particular interactions they engage in, all of which are unobservable to the naked eye. Chemistry focuses on compound entities, constituted by the simpler entities studied by physics and the interactions that occur between those simples; in chemistry they talk about ‘reactions’ when the compounds interact with other compounds. Often, the reactions studied by chemistry are observable to the naked eye. Biology focuses on even more complicated systems and their interactions. The demarcation between chemistry and biology might perhaps be drawn between systems that have some form of function or causal feedback loops, and which can procreate.

Metaphysics, on the other hand, focuses on broader categories of entities, their ways of being and interacting, that cut across the segments of reality that are the focal points of the individual empirical sciences. Physics deals with electrons and their charges and how charged particles interact. It doesn’t deal with cell-division or metabolism in mitochondria, and it certainly does not consider whether there are classes of phenomena that we find in all the segments. That is what naturalist metaphysics does (or can do). It can look at all the different entities studied by the different sciences, and the manner in which they interact, and ask if there is any similarity in the characterisation of widely disparate phenomena. The result of such a scrutiny could be that every empirical discipline postulates entities that can be characterised as persistent bearers of properties (substances), the properties that they bear (properties), the relations they hold (relations), and the events that these bearers enter into (events), and which often bring about a change in them (causation). The empirical sciences do not ask what the most general characteristics of persistent entities are, or of properties, relations, events, causation, etc. The only discipline that tries to ask and answer such questions is metaphysics. Metaphysics, the kind that I pursue, is the business of asking whether all the phenomena in all the segments fit into a general scheme that all the sciences can incorporate in their scheme of things, or even if they already have incorporated it without realising it.

The fact that I take the findings and theories of the natural sciences to be relevant input to metaphysics—as something we must consider— doesn’t mean that I slavishly accept their theories and findings uncritically (a common but misguided criticism of naturalism). They are not the only input of ideas about how things could be. Another input of how things can be comes from our everyday conceptual scheme, from phenomenology, from semantics, and from so-called armchair speculation. None of these individually represent a privileged access to how things really are, but empirical science has the privilege of being the only discipline that explicitly aims to find out something about the mind-independent reality, and to test their hypothesis by strategic interactions with that external reality, and so should be considered to provide important input to our common enterprise in figuring out reality.

In the approach that I take, the findings and theorising of the empirical sciences—at least those parts I can hope to understand—are only taken as valuable input on how the world appears to us in experience, and as providing a plethora of explanations of how things work and a basis for excluding some explanations. I contrast that input with input about how we make sense of the world in our everyday conceptual scheme, and how we talk about them, as well as phenomenological analysis, and I pitch the findings from each of these approaches against the other in an attempt to find some way to bring it all together in one coherent whole. If one approach seems to say something very different from the other, we need to find an explanation as to why that is. Either it is because one is right and the other wrong, or vice versa; we need to figure out which one it is. In doing that, we will be construing some way that it all fits together. I take this to be pretty much the role of metaphysics as described by Johansson (1989/2004), Lowe (1998), Heil (2003), and Simons (2000).

I don’t believe we can come to any conclusion about the world merely by scrutinising language, or merely by phenomenological analysis, or merely by a priori reflection on the conceptual scheme already in place, or merely by accepting the facts and theories of physics. Metaphysics, in the sense I have sketched it, is a project beyond the scope of an individual. We all take a shot at some part of the overall project, in our own limited way, and in time, over generations, we hopefully move towards greater clarity. Here I take a shot at pushing our understanding of causation, and of the philosophical discussion about causation, just a little bit further.

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