An Apology for Naturalized Metaphysics

James Ladyman


Analytic metaphysics and science both seek general truths about reality.* Some of the questions they ask about the nature of space and time and matter are at least superficially similar. Given this and the extent of disagreement among metaphysicians about both the answers to their questions and what the questions are, and the high degree of consensus among scientists about both their questions and answers, it is not surprising that some scientists have argued that metaphysics has been replaced by science.[1] [2] Metaphysicians have generally defended their subject by claiming that they address questions that science does not. For example, Jonathan Lowe (2011) and Laurie Paul (2012) have both defended metaphysics against criticisms from other philosophers by arguing that the questions it asks are in some way prior to scientific questions. While Paul talks of fundamental categories and ontological constituents of the world, and Lowe talks of essences, their views about the subject matter of metaphysics and its foundational status are similar. Of course, their accounts raise the question as to how the distinctively metaphysical questions are to be answered, and Lowe and Paul agree that the method of metaphysics is a priori.[3]

Skeptics about metaphysics, such as the logical positivists (notably Carnap) and many empiricists before (notably Hume) and since (notably van Fraassen 2002), have argued that metaphysics inhibits rather than supports science and is not a worthwhile pursuit. Hume and Carnap regard metaphysical questions as meaningless, or at least fruitless or hopelessly unclear.[4] Van Fraassen accepts that they are meaningful but argues that they cannot be answered either a priori or by science; they all call for an end to metaphysics. In this respect, Ladyman’s and Ross’s (2007) critique of metaphysics (hereafter “ETMG”) is very different, since they advocate reform, not abolition.[5] The next section of this paper clarifies and defends our position. First, our negative claims about science and metaphysics are discussed, and some responses to some of them are rebutted. Secondly, some of our most important positive theses are enumerated, and the connection between them is summarized. The related problems of how to characterize both metaphysics and science are explored in the cause of explicating and further motivating the demarcation criterion for naturalized metaphysics we call the “Principle of Naturalistic Closure.”

As ETMG (chap. 1) discusses, both metaphysicians and scientists are interested in the conditions under which composite objects are composed of simpler ones, yet, astonishingly, while physics and chemistry have made great progress in understanding the composition of matter in both qualitative and quantitative terms, the current vogue in analytic metaphysics is to ignore the relevant science while arguing about whether there are any composite objects at all.[6] Section 3 exemplifies the negative and positive theses of ETMG by criticizing the debate about van Inwagen’s special composition question, and briefly outlining how composition in condensed matter and particle physics is in accord with the real patterns account of existence in which scale relativity and objective modality are central. Section 4 concludes.

  • [1] The first part of the first chapter of Ladyman and Ross 2007 was written in a polemical and provocative toneand as a result has earned us the opprobrium of many philosophers. Nonetheless, what follows is an apologyonly in the sense of a defense or vindication. All of what follows is heavily indebted to conversations and correspondence with Don Ross.
  • [2] Hawking 2010; Krauss 2012.
  • [3] Paul argues that nonetheless metaphysics uses the same forms of inference as scientists do to choose amongempirically equivalent theories; see Ladyman (2012) for a response. Lowe has less to say about how we are supposed to arrive at metaphysical knowledge, but like Sider (2001), thinks that the lack of an adequate epistemology of metaphysics should not stop metaphysicians getting on with their work. Both of them argue that such alack does not stop mathematicians or scientists, but of course the differences are that, first, mathematicians andscientists agree about the basic truths they have established, and secondly, we do in fact know a lot about howthey establish them, whereas in the case of metaphysics there is no common core of metaphysical knowledge norany reliable methods analogous to proof in mathematics or experiment in science.
  • [4] Thanks to Galen Strawson for suggesting the latter clause in the light of this passage from and similar in Hume(1740/1975).
  • [5] They say analytic metaphysics should be discontinued but they have in mind metaphysical inquiry that doesnot make contact with science, not metaphysics tout court. The term ‘analytic metaphysics’ names a contingenthistorical community of philosophers and their writings (see section 2.2).
  • [6] Korman (2014) explains how eliminativism about ordinary objects is rivalled by the view there are many moreobjects than common sense or science recognises. (The extensive bibliography makes no mention of the realpatterns criterion for distinguishing real objects from spurious composite objects.) See also Wilson 2008 forobjections to the metaphysics of composition.
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