An apology for every thing must go: metaphysics naturalized

The somewhat infamous critique of metaphysics in ETMG differs from the logical positivist critique of metaphysics, both by identifying different problems with metaphysics, and correspondingly by proposing a different remedy. The logical positivists argued that metaphysics is meaningless and should be eliminated. Statements that are empirically unverifiable are metaphysical and have no role in science and philosophy. On the other hand, for Ladyman and Ross metaphysical statements are not meaningless, and metaphysical and scientific thought overlap. However, they argue that the prevailing methodology of current metaphysics, based on applying a kind of cost-benefit analysis to metaphysical hypotheses that are generated without regard to the related science, makes it both unlikely to achieve its own goals, and irrelevant to science, and to those interested in using it to better understand the world. It follows that metaphysics should not be abolished but reformed. In sum, they claim analytic metaphysics is neo-Scholastic, in the pejorative sense of being inward looking, and should be naturalized. That is not to say that they advocate answering all the same questions that are asked by analytic metaphysicians by different means, since they make it clear that they regard some of those questions as meaningful, but as making insufficient contact with reality to be worth entertaining. For example, the question as to under what conditions if any simples, understood as partless particles of matter, compose composites is meaningful, but, since there are no such simples according to our best science, it is pointless for anyone whose goal is to understand reality.[1] On the other hand, the lump/statue debate makes contact with reality in the way ordinary language philosophy does, that is, by addressing the reality of linguistics.[2] It is perfectly possible to generate meaningful discourses about fictional matters. Requiring that metaphysics be meaningful is not a strong constraint.[3]

Even if we restrict ourselves to meaningful questions that everyone agrees are about concrete reality, there may not be any way to answer them. For example, there is no way to know how many hairs Julius Caesar had on his head when he died, and there are many questions about the region of the universe outside our past light cone that we cannot answer because we cannot be in causal contact with the relevant facts.[4] As Alyssa Ney (2014, 133) says, verificationism about truth or meaning may be implausible, but that does not refute verificationism about knowledge, according to which the answers to metaphysical questions are unknowable because empirically unverifiable. What is at issue is the subject matter and methodology, not the meaningfulness of metaphysics.

  • [1] The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory of fields that exhibit particle-like behavior, and it cannot beinterpreted in terms of anything like classical atomism.
  • [2] Thanks to Galen Strawson for this example.
  • [3] Cf. Dan Dennett (2013) on the study of variants of chess that nobody plays and his quip that “if something isnot worth doing it is not worth doing well.”
  • [4] One does not have to adhere to a causal theory of knowledge to accept that trivial contingent empirical truthscannot be known other than by evidence to which they are causally connected.
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