Monday, September 23, 2013

Anti-metaphysical musings

I have been looking recently at some material relating to "the metaphysics wars", and thought it worthwhile to jot down a few notes.

No doubt, my general position would be characterized by those with other views as scientistic. It is also anti-metaphysical in that I don't see the traditional philosophical discipline of metaphysics as having much point these days.

I don't deny that there are very interesting questions in the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of logic which may be characterized as metaphysical. The meta-thinking that goes on at the margins of physics, other sciences and mathematics, etc. is necessary and valuable.

But somehow, when such thinking moves away from the discipline in question and becomes more generally philosophical, problems arise.

Timothy Williamson is perhaps the most powerful and impressive advocate for this broader kind of metaphysics (and analytic philosophy generally). As an avowedly non-religious person, he can't be dismissed as having ulterior motives of a religious nature; and, being at home with formal – and specifically modal – logic, he can't be dismissed as natural language-bound or as being daunted in any way by technical rigor.

Some of the points he makes in this interview are good ones – such as noting the light that modal logic can undoubtedly throw on the workings and nature of natural language (via Montague grammar, for example), and perhaps also on the foundations of set theory – but I have to say that I am strongly inclined to reject the basic thrust of his argument in defense of metaphysics, and, by extension, philosophy (as he understands it).

Essentially the questions he seems most interested in are reminiscent of medieval scholasticism. I too have great respect for thinkers such as Avicenna (to whom he refers approvingly) and respect also for more recent – and more mathematically sophisticated – exponents of that general tradition of thought (such as Bolzano, to whom he also refers), but it seems to me that it is now incumbent upon any thinkers who aspire to deal with questions of what there is in a fundamental sense to base their accounts – at least in large part – on contemporary physics; or on mathematics if they are restricting their focus to mathematical realities.

Williamson seeks to defend the relative independence of his core preoccupations from science by invoking the old shibboleths, scientism and reductionism, and rejecting naturalism as a confused and inadequate concept.

I grant that mathematics does pose problems for advocates of strong forms of naturalism and empiricism, and there are real unresolved issues in the philosophy of mathematics. But my preference is to address these issues in a broadly scientific and mathematical context rather than in a purely logical or philosophical one, or – worse – not to address them at all and instead merely to use them as a kind of justification or license for logical excess and metaphysical self-indulgence.

Williamson cites Quine as an example of scientistic naturalism.

"Quine privileged natural science, and in particular physics, over all other forms of inquiry, to the point of not taking very seriously any theory that couldn't be reduced to part of natural science."

Williamson's view, by contrast, more or less allows the analytic metaphysician carte blanche, and Williamson's own approach to analytic metaphysics is clearly – in my view at any rate – insufficiently constrained and guided by science.

Here, for example, is an extract from an old interview in which he explains his developing views:

"My work on vagueness and ontology doesn’t really concern ontology. Probably my most distinctive ontological commitment comes from my defence of a controversial principle in logic known as the Barcan formula, named after the American logician Ruth Barcan Marcus, who first stated it. An application of this principle is that since Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy could have had a child (although they actually didn’t), there is something that could have been a child of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. On my view, it is neither a child nor a collection of atoms, but rather something that merely could have been a child, made out of atoms, but actually has no location in space and time. The argument can be multiplied, so there actually are infinitely many things that could have been located in space and time but aren’t. It takes quite a bit of work to show that the Barcan formula is better than the alternatives! That’s what my next book will be on. The working title is Ontological Rigidity."

The book was actually called Modal Logic as Metaphysics, and this is how he recently stated its main point:

"I am ... saying that it is necessary what there is. Necessarily everything is necessarily something. There could not have been more or fewer things than there actually are, and which particular things there are could not have been different. What is contingent is only what properties those things have, and what relations they have to each other. I call that view necessitism. Its denial is contingentism. Who knows how far back necessitism goes? Maybe Parmenides was some sort of necessitist..."

On the face of it, talking about (apparently countable) things (minus their properties and relations!) as given strikes me as breathtakingly na├»ve in the context of a physics-based understanding of reality. I can only imagine that Williamson is – like the medieval scholastics – implicitly asserting a privileged role for logic.

Quine's assertion of a privileged role for physics makes a lot more sense to me.

Admittedly I haven't looked at Williamson's ideas in any depth, but what I have seen so far – and what he says in this latest interview – really makes me question whether it would be worth the effort. I am intrigued, however, by what is driving such thinkers.

Strangely, Williamson appears not to be quite sure whether his latest work is meaningful or not – or at least seems unwilling to commit himself on the matter. There is (don't you think?) just a touch of arrogance in this passage (from Chapter One of Modal Logic as Metaphysics)?

"This book compares necessitism and contingentism. Which is true? Of course the question has a false presupposition if the definitions of 'necessitism' and 'contingentism' lack meaning or content. But if every enquiry must first establish its own meaningfulness we are on an infinite regress, since the enquiry into the meaningfulness of the previous enquiry must first enquire into its own meaningfulness, and so on. Better to act on the assumption of intelligibility: readers can decide for themselves whether they understand the book as they go along, and recycle it if they don't."

This passage is a combination of facile reasoning and rhetorical sleight of hand. By using the word 'understand' in the final sentence, he subtly shifts the focus to the reader's possible inadequacy and away from the original question concerning the work's meaningfulness.

In fact, I am tempted to see Williamson's work as emblematic of a broader trend. On the basis of my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the history of the relevant intellectual cultures, I discern, since the middle years of the 20th century, a disturbing falling off in intellectual seriousness in secular circles accompanied by an equally disturbing rise in anti-scientific name-calling and credulity amongst those thinkers who remain favorably disposed towards religion.

I'll finish here with a few comments about Paul Horwich, Williamson's great philosophical antagonist, whose deflationary views on truth I have referred to favorably in the past.

Horwich is opposed to the sort of traditional theoretical philosophy ('T-philosophy') which Williamson defends. I have made the point that, though I broadly accepted Horwich's account of truth, I doubted that his Wittgensteinian view of philosophy was compatible with a continuation of philosophy as an academic discipline. And, interestingly, Williamson makes a similar point in the recent interview.

"...Horwich didn’t explicitly call for T-philosophy not to be funded. I pointed out that if the picture of philosophy in his book were accurate, philosophy should be abolished. The reader encounters just two sorts of philosophy: irrational T-philosophy, and level-headed Wittgensteinian debunkers of T-philosophers. Philosophy is presented as an activity in which some people make a mess and others clear it up. Why on earth should taxpayers fund that? It looks as though we’d be better off simply abolishing the activity altogether."

Finally, I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) to learn recently that Horwich rejects naturalism, and even more unequivocally than Williamson does. He cites not only mathematical but also moral claims as a basis for his view.

Horwich is more thoroughly Wittgensteinian than I had previously thought.


  1. Wow ... Pigliucci ... metaphysics wars ... where do I join up?
    A lot to absorb in this post. Metaphysics: the king is dead; long live the king.

  2. Is there really a metaphysics-free zone from which one can safely take potshots at others? I don't think there is. At least not if one is saying more than "I don't like philosophy and I don't think it should be publicly funded". Mark's "physics-based understanding of reality" seems to me to resemble the quasi-Wittgensteinian view that philosophy's job is to show that language is all perfectly fine just as it is.

    What exactly is this physics-based view? I suppose it is that reality is no more than an assemblage of sub-atomic particles and (possibly) energy fields. But until this view is put on the table, I don't think we can debate whether philosophy's job is finished. Once it is articulated, it seems to me clear that physics does not replace philosophy.

    1. You can see it as taking potshots if you like, but I prefer to see what I'm doing here (and in some other posts) as criticizing the direction that analytic philosophy has taken in recent decades, and, in particular, voicing my reservations about the revival of more or less traditional metaphysics.

      As I made clear in the post, I am not denying that there are real and serious questions that you could characterize as metaphysical that need to be addressed. My point is simply that they should be addressed in the context of our best scientific knowledge, and I don't know that Williamson is doing this.

      Underlying my views (and all our views) are deep and complex assumptions about how (we think) the world really is. There is serious stuff here to sort out and discuss, and I don't have any easy answers.

      What I am trying to decide is whether the sort of thing that Williamson is doing (or Kripke did) helps. Though Williamson (like Kripke) avoids the absurdities of modal realism, I suspect that underlying their work are some basic assumptions which I do not share.

      You're right, I am sympathetic to the later Wittgenstein's approach to language, but obviously I don't share his somewhat mystical (as I see it) and anti-scientific attitude.

      Also I would emphasize that committing to a physics-based understanding of the fundamental components of the world (not an altogether radical or outlandish view, I would have thought) does not in any way preclude an appreciation of human life and value and the variety of scientific and other disciplines which constitute our intellectual heritage.

  3. OK, you make a better case for the defence than I made for the prosecution.

    I don't accept the idea that "science" alone gives us answers to all the problems that philosophy attempts to describe and deal with. Maybe you don't accept that either -- though to me you sound as though you do.

    There's one obvious problem with a physics-based ontology: so what happens to all the rest of the stuff in the universe? A mouse, taken at any one instant, can be seen as an assemblage of sub-atomic particles. But an instant later that assemblage has changed. A year later it has changed completely, but the mouse remains. Does physics deal with that problem?

    1. I agree that science can only provide answers to certain kinds of questions (even if the level of a person's or a culture's scientific knowledge or development will clearly shape the way many questions are conceived).

      Ethical and aesthetic disputes, for example, generally can't be resolved without extra-scientific input. Resolving them might require, for example, a prioritized set of values.

      I'm uncomfortable with your phrase "physics-based ontology". You seem to be positing in the mouse example a kind of (sub)atomistic materialism which doesn't do justice, in my opinion, to physics. Physics is more about processes than particles: it is simply the science that deals with the most fundamental processes of nature, isn't it?

      Of course, other sciences are necessary also to account for complex things like mice. (And for humans you need a wider range of disciplines, to encompass our cultural dimensions for example.)

      So I just don't see that there is a problem in accounting scientifically for your mouse's identity over time.

  4. There's no problem for building an ontology on science. There is a problem in building ontology on physics. You seemed to be arguing for a reductionist physics-based ontology. Maybe you weren't.

    I'm not sure about processes versus particles. I think of processes as the law-governed behaviour of powerful entities (particles, fields, whatever). Some I know would strip entities of powers and others would treat processes as fundamental. More metaphysics!

    1. All I was trying to say on the physics front is that if anyone wants to talk about the most fundamental levels of reality then in my view they will have to base what they are saying at least to some extent (and probably to a very large extent) on physics.

      Williamson (and some other logicians and philosophical metaphysicians) don't seem to be doing this, and this is the kind of metaphysics I am calling into question.

      I am happy to concede, by the way, that important questions in the philosophy of logic may be fruitfully pursued without input from physics.

      Also, for what it's worth, I don't see clear dividing lines between the different scientific disciplines, as they merge into each other in various ways.

  5. You may be interested in my book 'Why Philosophy Fails'