every thing must go

 

Preface

This is a polemical book. One of its main contentions is that contemporary

analytic metaphysics, a professional activity engaged in by some extremely

intelligent and morally serious people, fails to qualify as part of the enlightened

pursuit of objective truth, and should be discontinued.We think it is impossible

to argue for a point like this without provoking some anger. Suggesting that

a group of highly trained professionals have been wasting their talents—and,

worse, sowing systematic confusion about the nature of the world, and how to

find out about it—isn’t something one can do in an entirely generous way. Let

us therefore stress that we wrote this book not in a spirit of hostility towards

philosophy or our fellow philosophers, but rather the opposite. We care a great

deal about philosophy, and are therefore distressed when we see its reputation

harmed by its engagement with projects and styles of reasoning we believe bring

it into disrepute, especially among scientists. We recognize that we may be

regarded as a bit rough on some other philosophers, but our targets are people

with considerable influence rather than novitiates. We think the current degree

of dominance of analytic metaphysics within philosophy is detrimental to the

health of the subject, and make no apologies for trying to counter it.

1

In Defence of Scientism

The revival ofmetaphysics after the implosion of logical positivismwas accom-

panied by the ascendancy of naturalism in philosophy, and so it seemed obvious

to many that metaphysics ought not to be ‘revisionary’ but ‘descriptive’ (in Peter

Strawson’s terminology, 1959). That is, rather than metaphysicians using ratio-

nal intuition to work out exactly how the absolute comes to self-consciousness,

they ought instead to turn to science and concentrate on explicating the deep

structural claims about the nature of reality implicit in our best theories. So, for

example, Special Relativity ought to dictate the metaphysics of time, quantum

physics the metaphysics of substance, and chemistry and evolutionary biology

the metaphysics of natural kinds. However, careful work by various philosophers

of science has shown us that this task is not straightforward because science,

usually and perhaps always, underdetermines the metaphysical answers we are

seeking. (See French 1998, 93). Many people have taken this in their stride and

set about exploring the various options that are available. Much excellent work

has resulted.⁹ However, there has also been another result of the recognition that

science doesn’t wear metaphysics on its sleeve, namely the resurgence of the kind

of metaphysics that floats entirely free of science. Initially granting themselves

permission to do a bit of metaphysics that seemed closely tied to, perhaps even

important to, the success of the scientific project, increasing numbers of philoso-

phers lost their positivistic spirit. The result has been the rise to dominance of

projects in analytic metaphysics that have almost nothing to do with (actual)

science. Hence there are now, once again, esoteric debates about substance,

universals, identity, time, properties, and so on, which make little or no reference

to science, and worse, which seem to presuppose that science must be irrelevant

to their resolution. They are based on prioritizing armchair intuitions about the

nature of the universe over scientific discoveries. Attaching epistemic significance

to metaphysical intuitions is anti-naturalist for two reasons. First, it requires

ignoring the fact that science, especially physics, has shown us that the universe

is very strange to our inherited conception of what it is like. Second, it requires

ignoring central implications of evolutionary theory, and of the cognitive and

behavioural sciences, concerning the nature of our minds.

1.2.1 Intuitions and common sense in metaphysics

The idea that intuitions are guides to truth, and that they constitute the basic

data for philosophy, is of course part of the Platonic and Cartesian rationalist

tradition.¹⁰ However, we have grounds that Plato and Descartes lacked for

thinking that much of what people find intuitive is not innate, but is rather a

developmental and educational achievement. What counts as intuitive depends

partly on our ontogenetic cognitive makeup and partly on culturally specific

learning. Intuitions are the basis for, and are reinforced and modified by,

everyday practical heuristics for getting around in the world under various

resource (including time) pressures, and navigating social games; they are not

cognitive gadgets designed to produce systematically worthwhile guidance in

either science or metaphysics. In light of the dependence of intuitions on species,

cultural, and individual learning histories, we should expect developmental and

cultural variation in what is taken to be intuitive, and this is just what we find. In

the case of judgements about causes, for example,Morris et al. (1995) report that

Chinese and American subjects differed with respect to how they spontaneously

allocated causal responsibility to agents versus environmental factors. Given

that the ‘common sense’ of many contemporary philosophers is shaped and

supplemented by ideas from classical physics, the locus of most metaphysical

discussions is an image of the world that sits unhappily between the manifest

image and an out of date scientific image.¹¹

 

While contemporary physics has become even more removed from common

sense than classical physics, we also have other reasons to doubt that our common

sense image of the world is an appropriate basis for metaphysical theorizing.

Evolution has endowed us with a generic theory or model of the physical world.

This is evident from experiments with very young children, who display surprise

and increased attention when physical objects fail to behave in standard ways. In

particular, they expect ordinary macroscopic objects to persist over time, and not

to be subject to fusion or fission (Spelke et al. 1995). For example, if a ball moves

behind a screen and then two balls emerge from the other side, or vice versa,

infants are astonished. We have been equipped with a conception of the nature

of physical objects which has been transformed into a foundational metaphysics

of individuals, and a combinatorial and compositional conception of reality that

is so deeply embedded in philosophy that it is shared as a system of ‘obvious’

presuppositions by metaphysicians who otherwise disagree profoundly.

 

This metaphysics was well suited to the corpuscularian natural philosophy of

Descartes, Boyle, Gassendi, and Locke. Indeed, the primary qualities of matter

which became the ontological basis of the mechanical philosophy are largely

properties which form part of the manifest image of the world bequeathed to

us by our natural history. That natural history has been a parochial one, in the

sense that we occupy a very restricted domain of space and time. We experience

events that last from around a tenth of a second to years. Collective historical

memory may expand that to centuries, but no longer. Similarly, spatial scales of

a millimetre to a few thousand miles are all that have concerned us until recently.

Yet science has made us aware of how limited our natural perspective is. Protons,

for example, have an effective diameter of around 10−15m, while the diameter of

the visible universe is more than 1019 times the radius of the Earth. The age of

the universe is supposed to be of the order of 10 billion years. Even more homely

sciences such as geology require us to adopt time scales that make all of human

history seem like a vanishingly brief event.

 

As LewisWolpert (1992) chronicles,modern science has consistently shown us

that extrapolating our pinched perspective across unfamiliar scales, magnitudes,

and spatial and temporal distances misleads us profoundly. Casual inspection

and measurement along scales we are used to suggest that we live in a Euclidean

space; General Relativity says that we do not. Most people, Wolpert reports, are

astounded to be told that there are more molecules in a glass of water than there

are glasses of water in the oceans, and more cells in one human finger than there

are people in the world (ibid. 5). Inability to grasp intuitively the vast time scales

on which natural selection works is almost certainly crucial to the success of

creationists in perpetuating foolish controversies about evolution (Kitcher 1982).

The problems stemming from unfamiliar measurement scales are just the tip of

an iceberg of divergences between everyday expectations and scientific findings.

No one’s intuitions, in advance of the relevant science, told them that white

light would turn out to have compound structure, that combustion primarily

involves something being taken up rather than given off (Wolpert 1992, 4), that

birds are the only living descendants of dinosaurs, or that Australia is presently

on its way to a collision with Alaska. AsWolpert notes, science typically explains

the familiar in terms of the unfamiliar. Thus he rightly says that ‘both the ideas

that science generates and the way in which science is carried out are entirely

counter-intuitive and against common sense—by which I mean that scientific

ideas cannot be acquired by simple inspection of phenomena and that they

are very often outside everyday experience’ (ibid. 1). He later strengthens the

point: ‘I would almost contend that if something fits with common sense it

almost certainly isn’t science’ (ibid. 11). B. F. Skinner characteristically avoids

all waffling on the issue: ‘What, after all, have we to show for non-scientific or

pre-scientific good judgment, or common sense, or the insights gained through

personal experience? It is science or nothing’ (Skinner 1971, 152–3).

 

Lewis famously advocated a metaphysical methodology based on subjecting

rival hypotheses to a cost–benefit analysis. Usually there are two kinds of cost

associated with accepting a metaphysical thesis. The first is accepting some kind

of entity into one’s ontology, for example, abstracta, possibilia, or a relation

of primitive resemblance. The second is relinquishing some intuitions, for

example, the intuition that causes antedate their effects, that dispositions reduce

to categorical bases, or that facts about identity over time supervene on facts

about instants of time. It is taken for granted that abandoning intuitions should

be regarded as a cost rather than a benefit. By contrast, as naturalists we are

not concerned with preserving intuitions at all, and argue for the wholescale

abandonment of those associated with the image of the world as composed of

little things, and indeed of the more basic intuition that there must be something

of which the world is made.

 

There are many examples of metaphysicians arguing against theories by

pointing to unintuitive consequences, or comparing theories on the basis of

the quantity and quality of the intuitions with which they conflict. Indeed,

proceeding this way is more or less standard. Often, what is described as intuitive

or counterintuitive is recondite. For example, L. A. Paul (2004, 171) discusses

the substance theory that makes the de re modal properties of objects primitive

consequences of their falling under the sortals that they do: ‘A statue is essentially

statue shaped because it falls under the statue-sort, so cannot persist through

remoulding into a pot’ (171). This view apparently has ‘intuitive appeal’, but

sadly, ‘any counterintuitive consequences of the view are difficult to explain

or make palatable’. The substance theory implies that two numerically distinct

objects such as a lump of bronze and a statue can share their matter and their

region, but this ‘is radically counterintuitive, for it seems to contradict our usual

way of thinking aboutmaterial objects as individuated by theirmatter and region’

(172). Such ways of thinking are not ‘usual’ except among metaphysicians and

we do not share them.

 

Paul says ‘[I]t seems, at least prima facie, that modal properties should super-

vene on the nonmodal properties shared by the statue and the lump’ (172).

This is the kind of claim that is regularly made in the metaphysics literature.

We have no idea whether it is true, and we reject the idea that such claims can

be used as data for metaphysical theorizing. Paul summarizes the problem for

the advocate of substance theory as follows: ‘This leaves him in the unfortunate

position of being able to marshal strong and plausible commonsense intuitions

to support his view but of being unable to accommodate these intuitions in

a philosophically respectable way’ (172). So according to Paul, metaphysics

proceeds by attempts to construct theories that are intuitive, commonsensical,

palatable, and philosophically respectable. The criteria of adequacy for meta-

physical systems have clearly come apart from anything to do with the truth.

Rather they are internal and peculiar to philosophy, they are semi-aesthetic,

and they have more in common with the virtues of story-writing than with

science.

In 1.1 we announced our resistance to the ‘domestication’ of science. It would

be easy to get almost any contemporary philosopher to agree that domestication

is discreditable if the home for which someone tries to make science tame is

a populist environment. Consider, for example, the minor industry that seeks

to make sense of quantum mechanics by analogies with Eastern mysticism.

This is obviously, in an intellectual context much less rigorous than that of

professional philosophy, an attempt to domesticate physics by explaining it in

terms of things that common sense thinks it comprehends. Few philosophers

will regard the gauzy analogies found in this genre as being of the slightest

metaphysical interest. Yet are quantum processes any more like those described

by Newtonian physics than they are like the temporal and spatial dislocations

imagined by mystics, which ground the popular comparisons? People who

know almost no formal physics are encouraged by populists to find quantum

mechanics less wild by comparing it to varieties of disembodiment. Logically,

this is little different from philosophers encouraging people who know a bit

of physics to make quantum accounts seem less bizarre by comparing them

to what they learned in A-level chemistry.²⁸ We might thus say that whereas

naturalistic metaphysics ought to be a branch of the philosophy of science, much

metaphysics that pays lip-service to naturalism is really philosophy of A-level

chemistry.

and then i got bored with the next parts.

 

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