Philosophical Studies

, Volume 160, Issue 1, pp 1–29 | Cite as

Metaphysics as modeling: the handmaiden’s tale

  • L. A. PaulEmail author


Critics of contemporary metaphysics argue that it attempts to do the hard work of science from the ease of the armchair. Physics, not metaphysics, tells us about the fundamental facts of the world, and empirical psychology is best placed to reveal the content of our concepts about the world. Exploring and understanding the world through metaphysical reflection is obsolete. In this paper, I will show why this critique of metaphysics fails, arguing that metaphysical methods used to make claims about the world are similar to scientific methods used to make claims about the world, but that the subjects of metaphysics are not the subjects of science. Those who argue that metaphysics uses a problematic methodology to make claims about subjects better covered by natural science get the situation exactly the wrong way around: metaphysics has a distinctive subject matter, not a distinctive methodology. The questions metaphysicians address are different from those of scientists, but the methods employed to develop and select theories are similar. In the first section of the paper, I will describe the sort of subject matter that metaphysics tends to engage with. In the second section of the paper, I will show how metaphysical theories are classes of models and discuss the roles of experience, common sense and thought experiments in the construction and evaluation of such models. Finally, in the last section I will discuss the way these methodological points help us to understand the metaphysical project. Getting the right account of the metaphysical method allows us to better understand the relationship between science and metaphysics, to explain why doing metaphysics successfully involves having a range of different theories (instead of consensus on a single theory), to understand the role of thought experiments involving fictional worlds, and to situate metaphysical realism in a scientifically realist context.


Metaphysics Methodology Science Models Inference to the best explanation Intuitions Common sense Kant Theories Empirical equivalence Simplicity Theoretical virtues Explanation 



Thanks are due to Robert Adams, Ross Cameron, Richard Healey, Chris Hitchcock, James Ladyman, Jonathan Schaffer, Eric Schliesser, Michael Strevens, Tuomas Tahko, Peter van Inwagen and Peter Godfrey-Smith for discussion.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA

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