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Metaphysics as modeling: the handmaiden’s tale


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 Exploring and understanding the world through metaphysical reflection is obsolete.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.

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  1. Many of those who label themselves “naturalists” make this sort of objection. Recently, James Ladyman and Don Ross, with David Spurrett and John Collie (2007). While the book often mischaracterizes metaphysics, it nevertheless raises important methodological questions that need to be addressed.

  2. My subtitle is ironic. For a somewhat ancient context see Atwood (1985), a staple of Women’s Studies syllabuses in the 1980s and 1990s.

  3. Although I’ll usually write as though the divide between the subjects of science and metaphysics were sharp, it is in reality fuzzy, and moreover, it can move with conceptual changes and scientific revolutions. Also, although my focus is on philosophical reasoning used to draw conclusions about the nature of the external world, there is still an important role for conceptual analysis in philosophy, in particular, when doing the stage-setting for the rest of the philosophical theory. I’ll come back to both of these points throughout the ms.

  4. This is the place to make two more important caveats. (i) Although, for simplicity, I will speak as though I am making claims about all ways of doing metaphysics, I am not. Instead, I am giving an account of how one can legitimately engage in reasoning to substantive metaphysical conclusions that approximately captures the methodology of many contemporary metaphysical projects. There may be lots of metaphysical projects that don’t employ the methodology described here: such projects will need their own defense. In addition, I won’t have much to say about conceptual analysis or about the role of philosophy of language in doing metaphysical theorizing about the world, although I think it can be quite useful, especially when fashioning or refining models. (ii) I develop my view using the semantic approach to scientific theorizing, which is the dominant approach for philosophers of science, but my view doesn’t require the semantic approach. While the precise details would need to be fleshed out somewhat differently on a different account of scientific theorizing, my central claim, that most metaphysical claims about the world rely on inference to the best explanation, along with most of my subsidiary claims, would remain the same.

  5. As Eric Schliesser argues, this arrangement may be, at least in part, the result of what he calls “Newton’s Challenge” to systematic metaphysics. See Schliesser (2011).

  6. Psychologists sometimes take certain dispositions to make causal or other judgments to be innate. Such a view is not inconsistent with my view, since we might start with these innate dispositions and then develop our ideas or concepts based on experience. There might also be evolutionary success arguments supporting the inference to the veridicality of some of our innate inclinations.

  7. Lewis (2004).

  8. See Maudlin (2007), Albert (1996), Loewer (2004), Ney (forthcoming), Monton (2012), Healey (1991) and Paul (2012) for relevant discussion.

  9. Downes (1992, p.143).

  10. Godfrey-Smith (2006b, p. 727).

  11. Godfrey-Smith (2006b, p. 726). According to Godfrey-Smith, some of this sort of modeling is not captured by the semantic approach. I am not taking a stand on this controversial issue.

  12. Godfrey-Smith (2006b). Also see Martin Thompson-Jones, “Models and the Semantic View” and “Idealization and Abstraction: A Framework”, both unpublished, for excellent discussions of these topics.

  13. For example, Strevens (2008) discusses the way that unification accounts of explanation include simplicity as a desideratum for the model.

  14. Even those who wish to minimize the role of IBE in evolutionary biology can grant the importance of theoretical desiderata like simplicity in reasoning to conclusions about the nature of the world (see, for example, Sober 2008).

  15. We also sometimes use thought experiments as tests for models when doing conceptual analysis, and more generally when drawing out what we think we know about some feature of the world.

  16. The line between abstraction and idealization is often a blurry one.

  17. Van Inwagen (2002).

  18. Van Inwagen (1990, p. 94).

  19. For the claim that composition is contingent, see Cameron (2007).

  20. See chapter three of Hall and Paul’s Causation: A User’s Guide (2013) for a discussion and explication of preemption.

  21. This is something that contemporary metaphysicians could be a bit more careful about.

  22. It is also important to note that science relies on ordinary experience as well, to the extent that it relies on observation and experiment—including observation of effects of unobserved entities. Scientists still rely on experience to tell them about the theoretical or unobserved, even if the source of such experience requires heavy interpretation.

  23. This is too negative: I think there is some consensus about which descriptions are descriptions of possible worlds and which ones don’t refer (or refer to impossible worlds). But there is enough debate over crucial cases to make the worry stick.

  24. Russell (1988), p. 157.

  25. For a different view, see Ladyman’s contribution to this volume.

  26. Actually they’ll need something else here, since simples don’t eat, exactly.

  27. This is not to say that the nihilists don’t create new problems for themselves. For example, they need to work out the complex semantic details of their new interpretation of the reference of our language.

  28. In ethics, we use things like “killing babies is bad” as empirical data. In some cases, this can be rejected, but only at great cost to the attractiveness of a theory. There might be some cases where a reinterpretation of the empirical data might result in reinterpretation of general claims about empirical regularities without violating empirical adequacy. In this sort of case the empirical data are refined, not rejected. The view that killing a single baby is not bad if it saves a billion babies can be seen as a refinement of the general claim that killing babies is bad just as the view that in certain circumstances effects can occur simultaneously with their causes is a refinement of the general claim that causes precede their effects.

  29. This allows for the flexibility in designing possible worlds that Ichikawa and Jarvis (2009) points out we need in philosophical theorizing, and should also accommodate imagining, supposing, and conceiving in all its glorious variations. See Ichikawa and Jarvis (2009). I am also sympathetic to Jenkins’ (2008) arguments against Williamson: I agree with her view that modal epistemology is not reducible to counterfactual epistemology. Jenkins (2008).

  30. See, for example, Xu and Carey (1996).

  31. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, §1.4.7.

  32. Here I agree with Godfrey-Smith (2006a). However, Godfrey-Smith also argues that all of metaphysics should be thought of as toy modeling, and this I am not sympathetic to. While some metaphysics might involve toy modeling, most of it doesn’t. I see no reason to adopt this sort of antirealism about metaphysics, unless one wants to hold that all of the scientific models that incorporate metaphysical assumptions about causation, laws, persistence and the like are toy models as well. The antirealist or instrumentalist might well hold this. But the realist should demur.

  33. I’m indebted to suggestions from Peter Godfrey-Smith here.

  34. Friedman’s Dynamics of Reason is a lovely study of some of these sorts of cases (although Friedman uses the examples to defend the neoKantian idea that science depends on conventionally chosen constitutive frameworks). See Friedman (2001).

  35. One thing I’ve been glossing is whether there is still a basic ontological concept of space (or time, etc.) underlying the empirical concepts of absolute space and relative space. I am inclined to think there is. If there is, then truly revising the concept of space would require an even deeper conceptual revolution. One might use this point against the thesis that when science is complete we will have shown that everything is a member of the empirical realm.

  36. Friedman (2001) p. 89–90.

  37. Friedman (2001) p. 44. Truth in advertising compels me to note that I am using this quote for my own ends, since Friedman and I differ markedly on our attitudes towards the a priori and to metaphysics.

  38. Cf. Fraassen (1980).


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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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Paul, L.A. Metaphysics as modeling: the handmaiden’s tale. Philos Stud 160, 1–29 (2012).

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