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Science, metaphysics and method


While there are many examples of metaphysical theorising being heuristically and intellectually important in the progress of scientific knowledge, many people wonder how metaphysics not closely informed and inspired by empirical science could lead to rival or even supplementary knowledge about the world. This paper assesses the merits of a popular defence of the a priori methodology of metaphysics that goes as follows. The first task of the metaphysician, like the scientist, is to construct a hypothesis that accounts for the phenomena in question. It is then argued that among the possible metaphysical theories, the empirical evidence underdetermines the right one, just as the empirical evidence underdetermines the right scientific theory. In the latter case it is widely agreed that we must break the underdetermination by appeal to theoretical virtues, and this is just what should be and largely is done in metaphysics. This is part of a more general line of argument that defends metaphysics on the basis of its alleged continuity with highly theoretical science. In what follows metaphysics and theoretical science are compared in order to see whether the above style of defence of a priori metaphysics is successful.

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  1. 1.

    See Strawson (1959) for his distinction between descriptive and speculative metaphysics. For a contemporary metaphysician who is clear about the ambitions of metaphysics in this regard see Sider (2011).

  2. 2.

    Of course, others such as Van Fraassen (2002) and Price (2009) reject metaphysics altogether.

  3. 3.

    In a symposium in this journal on van Fraassen’s The Empirical Stance I argued that he “understates the difficulties in constructing a coherent metaphysical theory that is compatible with known science” (2004, p. 133).

  4. 4.

    A good source for this view is Swoyer (1983) as well as Paul in this volume.

  5. 5.

    Of course, there is also lots of controversy about the status of metaphysics, see Chalmers et al. (2009).

  6. 6.

    See Psillos (1996). The discussion of scientific realism in this paper is much expanded in Ladyman (2002) and Ladyman and Ross (2007).

  7. 7.

    There are scientific realists such as Brian Ellis who adopt pragmatic accounts of truth but then much of the debate about scientific realism becomes moot, since, for example, the question of whether theoretical virtues are epistemically as well as pragmatically valuable collapses.

  8. 8.

    The notion of approximate truth is vital to the defense of scientific realism since no sensible realist believes that our best current theories are absolutely true. However, it is proved very difficult to arrive at a theory of approximate truth. We return to this issue below but for now note that it is not at all clear what approximate truth in metaphysics would amount to whereas in the scientific case we can always fall back on approximate empirical adequacy.

  9. 9.

    A version of this folklore is presented with due recognition that it is a great simplification of the real history in Callender (2011). Price (2009) criticizes the claim that Quine made metaphysics respectable. Friedman (1999) develops a new historiography of the demise of logical positivism.

  10. 10.

    The EPR paper made explicit these issues that are beautifully explained in Redhead (1987).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, Maudlin (1990) and Hoefer (1996).

  12. 12.

    See French and Krause (2006) and for a dissenting view Saunders (2006).

  13. 13.

    See Hull (1967) for an early influential account. The radical metaphysical implications of evolutionary biology for individuation were noted earlier by in.

  14. 14.

    Of course this is only the first-order subject matter and much work in metaphysics addresses higher-order questions.

  15. 15.

    An anonymous referee objects that high-level ontology is important in high-level science and hence that the debate about statues and lumps of clay ought not to be dismissed so lightly. The relationship between the ontologies of the special sciences and fundamental physics is indeed important and interesting but the metaphysical debate about whether statues co-exist with lumps of clay is liable to shed no light on the former issue since the latter debate pays no attention to dynamics, regime and scale all of which are fundamental to accounts of composition in science (see Ladyman and Ross 2007, Chap. 1).

  16. 16.

    See Psillos (1996) for an account of the explanationist defence of scientific realism that originates with Richard Boyd and others. The underdetermination argument and realist responses to it are discussed with great care in Kukla (1998). My own account is in Ladyman (2002, Chap. 6).

  17. 17.

    An anonymous referee objects that explanationists’ paradigm cases are from (largely) non-predictive sciences such as evolutionary biology. It is certainly true that much of evolutionary biology is not predictive and seeks to reconstruct and explain the history of life on Earth. However, evolutionary biology is replete with successful predictions. For example: Darwin himself successfully predicted that human ancestors arose in Africa based on homologies with African apes; theory successfully predicted higher mutation rates for organisms in heterogeneous and rapidly changing environments (Oliver et al. 2000); theory predicts that genealogy there should be all manner of transitional forms subsequently unearthed; theory predicts that homologies in phylogeny will be accompanied by homologies in genealogy; and finally more prosaically, evolutionary biology predicts there will be no evidence pre-Cambrian rabbits.


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Versions of this paper were presented at the Metaphysics of Science conference in Melbourne in 2007, the British Society for the Philosophy of Science conference in 2009, and at the universities of East Anglia and Oxford. I am very grateful to Alexander Bird, George Darby, Steven French, Leon Horsten, Phyllis McKay Illari, Alyssa Ney, Samir Okasha, Laurie Paul, Barry Loewer, Damian Veal and anonymous referees for this journal for comments, discussions and criticisms.

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Ladyman, J. Science, metaphysics and method. Philos Stud 160, 31–51 (2012).

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  • Metaphysics
  • IBE
  • Underdetermination
  • Scientific realism