Defending stance voluntarism


In this paper, I argue that stance voluntarism is a coherent and useful view for understanding debates about the ontological commitments warranted by science. To do so, I first engage in a defensive move: I rescue stance voluntarism from what I take to be the most pressing objection to have emerged in recent literature, which I call the ‘irrationality objection’. According to this objection, an agent courts irrationality by simultaneously holding an epistemic stance and believing that stance voluntarism is true. I argue that this objection is based on a misunderstanding of stance voluntarism and the kinds of reasons that agents take themselves to have for their adopted stances. I then make the positive contention that we can expect the idea of stance voluntarism, thus saved, to not only be a defensible, but also a useful framework for understanding ontological disputes within science. I do this by presenting a case study from contemporary cosmology in which it is so. Combining these two claims, I argue that stance voluntarism is a coherent and useful view for understanding some ongoing disputes about ontology within scientific contexts.

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  1. 1.

    It is worth noting that the literature contains references to both the ‘empirical’ and the ‘empiricist’ stance. These are simply two terms for the same stance (as originally advocated by van Fraassen). I will therefore use the two terms interchangeably.

  2. 2.

    My main goal in this paper is to defend stance voluntarism as coherent and useful by its own lights. As such, this paper will not question many of the key assumptions of the voluntarist position, as outlined in this section. Several of the assumptions described here—such as van Fraassen’s characterisation of rationality, or the claim that the deep differences between empiricists and realists is best understood as a difference in stances—are debatable. However, a thorough examination and critical evaluation of these assumptions is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, my main concern is to consider whether there is any tension between the assumptions of voluntarism and the commitments of the individual who adopts a particular stance.

  3. 3.

    Of course, van Fraassen rightly notes that ‘empiricism’ is not a single position, but rather a ‘tradition’ comprising a range of empiricist positions. However, for the purposes of this paper I will generally treat empiricism as if it were a single position. Or rather (following Chakravartty 2017, pp. 47–48) I will assume that the empirical stance, described below, is characteristic of a range of empiricist positions, even if it remains somewhat idiosyncratic to define empiricism in terms of stances. Similarly, the positions typical of the ‘metaphysical stance’ (e.g. versions of scientific realism) will be varied. There may be versions of empiricism that are not well characterised by the empirical stance, just as there may be versions of scientific realism that are not well characterised by the metaphysical stance. I do not think that anything about my response to the irrationality objection rests on precisely which positions fall under these stances, though of course the whole debate may be less interesting if very few positions are well characterised by these stances (I return to this last point, briefly, in Sect. 4).

  4. 4.

    It is not clear to me that this follows from the commitments of stance voluntarism, at least as I have articulated them above. It would certainly follow if commitment to stance voluntarism depends on adopting a particular stance. This, perhaps, is a plausible interpretation of the stance voluntarist’s views. However, I do not assume this here. Furthermore, I do not think that it will matter for the main argument of this paper, which concerns debates over scientific ontology—debates that simply assume a voluntarist perspective (with or without ultimate justification).

  5. 5.

    The problem Steup discusses here—the tension between voluntarism and determinism—seems to me to only be a problem for voluntarism construed as the view that we have voluntary control over our beliefs or (in the case of stance voluntarism) the stances we adopt. That is, it is a problem for voluntarism as a claim that we could freely choose different beliefs. This issue is largely perpendicular to the question of what beliefs are rationally permissible. As such, I will not devote further space to it here.

  6. 6.

    That said, I do think that the analysis of stance voluntarism that follows suggests that the empiricist has the resources to characterise their stance in a coherent way, as long as the notion of non-propositional stances makes sense. If stances are not just reducible to a set of explicit beliefs or commitments, then we can’t fault the empiricist for reserving judgement with respect to \(E_{k}\), while seeming to act in accordance with it when it comes to other propositions. As for whether the empiricist must engage in theorising that cannot be empirically justified, I would suggest that this may be unavoidable, but that this need not be in conflict with their adopting an anti-metaphysical attitude with respect to a particular epistemic project (such as ontological theorising about scientific theories).

  7. 7.

    Indeed, since this applies to any stance among the permissible ‘rational’ options, it seems that they must further give up on adopting any particular stance in permissive cases.

  8. 8.

    By ‘meta-stance level’ I simply mean a level above individual stances, ‘external’ to any particular stance that one might adopt. The meta-stance level is the level at which different stances can be compared from the perspective of a person who has not yet committed to any particular stance. In contrast, the stance level is just the level of a particular stance. Someone who has adopted a stance can have reasons that are ‘internal’ to their stance in that they are based upon, or justified by, that stance. For example, the adopter of the metaphysical stance might cite the truth-indicative nature of explanatory virtues as a reason for using such virtues as a guide to theory choice and ontological commitments.

  9. 9.

    In the reverse case, where (4) applies at the meta-stance level and (5) applies at the stance level, obviously they would reject both. However, this case isn’t very interesting since nobody is likely to understand the voluntarist this way.

  10. 10.

    By ‘inflationary theories’, I mean cosmological theories according to which the very early universe underwent a period of extremely rapid expansion. During this period, a tiny region of space would have ‘stretched’ to the size of the observable universe within a fraction of a second. According to some theories of inflation, different regions stopped expanding in this way at different times, creating different ‘bubble’ or ‘pocket’ universes separated by regions that were still undergoing inflation. These bubbles could have different ‘fundamental’ constants and hence different effective laws of physics. These bubbles are different universes within the inflationary multiverse. The details of the precise inflationary mechanisms for the production of multiple universes are not important here. For a good introductory discussion of the string landscape, see Susskind (2007, pp. 247–265). For a discussion of the requisite inflationary proposals, and their relation to the string landscape, see Linde (2007, pp. 127–149).

  11. 11.

    This, of course, is not always the case. For example, Stanford (2006, pp. 4–5) considers whether or not we should be realists about the story told by inflationary theories. I do not mean to claim that realist–empiricist debates do not touch on such issues. I simply wish to contrast the focus of multiverse debates over the AP with the cases that are usually seen as paradigmatic of the realist–empiricist debate (e.g. the existence of electrons, or quarks).

  12. 12.

    Indeed, the conservative stance may well be a version of the empirical stance, while the liberal stance may well be a version of the metaphysical stance. It seems that this will just depend on how narrow we take stances to be—a very narrow characterisation of stances might leave each individual with their own stances, which bear strong relations to the stances held by others with similar views, while a very broad characterisation of stances might, for example, mean that the empirical stance encompasses all empiricists. I don’t wish to argue for a particular way of carving up stances here. Furthermore, I don’t think much rests on whether or not we take the conservative (liberal) stance to be the same as, or simply related to, the empirical (metaphysical) stance. The point I want to make is that attributing certain stances to the various interlocutors in this debate helps us explain their long-standing and seemingly intractable disagreement.


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Elder, J. Defending stance voluntarism. Philos Stud 176, 3019–3039 (2019).

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  • Stance voluntarism
  • Epistemic stances
  • Empiricism
  • Scientific rationality
  • Scientific ontology
  • Cosmology