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Keep the chickens cooped: the epistemic inadequacy of free range metaphysics

Abstract

This paper aims to better motivate the naturalization of metaphysics by identifying and criticizing a class of theories I call ’free range metaphysics’. I argue that free range metaphysics is epistemically inadequate because the constraints on its content—consistency, simplicity, intuitive plausibility, and explanatory power—are insufficiently robust and justificatory. However, since free range metaphysics yields clarity-conducive techniques, incubates science, and produces conceptual and formal tools useful for scientifically engaged philosophy, I do not recommend its discontinuation. I do recommend, however, ending the discipline’s bad faith. That is, I urge that free range metaphysics not be taken to have fully satisfactory epistemic credentials over and above its pragmatic ones.

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Notes

  1. See Callender (2011), French (2014), French and McKenzie (2012), Maclaurin and Dyke (2012), Ladyman et al. (2013), and Morganti (2013).

  2. On scientific metaphysics, see Calosi and Morganti (2016), Dorato (2015), Dorato and Morganti (2013), Ereshefsky (2010), Ereshefsky and Pedroso (2013), Kistler (2010), Loewer (2012), Maudlin (2007), Morganti (2008), Ney (2012), Ney and Albert (2013), Norton (2015), Pradeu and Guay (2015), Ruetsche (2011), Waters (2017), and the other contributions to this issue.

  3. I thank Jesse Prinz for this last point.

  4. An anonymous reviewer brings to my attention a possible comparison between free range metaphysics and pure mathematics. However, I think the two are unlike one another in some important respects. First, while free range metaphysics is not a priori (see Sect. 2.4 below), I take pure mathematics to be—not in the naive sense of it being completely independent of experience, but in the sense that it proceeds from the armchair, without being substantially constrained by empirical beliefs or evidence. Second, I take free range metaphysics to make substantive claims about the world; I take pure mathematics not to. However, I don’t have the space to defend these contentious claims about mathematics here.

  5. I do not mean to suggest that the topic makes a metaphysical theory free range or otherwise. It is, rather, a matter of how the theory is constructed. Granted, there may be some metaphysical topics that belong to free range metaphysics necessarily—topics that science has no bearing on in principle. It would be difficult to know which topics science cannot speak to in principle, since the course of inquiry is unpredictable and since our modal judgments about the capacities of science are not very reliable (see Ladyman et al. 2007, p. 16). But we can say, for instance, that the nature of the forms belongs necessarily to free range metaphysics. Still, it remains the case that metaphysical inquiries that investigate topics necessarily alien to science are free range insofar as they proceed independently of science.

    The topic of investigation is also important to the extent that it constrains the process of naturalization. Whether there are presently discoverable points of contact between science and some metaphysical theory depends, among other things, on the topic of the metaphysical theory. In particular, it depends on whether the domain of science overlaps with the domain of the metaphysical theory, or whether any scientific evidence is relevant to the metaphysical subject-matter, or whether scientific practices or concepts or heuristics can be usefully applied in our investigations of the metaphysical subject-matter. So the topic of inquiry partly determines whether some metaphysical theory can be naturalized or not. Still, whether it is naturalized or not depends on the actual methods used in its formulation.

  6. Bennett (2009) argues that, in certain cases, the criteria do not much help with theory selection. She shows that in some metaphysical debates “there are few grounds for choosing” between rival theories, because measures of simplicity trade off against one another and because the problems that arise for one arise for the other in one form or another (original emphasis, 2009, p. 73). In those cases, she claims, we have “little justification” for believing either view (2009, p. 42). Her claim is localized to the particular metaphysical debates she takes pains to describe. My claim here is broader. Moreover, my argument focuses not on trade-offs of simplicity or pervasive problems, but on the weakness of the theoretical constraints on free range metaphysics.

  7. Compare Kriegel (2013). Kriegel argues that in revisionary metaphysics, what we take to be theoretical virtues (including, inter alia, simplicity and intuitiveness) fail to be truth-conducive. By contrast, my present concern is not with truth-conduciveness, but rather, with the aptness of such virtues (or constraints, in my terminology) to robustly constrain theoretical content and secure epistemic warrant.

  8. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  9. Note that the apple theory, while it is a metaphysical theory of sorts, isn’t a serious metaphysical theory. It is not meant to be reflective of actual metaphysical practice. Actual metaphysical theories are subject to further constraints. So the example does not commit me to any assumptions about the methods or aims of metaphysics. Rather, it is an example of a theory that we explicitly hold accountable only to the consistency constraint, which allows us to isolate and evaluate that constraint.

  10. Of course, the success of the demonstration hinges on our accepting the evidence of our senses. I assume that we should.

  11. There is, of course, a whole literature on intuition (see Chudnoff 2014 for an overview). At this juncture, I don’t mean to commit to any view of what intuitions are or what the term means—I’m just stipulating.

  12. Dorr (2010) claims that intuition-talk by metaphysicians is a kind of humble rhetoric that signals assumptions, rather than being evidential. See Eklund (2013) and Maclaurin and Dyke (2012) for replies.

  13. See Devitt (2012) for a critical response to some of this work.

  14. One might object: it is not clear that there is a dedicated module for scientific intuition, either — a module that would have been beneficial for individual survival and reproduction. I thank an anonymous reviewer for the objection. I agree that there is not obviously a sui generis module for scientific intuition. But scientific theories do not rest on some scientific analog of metaphysical intuition. While some metaphysical speculation rests on metaphysical intuition, scientific theory typically does not bottom out in scientific intuition. Rather, it rests on evidence that we gather using capacities that we do have evolved neural systems for: perceptual systems, systems that enable action and intervention, and so forth.

  15. For further arguments against the evidential value of metaphysical intuitions, see Kriegel (2013).

  16. For this point, I thank an audience member at my presentation of this work at the Canadian Philosophical Association Annual Congress on May 31, 2015 in Ottawa.

  17. I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  18. Note that this argument is not probabilistic. It makes no claim about the probability of current or future metaphysical intuitions turning out to be false. It simply denounces a form of evidence on the basis of its systematic unreliability. So the base rate fallacy does not threaten here.

  19. See Ladyman (2012) for a comparison of the role of explanation in metaphysics and in science.

  20. I say ‘putatively explain’ in case the reader thinks explanations must be factive. If they must be factive, then there is an epistemic problem with regard to the conditions under which we can know something to be an explanation. But at any rate, what we care about is putative explanations, since it will be those that constrain our theories. We will permit into the theory what we take to be explanatory.

  21. While Salmon and Kitcher account for scientific explanation, the central thrust of their views might help us flesh out how metaphysical explanation can be lovely in Lipton’s sense.

  22. For this point, I thank an audience member at my talk “No Escape for No Miracles: The No-Miracles Argument and The Base-Rate Fallacy” at the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of ScienceAnnual Meeting on May 28, 2016 in Calgary.

  23. That is why scientific theories, such as Darwin’s evolutionary theory, whose success is primarily a function of their explanatory power, are not free range theories.

  24. Note that my use of the phrase ‘collateral benefits’ here echoes Maclaurin and Dyke (2012).

  25. The unpublished paper is called On the Relation Between Philosophy and Science and can be found at the following URL: http://petergodfreysmith.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/PhilosophyScience_PGS_2013_C.pdf.

  26. French made this remark following his talk “Between Humeanism and Dispostionalism; or, How to Construct a Modal Framework for Modern Science by Appropriating Metaphysical Devices” at the conference New Trends in the Metaphysics of Science on December 17, 2015.

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Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Michael Devitt, Graham Priest, David Papineau, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Jesse Prinz, Barbara Montero, Stephen Neale, Yuval Abrams, Cosim Sayid, Derek Skillings, Jake Quilty-Dunn, Ross Colebrook, Kyle Blanchette, and Dustin Olson for invaluable feedback and helpful discussions of this work. I also thank my anonymous reviewers for their careful and insightful comments, from which this paper benefited greatly. Thanks to audiences at my presentations of this work at the Canadian Philosophical Association Annual Congress, May 31, 2015, in Ottawa and at New Trends in the Metaphysics of Science, December 16, 2015, in Paris. I would also like to thank the other presenters at New Trends in the Metaphysics of Science, whose illuminating and informative presentations shaped both this paper and my related work. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, award #752-2012-0363.

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Bryant, A. Keep the chickens cooped: the epistemic inadequacy of free range metaphysics. Synthese 197, 1867–1887 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1398-8

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Keywords

  • Naturalized metaphysics
  • Scientific metaphysics
  • Metametaphysics
  • Epistemology of metaphysics
  • Theoretical constraint
  • Simplicity
  • Intuition
  • Explanation