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The scientific turn in metaphysics: a factualist approach


In a recent paper, Cumpa (Am Philos Q 51(4): 319–324, 2014) argues that a scientific turn in metaphysics requires the acceptance of a materialist criterion of fundamentality, according to which the most fundamental metaphysical category is the one that provides us with a reconciliation of the ordinary world and the physical universe. He concludes that the dominant category of substance cannot be the most fundamental category, for it does not satisfy this criterion of fundamentality. The most fundamental category is instead the category of fact. Although convincing, the defense of factualism over substantialism offered by Cumpa takes into account the case of classical physics without considering the physical universe of quantum mechanics. My aim in this paper is to offer a completion to Cumpa’s factualist approach. To achieve my aim, I show that substances cannot provide a satisfactory account of the relationship between the ordinary world and the physical universe even in the case of quantum mechanics, whereas a factualist approach does.

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  1. Roughly, (i) deflationist accounts reject the significance of metaphysical issues, e.g. by arguing that they are settled by choosing one language or another. (ii) Quinean accounts understand ontological questions (such as ‘do numbers exist?’) in terms of existentially quantified claims (such as ‘are there numbers?’), and take metaphysics to be the project of determining which quantified claims our best theories commit us to. (iii) Neo-Aristotelian accounts claim that the primary project of metaphysics is to determine what is real or what grounds what. For some discussions covering the major issues, see the articles collected in Chalmers et al. (2009).

  2. In Cumpa (forthcoming), Cumpa recognizes and addresses the problem.

  3. One may wonder whether a category should also be ‘primitive’—i.e. ‘not analyzable in simpler terms’—in order to be fundamental according to the materialist criterion of fundamentality (I am grateful to Shea Musgrave for pointing this out to me). I think this is correct, provided that the primitiveness of the fundamental category concerns the explanatory level, rather than ‘ontological simplicity’, or ‘independence’.

  4. One may notice that Cumpa does not consider some other approaches about the fundamental category of the world. Some philosophers, for instance, take processes as the most fundamental category [Whitehead (1929), Sellars (1981), and for a more recent defense of processes, Rescher (1996), and Seibt (2003,2009)]. Others argue in favor of simple abstract particulars—tropes—as the fundamental category of the world [see Williams (1953), Campbell (1990), and more recently Maurin (2002)]. That said, though the question as to whether and to what extent processes or tropes may account for the unification of the ordinary world and the physical universe is no doubt an important one, I will not discuss it further, as it is not strictly connected to the aim of this paper.

  5. More precisely, Sellars recognized two ways to characterize the “manifest image”. On the one hand, it is the framework in which the man becomes aware of himself as man-in-the-world. It is the framework in which, in other terms, he “encounters himself as man-in-the-world” (1963: p. 6] by evaluating his own thoughts by objective standards of correctness. In this first sense, the manifest image represents a kind of original image of the man, based on a quasi-historical dimension, where the transition from a pre-conceptual pattern of behavior to conceptual thinking appears as a new irreducible jump into awareness. On the other hand, besides this first account, a manifest image is characterized as the empirical and categorial refinement of the original image of man-in-the-world, instead of a determinate historical stage within the development of man’s conception of the world. In these terms, the manifest image exemplifies the result of the empirical and conceptual sophistication and refinement of the original image.

  6. Given the plurality of scientific theories and relation between the manifest and the scientific image, Sellars argues that the scientific image is a construct of a number of images, each of which is supported by the manifest world. Since the purpose of this paper is to offer a completion to Cumpa’s fact ontology, based on his own quest of a scientific turn in metaphysics, I set aside the issue concerning the way different scientific images hang together, composing a single unified scientific image of the world. This issue, broadly discussed in philosophy of science, transcends the object of this paper.

  7. The capacity of accounting for a synoptic view, in which the manifest view would be saved, is particularly important for Sellars when referred to the man, because “to the extent that the manifest does not survive in the synoptic view, to that extent man himself would not survive.” (Sellars 1963: p. 18).

  8. From now on, I will use Cumpa’s expressions “ordinary world” and “physical universe” instead of the Sellarsian terminology.

  9. There may well be other considerations in favor of a factualist approach to metaphysics. For a discussion of these issues and a defense of facts, see Tegtmeier (1992).

  10. In the same paper Cumpa discusses the case of the set-member division, focusing in particular on Sider’s approach (2012)—for other accounts taking ‘set-member’ as the fundamental categorial division, see Quine (1970), and Zalta (1983). In short, Cumpa points out that not even this alternative is viable, although the division between heterogenous sets and their members can be construed as cross-sectional (where sets belong to the ordinary level and members belong to the scientific level). The reason is that Sider does not recognize the existence of the ordinary level of things, and then the division fails to satisfy the demand of the materialist criterion of world-fundamentality. In this essay, however, I am not primarily concerned with Cumpa’s criticism of the set-member division.

  11. Some proponents of this view are, for instance, Wittgenstein (1921) and Armstrong (1997).

  12. To be sure, the idea that the category of fact can cross the two levels of things does not require that all facts are cross-sectional. Take for instance the fact that this electron is positively charged. Since all constituents of this fact are scientific, I do not see how it can be cross-sectional. For this reason, although all facts are reconstructions of constituents, it seems possible to distinguish facts that are cross-sectional and facts that are not cross-sectional. For our purposes, however, this distinction will not matter, because as far as the category of fact is able to cross the two levels of things, it satisfies the materialist criterion of fundamentality.

  13. For discussion of this issue, see, inter alia, Teller (1986, 1995) and Healey (1991); on particles and wave function, see French and Krause (2006: pp. 88–89).

  14. Schaffer (2010) defends a widely discussed form of monism, the so-called “Priority Monism”. However, since Schaffer’s monism is phrased in terms of grounding, and since in this paper I aim at considering the alternative represented by the scientific turn in metaphysics, I do not discuss it further.

  15. I do not even discuss the possibility that they are relations, for relations are not compatible with a substantialist two-category ontology (Heil 2012: pp. 8–9).

  16. One may wonder whether the lack of cross-sectionality might be avoided by taking modes (and hence properties) as ordinary particulars such as chairs, tables, mugs, etc., as Spinoza did in fact. But a commitment to modes as ordinary particulars is apparently at odds with the quantum system substance, that is the substance of the scientific level of things under quantum physics. The modes of the quantum system are the fundamental particles, not the ordinary particulars (which are at most ‘modes of modes’). Moreover, Spinoza’s characterization of ordinary particulars as modes is reasonably consistent with a sort of ordinary monism, where the substance as a whole (Deus sive Natura) belongs to the ordinary level of things, lacking hence again cross-sectionality.

  17. The fact that everyday objects and events do not seem to display quantum mechanical features such as superposition is a complex and broadly discussed issue. Besides Schrödinger’s famous example of the cat (1935), see Schlosshauer (2005) on quantum decoherence and the relation between quantum systems and macroscopic world. However, I do not want to go into such problems here, interesting though they are.

  18. Cumpa (forthcoming) offers an account of the explanatory mode of composition of facts.


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I would like to thank Javier Cumpa, John Heil, Shea Musgrave, James O’Shea, Giuliano Torrengo, Nick Young, and one anonymous reviewer for very helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Valerio Buonomo.

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Buonomo, V. The scientific turn in metaphysics: a factualist approach. Synthese 198, 793–807 (2021).

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  • Scientific turn in metaphysics
  • Categories
  • Factualism
  • Substantialism
  • Cumpa
  • Heil