Several advocates of the lively field of “metaphysics of science” have recently argued that a naturalistic metaphysics should be based solely on current science, and that it should replace more traditional, intuition-based, forms of metaphysics. The aim of the present paper is to assess that claim by examining the relations between metaphysics of science and general metaphysics. We show that the current metaphysical battlefield is richer and more complex than a simple dichotomy between “metaphysics of science” and “traditional metaphysics”, and that it should instead be understood as a three dimensional “box”, with one axis distinguishing “descriptive metaphysics” from “revisionary metaphysics”, a second axis distinguishing a priori from a posteriori metaphysics, and a third axis distinguishing “commonsense metaphysics”, “traditional metaphysics” and “metaphysics of science”. We use this three-dimensional figure to shed light on the project of current metaphysics of science, and to demonstrate that, in many instances, the target of that project is not defined with enough precision and clarity.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Website of the Society for the Metaphysics of Science (https://sites.google.com/site/socmetsci/what-is-the-metaphysics-of-science-1). Importantly, several members of this Society are—following a distinction we make in this paper—proponents of “metaphysics applied to science” rather than “scientific metaphysics”, and therefore do not all adopt the three principles of the centrality of physics, universalism, and realism that we describe below.
Assuming ontological reductionism to physics, this response would imply that there is no individual in nature and that the related metaphysical notion is irrelevant.
For more details about quantum individuality, see French and Krause (2006).
See also the quotation from Ladyman and Ross (2007) in the next section.
The call for a more diversified metaphysics of science made in the present paper is, however, not unique, as illustrated by Morganti (2013), and a few others.
“[C]ontemporary analytic metaphysics, a professional activity engaged in by some extremely intelligent and morally serious people, fails to qualify as part of the enlightened pursuit of objective truth, and should be discontinued” (Ladyman and Ross 2007, p. vii; see also Chapter 1).
To our knowledge the main element in favor of this thesis is the fact that other disciplines have to take into account physical laws and, on the other hand, physics does not have, until now, to take into account scientific results from other disciplines. This could well be a perspective artifact. Moreover, if there is such a thing as ontological emergence in nature—as we have more and more reasons to believe—the exclusivity of physics is not sustainable (for a concrete example in chemistry, see Hendry 2010).
What we criticize is the reduction of metaphysics to the discipline of physics (physical laws, models, and theories). We do not take issue with ontological physicalism—the view that everything is or is composed of physical entities (Papineau 2001).
In general, metaphysicians of science have focused on theories, and have tended to neglect the importance of scientific practices.
As, for instance, when some philosophers of science claim that statements such as law-like generalizations will be true of biology “when it is truly scientific”.
For a similar position, see Baron (2016).
This last axis does not imply as strong oppositions as the other two. A given metaphysical project could submit to more than one authorities [for example, Wiggins (2001) sortalism combines a traditional approach rooted in Aristotle’s Categories and a commonsense and “ordinary language” approach (Ferner 2016)]. However, there is usually only one that justifies the project as a whole.
We think that our metaphysical box could be used in other ways and for different purposes. We hope that other philosophers will lay their hands on it and use it in novel ways.
As is well-known, Strawson himself sees Kant and Aristotle as major representatives of descriptive metaphysics.
Note that, contrary to the standard literature, we do not define traditional metaphysics by a method (a priori) or modal language (necessary assertions). We define traditional metaphysics by the kind of authority involved in the research, namely the history of philosophy. Our approach is related to Paul’s (2012) one. Like us she does not define metaphysics by its method; contrary to us, though, she defines metaphysics by its subject matter.
It is also possible to claim that Kant founded his ontology on common sense and only at a letter stage sought compatibility with scientific results.
A key question—especially in the context of a realist metaphysical project—will be how scientific representations manage to get around these entrenched cognitive structures.
Two possible examples among many others are the debate about units of selection as individuals in biology and philosophy of biology and the debate over the role of the principle of indiscernibility in physics and philosophy of physics.
Armstrong, D. M. (1978). A theory of universals. Volume II: Universals and scientific realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baron, Sam. (2016). Metaphysics as fairness. Synthese, 193(7), 2237–59.
Bird, Alexander. (2007). Nature’s metaphysics: Laws and properties. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bouchard, Frédéric, & Huneman, Philippe (Eds.). (2013). From groups to individuals: Evolution and emerging individuality. Vienna series in theoretical biology. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Braillard, Pierre-Alain, Guay, Alexandre, Imbert, Cyrille, & Pradeu, Thomas. (2011). Une Objectivité Kaléidoscopique?: Construire L’image Scientifique Du Monde. Philosophie, 110(Été), 46–71.
Carnap, Rudolf. (1931). Überwindung Der Metaphysik Durch Logische Analyse Der Spradle. Erkenntnis, 2(January), 219–41.
Carnap, R., Hahn, H., & Neurath, O. (1929). In V. E. Mach (Ed.), Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis. Wien: Artur Wolf Verlag.
Cartwright, Nancy. (1989). Nature’s capacities and their measurement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chakravartty, Anjan. (2007). A metaphysics for scientific realism: Knowing the unobservable. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chen, Ruey-Lin. (2016). Experimental realization of individuality. In Alexandre Guay & Thomas Pradeu (Eds.), Individuals across the sciences (pp. 348–70). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Cohen, S. Marc. (2012). Alteration and persistence: Form and matter in the physics and de generatione et corruptione. In Christopher Shields (Ed.), The Oxford handbook to aristotle (pp. 205–26). New York: Oxford University Press.
Cushing, James T. (1998). Philosophical concepts in physics: The historical relation between philosophy and scientific theories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Descartes, R. (1973). In F. Alquié (Ed.), Oeuvres Philosophiques (Vol. 3). Paris: Garnier Frères.
Dehaene, Stanislas, Izard, Véronique, Pica, Pierre, & Spelke, Elizabeth. (2006). Core knowledge of geometry in an Amazonian Indigene Group. Science, 311(5759), 381–84.
Dehaene, Stanislas, Izard, Véronique, Spelke, Elizabeth, & Pica, Pierre. (2008). Log or linear? Distinct intuitions of the number scale in western and Amazonian Indigene cultures. Science, 320(5880), 1217–20.
Dupré, J. (1993). The disorder of things: Metaphysical foundations of the disunity of science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dupré, John. (2012). Processes of life: Essays in the philosophy of biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, Brian. (2001). Scientific essentialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Esfeld, Michael. (2009). Hypothetical metaphysics of nature. In Michael Heidelberger & Gregor Schiemann (Eds.), The significance of the hypothetical in the natural sciences (pp. 341–64). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Esfeld, Michael. (2012). Physique et Métaphysique: Une Introduction à La Philosophie de La Nature. Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes.
Esfeld, Michael. (2013). Metaphysics and science. In Byron Kaldis (Ed.), Encyclopedia of philosophy and the social sciences (pp. 601–4). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Ferner, A. M. (2016). Organisms and personal identity: Biological individuation and the work of David Wiggins. New York, NY: Routledge.
French, Steven. (2014). The structure of the world: Metaphysics and representation. New York: Oxford University Press.
French, Steven, & Krause, Décio. (2006). Identity in physics: An historical, philosophical, and formal analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
French, Steven, & McKenzie, Kerry. (2012). Thinking outside the toolbox: Towards a more productive engagement between metaphysics and philosophy of physics. European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 8(1), 42–59.
Friedman, Michael. (2013). Kant’s construction of nature: A reading of the metaphysical foundations of natural science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ghiselin, M. T. (1974). A radical solution to the species problem. Systematic Biology, 23(4), 536–44.
Ghiselin, Michael T. (1988). The individuality thesis, essences, and laws of nature. Biology and Philosophy, 3(4), 467–74.
Ghiselin, Michael T. (1997). Metaphysics and the origin of species. SUNY series in philosophy of biology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Godfrey-Smith, Peter. (2009). Darwinian populations and natural selection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Godfrey-Smith, Peter. (2014). Philosophy of biology. Princeton foundations of contemporary philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Guay, Alexandre, & Pradeu, Thomas. (2016). Introduction: Progressive steps toward a unified conception of individuality across the sciences. In Alexandre Guay & Thomas Pradeu (Eds.), Individuals across the sciences (pp. 1–21). New York: Oxford University Press.
Guay, Alexandre, & Sartenaer, Olivier. (2016). A new look at emergence. Or when after is different. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 6(2), 297–322.
Haack, Susan. (1979). Descriptive and revisionary metaphysics. Philosophical Studies, 35(4), 361–71.
Hacking, I. (1983). Representing and intervening: Introductory topics in the philosophy of natural science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hendry, Findlay Robin. (2010). Ontological reduction and molecular structure. Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 41(2), 183–91.
Hull, David L. (1978). A matter of individuality. Philosophy of Science, 45(3), 335–60.
Hull, David L. (1980). Individuality and selection. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 11, 311–32.
Hull, David L. (1989). The metaphysics of evolution. SUNY series in philosophy of biology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Humphreys, Paul W. (1997a). Emergence, not supervenience. Philosophy of Science, 64(4), S337–45.
Humphreys, Paul. (1997b). How properties emerge. Philosophy of Science, 64(1), 1–17.
Humphreys, Paul. (2008). Synchronic and diachronic emergence. Minds and Machines, 18(4), 431–42.
Kant, I. (1999). Critique of pure reason (P. Guyer & A. W. Wood, Eds. and Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kant, I. (2004). Metaphysical foundations of natural science (M. Friedman, Ed. and Trans.). Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ladyman, James, & Ross, Don. (2007). Every thing must go: Metaphysics naturalized. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ladyman, James, & Ross, Don. (2013). The world in the data. In Don Ross, James Ladyman, & Harold Kincaid (Eds.), Scientific metaphysics (pp. 108–50). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lewis, David K. (1973). Counterfactuals. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Lowe, E. J. (2002). A survey of metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lowe, E. J. (2006). The four-category ontology: A metaphysical foundation for natural science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Macdonald, Cynthia. (2005). Varieties of things: Foundations of contemporary metaphysics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Maudlin, Tim. (2007). The metaphysics within physics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mitchell, Sandra D. (2003). Biological complexity and integrative pluralism. Cambridge studies in philosophy and biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Morganti, M. (2013). Combining science and metaphysics: Contemporary physics, conceptual revision and common sense, New directions in the philosophy of science. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Morrison, Margaret. (2012). Emergent physics and micro-ontology. Philosophy of Science, 79(1), 141–66.
Mumford, S., & Tugby, M. (Eds.). (2013). Metaphysics and science. Mind association occasional series. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ney, Alyssa. (2012). Neo-positivist metaphysics. Philosophical Studies, 160(1), 53–78.
Papineau, David. (2001). The rise of physicalism. In Carl Gillett & Barry Loewer (Eds.), Physicalism and its discontents (pp. 3–36). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Paul, L. A. (2012). Metaphysics as modeling: The Handmaiden’s tale. Philosophical Studies, 160(1), 1–29. doi:10.1007/s11098-012-9906-7.
Pradeu, T. (2012). The limits of the self: Immunology and biological identity (E. Vitanza Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Radder, H. (Ed.). (2003). The philosophy of scientific experimentation. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Redhead, Michael. (1995). From physics to metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ross, Don, Ladyman, James, & Kincaid, Harold. (2013). Scientific metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ruetsche, Laura. (2015). The Shaky Game +25, or: On locavoracity. Synthese, 192(11), 3425–42.
Ruphy, Stéphanie. (2016). Scientific pluralism reconsidered: A new approach to the (dis)unity of science. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Ryckman, Thomas. (2005). The reign of relativity: Philosophy in physics 1915–1925. Oxford studies in the philosophy of science. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sellars, Wilfrid. (1968). Science, perception and reality. International library of philosophy and scienctific method. London: Routledge.
Strawson, P. F. (1959). Individuals: An essay in descriptive metaphysics. University paperbacks. London: Methuen & Co.
Van Fraassen, Bas C. (1980). The scientific image. Clarendon library of logic and philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
van Fraassen, B. C. (2006). Structure: Its shadow and substance. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 57(2), 275–307.
van Fraassen, Bas C. (2008). Scientific representation: Paradoxes of perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
van Inwagen, Peter. (2002). Metaphysics (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Wiggins, David. (2001). Sameness and substance renewed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wimsatt, W. C. (2007). Re-engineering philosophy for limited beings: Piecewise approximations to reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
We thank Max Kistler and all the members of the ANR-funded project on Metaphysics of Science (ANR-12-BSH3-0009), in particular Jean Gayon, Philippe Huneman, Pascal Ludwig, and Stéphanie Ruphy. In addition, we thank Alexander Bird, Mauro Dorato, John Dupré, Adam Ferner, James Ladyman, Matteo Morganti, Alyssa Ney, Christian Sachse, Olivier Sartenaer, and Francis Wolff for comments on previous versions of this paper. Thomas Pradeu has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme—Grant Agreement No. 637647—IDEM.
About this article
Cite this article
Guay, A., Pradeu, T. Right out of the box: how to situate metaphysics of science in relation to other metaphysical approaches. Synthese 197, 1847–1866 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1576-8
- Metaphysics of science
- Scientific metaphysics
- Descriptive metaphysics
- Revisionary metaphysics