Right out of the box: how to situate metaphysics of science in relation to other metaphysical approaches

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    Assuming ontological reductionism to physics, this response would imply that there is no individual in nature and that the related metaphysical notion is irrelevant.

  3. 3.

    For more details about quantum individuality, see French and Krause (2006).

  4. 4.

    See also the quotation from Ladyman and Ross (2007) in the next section.

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    “[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).

  7. 7.

    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).

  8. 8.

    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).

  9. 9.

    In general, metaphysicians of science have focused on theories, and have tended to neglect the importance of scientific practices.

  10. 10.

    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”.

  11. 11.

    For a similar position, see Baron (2016).

  12. 12.

    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.

  13. 13.

    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.

  14. 14.

    As is well-known, Strawson himself sees Kant and Aristotle as major representatives of descriptive metaphysics.

  15. 15.

    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.

  16. 16.

    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.

  17. 17.

    For example, Ladyman and Ross (2007, p. 7) write [against Lowe (2002)]: “we have no good reasons for thinking that a priori metaphysical knowledge is possible”.

  18. 18.

    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.

  19. 19.

    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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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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

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Keywords

  • Metaphysics of science
  • Scientific metaphysics
  • Descriptive metaphysics
  • Revisionary metaphysics
  • Ontology
  • Naturalism
  • Realism
  • Physicalism