The “Disciplined and Humble Speculation” of Metaphysics

How do we decide whether a metaphysical system is the right one or not? Empirical evidence doesn’t seem to be decisive, and given that some metaphysicians have impossible worlds and Meinongian objects it seems anything might happen in such a system. Are all metaphysical issues undecidable—and extending this thought to philosophy generally do you agree with the thought that philosophical questions are also generally without a decisive right answer, that every and any philosophical question can be reopened and rethought?

That’s Richard Marshall, senior editor at 3:AM Magazine, interviewing Kris McDaniel, professor of philosophy at Syracuse University. Professor McDaniel replies:

This is a very hard question. I wouldn’t say that all metaphysical questions are undecidable. I know that I exist, and I think I have very good evidence that I am a material object who is made of other material objects. So I have at least one good reason to believe that compositional nihilism is false. Is this a conclusive argument? It probably won’t convince the diehard compositional nihilist! But that doesn’t mean it is unsound, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t have a reason to believe the conclusion on the basis of that argument. But since I also think that being comes in degrees, there is a further question about how real I am that isn’t settled by this argument. Answering this further question is much harder I think.

The moral I draw from this is that we shouldn’t think that all metaphysical beliefs are epistemically on a par. Some of them are more epistemically justified than others. The question of what in general can justify metaphysical beliefs is also a hard question. (I’m not sure that there is a special problem concerning how to justify metaphysical beliefs as opposed to philosophical beliefs more generally.)

One might be tempted to think that there is endless disagreement among metaphysicians. But that endless disagreement takes place against a backdrop of widespread and mostly unacknowledged agreement. I think that this backdrop has at least two sources.

Some of this agreement might be the result of culpably ignoring alternative views that should be taken seriously, or the philosophical milieu interlocutors are in. Academic philosophy is, for better or worse, subject to fads too, and the increasing arms race to publish might make this worse.

We should diligently look for our philosophical blind spots. The history of philosophy, cross-cultural philosophy, and experimental philosophy can each help with doing this. Attending to disciplines outside of philosophy can help. So can thinking carefully about the space of answers to philosophical questions even when (maybe even especially when) one is not tempted by a specific answer.

But I don’t think the totality of the backdrop of widespread and mostly unacknowledged agreement can be explained wholly by the factors just mentioned. Consider a specific metaphysical question, such as the question of when composition occurs. There are many answers to this question defended in the extant literature. But no one defends the answer that some objects compose a whole if and only if they are in New Jersey. No one defends the answer that some objects compose a whole if and only if there are exactly 15 of them. No one defends the answer that some objects compose a whole if and only if Donald Trump believes that they compose a whole. These answers are nonstarters. They are so clearly false that they don’t even need to be explicitly formulated in order to be rejected. We know that these answers are false. There is widespread, tacit knowledge about what sort of answers to metaphysical questions can be rejected out of hand. Thinking clearly about how we have this knowledge would be worthwhile.

That we can rule out some answers to metaphysical questions fairly decisively doesn’t mean that we can rule in exactly one. With respect to questions in fundamental metaphysics, disciplined and humble speculation might be the best we can hope for.

The whole interview, which covers a good selection of McDaniel’s broad-ranging interests, is here.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Esteban Manuel Iglesias Casas
Esteban Manuel Iglesias Casas
6 years ago

Great. Excellent article. It is like the great method of philosophy.

Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
6 years ago

Compositional Nihilism fits the definition of undecideable. Model the world according to compositional nihilism–in other words, create a model of the world in which all the mereological simples exist, and in that model, do not affirm the existence of anything else. Now, consider the statement “Something other than mereological simples exists.” We could add this to the model consistently. But we could also add its negation to the model consistently. (In this second model, adding that negation in creates new implications for what exists that did not exist before the addition, but this is not in contradiction with what the model said before. It is just the addition of a new axiom so to speak.)

That’s exactly what it means for a matter to be undecideable in a model–both it and its negation can consistently be added to that model.

Here I’m relying on a concept of undecideability taken from model theory, which may seem a little beside the point. But what other basis would there be for deciding whether the sentence “There exist things other than mereological simples” is true, i.e., what other basis than simply deciding “we’re going to model things that way?” If the model both with and without nihilism are equally compatible with all known facts, then while there can be bases for deciding one over the other, they are not determined by how the world is. They’re determined by something else.

McDaniel remarks that he thinks there are strong reasons to think compositional nihilism is false, and later on he refers to facts such as that we all know that mereological compounds exist not just in New Jersey, but elsewhere as well. What is this “knowing” though? How do we know? On what basis do we decide? If it’s just a strong intuition we all share and agree to act on together, then first, see all the recent skeptical lit about intuitions, and second, notice how that is in itself a decision to affirm a metaphysical claim based, not on how the world is, but on how we are and how we cooperate. A community which would insist on compositional nihilism doesn’t face a burden of proof–it faces a burden of non-cooperation.

Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
6 years ago

If I could, I would edit part of the above. Where it says “Model the world according to compositional nihilism,” it should say “Model the world along the lines of compositional nihilism sans only the axiom “nothing else exists.”