The State of Contemporary Metaphysics


I think metaphysics is what its always been—and its hard to say what that is!”

That’s Ross Cameron, professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, answering a question from interviewer Richard Marshall about the state and content of metaphysics these days.

[Lisa Ericson, “Migration”]

He continues:

I think its in a pretty good state: weve emerged from the darkness of logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, and conceptual analysis, and are once again unapologetically trying to say something about reality! I suppose one thing that might surprise someone coming from near pre-Lewis/Kripke times is the variety of phenomena that are taken to be legitimate subjects of metaphysical theorizing. (Although it wouldnt be at all surprising to someone from farther back in the history of philosophy.) People still do the metaphysics of time, possibility, existence, etc., but also the metaphysics of race, gender, disability, social groups, sexuality, etc. One sociological change is that its become absolutely standard to see these topics in metaphysics textbooks, being taught to undergraduates, being presented at mainstream metaphysics conferences, etc. I think thats a very good thing.

In the interview, Professor Cameron explains his views on a number of topics in contemporary metaphysics, including philosophy of time, grounding, mereology, and vagueness. His remarks are interesting and informative throughout. For example, in his answer to a question about grounding, he brings up the roles of the empirical and the useful in addressing metaphysical questions. He says:

Grounding is real. What it is is another issue. Whether theres a single notion of grounding, as Jonathan Schaffer thinks, or whether there are a multitude of different grounding relations, as Jessica Wilson thinks, is a difficult issue—but that there is some phenomenon whereby some features of reality give rise to others is hard to deny. Universities do not belong alongside electrons in physicistscatalog of the elements of being!

I think infinite descent—reality having no fundamental layer—is possible. Maybe its even actual. I think thats partly an empirical question. I do think there is something beneficial about metaphysical views on which everything is ultimately grounded in a fundamental layer: there is a kind of explanatory benefit, a unity of explanation, that we sacrifice if we accept a world of infinite descent. I think that gives us a reason to believe in a fundamental layer, but its defeasible. Empirical evidence and philosophical argument could yield reasons for infinite descent that outweigh this reason against.

The whole interview is here.

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YAAGS
YAAGS
2 years ago

“I think it’s in a pretty good state: we’ve emerged from the darkness of logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, and conceptual analysis, and are once again unapologetically trying to say something about reality!”

…. and are generally failing at it quite miserably!Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

But on a slightly more serious note: positivism and ordinary language philosophy both aimed at describing reality since they aimed to describe language and science, which are obviously part of reality. If you actually look at what metaphysicians *do* (rather than how they describe what they do in the abstract) it differs very little in this regard. Most of the primary focus in the actual literature is on what ordinary language and science commit us to. The moment metaphysicians try to say something interesting that can’t be settled by linguistic considerations it tends to either almost instantly bottom out in intuitive foot-stamping or it turns out to be an empirical question. It seems like little improvement over a (late) Carnapian approach wherein we simply develop different systems and weigh their pragmatic benefits. In my opinion, metaphysicians would be far better served in developing new mereological systems and applying them to problems in science and computing than debating when in general some things are parts of some other thing.Report

Daniel Munoz
Daniel Munoz
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

YAAGS: what parts of the “actual literature” do you have in mind? Many of the famous arguments I know in first-order metaphysics are pretty interesting and not obviously verbal.

Just off the top of my head, one example is Nina Emery’s recent defense of presentism — the minority view that nothing exists but the present — against the objection that it’s incompatible with relativity theory. Her argument doesn’t turn on intuitions about what’s “relative,” or the usefulness of the presentist “framework.” She looks into the details of the scientific reasoning that takes you from the empirical evidence to the theory of relativity: her point is that this kind of reasoning would also rule out actualism, the quite popular view that nothing exists but the actual. That strikes me as an interesting non-verbal argument. (Same with the original argument against presentism!)

But really, I could say the same of most major arguments on big first-order issues: causal preemption, nature of objective chance, mental causation, reduction of mind, reduction of morality, persistence. I don’t see why one would think the main ideas here are either boring, verbal, or empirical. What about Jackson’s knowledge argument, Kim’s causal exclusion argument, or the disc objection to 4D?

(Admittedly, there are foot-stompers — like Thomson in her objection to 4D — but that doesn’t seem so different from other traditional parts of philosophy, or even formal fields like decision theory. Can you give a non-foot-stompy argument for why rational agents need transitive preferences? (Follow up: can you give a non-foot-stompy argument for why it’s irrational to be vulnerable to money-pumps?))

Maybe we’re just reading different parts of the literature. But I do wonder if you really have papers like Emery’s in mind when you say that metaphysics is “failing…quite miserably” to say interesting stuff about reality.

(And Avalonian: why don’t such papers count as “crucial” progress? Are you saying that we should give up on philosophical questions that aren’t “intrinsically normative?” I love normativity, but I don’t think it’s the only thing worth studying!)Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

To say that an argument is “merely verbal” is to say that it is confused: that people involved are talking past one another as an un-worldly brit might argue with an un-worldly American about whether footballs are round or oblong. Good thing I never said that, as it would clearly be unreasonable as applied to most metaphysical disputes. However, to *interpret* special relativity as being incompatible with presentism one must spend a good amount of time analyzing and modeling the mathematical framework in which special relativity occurs. Or take the entirety of the dispute between platonists and nominalists. It is difficult to find a single part of the dispute that *doesn’t* ultimately turn on arguments about language.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Metaphysicians like to make it out as if they are doing something analogously deep and important as physics or mathematics but without the need to do any of the incredibly difficult training or work, just by consulting their intuitions. This is what the French commonly refer to as ‘le self-indulgent bullshittery’. There is real work for metaphysicians to do, but it is far less glamorous than they think it is (and involves a *lot* of programming). The ones who think they have direct intuitive access to the nature of reality are quite delusional.Report

quit testing me
quit testing me
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

How is this an acceptable comment on this blog? If it were about any other area of philosophy I doubt it would be considered acceptable. It’s vitriolic and there’s no argument to back it up.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  quit testing me
2 years ago

To say it’s self-indulgent and delusional to think you have direct intuitive access into the fundamental nature of reality is too vitriolic for this blog?
(A) LOL.
(B) There’s really no nice way to say people are deluded, and even smart people can be highly deluded in some respects.
(C) I’m certainly not saying Ross is a bad person. Quite the opposite. He is a lovely person. But he’s a just bit wrong in regard to his metaphilosophy and in his treatment of people like Carnap.
(D) Have you seen *literally* any of the threads on political topics in *any* philosophy blog, including this one?Report

Daniel Munoz
Daniel Munoz
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

If I read you right, you’re saying that you never called any metaphysical disputes “verbal,” but only meant to say that they “ultimately turn on language.” Come on.

This time, you did give an example: nominalism vs. platonism. You then said that metaphysicians who write on this topic are self-indulgent bullshitters who don’t feel like they have to learn science or math.

COME ON.

To give just one glaring counterexample, arguably the biggest book in the debate is Field’s Science Without Numbers, which tries to axiomatize physical theories to show that they’re consistent with nominalism. Maybe you don’t like the project. But how could you say that Field is just “consulting intuitions” without doing any “difficult” work?

It sounds to me like you have in mind some vague sketch of the evil armchair “Metaphysician.” Ironically enough, you don’t seem to be very interested in whether your bogeyman is real.

And since you don’t seem interested in being polite or charitable — “delusional,” “le self-indulgent bullshittery,” the meta-verbal hair-splitting — I’m going to go do something more fun. Maybe I’ll read a Lewis paper in your honor.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

SWN is explicitly dedicated to constructing formal frameworks in order to paraphrase physical theories in order to avoid reference to numbers. If you don’t see this as a project that is primarily focused on linguistic considerations and as being highly continuous with what the logical positivists were doing then I’m not sure there’s much more that I can say. Maybe the problem is that I am using ‘linguistic considerations’ to mean something more than a mere search for necessary and sufficient conditions and definitions of ordinary concepts. For instance, Chomskian grammarians are clearly primarily concerned with linguistic considerations even though they have no interest in providing necessary and sufficient conditions.

Perhaps an example of an intellectual project that *doesn’t* turn on linguistic considerations will help. CERN is a good example, or any use of clinical trials in biology. While physics does rely on a lot of formal apparatuses to express its theories it also attempts to test those theories by interacting with the bits of reality they are about. Now, CERN might strike you as deeply unfair example since it makes pretty much all philosophy look like like it turns on merely linguistic considerations by comparison. But that is quite literally my point. This point might strike you as being trivial: of *course* philosophers aren’t going out into the world and interacting with it to reveal its nature, that’s the job of scientists! But it was precisely the tacit comparison between metaphysics and physics and the correlative dismissal of logical positivists as being deeply misguided dogmatists that I was responding to in the first place. Methodologically speaking, Science Without Numbers is hardly some drastic break from what the positivists were doing. All of contemporary metaphysics is much, much, *much* closer to what the logical positivists were doing than it is to fields like physics that can be meaningfully said to reveal the nature of reality. The main difference just lies in how metaphysicians and the positivists described what they were doing. For instance, there is good metaphysical work to be done on things like providing interpretations of quantum mechanics. But it is precisely that: providing an *interpretation* of a theory that has already been established empirically. The physicists who went out and ran things like the Stern-Gerlach experiment have already established the theory that reveals the nature of reality. The philosopher’s job is just to provide a precise way of understanding what the theory says, and perhaps more ambitiously, to offer some improvements or reformulations.

I do somewhat regret the ‘self-indulgent bs’ comment, as it was a bit more vitriolic than necessary. (I was rather inebriated at the time.) But my general point stands.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

There are metaphysicians who have arguments for the view that participating in metaphysical discussion is, or is something quite like, or at least involves, engaging in metalinguistic negotiation: tussles about what to call things (or how to conceptualize things) and why. (I’m thinking here of A. Thomasson, T. Hofweber, G. D’Oro, and more, but please, everyone, let me know if I’m mis-characterizing!)Report

Daniel Munoz
Daniel Munoz
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
2 years ago

I didn’t mean to write off Thomasson’s view, which I think is certainly interesting and worth taking seriously. Maybe some metaphysical arguments really are meta-linguistic negotations over conceptual frameworks.

But I’m not convinced that this is true across the board. The presentism debate seems like a counterexample, since presentism is widely rejected on the grounds that it’s inconsistent with relativity. When people press this point, they aren’t trying to decide between two empirically equivalent frameworks — presentism and eternalism — on the basis of usefulness. They’re arguing that presentism is false, given the truth of relativity.

More generally, lots of metaphysics arguments go like this:

1. Theory T (e.g. presentism) entails consequence C (e.g. the falsity of relativity).
2. Consequence C is false.

Conclusion: Theory T is false.

I tend to think we should take arguments with this form at face value, and see them as concerned with the truth of substantive theoretical claims. But I’m not deep into the meta-linguistic negotiation literature; maybe they have cool moves to make here. I just thought someone should stick up for the idea that first-order metaphysics is trying to understand what the world is like without just raw intuitions and linguistic arguments.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

I’m fairly certain that I’ve said multiple times just in this thread that there is real work for metaphysicians to do. My point is that when metaphysics is done properly it is basically a part of the philosophy of science. The things you cite (arguments from special relativity and Field’s work in SWN) are some of the best examples. They count as good metaphysics because they are methodologically grounded in close readings of scientific theories.

But alas, they are not really representative of the field as a whole. For examples of bad metaphysics, see the grounding literature. I don’t have a problem with the notion of grounding itself. But it is pretty obvious that the disputes over the logical properties of the grounding relation are going nowhere fast. At best, one can maybe say that it is a partial ordering. I’m fine with saying that this is a claim about reality. It is just an incredibly uninformative one. I haven’t seen an example of how any of these disputes could actually illuminate the use of grounding in other parts of philosophy. It seems to me to harm the philosophy of mind rather than help it. Can mental properties be fully grounded in physical properties without superveneing on them? Is that all it takes to say that they are physical? The notion only seems to muddy the waters, imho.

The dispute over the special composition question also strikes me as a collossal waste of time and energy. The universalist and nihilist have both constructed their theories so that they simply don’t have any implications outside of the ontological dispute itself. So even if there is a fact of the matter about whether some things compose another thing, it apparently makes no real difference to anything whatsoever! That, or one side of the dispute is just deeply confused about what counts as appropriate philosophical methodology (which is even worse).Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

Point taken, especially about whether Thomasson’s (et al.’s) metametaphysical view faithfully represents ALL metaphysical discourse. I’m not steeped in this literature either, so I’m definitely just trying things out here.

But here’s a shot at defusing your apparent counterexample: Supposing that presentism is the metaphysical claim that “only present things exist” (SEP), the meta-linguistic metaphysician will see the claim as about how we ought to deploy the concept of existence or perhaps about how we ought to deploy the concept of present-ness.

You recommend we take the claims at face value, and the burden of proof does probably lie with those who question the face value. But whether to take them at face value is what’s at stake, and given that those who question the face value have arguments, it likely won’t do to simply say we should take the claims at face value.Report

Daniel M
Daniel M
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

Animal Symbolicum: thanks for the reply — that’s a great point!

As I understand Thomasson’s view, it has to say more than that we’re haggling over concepts. It must also be saying that we are arguing on pragmatic grounds. When I argue that psychology shouldn’t use the concept of a CAPRICORN, I’m going to give some evidence that birthdays don’t correlate with personality. That’s evidential, not pragmatic. The same seems true of the arguments against presentism. They are trying to give evidence against the idea that the present is objectively privileged. We could interpret that, as you suggest, as an argument against deploying a certain concept of the PRESENT; perhaps it’s an argument for using an indexical notion. But the argument still wouldn’t be based in pragmatic concerns, so it seems inconsistent with the idea that we are *merely* doing some meta-linguistic negotiation, rather than trying to figure out what the world is really like.

YAAGS:

(1) I think you have misinterpreted my comment (directly above) to be a response to you, when it was just meant as a response to Animal.

(2) Afraid I don’t share your view on the logic of grounding — been reading some of Francesca Poggiolesi’s stuff on grounding relevant implication and negation, which I thought was clearly getting at something cool, and certainly improving on past work.

(3) Maybe you think that grounding is doing more harm than help in philosophy of mind. But it’s worth noting that the notion actually came into the literature totally organically; it wasn’t imposed from the outside by meddling metaphysicians. See e.g. Horgan and Timmons’ paper on “superdupervenience.” (Grounding also organically arose in moral philosophy, where Jonathan Dancy was the first to distinguish it carefully from supervenience. Selim Berker talks about this in his wonderful “Unity of Grounding.”) I take it that if a notion emerges organically in a literature — and stays — that’s some evidence that experts there find it helpful.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

Daniel, a brief response.

Re 1 I was responding to the last sentence of your post, which was clearly referencing my op.

Re 2: I’m not familiar with Poggiolesi’s work, but it would certainly be nice to see something with practical applications come out of the grounding literature.

Re 3: One party can introduce a new notion in order to get around problems that plagued the previous versions of their view. But if the notion itself is controversial then this can leave the overall dispute even worse off than before. This, I suspect, is what has happened wrt to grounding in the philosophy of mind. Physicalists want it to do everything they need it to and dualists have to insist that, say, multiply realizable properties can’t be fully grounded in the various other properties that instantiate them. I have no idea how to settle that dispute. Grounding does this to a lot of disputes. If you reject grounding necessitation you’ve immediately dissolved a huge number of counterexamples to various views. Hence my impression is that grounding has led to a drastic weakening of consensus in metaphysics insofar as it now makes many views defensible which had previously thought to have been ruled out (e.g. monism).Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
2 years ago

In retrospect, that wasn’t as brief as I thought it would be!Report

Daniel M
Daniel M
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

No worries, YAAGS. Appreciate the thoughtful reply. (And not just in the way that I “appreciate” referee 2’s comments!)

I like your point that introducing a controversial (or just poorly understood) notion can do more harm than good. Also, admittedly, I’d forgotten about the last sentence when I said I wasn’t addressing you — the perils of high-speed commenting.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

“ Can you give a non-foot-stompy argument for why rational agents need transitive preferences? ”

I gave one (broadly following Davidson and Dennett) in Emergent Multiverse: violations of synchronic consistency (i.e. preference transitivity) and diachronic consistency, insofar as they are not isolated, prevent us meaningfully attributing coherent beliefs and desires to a physical system in the first place.

(Whether it’s a *good* argument is another matter! But no feet are stomped.)Report

Daniel M
Daniel M
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

That’s a cool argument!

I wonder if might end up in a sense being foot-stompy (since you do put your foot down and say: “that’s just what desires ARE!”)

But I don’t think it’d be fair to press that point, since my definition of “foot-stompy” is starting to look a bit hand-wavey!

So I’ll just say: good point.Report

Avalonian
2 years ago

“People still do the metaphysics of time, possibility, existence, etc., but also the metaphysics of race, gender, disability, social groups, sexuality, etc.”

I think the difference between these two sub-groups is vitally important, here. I don’t know that any metaphysician could legitimately claim that there has been any kind of crucial or radical progress with respect to questions of time or existence in the past 25 years. But of course there has been very good work on social categories, work which is still asking very important questions and giving powerful, interesting answers. This, it might be said, is the metaphysician’s “success story” that justifies a claim to the revival of the discipline.

But hang on: someone correct me if I’m wrong, but the only reason there’s been such progress in social ‘metaphysics’ is that those philosophers have mostly abandoned the apriorism and descriptivism that were essential to western metaphysics for centuries. They’ve accepted that in order to say something about what race is, not only do we need to know a heck of a lot about what the world is actually like (see Quayshawn Spencer’s work on race, deeply informed by work in the sciences), we also need to consider the possibility that any theory of what race “is” is intrinsically normative or prescriptive (i.e. Haslanger’s ameliorative stuff). In other words, social “metaphysics” is becoming something that would be mostly unrecognizable to Spinoza, Leibniz, etc. I think this is absolutely great. But in my view, the status of *traditional* metaphysics, qua progressive field of inquiry, remains as murky as always.Report

Jonathan Reid Surovell
2 years ago

I wonder why it matters whether metaphysicians call what they’re doing “saying something about reality” or “logical/conceptual analysis.” So far as I can tell, this doesn’t influence what questions we’re willing to entertain or what methods we use to answer them. For example, if I remember Dorr’s position on composite objects correctly, the idea is that regimenting our scientific knowledge into plurally-quantified theories would yield greater parsimony than would regimenting it into singularly-quantified theories. Plurally quantified theories, according to Dorr, aren’t committed to the existence of composite objects.

This seems to me to be the kind of logical analysis of science that Carnap, at least, advocated. He and Cameron might gloss it differently, with Carnap insisting that Dorr should be characterizing his view as a “proposal” and not as a “belief.” But how much does that matter? Carnap also would have said that the criteria for assessing such proposals are “pragmatic.” There might be disagreements here. Maybe some kinds of simplicity will have pragmatic significance (e.g., simplicity of syntax) whereas others won’t. But would the Carnapian view on this take us into the “dark ages”?

I would locate the disagreement between logical positivists and contemporary analytic metaphysicians in empiricism–and, more specifically, in the plausibility of a criterion of empirical significance. The logical empiricists would reject any non-logical terms that didn’t meet such a criterion; analytic metaphysicians don’t.

You might think the project of formulating a criterion of empirical significance is bound to fail. (I think people are overly pessimistic about it.) But even if you do, consider how much metaphysicians can do with the vocabulary that was intended to meet such a criterion. I just discussed how Dorr’s work on composite objects requires no exotic, seemingly unscientific non-logical terms (as far as I can tell, all he needs are plural quantifiers). The same goes for, e.g., Field’s work on nominalism, which was mentioned in a comment above. ‘Grounding,’ as understood by Schaffer might be a different story, for reasons similar to those discussed by Wilson: there’s no (empirical) work for it to do.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Jonathan Reid Surovell
2 years ago

Agreed. The primary motivation for saying that metaphysics is about reality rather than being a form of conceptual analysis is just that it makes metaphysics sound more interesting. In terms of actual practice it doesn’t make much of a difference at all. One way or another you’re going to spend most of your time creating formal systems and arguing about how certain theories should be interpreted. And unlike in the sciences, finding the correct metaphysical theory will almost certainly not lead to any useful technology or have any impact on how we get around in the world. The implications of a metaphysical thesis are typically just linguistic as well; i.e., about how an ideal theory would be formulated.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
2 years ago

From a philosophy-of-science point of view I find it strange that the subject matter of metaphysics seems to divide into the fundamental and the social. There are lots of things between elementary particles and social kinds, and much of what I hear people say about the latter seems to apply much more widely to emergent higher-order ontology – which is pretty much all the ontology we have scientific access to in any case.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Not sure I agree with you that much of what gets said about social kinds applies to non-fundamental physical ontology, David. When I think of the distinctive claims made about social kinds in metaphysics, the two things that jump out at me are (i) that they’re socially constructed and (ii) that they should be theorized using the tools of Haslanger-style ameliorative analysis. Neither of those seems to have any prima facie plausibility applied to emergent physical entities like molecules or fluids.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Dave Baker
2 years ago

I take the point, of course – but a lot of what gets said is contrastive -*unlike* fundamental entities, social ones are XYZ. A lot of the features identified in the contrast are absent in higher-order kinds in the natural sciences too. (I admit I don’t have a great example immediately to hand!)Report

Alex Rahul
Alex Rahul
2 years ago

Who else is reading the posted comments….???¿Report