No Escape from Metaphysics


I think the contemporary [metaphysics] scene is thriving. But you still run into critics of metaphysics. I find these critics genuinely puzzling. Let me try to explain why.

That’s Trenton Merricks, Commonwealth Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, in a recent interview at 3:16. It’s the beginning of a response to a question from interviewer Richard Marshall:

Many non-metaphysicians heard the news that logical positivists and Heidegger from a different angle had put paid to metaphysics and missed the news about Lewis, Kripke et al bringing it back. What’s the contemporary scene looking like?

[Norman Rockwell, “The Art Critic” (detail)]

Professor Merricks continues his answer:

For me, the most interesting aspect of philosophy is the arguments. And there are arguments in metaphysics. Suppose you think that metaphysics is dumb. Then you must think that the arguments in metaphysics are dumb. Take one of those arguments. Suppose you think it has a false premise. Fair enough. That is a good reason to oppose that argument. But opposing that argument in that way is not being a critic of metaphysics, it is instead opposing a single argument.

Moreover, in opposing that argument in that way, you are almost certainly doing some metaphysics yourself. One reason that I say this is that the denial of the premise that you are rejecting will probably be as “metaphysical” as that premise itself. With this in mind, it is unlikely that you can successfully oppose all the arguments in metaphysics without just becoming another metaphysician. (Welcome home.) So opposing those arguments—showing where they go wrong—is not a likely route to becoming a critic of metaphysics.

But most of the critics that I have encountered seem to sidestep this route to becoming unwitting metaphysicians. For they do not explain where the arguments in metaphysics go wrong. After all, you cannot do that unless you are intimately familiar with those arguments. And those who are most dismissive of metaphysics, in my experience, are definitely not intimately familiar with those arguments. Yet they still think that those arguments are dumb.

I do not understand why anyone would be dismissive of any field of philosophy that is populated with arguments—metaphysics included—without being familiar with the details of the arguments in that field. It’s like these naysayers think that they can tell, a priori, that all those arguments have false premises or are invalid or beg the question. Talk about armchair philosophizing!

You can read the whole interview here.


guest
84 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kenny Easwaran
8 months ago

I tend to think the importance of arguments in philosophy is overrated. Arguments are very important and very useful, but in many cases the point of arguments is to illuminate relations among concepts and distinctions that one already considers interesting, or else to show why certain concepts and distinctions are relevant to others, and therefore more interesting than one might have supposed.

I take it that the normal reason people have for disliking metaphysics is for thinking that the concepts and distinctions in metaphysics are of no importance for anything else. (I think this is also why a lot of philosophers tend not to respect topics like applied ethics or political philosophy, where they think the concepts and distinctions might be useful for non-philosophers, but supposedly don’t have any relevance for the areas of philosophy that they work on.)

Daniel Dennett perhaps exemplified this view best in his paper “Higher order truths about chmess”, where he admits that there are plenty of perfectly valid arguments one could express about a game that is very similar to chess, but no one would or should care.

https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/chmess.pdfReport

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
8 months ago

I should say that I’m not exactly sure where I stand myself on these questions about metaphysics. I have a lot of sympathy for people that reject the relevance or importance (or even meaningfulness) of a lot of metaphysical concepts, including things like “cause” and “ground”. But then I occasionally stumble upon things where I need exactly that sort of concept to make sense and be relevant, in order for something I care about to make sense. I even once published a weird little paper whereI argue that causation and ground together could give an explanation of the role of second derivatives in physics.Report

Y
Y
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
8 months ago

I like the authenticity of this comment.

I think it shows that metaphysics is more to you (and probably others) than some esoteric nonsense that has no existential value. And therefore has meaning.Report

Gregory Gaboardi
Gregory Gaboardi
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
8 months ago

My main problem with people who are somewhat anti-metaphysics is that too often they seem to assume that they already know what is the best philosophical agenda, the one that philosophers should be pursuing, as if we are not all in the infancy of philosophy. For instance, I can see good reasons for some methodological recommendations here and there (‘If you are inquiring about whether p (for some particular p), you should consider what these scientific works say!’), based on historical considerations. But i can see no good philosophical (particularly epistemological) reason for the more general constraints that the anti-metaphysics crowd needs to be reasonable in order for them to be claiming something substantial.Report

Yoel
Yoel
Reply to  Gregory Gaboardi
8 months ago

The constraint of not doing metaphysics is the conclusion of the anti-metaphysicians. Their reasons for this conclusion vary, and it is not an assumption.

Some reasons include that metaphysics does not make sense, metaphysics is impractical and a waste of time, metaphysics lacks value, etc.

You can disagree with those reasons, but they are not assuming the conclusion that we shouldn’t do metaphysics.

As for everyone being in philosophical infancy, I’m not really sure why that prevents philosophers from making claims about philosophical methodology. Part of thinking philosophically in my opinion is about thinking about your own beliefs critically and examining your prejudices. I am always open to that with my ant-metaphysical position just as with any other philosophical position that I hold. i don’t think that means that I shouldn’t have that position, even though I feel strongly about it, just because we do not hold onto the belief dogmatically and with refusal to budge.

Moreover, the manner of understanding metaphysics as a methodology, like I believe you are doing, is looking at what metaphysics could be rather than looking at metaphysics for what it actually is and historically was. As an analogy, let’s take Catholicism. One might be very against Catholicism because of what the religion actually did historically, such as during the Inquisition. However, a contemporary person may dispute that characterization and argue that not all of Catholicism is about it’s history and there is a lot of aspects of it that can be used in a positive way when understood in terms of its spirituality. However, the person who is against Catholicism is not limiting what Catholicism is by saying that they are against the religion because of what they did in the past, regardless of its potential uses. (Nazi doctrines might be a more relatable example.) Similarly, the anti-metaphysician is not limiting metaphysics through its attacks just because metaphysics may have some redeeming aspects to it. Or that it changes. For example, much of metaphysics was characterized by understanding what underlies phenomena or the conditions for the possibility of experience, which later changed to phenomonology and transcendental empiricism. Nevertheless, an attack on understanding what underlies phenomena or the conditions of the possibility of experience may suffice to attack metaphysics as a whole, including phenomenology and transcendental empiricism, which emerged ideologically from the former. Report

Corey Dethier
Corey Dethier
8 months ago

The mythos of the positivists killing metaphysics and various subsequent philosophers—Quine, often; Kripke, here—resurrecting it is extremely bizarre. Carnap, for example, is quite clear that he never had any intention of killing “metaphysics” in the sense of the term as it was used even in the 1950s; as he tells it, his target was only ever the particular kind of metaphysics practiced by certain contemporaries in Germany at the time. Even then, a minimally charitable reading of his position is not that people shouldn’t do metaphysics, but that people shouldn’t mix metaphysics (in this limited sense!) up with verifiable science. It seems that this is a position that a lot people now disagree with because of skepticism about verifiability, but it’s definitely not the kind of outright dismissal of metaphysics that is commonly attributed to him. The only way you seem to get that more radical position is by reading “meaningless” in a non-technical sense when it is explicitly introduced as a technical term of art.

(Or, in other words, I think even the logical positivists are best read in the manner that Kenny suggests above: as arguing that (particular kinds of) metaphysics are not useful for the kind of project that they’re interested in.)Report

Y
Y
8 months ago

1) It is extremely dismissive and pretentious to claim that those that disagree with you about the value of metaphysics must not have knowledge of metaphysics. If you were familiar with the arguments against metaphysics then you couldn’t make a claim like this (or many other claims that you are making about those that argue against metaphysics.) For example, a plausible interpretation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is that metaphysical claims are nonsensical. Another example would be an interpretation of Nietzsche’s dismissal of a True World in Twilight of the idols as a denial of metaphysical claims. Would you claim that Wittgenstein and Nietzsche were unfamiliar with metaphysics? You’re being hypocritical to those that make anti-metaphysical arguments by attacking them as a whole without examining all the arguments against metaphysics.

2) It is perfectly reasonable to argue that a general enterprise is improper without needing to examine every piece of that enterprise. Most arguments about defined subjects occur outside of those respective subjects. For example, one can undermine astrology and alchemy with an appeal to science. One does not need to examine astrological arguments within the context of astrology in order to undermine astrology.

3) It is perfectly coherent to argue against metaphysics using metaphysical claims and then abandon those metaphysical claims without the argument being undermined. Wittgenstein attempts to do this with his ladder example in the Tractatus. One of my favorite arguments against metaphysics is Nietzsche’s examination of the True World in Twilight of the Idols, which is (kind of) a reductio ad absurdum. Moreover, an argument that attacks metaphysics is likely making metaphysical claims differently than the way that metaphysical claims are made in metaphysics. Report

The hillbilly
The hillbilly
Reply to  Y
8 months ago

You missed the point. The person wasn’t saying that the opponents of metaphysics are ignorant, or that you need to know every single metaphysical argument in order to legitimately oppose it. The point was that by getting to know the arguments and then opposing them, you are doing metaphysics. Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  The hillbilly
8 months ago

Like.Report

Y
Y
Reply to  The hillbilly
8 months ago

I addressed that. I did not miss the point. That was just one point. The other point was made as well.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
8 months ago

“Suppose you think that metaphysics is dumb. Then you must think that the arguments in metaphysics are dumb.” This is a rather flimsy little argument.

You can think metaphysics is dumb without thinking the arguments are dumb, just like you can think chess is ultimately pointless while still finding a particular move or game to be quite the opposite — brilliant in fact. The arguments in the scholastic endeavor called metaphysics might be marvelous yet still crafted in the service of an utterly confused goal or produced without understanding what one is ultimately doing in producing them.Report

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
8 months ago

But brilliance is not the opposite of pointless. The counterexample would need to be someone who believes that chess is pointless, but thinks the moves of chess are not pointless. I find that hard to imagine.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  The Doctor
8 months ago

I can see a move as perfectly warranted, and done to take the queen. Seems pretty easy to imagine.

The problem is with the original argument: it trades on an ambiguity. Calling an entire discipline dumb is different from calling parts of that discipline dumb, as several here have pointed out. I was demonstrating the original ambiguity by showing that a “whole” can be pointless (in one sense of ‘pointless’) while its parts can be not-pointless (in a different sense of ‘pointless’).Report

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
8 months ago

I took it that Merrick’s point was that if you find the whole of Metaphysics pointless (in the sense of not being worth our time and attention), then you must also take the ‘parts’ of it to be pointless (in the sense of not being worth our time or attention).

So of course the parts of a whole can have properties that the whole does not… (and of course you can imagine one thing having a property understood in one sense, but lacking it when understood in another sense)… but can a person view an entire enterprise as pointless and yet still view the parts of that enterprise as meaningful or worthy of our attention? That is what you need to suggest to show that Merrick is mistaken here.

So the analogy would be someone who thinks that chess moves are valuable, important and worthy of our time and attention, while the game of chess is pointless, unimportant, and not worthy of our time and attention. That seems absurd to me!Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  The Doctor
8 months ago

The ambiguity isn’t resolved just by Merricks’s use of the same word (“dumb”) in the premise and conclusion of his argument, or just by your use of the same phrase (“not worth our time and attention”) in the premise and conclusion of your interpretation of his argument.

Those who find metaphysics “dumb” simply do not *necessarily* find the arguments “dumb” in the sense in which they find the scholastic enterprise “dumb” — or however you want to put it.

I think he’s equivocating — or, perhaps, straw-manning (attacking an ultimately irrelevant target) — and you don’t. Fair enough.Report

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
8 months ago

I think we both agree that his use of ‘dumb’ to characterize his opponents’ view was, for the lack of a better word, ‘dumb.’ That word is quite vague, and as a result, it is not clear what view he is attributing to the opponents of metaphysics.

I think your point about straw-manning helps me understand your worry. When I first read Merrick’s argument, I was worried about the Part Whole Fallacy too. But it struck me that, like many fallacies, there are cases and then there are cases. If he meant something like ‘pointless’ by the word dumb, then it does seem to me that the inference from a whole being pointless, to its parts being points –in the same way– is a valid inference. So while we could read him as equivocating or committing the Part Whole Fallacy, why do so when there is a plausible interpretation of his argument where it is valid?

That said, I feel the force of the straw-man objection–it cuts against even the charitable interpretation where his argument is valid. For me, the part of the argument that highlights this is his treatment of ‘viewing the arguments as dumb’ as basically the same thing as ‘believing there is a false premise in those arguments.’ Surely there exists some metaphysical premise, X, used in an argument for a metaphysical view, such that there is another metaphysical argument that uses not-X as a premise. So either the opponent of metaphysics believes that both X and not-X are false, (unlikely to be a popular view), or the opponent of metaphysic’s does not mean ‘contains a false premise’ when they accuse metaphysical arguments of being ‘dumb’. Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  The Doctor
8 months ago

Like.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  The Doctor
8 months ago

Someone could think that moves a not pointless relative to one’s goals IF one decides to play chess.

Perhaps a better analogy: despite being an atheist, I think that some of the arguments in theology involve good reasoning and might even involve true premises (e.g. if they’re about concepts of God rather than claims about God) even though the subject is pointless insofar as it’s trying to understand the nature of God. I don’t think that metaphysics is pointless in the same way, but I think that someone may reasonable have a similar attitude towards it as I have towards theology.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  William Peden
8 months ago

Actually, “pointless” is a bit too strong, since I have a non-zero credence that we’ll discover that God exists, and it might be useful to know something about him/her/zey. However, I think there are more propitious ways of using the considerable intelligences of people in theology and it’s trivially true that I would like it if they used them in the ways I would prefer.Report

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  William Peden
8 months ago

Again, I accept that we can interpret Merrick as offering an equivocation. That’s easy. I am wondering why we should (if there is a way to read him as offering an argument that does not equivocate). And if we read him as not equivocating, these counterexamples don’t work!

For instance: You think discussing God’s properties is ‘pointless’ because there is no God. We could perhaps read that ‘pointless’ as meaning ‘an effort that will not bring us closer to Truth’. But you also think that arguments about his properties could ‘involve good reasoning and contain true premises’. That’s a switch of standards! You are saying that the arguments are good in one sense, but the whole field is bad in another sense. No one is going to deny that that is possible!

A counterexample to Merrick would be where you view the field of Theology as ‘an effort that will not bring us closer to Truth’ but where you accept that there are arguments in the field of Theology that WILL bring us closer to truth. That sounds hard (impossible?) to imagine. Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  The Doctor
8 months ago

I’m not sure that such counterexamples are so difficult, but it depends on what you mean by “closer to Truth”.

Suppose that you have a broken thermometer that will give you inaccurate readings most of the time, but not all of the time, and you don’t know exactly when its readings will be inaccurate. I think there’s a sense in which believing the thermometer’s readings will not bring you closer to Truth, but there are measurements using it that would. The same is also possible for academic disciplines, though obviously no-one would accept all of the conclusions of all the arguments of metaphysics or theology.Report

The Doctor
The Doctor
Reply to  William Peden
8 months ago

I think I have lost the thread of the conversation. Let me try to reconstruct it. Merricks argued that the critics of metaphysics refer to the whole enterprise as ‘dumb’ (which we have been cashing out as meaning something like ‘pointless’). He then inferred that those critics must therefore think that the individual arguments that make up the enterprise of metaphysics are equally ‘dumb’ or pointless. While typically it is fallacious to assume that if a whole has some property, P, that the parts of that whole also have P–I suggested that with respect to some properties (like ‘pointless’) this inference would be a valid one. If at least some of the arguments are not ‘pointless,’ then how could the entire field of metaphysics, which includes those arguments, be pointless?

You offered a broken thermometer as a counterexample. You write: “I think there’s a sense in which believing the thermometer’s readings will not bring you closer to Truth, but there are measurements using it that would.” I take you to be saying that overall use of the thermometer would be pointless (or not bring us closer to Truth), whereas some of the individual uses of the thermometer would have value / a point (because they would bring us closer to truth). We do not know which among the individual measurements are accurate and useful, and we have no means to distinguish them from the inaccurate and useless measurements.

And this is where I feel I have lost the thread. I have to admit that my intuition here is that, overall, the thermometer is not worth trusting–but that my lack of trust in the thermometer exactly mirrors my lack of trust of the individual readings. Sure some of them are correct, but that doesn’t mean I should trust those readings! If I have no way to independently evaluate the readings, then my confidence in their truth will be the same as my overall confidence in the thermometer. Thus, this doesn’t strike me as an example where the whole is pointless but the parts are not. What am I missing?Report

Grad Student1
Grad Student1
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
8 months ago

I think this is exactly the right response on behalf of people (I’m probably one) who think much of today’s metaphysics is not worth doing. That view is based on a theory of value that isn’t internal to metaphysics; it’s not a part of “doing” metaphysics.

And Merrick’s claim that “Suppose you think that metaphysics is dumb. Then you must think that the arguments in metaphysics are dumb” simply does not follow, for the reasons Animal noted above.

Sometimes I think people whose main contributions are in contemporary metaphysics perfectly grasp the external complaint and revel in not caring about it. (How else do you entitle your paper “The grounds grounding the grounded is grounded in the grounding” or whatever it was?). Of course, that’s a defensible reaction if you can get away with it. But it shouldn’t be characterized as a perplexed confusion about what the complaint is. Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Grad Student1
8 months ago

No, we don’t “perfectly grasp the external complaint and revel in not caring about it.” Can you say what the complaint is? Because, if it’s that you think metaphysics isn’t worth doing (as you suggest), then metaphysical arguments must not be worth making, which is basically what Merricks says, no? (I mean, how could it be worthwhile to make metaphysical arguments but not to “do” metaphysics?) Of course, you hedge by saying “*much* of today’s metaphysics is not worth doing”. Well yeah, no doubt. But that’s true of epistemology and ethics and every other branch of philosophy. Heck, it’s probably true of most disciplines and sub-disciplines. If you want us to understand the criticism of metaphysics, you need to state a criticism that applies uniquely (or at least especially) to metaphysics, instead of acting like we’re being intentionally obtuse.Report

Phil Bold
8 months ago

Most of the anti-metaphysical sentiments I have encountered have been more or less inspired by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (PI) and related works. On a strict reading of that text, Wittgenstein is not offering “arguments” (at least as they are typically understood in philosophy/metaphysics), but instead considerations that make impulses to theory seem unmotivated, incoherent, or generally unimportant (what W calls “therapy”). (Kenny’s thoughts above are especially relevant here.) The standard methods in PI are ordinary descriptions of linguistic practices, or subsections of them, or fictional descriptions of such practices for the sake of illustration (all referred to as “language games” – W notes the variety of uses). Metaphysical theory presupposes that such practices cannot be understood without a substantive theory independent of those practices; Wittgenstein’s methods put this into doubt — i.e., since the theoretical additions create their own puzzles (apparently without end), and the ordinary descriptions, when laid out carefully, offer greater clarity of the phenomena. This is the intention at least. So, at least by my lights, W offers an interesting and extremely influential critique that does not engage directly with the arguments of metaphysicians — it instead critiques a fundamental presupposition on which the whole enterprise depends. Without it, the enterprise seems undermotivated, etc., and perhaps even “dumb”. Though, Merricks does seem to have a point that critics who engage directly with metaphysical arguments might thereby be participating in metaphysics. It is a distinctive virtue of W’s approach (by my lights!) that it avoids this issue. Though that’s not to say it doesn’t encounter others…Report

Frank
Frank
8 months ago

Interesting arguments, though I’m a layperson here. I wonder specifically about the claim that “the denial of the premise that you are rejecting will probably be as ‘metaphysical’ as that premise itself.” On the one hand, the denials of metaphysical premises p among anti-metaphysicians tend not to be assertions of not-p (which would be metaphysical) so much as claims that both p and not-p are literal nonsense. Now that wouldn’t be a metaphysical claim per se, but it would be a meta-metaphysical claim. So can meta-metaphysical claims avoid metaphysical assumptions? I can think of anti-metaphysical meta-metaphysical arguments that don’t rely on any hidden metaphysical assumptions, but then again, those tend to involve (by my thinking) questionable deflationary accounts of truth. Maybe I’m just not being creative enough? Report

Y
Y
Reply to  Frank
8 months ago

Metaphysics is seen as this all encompassing branch of knowledge, but that is only for those that believe that metaphysics holds that special place, which those against metaphysics do not. Therefore, an argument against metaphysics need not be a meta-metaphysical claim. Such arguments may just be non-metaphysical. The analogy would be how science undermines alchemy and astrology. We don’t look at science as meta-astrology. It is something entirely different. Metaphysics seems different only because of the special place that metaphysics appears to take. But to anti-metaphysicians, metaphysics takes up less conceptual space than alchemy and astrology. For example, I deny metaphysical claims on the basis of ethical claims. Ethical claims are not meta-metaphysical. Moreover, using a metaphysical premise, doesn’t mean that the argument is metaphysical just as in astrology and alchemy. For example, I could argue Premise 1: astrology uses the position of stars to predict human behavior. Premise 2: Human behavior cannot be predicted by stars. Conclusion: Astrology is incorrect. Or, one could argue that science predicts behavior and science does not make the same predictions as astrology, therefore astrology is incorrect. This argument is simply valuing science over astrology.

In a similar manner, I could argue Premise 1: Metaphysics is about the most general forms of possible experience. Premise 2: Possible experience is not what is actually experienced. Corollary 1: Metaphysics is not about actual experience. Corollary 2: Belief in metaphysical claims is a belief in a world other than the actual world. Conclusion: Belief in metaphysical claims is a belief in the denial to affirm the actual world alone. This argument appears to use metaphysical claims, but it is actually an ethical argument. It is an argument that we should orient ourselves to the actual world, framed as a reductio ad absurdum of a metaphysical claim. In other words, the argument is really: what matters is life and metaphysics denies life, therefore metaphysics is incorrect.

There’s no reason to think that this argument is meta-metaphysical. It’s just an analysis of something that is not metaphysical. It is simply valuing actual reality over potential reality.

—-

Your point about deflationary accounts of truth seems accurate to me, although only partially accurate and minimizing.

First, deflationary accounts of truth are one way of attacking metaphysical arguments. But it’s not a strawman. Those arguing for deflationary accounts of truth believe that those are accurate accounts of truth which then entails that metaphysics is implausible.

Second, there are other ways to attack metaphysics than deflationary accounts of truth. For example, I think that my argument above is not about deflating truth but about ethics. One might argue that I’m limiting the field of metaphysics artificially, but I disagree. Instead, I think that someone who argues for a broader interpretation of metaphysics as a way to counter an argument against metaphysics is like a revisionist christian who tries to explain that modern science of the big bang and evolution is just the way that God made everything. These people will always have something to say that reinterprets their faith to avoid a fatal argument against it.

In that vein, a deflationary account of truth that attacks metaphysics at least attacks the portion of metaphysics that the account of truth encompasses, if one has a more expansive view of metaphysics.Report

Frank
Frank
Reply to  Y
8 months ago

TT: Lots of good stuff there. Just to take up one strain: The argument you present in the second paragraph may be normative (“ethical” seems a bit strong, unless I’m an even worse person than I thought) but I’m having some trouble imagining thinking that we have an obligation (of any kind) to focus our thought on the actual world as opposed to merely possible worlds without some decidedly metaphysical assumptions about what those terms mean and/or refer to. Does that make sense? The issue here (as I understood it) wasn’t so much about what whole arguments are about as much as the possibility of escaping metaphysical assumptions in what may be highly enthymematic (is that a word?) arguments.Report

Frank
Frank
Reply to  Frank
8 months ago

Oops. Confused commenters. Meant to address “Y” above.Report

Y
Y
Reply to  Frank
8 months ago

Yes. I believe that the original post is saying that anti-metaphysical arguments require metaphysical premises. However, it goes further than that and says that those arguments are therefore metaphysical.

However, I would say, in one sense, that premises that anti-metaphysical arguments that use metaphysics aren’t metaphysical. I mean, look at the astrology argument. It has an “astrological premise”, but the argument is neither astrological or meta-astrological. In another sense, given that the arguments are not metaphysical it doesn’t make sense to say that the premises are metaphysical (or astrological) either.

—-

I think that my above argument is an ethical argument because the argument is about valuing x over y. I think questions about what one should value are ethical questions.

Again, I think the special place that metaphysics appears to hold as all-encompassing makes the argument appear that non-metaphysical claims are in some sense metaphysical. Like, I like trees is metaphysical because trees are contained within metaphysics. But only people believe in metaphysics and that metaphysics is so all encompassing would believe that. I think that once you step out of these prejudices of metaphysics, it makes sense to say that valuing the actual world and life are non-metaphysical claims in the same way that I like trees is not a metaphysical claim anywhere except for inside metaphysics.

This distinction may seem artificial, but I don’t think so. The claim of valuing the actual world is a question of valuation, which is an ethical claim, as I stated above, made within an ethical domain. That domain is independent of metaphysics, unless one is in metaphysics, believing that everything is contained in metaphysics. From the perspective of the ethical domain, metaphysics is superfluous to understanding that claim and misleading.

Report

Frank
Frank
Reply to  Y
8 months ago

Ok, except that I don’t have to think that all statements are ultimately metaphysical in order to think that those about possible and actual worlds are ultimately metaphysical. I’m not sure how I avoid metaphysics in this context, even if my ultimate aim is to discuss their value. So no, “I like trees” isn’t irreducibly metaphysical. But it is irreducibly arboreal. I have to think something about what sorts of things are trees in order to like them. Same with actual worlds, only thinking about actual as opposed to merely possible worlds – unlike trees – forces us to engage in metaphysics. Now if we had an argument against metaphysics that moved from thinking about trees rather than possible worlds, we’d be getting somewhere. Report

Y
Y
Reply to  Frank
8 months ago

I disagree. You don’t need to talk about metaphysics to talk about trees.

Take the sentence, “the sun has moved behind the elms.” There’s a division here between appearance and astronomy because according to astronomy the sun is not actually moving behind the elms, it only appears that way. But the statement is perfectly coherent without reference to astronomy or appearance. There is an ever day context that provides complete understanding of this phenomenon without an appeal beyond that. However, the scientist would say that the appearance is actually the Earth rotating and the sun standing still reflected on our eyes (or something like that.) It is only from the perspective of the scientist or someone who places more value on the scientific explanation that renders the actual phenomenon in need of further explanation.

That’s analogous to my position with respect to metaphysics where metaphysics is the astronomy and anti-metaphysical claims is the appearance, except metaphysics is valueless and nonsensical and find more value in the anti-metaphysical claims. Liking trees is not a metaphysical claim (talk to any non-philosopher) until it enters the realm of metaphysics, which is only for metaphysicians. Same with ethical claims about life, actual world and possible world. Those statements are meaningful without appeal to metaphysics. I mean, I find meaning in them without finding meaning in metaphysics.

But I think my example is one that most people, even anti-metaphysicians would disagree with, so even though I think that’s the correct approach to understanding anti-metaphysical claims, getting jumbled up into the weeds of the example is probably not so worthwhile. Report

TT
TT
8 months ago

I’m generally anti-metaphysics, at least when it comes to the kind of metaphysics that treats itself as orthogonal to science or as a competitor to science. But my reasons are not “metaphysical”. Rather, they are largely epistemological: I do not think the intuitions which drive much of metaphysics are reliable when it comes to telling us about the world itself. This is a point Kant made centuries ago: absent a story about why my concepts/judgments latch on to the world itself, a match between them would be a sheer miracle. I don’t need to examine every metaphysical argument one by one to take this stand. Rather, some basic familiarity with the field, together with a bit of induction, is sufficient.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
Reply to  TT
8 months ago

Right? Hume had already said enough when he compared arguments or theories to an ocean fathom, declaring “our line is too short.” Why would we think these simple little things – stacks of sentences with certain relations of terms – drive into the heart of reality? It seems immensely improbable. Of course, there’s metaphysics in this anti-metaphysical argument (sentences are not propositions) but it’s a simpler, more intuitive metaphysics.

Author makes an argument that has been made for centuries. It’s from the idealist playbook. Hegel made it. Josiah Royce here in America. Not to knock OP too badly because he’s in good company, but those of us who know the arguments (and not just the recent ones) aren’t really compelled by this ancient strategy.Report

A Philosopher
A Philosopher
Reply to  Kevin J. Harrelson
8 months ago

Like.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  TT
8 months ago

You seem to think that metaphysics relies on “intuitions” in some pejorative sense. But many practicing metaphysicians deny this. If your objection to metaphysics is based off of a caricature of what metaphysics is, I think the OP has a point.Report

TT
TT
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

They deny that they rely on intuitions or deny that the intuitions they rely on are bad? Setting aside the latter, can you give an example of a metaphysician whose arguments don’t rely on intuitions? I’m sure they’re out there, since there are not going to be any perfect and interesting general truths about metaphysicians. But an example will help me get a sense of what you’re talking about. (And keep in mind that I’m talking about metaphysicians who seem themselves as doing something independent of, and potentially in conflict with, science.)

Report

A Philosopher
A Philosopher
Reply to  TT
8 months ago

Max Deutsch denies that analytic philosophy in general (including metaphysics) relies on intuitions. Basically his argument is that philosophical arguments aren’t based on intuitions or conceptual analysis about knowledge, grounding, etc. Instead, philosophical arguments are based on *facts* about knowledge, grounding, etc.–in other words, the facts themselves, not intuitions. I think this is plainly a bad line of argument, since the supposed facts appealed to as premises just are intuitions about what the facts are.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  TT
8 months ago

Well, the ‘in any pejorative sense’ is important: don’t leave that out! People use ‘intuition’ in all sorts of different ways, but I don’t think metaphysical arguments use intuitions in any sort of uniquely bad way. I feel like it would be more useful for you to give examples of metaphysical arguments that you think are no good (and that are widely thought to be good), but if you want me to start I guess I’ll give van Inwagen’s consequence argument:

The past is completely out of our control.
The laws of nature are completely out of our control.
Anything (non-trivially) entailed by things completely out of our control is also out of our control.
If determinism is true, what I will do in the future is entailed by the past and the laws.
If I have free will, what I do in the future is under my control.
Therefore, if determinism is true then I don’t have free will.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

The consequence argument is bad for two reasons, both of which have to do with being based on intuitions in the pejorative sense.

First, there is literally no good evidence that any form of determinism is true. All empirical research on laws of nature has been collected outside of brains–the very place in nature that free will plausibly enters the world. See https://philpapers.org/rec/BALWTA-2 and https://philpapers.org/rec/ARVANT-2.

So, premise 3 of the consequence argument is based on nothing more than an intuition about the uniformity of nature not well supported inductively by any of the empirical evidence we have gathered.

Second, if the account I give in the second paper linked to above is correct, then future empirical inquiry is necessary to determine whether premises 2 and 4 are true. This is because, on my account, if there is genuine [libertarian] free will, then (A) there should be subtle and unique unexplained violations of the standard quantum wave-function in different individuals’ brains (where our free choices literally alter the ‘laws of nature’), and (B) even there appear to be deterministic explanations of those violations in our physical-world reference frame, it may be an illusion generated by libertarian free will in a higher reference-frame.

Long story short, the consequence argument is based on little more than intuitions in the pejorative sense. It’s an interesting argument, to be sure–but there are no good reasons whatsoever to think several of its premises are actually true.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
8 months ago

I gave a pretty sloppy version of the argument, but I don’t think I was assuming determinism is true. That’s not a premise of the consequence argument, but insofar as arguments in the free will literature take determinism as a premise, it isn’t based on an intuition that determinism is true, but one’s understanding of the science. That understanding might be false, but it still doesn’t mean the argument is based on intuition.

Sorry, I don’t understand the second reason you give for thinking that intuitions must be playing a role. What’s the relevant intuition?Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Let me put it more simply. As you note, “arguments in the free will literature take determinism as a premise.” As you also note, the consequence argument also assumes that we have no control over the laws of nature. Thus, arguments like the consequence argument assume not one but two strong empirical claims about the world:

(1) The laws of nature are out of our control.
(2) The laws of nature plus earlier events determine later events.

The problem then is this: neither of these claims is actually inductively supported by the science. They are (I believe) common assumptions from the armchair about what the science is and what it entails. Call those ‘intuitions’, call them (unjustified) assumptions, whatever. The problem is that the consequence argument is based upon them, they appear to be largely made from the armchair (as a layperson’s understanding of what science supposedly supports), but the actual inductive evidence doesn’t really provide much (if any) support for them at all.

Since you might be skeptical about my claims regarding the science here, a couple of quick notes.

First, although there are a few philosophers who defend a deterministic, Bohmian (hidden variables) interpretation of quantum mechanics, as the following poll of actual physicists indicates, only something like *4%* of actual physicists think there is hidden determinism (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1612.00676.pdf ). That’s pretty darn close to a consensus. I could go into some detail as to why this is, but in brief it is believed by many that Bohmian mechanics has been falsified by observation (i.e. there is no way to reconcile hidden, deterministic variables with actual outcomes of experiments).

That’s one problem for the consequence argument (and armchair intuition/assumption of determinism it is based upon). Here’s a second, more general problem. Suppose you looked for a mouse in every room in my house except for the bedroom, but that you had no reasons to believe the mouse is in those rooms anyway (since there were no squeaking sounds, mouse droppings, disappearing cheese, etc.). Then suppose you inferred the generalization: ‘There is no mouse in any room in the house.’ That would clearly be an inductively unjustified generalization. After all, you never even bothered to look in the bedroom! Now, suppose as the real kicker, that you actually had some halfway plausible evidence that if there is a mouse anywhere in the house at all, it’s probably got to be in the bedroom (you can hear squeaky sounds in the bedroom). In that case, it would be even worse to simply infer that there’s no mouse anywhere in the house.

This is the second mistake the consequence argument makes. Its proponent assumes that (1) determinism is true and (2) we cannot change the ‘laws of nature’ through free choices. While both of these claims may seem intuitively true, nothing inductively supports them. If free will exists anywhere, it doesn’t exist outside of brains in mindless atoms (the things that quantum physics has studied to date). It occurs in brains, presumably as a result of phenomenally conscious decisions that occur there and only there in nature (for high-level reasons why this might be the case, see my paper linked to above).

The point here is not that we know that determinism is false (though I think the balance of evidence in physics suggests that it is), nor is the point that we currently have evidence that free will exists in brains in ways that can ‘change the laws of nature’ by violating the normal quantum wave-function observed outside of brains. The point is that the consequence argument assumes the contrary from the armchair without good evidence.

I don’t have any problems with metaphysical speculation. I do have problems with metaphysical arguments that are based on unjustified armchair assumptions, I think this happens quite a lot (echoing some other commenters above), and I colloquially call these things ‘intuitions’ (as they are, I think, similar in kind to the ungrounded ‘intuition’ that people sometimes have that someone is a good or bad person, or that X tastes good or bad, without any sound evidence). Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Also, if you’re skeptical about the mouse in the house analogy, and the corresponding claim that since we’ve never measured the quantum wave function in brains, we don’t have any inductive evidence that the laws of nature are fixed simpliciter, consider the simple video game Pac Man. Literally everything in Pac Man’s environment is determined by the laws of nature of the game…except for Pac Man. The little blinking dots obey the game’s laws. So do the ghosts, which chase Pac Man around due to simple algorithms. So do the walls. The only part of the game that “breaks the laws of nature” of the game is Pac Man. Why? Because *you* are controlling him from the outside. Our current science has in no way provided a single bit of empirical evidence that we aren’t like Pac Man (and for the record, I have argued in several places that there is good evidence—rooted in quantum mechanics itself—that we probably live in a special kind of simulation). In which case it is a very real possibility that we are like Pac Man: controlling our actions from the ‘outside’ in ways that do not obey the laws that exist throughout the rest of the simulation.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Hi Marcus. I just meant that some arguments in the free will literature take determinism as a premise. The consequence argument, on my and many other formulations, doesn’t. I agree with you that determinism is probably false.

As for whether we have control over the laws of nature…I don’t think it’s “metaphysical speculation” to say that we don’t have control over the laws of nature. I think that’s pretty obviously true for a variety of reasons. Partly empirical reasons: I’ve never observed or heard about someone changing a law of nature. And partly a priori reasons: it seems like it’s part of the idea of a law of nature that they’re not the sort of things that are under our control. Maybe these reasons are ultimately trumped by other reasons, or maybe these are bad reasons to begin with. But my only point is that my belief that we don’t have control over the laws of nature isn’t just some “intuition”.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

“ I think that’s pretty obviously true for a variety of reasons.“

It’s precisely statements like this that are the problem that critics of analytic metaphysics (such as myself) strongly object to. I’ve given a variety of reasons—referring to examples as well as the nature of induction—to think that it is *not* obviously true that the “laws” of our world are fixed or that determinism is true. So to simply point to your own concept of laws and the fact that you’ve never seen anyone violate the laws of physics is to do exactly what Lenard did in opposing Einstein. It is to appeal to an *commonsense intuition* about how the world is that isn’t actually inductively supported and may well be falsified by future examination of physics in brains (in much the same way that observations supported relativity and refuted Lenard and those like him).Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

JDRox: let me also clarify the point about Einstein and Lenard, as I had a longer comment that got lost in cyberspace and it’s an important one.

You say that certain premises about laws of nature seem obviously true to you, partly on empirical and partly on a priori grounds. You say it seems to be a part of the concept of a law that it is fixed, and you say you have never seen anyone violate the laws of nature.

Here’s the problem: Philip Lenard and a bunch of other philosophers and physicists flatly rejected the Theory of Relativity on precisely analogous grounds.

First, Lenard and those like him asserted that it is part of the concepts of space and time that they must be absolute.

Second, Lenard and those like him said that no one had ever seen space or time bend.

So, they rejected relativity from the armchair. We all know how well that turned out. Subsequent observations of the world proved Einstein right, and we have now *changed* our space and time to cohere with relativity—as the old absolutist concepts were found empirically to simply not correspond to reality.

My claim is that proponents of the consequence argument are doing something just like this, and that this way of arguing in general is flawed for these reasons. We cannot legislate from the armchair how reality has to be, and several premises in the consequence argument remain open empirical questions, your being convinced that they are “obviously true” notwithstanding.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Marcus: it’s very important that I’m not claiming determinism is true, and that that’s not part of the consequence argument. (Isn’t van Inwagen, a Libertarian, the most prominent defender of that argument?)

And I’m sorry, I don’t think you’ve given any reason to think that we have control over the laws of nature. You’ve argued that the claim that we don’t might be falsified.* But so what? That doesn’t mean that it’s in fact false. What reason do we have for actually thinking that it’s false? We have not, in fact, detected any sort of violations of the laws of nature inside our heads.

Conversely, I do think we have good reason to think that we don’t have control over the laws of nature. What if you decided to change the speed of light to be faster, and I decided to change it to be slower? Whose change would go into effect? Who controlled the laws before humans evolved? If we can control the laws, why can’t we do so in useful ways like making a perpetual motion machine? I know you will probably find these questions annoying, but I guess it would be helpful if you could say what you mean by “the laws of nature are under our control”. Rereading your comments above, it seems like maybe you’re counting violating a law of nature, or falsifying an apparent law of nature, as changing or having control over the laws of nature. I certainly wouldn’t count falsifying an apparent law of nature as having control over the laws of nature. As to whether violating a law of nature counts as control over the laws, that’s a bit more complicated. But my belief that (ordinary) humans are not able to violate laws of nature is not based simply on an intuition, but on experience: like I’ve said, I’ve never seen anyone do it. Yes, it is compatible with that that people are doing it all the time in subtle ways in their heads. It’s also compatible with that that people are doing it all the time when I’m not looking. But that doesn’t mean that I lack evidence that they’re not doing it.

*By the way, I still don’t see how your case supports the idea that the laws are under our control.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Coming a little late to this: on the question of whether contemporary physics supports determinism:
1) It is very hard to do good polling of physicists on the interpretation of QM: attitudes vary a lot between subcommunities (string theorists like the Everett interpretation, quantum information theorists like QBism, etc) and it depends very much on how you ask the question. So to draw substantial conclusions from one MA thesis survey with a c.10% response rate sounds premature.
2) If you were to ask physicists in at least those communities I’m familiar with questions like “Is the Schrodinger equation an exceptionless description of how a system evolves, or does it need to be supplemented by stochastic collapse”, or “does decoherence, alone, suffice to explain apparent collapse of the wavefunction” you’d get a fat fraction of people saying ‘yes’. That answer entails determinism (albeit at the level of the whole quantum state, not that of individual branches.)
3) Perhaps more importantly (since we don’t do physics by opinion poll), there are substantial subfields of physics which take unitary evolution, without collapse or other irreducible stochasticity, as a fairly explicit premise. (e.g., most study of the quantum/classical transition; much of quantum information; quantum cosmology; the black hole information loss paradox.) Again, that entails determinism.
4) Even if you put that aside, there are perfectly reasonable arguments, not using intuition-based premises, for what is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics, and some of those (including some of mine) support interpretations which are deterministic.
5) Come to that, there are perfectly reasonable arguments, not using intuition-based premises, for Bohm-style, non-Many-Worlds, hidden determinism. Those arguments can be challenged or criticized, but they’re not *silly*. (And I say this as perhaps the most severe and persistent critic of Bohmian mechanics in contemporary philosophy of physics.) The fact that it is such a minority view among working physicists should in my view give its advocates more pause than it usually does, but it can’t be taken as dispositive, and there are serious people in the minority: Bohm and Bell were fairly major figures in 20th-century theoretical physics; so was Einstein, come to that.

So while it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that contemporary physics does not support determinism, the idea that it’s just ignorant intuition-based metaphysical muddling to take determinism as a premise really *isn’t* reasonable.
Report

Y
Y
8 months ago

The argument that the denial of a metaphysical claim is a metaphysical claim reminds me of indefeatable arguments like the bible can’t be wrong because the bible says that it’s right. Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Y
8 months ago

This comment reminds me of a non-sequitor. Report

Y
Y
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Analogies are often better arguments than “logical” deductions.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Y
8 months ago

Psychological manipulation is often more convincing than giving actual reasons.Report

Y
Y
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Man, I feel bad for your students. Besides simply being a bully, you exemplify the pompousness that makes people adverse to Philosophy with such a narrow minded view of positions and arguments.

I thought the “reasoning” of the analogy was clear, but if you’d feel better if I made it more pedantic to suit your sensabilities I can do that to avoid your intentional desire to appear obtuse.

My point is very similar to what has been made throughout this forum, and one that I made myself more clearly already in a different section. I just tried to say it more succinctly. That is, metaphysicians seem to me to place metaphysics as holding a primary place in the field of knowledge. Therefore, almost any discussion will relate to metaphysics for a metaphysician. Therefore, saying that a statement is metaphysical because it includes a discussion of something that a metaphysician would see as metaphysical is indefeatable. In addition, it begs the question to the anti-metaphysician who does not believe that metaphysics holds a state of primacy. For example, how can an argument against metaphysics be a metaphysical claim if metaphysical statements have no meaning?Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Y
8 months ago

I was going to write, “Man, I feel bad for your students. Besides simply being obtuse, you’re also a jerk.” But now I see that this isn’t good-natured ribbing, so I’ll just make my position plain: your analogy doesn’t work. “The Bible can’t be wrong because the Bible says that it’s right” is a standard example of a circular argument. “The negation of a metaphysical claim is also a metaphysical claim” is not an argument, so it can’t be circular. I myself think it’s a true claim. It doesn’t have anything to do with thinking the metaphysics is related to everything, or primary, or anything like that.* It just has to do with a principle that seems true to me: if a claim belongs to a discipline, then so does its negation. There might be some clever counterexamples to that principle, but it’s certainly generally true. And yes, if metaphysical claims are meaningless, then so are the negations of those claims. That’s consistent with my principle.

*Those are claims you keep attributing to metaphysicians, even though neither Merricks, nor I, nor any other defender of metaphysics on this thread has said anything like that.Report

Y
Y
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

Makes sense. Good point. Sorry for being disrespectful. I guess I took your good-natured ribbing the wrong way, and I appreciate the tone of your response.

But just because they are structurally different, does not mean that they are materially different. Analogies always have things that are similar and things that are different that’s why they are analogies. The point of the analogy was to elicit the similarity between the circular aspects of both those statements, which I see in the statement and you don’t and which you have an argument against.

The point being made was that the negation of a metaphysical claim is a metaphysical claim. That’s all that Merrick said. He did not expand it as a general principle. Therefore, if he keeps it as a specific principle the negation of a metaphysical claim is a metaphysical claim is unique to metaphysics. And that would only be if metaphysics is unique in a way that would allow that to happen, such as primacy.

(I make those statements about metaphysicians because metaphysics as a subject is like that and has historically functioned like that. I’m not claiming that Merrick said that.)

But I disagree with the more general statement. Disciplines can often be used to undermine others. For example, science can undermine astrology. Or (and you probably wouldn’t like this example) ethics can undermine AI.

Also, just because you made the assumption, I will say that I’m not a professor. I’m not even in the field of Philosophy anymore, although I did study it academically years ago. I mostly left it and prefer to study it on my own in my leisure because I want to be able to have these wacky, independent ideas and room for creativity in my thoughts that I think academia stifles with its emphasis on precision and minutiae. (Or maybe I just suck at philosophy. That’s also a possibility.)

I know that my points aren’t worth addressing in this forum, and there’s no need to argue against my recent points. I probably shouldn’t have written anything on this forum to begin with. I would have deleted all my comments if I could.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

I think many of your points are worth addressing, I just don’t think this analogy works. (It also seemed a little mean-spirited, which is why I initially responded in the snarky way I did.) I agree that disciplines can undermine other disciplines, but that’s because (I would say) a claim can “belong to” multiple disciplines. So, I think, science and metaphysics both have the possibility for undermining each other, since both make claims about the fundamental nature of reality. (E.g., whether determinism is true seems like a claim that “belongs to” both science and metaphysics.) In such cases (e.g., scientific arguments for or against determinism), it might sound weird to say that scientists are “doing metaphysics” (even though they are defending a metaphysical claim, they are doing so for scientific reasons), so maybe Merricks overstated things. (Although I, in fact, think that the lines between science and philosophy are blurry, and that there’s a good sense in which anyone defending a metaphysical claim is doing metaphysics.) But when it comes to philosophers denying metaphysical claims for philosophical reasons, I think it is fair to say that they are just “doing metaphysics”: anyone giving philosophical arguments for metaphysical claims is “doing metaphysics”. (I don’t know what else “doing metaphysics” could require.)Report

Tim
Tim
8 months ago

I think Merricks is neglecting one way of being skeptical about metaphysics: being skeptical because one is doubtful about the intuitions used in arguments that use primitive terms in metaphysical theories.

Once in graduate school, a well-known metaphysician gave a talk at my school. He defended his approach by giving arguments, where the principles were backed by intuitions about his preferred primitive concept. His argument was valid. But none of his principles seemed true to me. None of them seemed false to me. I simply had no inclination to believe or disbelieve them. I could have asked him to define his primitive concept using other concepts I understood; but he wouldn’t do that because his concept was a primitive one for him. I’m sure if I had asked a question, he would have said that I “didn’t get” his primitive concept and I needed to “work with it” more. But I had already read his more recent book and discussed it extensively with others in a reading group. What more could I reasonably be asked to do?

I was, and still am, skeptical of that metaphysician’s arguments work. (I would prefer not use to use the word ‘dumb.’) But my skepticism is not based in clearly thinking that some premise of some argument is false. Its based in my inability to even begin to evaluate the premises using my own intuitions. So I think Merricks is neglecting one way of being skeptical about some recent trends in metaphysics. Report

TT
TT
Reply to  Tim
8 months ago

It’s disappointing, since it seems to be a pretty common and well-known objection. I would have liked to hear him address it.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Tim
8 months ago

It would be easier to assess this complaint if an actual example was given. No doubt, there’s lots of crappy metaphysics. There’s lots of crappy physics too. We don’t evaluate disciplines on the basis of their worst instances though! Metaphysical arguments, like all arguments in philosophy, have premises. Some people might not find those premises plausible, but I can’t see why metaphysical premises would, as a matter of principle, be less plausible (or less evaluable) than premises in other areas of philosophy, except perhaps philosophy of language. When I teach various famous metaphysical argument to my students, they generally seem to find the premises both evaluable and, indeed, plausible. But again, it depends on the case!Report

TT
TT
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

“but I can’t see why metaphysical premises would, as a matter of principle, be less plausible (or less evaluable) than premises in other areas of philosophy, except perhaps philosophy of language. ”

One common answer:

Other areas of philosophy, or some other areas, are mind-dependent in some sense, so what we think about a thing can makes a difference to what it is. For example: what we, broadly speaking, think about moral responsibility will make a difference to what moral responsibility is. But metaphysics, at least the realist sort, does not work this way. So a premise that seems intuitive (or whatever) in one area might thereby be warranted, but a premise that seems intuitive (or whatever) in another area might not thereby be warranted. Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  TT
8 months ago

“Moral responsibility is mind-dependent.”

Isn’t this a paradigm metaphysical claim? Maybe you’re less against metaphysics per se, and more against the realist’s way of doing it.Report

Tim
Tim
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

“I can’t see why metaphysical premises would, as a matter of principle, be less plausible (or less evaluable) than premises in other areas of philosophy”

As a matter of principle, there is no reason. As a matter of fact, there is. The issue (for me at least) is primitivistness. Many metaphysicians introduces concepts and terms that are primitive and are not used by ordinary people, other researchers in the humanities or sciences, or most historical authors. A few examples may be given to illustrate the primitive concept or term. Then intuitions are mustered about these primitive concepts or terms. But some people (like me) don’t have enough of the intuitions to do this type of work. It is not hard to see how one could take the fact that some people have a lack of intuitions as support for some kind of skepticism about the work.

“We don’t evaluate disciplines on the basis of their worst instances though!”

I don’t have in mind any backwater work, published on random discussion boards. I’m thinking about the most prominent work on “ground” (understood as either an operator or relation), “structure,” “truth-making,” etc that is published in the top journals and top presses.Report

Martin Glazier
Reply to  Tim
8 months ago

To Tim, and to the others no doubt nodding along in agreement, I highly recommend Shamik Dasgupta’s 2017 paper “Constitutive Explanation”. Dasgupta argues that “ground can be significantly deflated: one can hold that it corresponds to no part of reality, that it is not primitive in any metaphysically significant sense, even that it is a person- or culture-relative notion with noncognitive elements, and yet still find it philosophically important.” He goes on to “suggest that nothing in Fine (2001) or (2012) commits him to anything beyond a very deflated notion of ground.”Report

Tim
Tim
Reply to  Martin Glazier
8 months ago

Thanks. I’ll check it out.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
8 months ago

I don’t see why metaphysics would be less mind-dependent than epistemology, or ethics, or philosophy of biology, or philosophy of mind, or…

Again, an actual example would be helpful. Yes, some of the arguments about grounding suck. But we’d need to talk about specific examples if we want to get anywhere close to establishing that metaphysics sucks more than the other areas of philosophy mentioned above.Report

Alan White
Alan White
8 months ago

After a lifetime of some minor work on Einstein’s SRT, which I regard and have argued for as an exquisite work in metaphysical theorizing, I’d put it forward as an archetype of what that kind of thinking should aim for. First, it took accepted observations about space and time and even mathematical expressions about those and reinterpreted them in terms of commitments to different concepts about time and space, and Occamly minimally so as to accommodate that data. Second, in doing this it simplified explanation in terms of needed hypotheses of explanation (cutting out the Lorentz/Fitzgerald stuff). Third, it laid ground for further exploration that might either support it or not–most boldly by that most famous equation as a logical consequence of the explanatory scheme. But make no mistake about it–Einstein’s revolution was at bottom conceptual, transforming how we think about reality but keeping close to what we can experience.

Metaphysical investigation must make some explanatory difference in our overall experience, or else it is like e.g. the supposed hiddenness of god in the philosophy of religion, which has more ad hoc-ness in common with Lorentz/Fitzgerald-type explanation than Einstein. So theories of time, mind, and free will and such had better engage our overall data about such things or be relegated ultimately to irrelevance, to better emulate Einstein’s ongoing success in explaining reality, at least at some level of it. At the same time I must also hold Einstein up as a poster-child of metaphysical dogma, given his intransigence against non-deterministic QT. My own overall recommendation for metaphysics is to fold in a lot of pragmatism about explanatory schemes–I think how such an attitude guided Einstein toward SRT is underappreciated.Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Alan White
8 months ago

The funny thing about Einstein is that he basically endorsed a positivist approach to metaphysics and epistemology. Whereas most others were thinking of space and time in a priori metaphysical terms, Einstein was convinced by Mach (and by Hume) of the epistemological position that one’s metaphysical commitments should end at sense-perception. Because light was observed to move at the same rate in every reference-frame, and that fact entailed that *observed* spacetime must be relative, Einstein inferred (as a positivist would) that it follows that spacetime *itself* must be relative. Most of his contemporaries rejected this on a priori terms (holding, as many philosophers might, that what space and time appear to be and what they actually are, are two different things). What’s funny about this? Well, the fact that positivism is largely rejected by epistemologists and metaphysicians. So, what most philosophers regard to be a *false* epistemological and (anti-)metaphysical doctrine turned out to be instrumental in one of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history. Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
8 months ago

A fair and familiar point Marcus, and well-taken as providing more perspective. Einstein’s operationalist approach to defining measurement certainly was informed by Mach and Hume as you say, and his only footnote in his 1905 paper to Besso is an indirect tip-of-the-hat to that, since Besso is one who we know discussed a lot of this stuff with him from his later autobiographical remarks. I would argue however that the absolutist Newtonian concepts of space and time that Einstein displaced were not a priori in some Kantian sense (for instance)–Newton used Galilean observations to derive much of what he had to say about space and time, and thought that time’s movement was just obvious to anyone paying attention, especially to clocks. Report

Dennis
Dennis
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
8 months ago

Hi Marcus,
I think this view of Einstein’s philosophy of science has been shown to be quite one-sided; see e.g. the excellent SEP entry by Don Howard and Marco Giovanelli on “Einstein’s Philosophy of Science”. Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
8 months ago

There are arguments to be had *everywhere*: merely pointing to the existence of arguments doesn’t show that they’re arguments worth having, a good use of our collective energy, and so on. (Nor that they’re not, the point is just that pointing there are arguments doesn’t get you very far.)

There’s arguments about basket weaving, for example. If I dismiss the domain of basket weaving as “dumb”–to use TM’s term from above–that doesn’t mean that I deny there are arguments. What I deny is that we should care. Call that a meta-argument.

But this also reminds me of debates about religion, which, at least some of us think, are also arguments not worth having. It’s not that the arguments are incoherent, it’s that they’re just so hopelessly misguided that we should do something else with our time. Even trying to attack the discourse is *participating* in the discourse, which is arguably what we’re trying to avoid doing altogether. Here it’s like we’re getting bullied into doing metaphysics unwittingly, whereas the critical view is just that we should stop talking about it altogether.Report

meta
meta
8 months ago

I’m a little depressed seeing how people think about metaphysics. I’m finishing my dissertation on metaphysics. I am far from a well known philosopher so I am not confident in what I am doing. Reading the discussions here makes me feel that what I’m doing is meaningless according many fellow philosophers. I am curious to see suggestions for young scholars like me who have already established serious philosophical interest in metaphysics. Should I re-think about my philosophical interests? Should I ignore discussions like these and focus on my research? Should I engage more in those meta-metaphysical debates about the status of metaphysics? Or should I just accept the fact that there are always other philosophers who think what I am doing is meaningless?Report

Y
Y
Reply to  meta
8 months ago

Awww. Don’t be depressed!! Push your desire as far as it goes! You picked your thesis for a reason. Finish it up and then evaluate how you feel about it after and what you want to do from there.

Philosophy in my opinion is about thinking for yourself. It’s up to you what you find interesting and worthwhile to work on.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  meta
8 months ago

I’m unimpressed by Merricks’s argument, but I still think it’s intellectually salutary to have people who think about parts and wholes, time and space, possibility and necessity, and other categories of thing that seem to be taken for granted by other areas of philosophy (and of non-philosophy). To my mind, though, metaphysicians tend, in their enthusiasm, to misconstrue the nature of their accomplishments, mythologizing or hypostatizing their “results.”

But this is all coming from one who has a somewhat chastened — but therefore ecumenical — view of philosophy. I think most philosophers misconstrue in this way — including me. I also think it’s fine, as long as we’re aware of the tendency, which is, regardless, a perfectly natural outcome of our tremendous capacity for reasoning combined with our tremendous interest in being able to say we’ve come to know an *object*.

In brief: I don’t think metaphysics is meaningless, but I do think it, along with most of philosophy, has a different meaning from what many might think. So, in some sense, you have a metaphysics friend in me: I’d talk metaphysics any time — it’s just that I’d likely be conceptualizing the nature of our activity in a different way.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
Reply to  meta
8 months ago

Yeah, definitely don’t be depressed! There’s also the idea that your *best* work will be what you’re most interested in, so picking something else could be counterproductive at the end of the day.

What I would flag, though, is there’s hardly any jobs in (pure) metaphysics. And when there are, they’re often at R1 programs, or even senior hires. So definitely try to round out your AOSs/AOCs, develop complementary interests in more marketable areas. E.g., there’s lots of metaphysics in race/gender, bioethics, social/political, and other areas with more hiring, so–to the extent you don’t feel completely compromised or uninterested–it’d be good to fortify your profile in those sorts of ways.

Congrats on (almost) finishing your dissertation!Report

Mark
Mark
8 months ago

While I am not defending this, what people who think metaphysics are dumb are likely saying, being charitable, is that the fact that metaphysics are dumb is a Moorean type fact. They take metaphysics to be so obviously dumb that they find it easier to accept the dumbness of metaphysics than any argument or premise for an argument in favor of the non-dumbness for metaphysics. It is possible that they lack imagination or knowledge about the arguments or premises for metaphysics, but it doesn’t change the fact that what they are actually expressing is how obvious they understand the dumbness of metaphysics to be. Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Mark
8 months ago

How could the dumbness of metaphysics be a Moorean fact? If Merricks had said that it’s just a Moorean fact that critics of metaphysics are dumb, that would be ridiculous (especially if he was unfamiliar with the details of many of the criticisms). The reverse seems just as true.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
8 months ago

I think there’s a bit of equivocation going on here. I tend to agree with Merricks that it’s darn near impossible not to have some tacit metaphysical commitments and that doing metaphysics is in some sense inescapable. But one can admit all that while thinking that the popular style of analytic metaphysics and contemporary metaphysical scene are pretty dumb (I wouldn’t go *quite* that far but I just want to note that it’s a consistent attitude). Take a comparison. In a sense it’s impossible to avoid doing ethics in that even the most hardened moral skeptic is in his very moral skepticism making some claims about how one should live and what one should do. But one can admit that ethics is inescapable in that sense without in any way denying much less dismissing the radical moral skepticisms of figures like Hobbes, Ayer, Nietzsche, and Mackie. Those guys count as moral skeptics because, even if they must make some recognizably moral claims, they deny that it’s possible to do many of the things most ethicists or indeed the field of ethics as a whole have wanted to do. One could very well admit the former while also holding one or more of the critiques these figures present are fatal to the ambitions of most ethicists and ethics as a whole. In the same vein, one can admit that metaphysics in some minimal sense is inescapable while thinking that the challenges presented by Hume, Kant, Heidegger, or even the logical positivists show that many of the things that metaphysicians and indeed the field of metaphysics have wanted to do are impossible. I’m pretty skeptical of contemporary analytic metaphysics because my impression of metaphysics is that challenges to its traditional aspirations are taken much less seriously by most metaphysicians than are comparable challenges in the field of ethics. Compare the number of books on ethics that have an obligatory chapter or chapters wrestling with Hobbes or Nietzsche with how many books in metaphysics have the comparable chapter on Kant, Wittgenstein, or Heidegger. I wouldn’t presume such challenges must be right, but when they’re simply ignored it makes me very dubious about the claims of the person who’s ignoring them. Perhaps I’m wrong and I certainly wouldn’t tar all metaphysicians with that brush, but the sense that contemporary metaphysicians don’t take challenges to their aspirations seriously enough has always been the main reason for my general skepticism of the contemporary scene. Again I could be wrong about this. I do know of exceptions to this characterization and I’d be happy to learn about more if they exist.Report

Preston Stovall
8 months ago

I want to make a brief case for the claim that it’s important to bear in mind the formal foundations to contemporary metaphysical inquiry, and the story of the growth of that inquiry out of so-called ‘intensional semantics’ in the second half of the 20th century. The development of proof theory and model theory in the first half of that century provided systematic foundations for clearly framing thoughts about meaning, and model-theoretic semantics in particular was closely wedded to representationalism and truth-conditional theories of meaning. This did much to shape the field of metaphysics.

Proof theory, on the other hand, has remained mostly a province of logicians and linguists. The proof-theoretic semanticist appeals to rules of inference for inferring to and from an expression rather than a model specifying what it represents, or the conditions under which it can be used to say true things. This broadly expressivist approach to metaphysics is perhaps most proximally rooted, in the 20th century, in The Logical Syntax of Language by Carnap. Expressivist and proof-theoretic approaches toward meaning have had some influence on metaphysics (e.g. in the work of Robert Brandom, Huw Price, Wilfrid Sellars, and Amie Thomasson), and Carnap’s nominalism has had some influence on analytic metaphysics (Thomas Hofweber has a paper on ambitous but modest metaphysics in this vein). But for the most part analytic metaphysics developed out of the model-theoretic, representational, and truth-conditional semantic projects that dominated philosophy and linguistics in the second half of the 20th century.

Proof theory offers a perspective on metaphysics that is only incidentally concerned with speculation about fundamental reality. Instead, it presents a picture on which metaphysical inquiry is in the first instance an inquiry into self-consciousness, an examination of the rule-governed linguistic categories through which we understand the world. In this regard it’s worth remembering that Kant thought of Modality as unlike Quantity, Quality, and Relation insofar as it added no content to a judgment but only concerned “the value of the copula in relation to thinking in general”.

Consider what talk of the essence of Socrates and the essence of {Socrates} comes to on this approach. Owing to problems with treating meaning in terms of extensions across possible worlds, Kit Fine pointed out that we cannot use possible worlds and the existence of objects to make sense of the different meanings (truth values) of ‘Socrates is essential to {Socrates}’ and ‘{Socrates} is essential to Socrates’. But if we think of meaning in terms of introduction and elimination rules, and we associate every atomic sentence with a sent of explanatory inferences to and from them (as their introduction and elimination rules under an intended interpretation), then we can understand object-language talk of the essences of Socrates and {Socrates} as expressing commitment to metalinguistic claims concerning what explanations are good: Socrates is essential to {Socrates} and not vice versa because there is an explanation for the existence of the latter on the basis of the existence of the former but not vice versa.

And that explanation can in turn be read off of our practice of identifying and individuating sets and human beings. For we justify a claim that two sets are identical by showing that all and the same objects occur in both sets (to put the point in the formal mode: by creating two lists and ensuring that exactly the same names occur on each list). But we do not identify and individuate persons on the basis of the sets containing them. Inquiry into the metaphysics of essence can be pursued as an inquiry into the semantic fine-structure of our habits of explanatory reasoning. This is a project in descriptive rather than prescriptive metaphysics, where what is described is the structure of cognition.

I believe there is a wealth of conceptual territory in human cognition waiting to be mapped with the explanatory resources of proof theory, and that such a mapping will provide a rather different view on metaphysical inquiry than the one on offer in much of contemporary metaphysics. Proof theory also offers a view of metaphysics that is much more closely connected to the explanatory practices of the sciences than to armchair speculation about the fundamental nature of reality. To appreciate this alternative, it helps to take a reflective stance on the formal and semantic presuppositions that shape the field today.

/RANTReport

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
8 months ago

Sorry, I should probably also mention Stephen Barker, Jon Erling Litland, and Francesca Poggiolesi as contemporary metaphysicians who work within a proof-theoretic tradition.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Preston Stovall
8 months ago

This is an instructively synoptic take, Preston. It’s worth exploring the extent to which model-theoretic semantics has reinforced the questionable idea that one can, as it were, glimpse (what one might be inclined to call) the ultimate structure of reality by reading one’s logic.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
Reply to  Preston Stovall
8 months ago

Love this post, Preston. Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
8 months ago

Thanks Kevin. And AS, I think we should pay particular attention to the debates coming out of the Tarski/Goedel/Carnap disputes in the 1930s, and the influence that Carnap’s so-called ‘semantic turn’ had on the way we think about these things. The very idea of ‘hyperintensional’ semantics is an artifact of Carnap’s decision to use ‘intension’ as a successor-concept for Frege’s notion of Sinn. The old idea of intension as concept-containment went missing; not a problem for Carnap, as he wasn’t interested in that to begin with. But philosophers were only faced with the need to go ‘hyperintensional’ because they weren’t working with a concept that was intensional in the classic sense to begin with. I think the proof theory/model theory distinction offers a much better framework for reconstructing the old intension/extension distinction than does the effort to reconstruct that distinction inside model theory. There’s a lot of good work being done in the history of analytic philosophy, and I think people like A.W. Carus, Michael Friedman, and Tom Ricketts are fighting the good fight when it comes to keeping our perspectives suitably nuanced.

Still, at the end of the day I do think that there is a serviceable notion of metaphysics as something like a study of logic. But it’s a study of logic as it was understood more often in the 18th and 19th century, as a study of the explanatory practices of the special sciences.

There’s work like this going on, but I get the sense that it’s not much read by metaphysicians. John Norton has been defending a material theory of induction and scientific explanation, for instance. And Jared Millson and his collaborators are developing a proof-theoretic defeasible inference model of explanation. On the basis of such a proof theory, they provide introduction and elimination rules for an object-language ‘best explains why’ operator. Object-language appeal to best explanations is thereby understood in terms of explanatory inferences that satisfy certain conditions. Applying the model to a series of cases across the sciences, they argue that it does a good job accounting for why different explanations were accepted over others. These are sophisticated analyses of scientific explanation (much more technically precise than most deductive-nomological models of explanation, for instance), but I think we’re only at the beginning of developing a formally tractable understanding of the explanatory structure of scientific reasoning.

Proof theory offers tools for pursuing this project in a way that deserves to be considered, in a sense, ‘metaphysical’, for we habitually use terms like ‘essentially’ and ‘in order to’ in ways that help us triangulate our reasoning with one another, and those uses have a logic of their own. But this is a project in descriptive rather than prescriptive metaphysics, in the sense that the aim is to rationally reconstruct the categories through which we understand the world, as evident in how we reason about it, and it is pursued by reference to the material facts of specific domains of investigation. I see little reason to think that an adequate understanding of what we say about the essences of sets and human beings, for instance, need bear much on the construction of an adequate understanding of what we say about the essences of natural kinds or institutions.

Nevertheless, at a sufficiently general level of examination such talk can be reconstructed proof-theoretically as an object-language means for carving up the explanatory inferences that, in the metalanguage, constitute the contents of the atoms of the language. In that sense there is a kind of metaphysical project at work here, and it proceeds at least in part on the basis of an examination of the logical or explanatory practices of the sciences. For we have to look at the sorts of explanations we go in for if we’re to understand what our talk about, e.g., the essences of natural kinds comes to.Report

Rosa
Rosa
8 months ago

Doesn’t this all hang on “For me, the most interesting aspect of philosophy is the arguments”? Honestly, this makes me sad – it looks like treating philosophy as a game, where the point is just to make cool moves and find (often preferably counter-intuitive) clever arguments that work.

I’m not opposed to metaphysics. Some metaphysics is, I think, really interesting and important. A lot of stuff on the metaphysics of race and gender that is being done, for instance, is interesting and important and great. But that’s because it’s not just a game about figuring out how to make clever arguments go through – it’s because the nature of race and gender actually have huge implications for the way we should structure out world, which has huge implications for many people’s real lives. And for me, the best aspect of philosophy is the way that it can help us to solve problems that are actually worth solving.Report

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 months ago

Not sure if I have anything particularly interesting to say here (even if I do have some strong opinions on it), but I just wanted to voice my appreciation for both this post and many of the commenters on it. Very interesting and thoughtful discussion of the topic that I really enjoyed reading through.Report