Optimism about Metaphysics (and Philosophy in General)

Is there reason to be optimistic about progress in metaphysics? Jessica Wilson (Toronto) thinks so.

[Grant Wood, “In the Spring”]

Asked about this in a recent interview at 3:16 AM, Wilson replies:

As regards the methodological [standards in metaphysics] question, I do see reason for optimism. To start, there’s been tons of great work on philosophical methodology done in the past decades—we’re getting clearer about the role of inference to the best explanation and the associated abductive principles, about logic(s), conceiving, intuitions, and other factors relevant to assessing metaphysical theories.

Moreover, metaphysicians aren’t really that far apart, methodologically speaking. Everyone agrees that kludginess is a cost, that plausibility is a virtue, that ontological parsimony as regards fundamentals is desirable other things being equal, that metaphysical theories should be consonant with our best scientific theories, and so on. The disagreement tends to lie not in the theoretical desiderata but in how these desiderata are weighted, and also—crucially—in which further metaphysical theses are taken as methodologically foundational. Should parsimony be weighted more heavily than plausibility, or compatibility with intuitions? Should Hume’s Dictum, according to which there are no necessary connections between wholly distinct existences, be taken as a constraint on metaphysical theorizing? Some go one way, some go another, but of course that isn’t the end of the matter. After all, philosophers can consider what motivations exist for a given weighting or foundational assumption and what impact adopting that approach has on whether and how the data and the desiderata can be accommodated.

Finally, even in the absence of consensus on these scores, metaphysicians can and are making progress in determining what would be true given certain methodological and theoretical assumptions, as a kind of conditional investigation into our options for understanding the nature of reality. This may not eventuate soon, or ever, in metaphysical truth with a capital ‘T,’ but it’s still hugely informative.

Another important metametaphysical question concerns what metaphysics is, and how it does or does not differ from other endeavors. This is also a properly metaphysical question! My preferred understanding of metaphysics is also optimistic, and stands opposed to the view, endorsed by some scientists and philosophers, that there isn’t any distinctive role for metaphysics—that ordinary experience, science, or conceptual analysis are already answering any first-order metaphysical questions we might have.

On what I call the ‘embedded view’ (sketched in ‘The Question of Metaphysics’), the distinctive role for metaphysics lies in theorizing about the notions and concepts operative in other disciplines and in ordinary experience, at a characteristic level of generality and with an eye to systematic integration. The embedded view is opposed not just to versions of pessimism according to which metaphysics has nothing interesting to do but also to the ‘hands-off’ view which some optimists endorse, according to which metaphysics is legitimate on its own turf but has no right to meddle in the claims of other disciplines. As I see it, figuring out reality—scientific, mathematical, social—is a shared endeavor, not something we metaphysicians do by ourselves in a special room, much less via a proprietary language.

Professor Wilson expresses optimism about philosophy in general in her “Three Barriers to Philosophical Progress” (ungated version here), which appeared in the volume Philosophy’s Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress. There, she writes:

If philosophical paradigms are not created equal, then why are there so many competing paradigms for any given topic?A plausible and explanatory answer is that we are currently at a fairly rudimentary stage of philosophical inquiry. It is not just that, for any given topic, we don’t yet possess all the relevant data—that much is also true of the sciences. More crucially, we do not yet possess shared, fixed standards for assessing whether a given approach to, or account of, the topic is correct. Of course, there are some fixed standards—the usual logical inferences, for example. But there’s a great deal, methodologically speaking, that is variable across frameworks…

My own view is optimistic and non‐deflationary. These are early days, and it remains open that we will some day converge on fixed standards.

The lack of fixed standards in philosophy exacerbate problems that constitute barriers to progress in the field. Those barriers, Wilson writes, are

  1. Intra‐Disciplinary Siloing: “lack of fixed standards encourages intra‐disciplinary silos, where philosophers ignore work outside of their own
    paradigm, leading to dialectical and argumentative difficulties and misspent intellectual energy”
  2. Sociological Determinants: “without fixed standards, which frameworks are embraced is often determined more by sociological factors having to do with elite influence and/or disciplinary inertia than by philosophical or other motivations for the approach”
  3. Bias: “lack of fixed standards encourages (implicit and/or explicit) bias – a general empirical fact which, applied to philosophy, provides a new explanation of why philosophy has a distinctively bad problem with bias as compared to certain other argumentative and technical fields”

But these barriers are not insuperable. Philosophers could indeed “start expanding their purview beyond their preferred or familiar frameworks” to overcome siloing. They could be more honest about the justificatory status of their positions and “aim to be clear in their writings and teachings
that most frameworks and associated claims are at this point (at best) provisional.” As for bias, in the interview she says:

There’s no quick fix here, though journal and other quotas might help. The usual dismissive response is that quotas would somehow ‘taint’ the venue or the work, but since implicit bias works in both directions the impact of quotas for women would foreseeably improve, not decrease, overall quality. Of course people would need to be educated about this. 

The interview covers a range of topics in metaphysics, including Wilson’s views on emergence and indeterminacy, and her critique of the grounding literature. Read the whole thing here.

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Adam Groll
2 years ago

Happy to read this contribution from Wilson, speaking for those enthusiastic about the kind of philosophy that flows more from a perhaps naive attachment to ‘first principles’ than from political commitments.

Vincent Blair
Vincent Blair
Reply to  Adam Groll
2 years ago

So do you think (a) that philosophers’ views about the metaphysics of, say, causation should flow from their political commitments or (b) that philosophers shouldn’t be working on the metaphysics of causation?

Last edited 2 years ago by Vincent Blair
Adam Groll
Reply to  Vincent Blair
2 years ago

I’m attracted to Hume’s view.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

I agree with professor Wilson that there is progress in metaphysics and in philosophy in general. Having said that, there is a lack of progress in the sense that we are not going to provide definitive answers to any of the big metaphysical or philosophical questions.

Jonathan Surovell
2 years ago

The question of the role of intuitions in philosophy has been a thorny one for a long time. So I’m surprised to hear that everyone in metaphysics agrees that consistency with intuitions is a desideratum, particularly given the popularity of naturalism. Is this consensus due to recent arguments? If so, which ones?

2 years ago

I was surprised to read that there is broad agreement that parsimony is a virtue of a metaphysical theory. Of course the exhortation not to ‘multiply entities beyond necessity’ is fair; A&B is usually less likely to be true than A. But has anyone ever given a compelling reason for thinking that that a theory (here a theory of fundamentals) which is more ontologically parsimonious than another is more likely to be true, when the entities postulated by the theories differ?

Last edited 2 years ago by Brad
David Wallace
Reply to  Brad
2 years ago

I’m reminded of Dennett’s observation that in science, saying a result is counterintuitive is usually praise for its interest and significance.

Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

I don’t get it…

David Wallace
Reply to  D B
2 years ago

Dennett’s point is that being counterintuitive is good in science: we’ve learned something we didn’t expect.

David Thurman
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Is intuition actually clearly defined? And can it actually be defined and be true? It’s interesting that some might see something counter-intuitive thus false until evidence appears as they define evidence, while others will see it as self evident. Scientific Group think like religion group think can create a whole reality intellectually that veers of into fantasy extremely rapidly and becomes very superficial.

As they define evidence is also an interesting topic, That may be related to intuition sub-consciously.

Preston Stovall
2 years ago

It’s instructive to compare Wilson’s optimistic take on analytic metaphysics with the pessimistic view on analytic philosophy Liam Kofi Bright raised at his blog a couple weeks ago, and which was discussed at Daily Nous. I have a response to the latter that will hopefully be appearing at Liam’s blog soon.

I think Wilson’s right to question the Carnapian roots that so many analytic metaphysicians take for granted today, and I’d be more optimistic about conventional analytic metaphysics if those roots were more commonly appreciated. The advent of the so-called “hyperintensional revolution”, for instance, is largely an artifact of Carnap’s decision to replace Frege’s notion of sense with his (Carnap’s) notion of intension, as a function from a state description to an extension in Meaning and Necessity (state descriptions are an early analogue of a possible world, minus the accessibility relation). Carnap was clear that his notion wouldn’t do all the work that Frege’s notion could, however. And a contrast between word-world relations of extension and word-word (or concept containment) relations of intension (comprehension, connotation, etc.) goes back centuries, making an appearance in a number of guises, often on the basis of the very considerations that motivated Frege to distinguish sense from reference (e.g., the failure of truth-preservation after substitution of co-referential terms in so-called “intensional contexts”).

The fact that we now seem to need “hyperintensions” only shows that the old notion of a word-word relation of meaning was never captured by intensions as functions from worlds to extensions (as Carnap himself understood). It’s a shame that, in many philosophers’ idiolects today, “intension” and “function from world to extension”, along with “intensional semantics” and “possible worlds semantics”, have become co-extensional.

It’s common to read Carnap’s transition from the Logical Syntax of Language in the early 1930s, to state descriptions and truth-conditional semantics in the late 1930s (on the basis of conversations with Tarski and Gödel), as a transition from a syntactic to a semantic approach to meaning. But recent work in proof-theoretic semantics suggests that this transition is better construed as one from an implicitly proof-theoretic semantics to an explicitly model-theoretic semantics. And rather than building intensions inside model theory, it’s better to use proof theory to define a genuine notion of concept containment or word-word inferential deontic relations of meaning, as a complement to the word-world representational ontic relations offered by model theory, and the world-word model-theoretic planning relations for the deontic and intentional modalities developed by people like Allan Gibbard, Seth Yalcin, and myself.

If more philosophers took this approach, we could see model theory as offering an account of the language-entry and language-exit relations of meaning that characterize the sensory and motor moments of the reflex arc in rational cognition, while seeing proof theory as offering an account of the language-language relations of meaning that characterize central neural processing. This would go some way toward spelling out Peirce’s notion of philosophy as the study of the normative sciences of aesthetics, ethics, and logic.

Consider what the metaphysics of essence looks like on this proposal. In the 1990s, Kit Fine pointed out that Socrates and the singleton set {Socrates} exist at all and the same possible worlds. Consequently, existence at a possible world won’t distinguish the supposed asymmetric ontological dependence of {Socrates} on Socrates. In response, Fine developed a model-theoretic representational analysis of essence, where metaphysical vocabulary is used in a metalanguage to interpret object-language talk of essences. Almost everyone in the literature on essence has followed Fine in adopting model-theoretic realist metalanguages.

But if we start with a proof system making use of explanatory inferences, then one can give a nominalist account of object-language essentialist talk on the basis of a proof-theoretic metalanguage that uses explanatory inferences, and where essentialist vocabulary is mentioned in that metalanguage rather than used in it. We then explain the apparent asymmetric ontological dependence of a set on its members in terms of the fact that we explain the existence of a set on the basis of the existence of its members, but not vice versa.

And this feature of explanation can be read off of our ordinary practice of identifying and individuating sets and human beings. For we establish that two sets are identical by showing that exactly the same members occur in both sets (in the material mode: we list the names of the members of each set and verify that exactly the same names occur on each list). That is, we show that the set of prime numbers between 3 and 7 inclusive is the same set as the set of odd numbers between 3 and 7 inclusive by verifying that each set contains the same numbers. But we show that two human beings are identical by tracing the lives of organisms. Insofar as there’s a metaphysical project here, it’s one that proceeds as a reflection on the conditions under which we go about making ordinary claims about the objects under consideration. Metaphysics is recast as an engineering project in the logic of the special sciences. And this proof-theoretic analysis of so-called “intensional contexts” has a much better claim to the notion of intension that philosophers and logicians had been working with for centuries before Carnap’s terminology influenced the field.

By the light of this alternate trend in the logical foundations of metaphysical inquiry, many of the developments of analytic metaphysics appear as contingent artifacts of trends taking place in the first half of the 20th century. I would be more optimistic that mainstream analytic metaphysics was making genuine progress if the contingency of the work being undertaken was more widely appreciated. But as Wilson points out, much of analytic metaphysics takes place within the unquestioned Carnapian framework that informs so much of the discipline.

There’s lots of good work being done in proof-theoretic semantics now, and it would be beneficial for the discipline if the word-word (concept containment) notion of intension or comprehension funded by proof theory was more widely studied. Nissim Francez has written a magisterial treatment of the subject, Bob Brandom’s been running a logic group for over a decade on similar ideas, Ulf Hlobil is leading a program on research on logical expressivism (ROLE) that is founded on proof theory, Jarda Peregrin is developing a naturalized account of inferential semantics as a basis for understanding human rationality, Jon Litland, Francesca Poggiolesi, and Jared Millson and colleagues have each done work on the proof-theoretic foundation of explanation, and Luca Incurvati and Julian Schlöder are showing that proof theory gives an expressivist account of deontic modality that undercuts some of the assumptions made by the critics of deontic expressivism over the last couple of decades.

Here’s hoping this work gets more attention (as a whole) in the future; if it doesn’t, I’m incline to think that Liam’s pessimism is more warranted than Wilson’s optimism.

David Monroe Thurman
2 years ago

Here is a rare philosophical standard the cranium is not larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Sorry to much smart gets incredibly stupid incredibly rapid. Just look at the internet. It contains all the animals on the planet just like Noah’s ark!. Magilicalism of writing!.