Friday, 1 December 2017

Some Arguments For/Against Analytic Metaphysics: Ted Sider's Realism (3)

Theodore Sider (sometimes deemed to be an arch-analytic metaphysician) tells us what he takes metaphysics to be. (Or, perhaps, he tells us what he thinks metaphysics ought to be.). In his paper/chapter, 'Ontological Realism', he writes:

The point of metaphysics is to discern the fundamental structure of the world.”

What's more,

[t]hat requires choosing fundamental notions with which to describe the world".

Indeed Sider continues by saying that “no one other than a positivist can make all the hard questions evaporate”. Finally:

There’s no detour around the entirety of fundamental metaphysics.”

Sider also makes it plain that metaphysics asks fundamental and important questions by asking the reader his own question:

Was Reichenbach wrong?— is there a genuine question of whether spacetime is flat or curved?”

The obvious response to that question is say that's a scientific (i.e., not a metaphysical) question. Unless it's the case that metaphysics can offer insights on this which physicists are incapable of... 

More technically, Sider cites Quine's work (as well as the quantification of metaphysical structure) as the means to establish an answer to the question above (as well as others). Thus what is realist in Sider's ontological realism is “objective structure”. This does the work done in the past by objects, entities, events, laws, essences, conditions, etc.

It's interesting that Sider stresses the importance of structure in both science and metaphysics considering the fact that analytic metaphysicians just like Sider are the main enemy of, for example, ontic structural realists; whom also stress structure. (See my 'The Basics of Ladyman and Ross's Case Against Analytic Metaphysics'.)

And the main reason for all Sider's position is his metaphysical realism. That's not such a big problem because that's how Sider (indirectly) classes himself. He writes:

A certain core realism is, as much as anything, the shared dogma of analytic philosophers, and rightly so.”

It's certainly not the case that “core realism” has been a “shared dogma of analytic philosophers”. There've been anti-realists, idealists, positivists, pragmatists, instrumentalists and all sorts within analytic philosophy. Thus Sider may/must mean something slightly more subtle.

This us what I mean by "subtle".

Sider used the adjective “core” in his term term “core realism”. So perhaps he means this:

Deep down, and when push comes to shove, realism is a shared dogma of analytic philosophers, as it is for almost everyone.

That is, almost everyone (including analytic philosophers) believes that the “world is out there, waiting to be discovered”. That's true; though in a very vague sense. Even an anti-realist believes that (though not an idealist as such). Sure, there's a world that exists regardless of minds. And?

Thus it's what Sider says next that problematises his position.

He says that this world that's “out there, waiting to be discovered” is “not constituted by us”. That depends on so much. Minds, conceptual schemes, language, sensory systems, etc. don't literally make the world in the sense of creating its matter, forces, materials, etc. However, minds may well – even if in some subtle or limited sense – structure/shape/determine/colour (whatever word is appropriate) the world. That is, anti-realists and almost the majority of philosophers believe that we don't get the world “as it is” in its pristine condition. And nature doesn't “tell us what to say about it”.


In that sense, at least according to many philosophers, Sider is wrong when he says that

[e]veryone agrees that this realist picture prohibits truth from being generally mind-dependent”.

The problematic word here is “truth” - and that usage may explain Sider's ostensibly extreme philosophical position. It's obviously the case that not “everyone agrees” that the world/nature is “generally mind-independent”. It depends on how that phrase is taken. That is, people may well believe that truth is in some (or many) ways mind-independent. However, metaphysics itself is about the world and its “fundamental nature”.

Thus the truths Sider is talking about are about the world. So are we ever have guaranteed truth in metaphysics? We aren't in physics, cosmology and in all the other sciences. So perhaps we aren't in metaphysics either. In once sense - a sense given by metaphysicians and many philosophers - truth is by definition mind-independent. However, Sider is fusing that position with our metaphysical statements about the world. So is it that we can say that if they are true, then what makes them true is mind-independent?

On the other hand, perhaps we simply don't have metaphysical truths in the first place. Perhaps we only have metaphysical positions. And, as already stated, metaphysical positions involve mind, language, concepts, conceptual schemes, contingent sensory-systems, etc. These things can be said to pollute our metaphysical positions. Thus we never have the (realist) truth Sider speaks of in metaphysics – analytic or otherwise.

In addition, Sider says:

The realist picture requires the 'ready-made-world' that Goodman (1978) ridiculed; there must be structure that is mandatory for inquirers to discover.”

There may be a “ready-made-world”. However, I presume that Goodman's point is that we don't have access to it except through our contingent minds, languages, conceptual schemes, sensory-systems, etc. All those things make it the case that we must colour or interpret that ready-made-world. Thus, to us embodied human beings, it's no longer ready-made: we make it (at least in a loose or vague sense).

The other point is that even if there's a mind-independent-ready-made-world, that doesn't automatically mean that everyone – not even every philosopher – will says the same things about it. (Crispin Wright, in his book Truth and Objectivity, believes that we would say the same things if we all had what he calls “Cognitive Command”.) Indeed it doesn't guarantee that contradictory things won't be said about it. (Contradictory things have been said about it!) The world's mind-independence doesn't guarantee discovering Sider's “mandatory structure”; just as it didn't guarantee C.S. Pierce's “future convergence”.

It appears that Sider doesn't accept any of this. He believes, instead, that there are

predicates that carve nature at the joints, by virtue of referring to genuine 'natural' properties”.

Sider continues:

The world has a distinguished structure, a privileged description... There is an objectively correct way to 'write the book of the world'.”


How does Sider know all that?
Does Sider know all that through metaphysical analysis and then referring to the “best science”?

Neither of these things can guarantee that we “carve nature at the joints” or obtain metaphysical truths about the world. Again;

How would we know when we have a “privileged description”?
How do we know what that “privileged description” is?

In addition, is there only one “objectively correct way to 'write the book of the world”?
If there is, then how does Sider know that?

Metaphysical Realism Again

Sider also gets to the heart of the matter (at least in the debate between metaphysical realism and what he calls “deflationism”) when he states the following:

Everyone faces the question of what is ‘real’ and what is the mere projection of our conceptual apparatus, of which issues are substantive and which are ‘mere bookkeeping’.”

That's certainly not true about everyone; just many - not all - philosophers. Sure, it's true that many laypersons are concerned with what is real. However, they don't also think in terms of the possibility that it's our “conceptual apparatus” that hides – or may hide – the real. Many laypersons believe that other things hide “what is real”: lies, propaganda, “the media”, politicians, religions, drugs and even science and philosophy.

Nonetheless, the philosophical issue of realism does indeed spread beyond philosophy. Take science:

This is true within science as well as philosophy: one must decide when competing scientific theories are mere notational variants. Does a metric-system physics genuinely disagree with a system phrased in terms of ontological realism feet and pounds? We all think not.”

Or take Donald Davidson's less theoretical example of centigrade and Fahrenheit. These are two modes of expression of the same thing. However, Sider asks if the same can be said of “a metric-system physics” and a “ontological realism feet and pounds”. Does this position have much to do with what's called “empirical or observational equivalence” and theoretical underdetermination? If it does, then theories which are empirically equivalent needn't also be theoretically identical. They're equivalent in that they also carry the same weight (among other things). Sider writes:

Unless one is prepared to take the verificationist’s easy way out, and say that ‘theories are the same when empirically equivalent’, one must face difficult questions about where to draw the line between objective structure and conceptual projection.”

Sider on Metaphysical Deflationists

Sider asks what he calls metaphysical “deflationists” a couple of good questions. He asks:

Is your rejection of ontological realism based on the desire to make unanswerable questions go away, to avoid questions that resist direct empirical methods but are nevertheless not answerable by conceptual analysis?”

It's hardly surprising - if we take the positions above (alongside my earlier personal reactions) - that Sider himself has heard “[w]hispers that something was wrong with the debate itself”. Despite that, according to Sider:

Today’s ontologists are not conceptual analysts; few attend to ordinary usage of sentences like ‘chairs exist’.”

It's tempting to say that ontologists should indulge in a bit of conceptual analysis! Not that conceptual analysis should be the beginning and the end of metaphysics; only that it may help things. Thus Sider's statement also begs the following question: What wrong with (a little) conceptual analysis? Who knows, Sider may well have answered that question elsewhere. Indirectly, Sider does comment on conceptual analysis; or at least on what is called ontological deflationism. He writes:

These critics—‘ontological deflationists’, I’ll call them—have said instead something more like what the positivists said about nearly all of philosophy: that there is something wrong with ontological questions themselves. Other than questions of conceptual analysis, there are no sensible questions of (philosophical) ontology. Certainly there are no questions that are fit to debate in the manner of the ontologists.”

Sider states the position of ontological deflationists; though, here at least, he doesn't offer a criticism of their position.

In terms of conceptual analysis and ontological deflationism being relevant to the composition and constitution of objects, Sider writes:

... when some particles are arranged tablewise, there is no ‘substantive’ question of whether there also exists a table composed of those particles, they say. There are simply different—and equally good—ways to talk.”

Sider Against Conventionalism

Ted Sider also attacks attacks what he calls “conventionalism”.

He argues that if we accept conventionalism, then we “demystify philosophy itself”. In his book, Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics (co-written by Earl Conee), Sider puts the case more fully:

If conventionalism is true, philosophy turns into nothing more than an inquiry into the definitions we humans give to words. By mystifying necessity, the conventionalist demystifies philosophy itself. Conventionalists are typically up front about this: they want to reduce the significance of philosophy.”

This is strong stuff! Is conventionalism really that extreme? Is Sider’s account of conventionalism correct? At first blast, the passage above sounds more like a description of 1930s logical positivism!

Do conventionalists say that philosophy is “nothing more than any inquiry into the definitions we humans give to words”? Or do they simply stress the importance of our words when it comes to philosophy? In any case, surely the conventionalist doesn't believe that it's just a question of word-definitions: he also stresses our concepts (i.e., as seen as abstract objects; even if concepts are made known to concrete and contingent minds). That is, how do our concepts determine how we see or interpret the nature or the world? If it were all just a question of word-definition, then conventionalists would be little more than linguists or even lexicographers.

Perhaps conventionalists, on the other hand, don’t give up on the world at all. Perhaps they simply say that our words, concepts and indeed our definitions are important when it comes to our classifications, etc. of the world.

Sider the Platonic Essentialist?

When Sider says that by “demystifying necessity, the conventionalist demystifies philosophy itself”, he implies that philosophy is nothing more than the study of necessity! In that case, it's no wonder that the conventionalist “wants to reduce the significance of philosophy” if that's really the case. This seems to be a thoroughly Platonic (as well as perhaps partly Aristotelian) account of philosophy (i.e., with its obsession with necessity and essence).

Is that really all that philosophy is concerned with – essence and necessity?

Again, this was true of Plato and indeed Aristotle; though what about 20th century philosophers? Indeed what about Hume and many other pre-20th century philosophers?

I've just mentioned Ted Sider’s Platonic notion of philosophy’s role, and now we can see more evidence of this.

Sider asks: What is philosophy?

Sider answers that question thus:

Philosophy “investigates the essences of concepts”.
Philosophy “seek[s] the essence of right and wrong”.
Philosophy “seek[s] the essence of beauty”.
Philosophy “seek[s] the essence of knowledge”.
Philosophy “seek[s] the essences of personal identity, free will, time, and so on”.

However, according to Sider, conventionalists believe that “these investigations ultimately concern definitions”. Not only that: Sider claims that, according to the conventionalist, it

seems to follow that one could settle any philosophical dispute just by consulting a dictionary!”.

I would like to know if there is such a conventionalist animal who really believes this. As said earlier, Sider’s account of conventionalism really seems like an account of 1920s and 30s logical positivism. And no contemporary philosopher is an old-fashioned logical positivist.

Again, Sider’s take on conventionalism seems thoroughly old-fashioned in nature. However, his Platonist account of philosophy (or its role) seems even more old-fashioned in nature. In fact it seems ancient. This, of course, isn't automatically to say that Sider's positions are false or incorrect. It's only to say, again, that they're ancient. Perhaps they're also true/correct.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Some Arguments Against Analytic Metaphysics: Realism (2)

Professor David Manley (at the University of Michigan) believes that

[m]ost contemporary metaphysicians think of themselves as concerned, not primarily with the representations of language and thoughts, but with the reality that is represented”.

Manley goes on to write that “this approach in mainstream metaphysics” has “only come to ascendancy lately, and is still widely challenged”.

David Manley also tells us that metaphysics

is concerned with the foundations of reality. It asks questions about the nature of the world, such as: Aside from concrete objects, are there also abstract objects like numbers and properties? Does every event have a cause? What is the nature of possibility and necessity? When do several things make up a single bigger thing? Do the past and future exist? And so on.”

So what if another metaphysician were to say the following? -

The idea of there being “foundations of reality” is preposterous.

It can even be said that talk of “the nature of the world” (rather than, say, the plural natures) begs a few questions too. In addition, why accept any distinction between abstract and concrete objects? Or, alternatively, perhaps there are other kinds of objects. Perhaps some metaphysicians even question that there are events in the way that others question the existence of objects. And so on and so on.

Possibly all these questions can legitimately exist and it still be acceptable to talk about “the foundations of reality” and “the nature of the world”. After all, the discussion must start somewhere. And even if a metaphysician rejects everything contained in Manley's short descriptive account of metaphysics, these basic distinctions are still accepted by many metaphysicians.

In a very basic sense, this approach is classic metaphysical realism – however you slice it. Thus many other philosophers will be mad (or sad) that this is still the current paradigm for contemporary metaphysicians. Then again, anti-realism (to take one alternative to this) has only ever been one option in metaphysics.

It may need to be added here that even though these realist (or non-deflationary) metaphysicians are concerned with “the reality that is represented”, they may still be very concerned with what contemporary science has to say on this or on similar subjects. After all, if science (as with Quine) tells us “what is”, then a realist metaphysician needs to listen to science. Nonetheless, metaphysicians who've been strongly committed to the findings of science have also taken various anti-realist positions. Manley himself (again) stresses the importance of science to both realist metaphysicians and their opponents. He writes:

And the preferred methodology for answering these questions is quasi-scientific, of the type recommended by W. V. O. Quine, developed by David Lewis...”

Strong Deflationism

Many people who're deeply suspicious of analytic metaphysics will be keen on the position Manley describes as “strong deflationism”; which is a term also used by Ted Sider in his paper/chapter, 'Ontological Realism'. (That's if people who hate metaphysics will even care about a position which criticises metaphysics.) The position of strong deflationism is, of course, still a metaphysical position. Indeed whatever position you take on the world (or on anything else for that matter) will contain some assumptions (or even explicit beliefs) which are metaphysical in nature.

What is strong deflationism? According to Manley, it's

[m]otivated in part by intuitions of shallowness, they argue that the dispute is merely verbal, or that the disputants are not making truth-evaluable claims at all”.

All “merely verbal”? Perhaps not. One's tempted here to make the possibly trite point that there must still be the way the world is. And that is metaphysics. In addition:

i) We talk about the world with words, concepts and theories. We also rely on our embodied/embedded nature and our contingent sensory systems. However, there is still the way the world is.
ii) The things stated in i) above may distort (or simply alter) what we say about the world. However, there is still the way the world is.
iii) We may not even be able to get at the world unless we use words, concepts or theories, sensory systems, etc. which distort or change the world. However, there is still the way the world is.

Furthermore, what does “shallowness” mean here? What are (realist?) metaphysicians “shallow” about? Why is what they say shallow? What can they say – metaphysically or otherwise – which isn't shallow? And is it really the case that a dispute – any dispute – can be “merely verbal”? Is that possible - even in principle?

In addition, if the metaphysicians' claims aren't “truth-evaluable”, then what sort of metaphysical or even philosophical claims are truth-evaluable? What makes them truth-evaluable? These questions will require answers which, at least in part, must include metaphysical answers. (The critics of - realist - metaphysics may not, of course, deny that they're committed to some form of metaphysics.)

Despite my own questions, Manley goes on to say that “[i]n its new forms, strong deflationism poses as serious a challenge to metaphysics as ever”.

Mild Deflationism

The “mild deflationist” position (as enunciated by Manley) is difficult to grasp. Manley tells us that mild deflationists “admit that there is a genuine dispute at issue”; though they also believe that “it can be resolved in a relatively trivial fashion by reflecting on conceptual or semantic facts”. Moreover, “nothing of substance is left for the metaphysician to investigate”.

I can't see how all that works.

If these mild deflationists admit that there are “genuine disputes” here; then how can they be entirely resolved by “reflecting on conceptual or semantic facts”? Concepts and semantics are of course important; though they can't possibly tell the whole story. Unless that remainder is - by (semantic) definition - “trivial” (or “nothing of substance”). But what the hell does that mean? The only situation in which I can conceive of this position (as stated) working would be when it comes to the position of linguistic idealism (or perhaps some other form of idealism) - and even then I'm not sure. Of course the simple solution to my quandary may be to read more of what these mild deflationists actually have to say on the subject.

It's not surprising, then, that Manley rounds off his description of mild deflationism by saying that

mild deflationists tend to be motivated more by intuitions of triviality than by the intuition that nothing is really at issue in the dispute”.

Here again we see the word “triviality”; which is troubling. Moreover, Manley hints that if these mild deflationists aren't motivated “by the intuition that nothing is really at issue in the dispute”, then doesn't that mean that they may well believe that something really is at issue in these disputes? And if that's the case, then how is the mild-deflationist circle squared?

In any case, can any dispute be merely verbal in a literal sense? Can any dispute be entirely “due to differences in the way the disputants are using certain terms”? Despite saying that, perhaps the problem is taking the phrase “merely verbal” too literally in the sense that surely no one really believes that any dispute is all about semantics and/or language.

Manley's second point is more telling. He says that mild deflationists claim that “[n]either side” in a metaphysical dispute “succeeds in making a claim with determinate truth-value”. Surely here the mild deflationist has moved away from the merely verbal if he's also talking about truth-values. In other words, if neither metaphysical position x nor metaphysical position y (on the same subject) have a truth-value; then that means that the mild deflationist is – even if elliptically - making a metaphysical statement about the nature of the world. He's saying that the world couldn't possibly provide an answer to the question of whether or not position x or position y has a “determinate truth-value”. Thus we're still in the domain of metaphysics.

Our Conceptual Scheme

Peter Strawson is a useful foil here.

Strawson once wrote on what he called “revisionary” and “descriptive” metaphysics (as expressed in his 1959 book, Individuals). More relevantly, Strawson stressed the importance of our “conceptual scheme”. That is, we only get at the world (or nature) through our conceptual scheme. It isn't given to us in its pure form. We are embodied creatures after all - with contingent brains, minds, languages, concepts, sensory systems and the like. Thus, almost by definition (or, dare I say, necessarily), we could never get the world as it is.

Strawson's reference to our conceptual scheme doesn't imply or entail relativism. That's why the word “our” was used before the words “conceptual scheme”. That is, Strawson, like Donald Davidson (in his 'On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme') and Frege (with his “common stock of thoughts”) believed that there was only one conceptual scheme – ours: the conceptual scheme of all human beings. Any minor differences within that conceptual scheme (either between individuals or even between cultures/epochs) don't in and of themselves constitute different conceptual schemes. They're simply variations of our given conceptual scheme or recombination of the variables within it. Thus, as with Kant, Strawson's position can't be deemed relativistic (that's if my account is correct).

So perhaps this works against metaphysical realism. That is, even if Strawson's conceptual scheme (like Kant's) is “universal”, it's still the case that we don't get the world as it is. Perhaps we can't (yes, the modal verb 'can't') get the world as it. However, I suppose that if what we share is universal (at least in the Kantian sense), then perhaps our limitations -vis-à-vis discovering the world as it is - don't really matter. The problem is, metaphysical realists have always had a problem with Kant's position; just as they'll have a problem with Strawson's.

Carnap's Conceptual Schemes

Whereas Strawson emphasises our conceptual scheme, so Rudolf Carnap emphasised “conventions”, “frameworks” and the like.

Carnap believed (at least at one point in his career) that truth is an “internal question” (as discussed in his 1950 'Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology'). That is, truth is internal to a specific “convention” or “scheme”.

However, can't the metaphysical realist immediately ask why a philosopher would choose a particular convention or conceptual scheme in the first place? For example, why did Carnap adopt the “framework” of what he called the “thing-world”? Why didn't he choose one which postulated abstract objects or goblins?

We could say that realist truth (in some form) is lurking in the background, despite Carnap’s protestations against “external questions” on the outside of all schemes, frameworks or conventions.
Thus just as the truth of the thing-language is an internal question, so too is the question of truth itself before it's applied to a thing-language or to anything else for that matter.

Conventionalists, however, may say that we have good philosophical or even sceintific reasons for adopting conventions. So what are those reasons? If they're reasons outside frameworks, schemes, or conventions, then doesn’t the conventionalist thereby stop being a (total/complete) conventionalist by adopting those external reasons?

I guess that metaphysical realists would happily accept that we need conventions. No problem there. The realist can’t say anything without conventions; even if these conventions do indeed capture (in some way!) the actual nature of the world.

What's being said here (if rather counterintuitively) is that metaphysical realists are conventionalists (in some ways, at least) and conventionalists are metaphysical realists (in some ways, at least).

Thus why can’t the metaphysician still be a realist and also accept (with the conventionalist) that there's more than one description (or explanation) of a given “space-time point” (as Carnap put it in his ontology), event or object? Why must a realist must uphold a single “correct description” of a given space-time point or of any aspect of the world? That, surely, isn't necessarily entailed by realism. (Think here of Edmund Husserl’s “profiles”.)

It's true that conventions, frameworks or schemes aren't forced on us by nature. (What would it mean to have such a thing forced upon us by nature?) Some/many metaphysical realists may well accept that nature doesn’t force itself on us. However, we still have causal interactions with nature and these causal interactions impinge on us - even if they don’t force us to speak nature's very own language. However, nothing thereby forces the realist to say, “There are quarks and planets.” Despite that, there are causal, observational, theoretical, philosophical, etc. reasons for him to say what he says.

Again, of course conventions, frameworks schemes are freely chosen and contingent. The metaphysical realist can accept that. So perhaps the "nature forcing itself on us” metaphor isn't very helpful in this debate. Indeed was it really the case that, for example, all metaphysical realists were horrified by Henri Poincaré's admission (as found in his Science and Hypothesis) that contradictory scientific and geometric principles or theories can be maintained at one and the same time? Why can't the metaphysical realist accept Poincaré's position too? You could accept and still believe that your principle (or theory) is disconfirmable in the future. Therefore the realist must accept and live with the alternative descriptions (or explanations) of the world even while accepting that, of course, some are true/correct and others are false/incorrect. Thus one can be a metaphysical realist and say that “there is a way the world is” and still happily live with alternative descriptions (or explanations) of the world.


*) See my 'Some Arguments Against Analytic Metaphysics (1)'. 

**) To follow: 'Some Arguments For Analytic Metaphysics (3)'.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Some Arguments Against Analytic Metaphysics (1)

Laypersons and even many philosophers say that much of what's discussed and stated in analytic metaphysics is ridiculous and/or trivial. That may be true. Though we must have a wider and more historical vision here because isn't it also the case that this sort of thing has been said about many historical philosophical positions – both by laypersons and by philosophers?

Take the common reaction to Bishop Berkeley's "empirical idealism" (e.g., when Dr Johnson kicked the stone). Or the dismay at the seeming truism of Descartes' Cogito. And you don't even need to mention Martin Heidegger's “the nothing nots” (as translated by Rudolf Carnap) to elicit such responses. So, at least to the layperson, is analytic metaphysics really that different to what's gone before?

Perhaps we should also say that some old philosophical positions are now so well-known that it's therefore hardly surprising that many laypersons are no longer shocked or disgusted by them.

On the other hand, philosophical disgust at metaphysics goes back to Kant or further. As Craig Callender puts it:

Kant famously attacked metaphysics as an assortment of empty sophistical tricks, a kind of perversion of the understanding.”

Then, 160 years or so years after Kant, we had Rudolf Carnap speaking out against metaphysics:

Most of the controversies in traditional metaphysics appeared to me sterile and useless. When I compared this kind of argumentation with investigations and discussions in empirical science or [logic], I was often struck by the vagueness of the concepts used and by the inconclusive nature of the arguments."

Then again, so too did the just-mentioned Martin Heidegger – in his What is Metaphysics? [1929] - at roughly the same time as Carnap. Not only that: Carnap spoke out against Heidegger's metaphysics – in his The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language [1931] - when Heidegger was himself speaking out against what he classed as “Western metaphysics”. Thus being against metaphysics – at least in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s - became both a sport and a philosophical fashion.

As stated, many positions within analytic metaphysics (sometimes within the entire genus of metaphysics) are deemed by both laypersons and philosophers to be trivial, scholastic and/or oblivious to science.

This, for example, is Craig Callender (in his 'Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics') taking the piss out of analytic metaphysics:

... when I bend my fingers into a first, have I thereby brought a new object into the world, a fist?”

Despite that, at least according to Callender, such views are nonetheless deemed to be “deep, interesting, and about the structure of mind-independent reality” by such metaphysicians.

Other philosophers have also had a go at analytic metaphysics.

David Chalmers, for example, thinks most of the disputes are primarily “verbal” in nature. Steven Yablo (who's written a lot on metaphysics – including about whether the Turin Shroud and the cloth it's made up of are two different objects) believes that there are no answers to many of the issues or disputes raised in analytic metaphysics. (See his 'Must Existence-Questions have Answers?'.)


When an analytic metaphysician (or indeed any metaphysician) says that metaphysics is concerned with problems which aren't (strictly speaking) scientific (as well as when he says that metaphysics uses analytical, philosophical and logical methods which aren't those of science), then some philosophers may give the obvious reply:

The problems, concepts and tools of metaphysics shouldn't be distinct from science – even if they aren't identical.

Though if you were to take this position too far, then metaphysics will simply become physics/science. Either that or, at the least, it will become a (subsidiary) part of science/physics.

The problem is that no only may such anti-metaphysical philosophers throw out all metaphysics with these demands (i.e., if you follow their logic to its conclusion), it may also be the case that much science will also be thrown out. (This point was famously made against certain positions advanced by the logical positivists in the 1920s and 1930s.)

For example, what about empirically-untestable string theory and multiverses? Are they examples of scientific “neo-Scholasticism”? What about some of the well-known mathematical and logical problems which can simply be seen as “intellectual puzzles” and nothing much more?

Again, the major criticism of analytic metaphysicians is that they more or less ignore science. In at least some cases, metaphysicians do so because they believe that metaphysics comes before physics. (Yes, despite the Greek translation of the word) Thus it doesn't make sense to consult science if science (or at least physics) comes after metaphysics. Nonetheless, Ted Sider (one of the best known analytic metaphysicians), for example, has a sophisticated view on metaphysics' relation to science. Put very simply, he doesn't believe that any metaphysician should ignore science. (However, at least at face value, that position may not amount to much.)

Indeed even when metaphysics does square with science (as 4-Dimensionalism, for example, is said to do), it may still be the case that this just adds to the cogency and value of the metaphysical theory or position. In other words, in terms of 4-D again, metaphysics could survive very well (thank you) without the help of Einstein's theories of relativity. In addition, positions on time in physics and cosmology are also deemed to be secondary to metaphysics by some analytic metaphysicians. It's even the case that such metaphysicians go further than that when they argue that physics and cosmology must be brought into line with metaphysics, not the other way around!

How can we respond to this Metaphysics First position?

It can be said that before the rise of modern science it was indeed philosophers who investigated “the fundamental structure and nature of physical reality” (as it's often put). However, after the rise of modern science, many philosophers now argue that metaphysicians shouldn't still be doing metaphysics without the help or findings of science.... at least not in 2017!

As a consequence of all that, such naturalistic philosophers are against what's often called a priori metaphysics” or the search for “a priori truths”.

Prima facie, however, it's hard to believe that there's a 21st-century metaphysician who would claim to be engaged in an entirely a priori pursuit. (Though perhaps I'm wrong.) In fact I'm not even sure what the words “a priori metaphysics” (i.e., if taken literally) mean or whether it would be achievable even in principle.

Anyway, if such a priori metaphysics does exist, then the philosophers James Ladyman and Don Ross, for example, class it as “neo-Scholasticism”.

Thus I'll now concentrate on their position against analytic metaphysics.

Ladyman & Ross's Case Against Analytic Metaphysics

Sometimes Ladyman and Ross's (who are self-described “ontic structural realists”) main criticisms of analytic metaphysics seem a little rhetorical – at least as they stand. For example, in their book Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, they argue/state:

i) That metaphysics "contributes nothing to human knowledge”.
ii) That metaphysicians are "wasting their talents”.
iii) That metaphysics “fails to qualify as part of the enlightened pursuit of objective truth, and should be discontinued”.

It's also the case that Ladyman and Ross are arguing that metaphysicians should be scientifically-literate holists who should attempt to show us “how everything fits together” (as Nelson Goodman once put it).

In other words, the “ontological structure” of the universe is the domain of physics and science generally. Metaphysics, on the other hand, should attempt to find a unified and “cross-disciplinary” philosophical synthesis of how the sciences tell us the universe/reality is structured. (Put that way, this is similar to Quine's position; though he didn't really emphasise cross-disciplinary unification as such.)


It's extremely ironic that in view of the counterintuitive positions advanced in analytic metaphysics that the enemies of such positions claim that metaphysicians rely too much on what they call “intuitions”.

I suppose that there may be a simple answer to that. Namely, intuitive positions – or intuitive beginnings (as it were) – can take one in very counterintuitive directions; just as the intuitively-true premises of logical arguments can take one to extremely counter-intuitive or even paradoxical conclusions.

In any case, it's notable how important the criticism of the analytic metaphysicians' reliance on intuitions is. It's also true that some philosophers have acknowledged - and then relied upon - intuitions; though many others haven't.

Having said all that, it's almost impossible not to begin one's philosophical pursuits without utilising one's intuitions to some extent - or even to a large extent. (All this, of course, entirely depends on the definition of the word 'intuition'.) And it may follow from this that if one's intuitions are acknowledged as a starting point, then that starting point is bound to have an affect on much of what follows (i.e., in terms of reasoning and actual philosophical conclusions).

On the other hand, it's also prima facie ironic that metaphysicians rely at all on intuitions. Isn't it far more likely that an epistemologist or a philosopher of mind (for reasons I hope are obvious) would (or even should) stress or rely on intuitions?

In any case, there are many arguments in favour of intuitions... and not all of them use intuitions to defend intuitions.

For example, you must start from somewhere. And the best - or even the only - place to start from in philosophy (as in most things) is from one's own intuitions. Indeed it's hard to even make sense of the idea of starting from anywhere else. And if you start from your own intuitions (I stress the word start), then it may be equally - or more - wise to take on board collective/social (as it were) intuitions too.

Bearing all that in mind, it's hardly a cardinal sin if metaphysicians begin their reasonings by using phrases such as "it is intuitive that" or "it is counter-intuitive that" when, presumably, such philosophers won't end their philosophical pursuits with such phrases (or, indeed, with a continued reliance on intuitions).

You can also defend the existence and utilisation of intuitions without using the phrase (which I noted in Ladyman and Ross) “the faculty of intuition”. That sounds like the kind of reification which Gilbert Ryle warned against (though he referred to intelligence, will, mental events, etc.) some seventy years ago. Indeed if people do believe in such a faculty, the it may well take on a role similar to that of Kant's a priori categories or even been seen as a module (or part) of the brain. In that case, just as philosophers could have asked Kant why he thought that the mind's concepts or categories were a-historical and universal; so a contemporary critic can ask why (some) metaphysicians think that our faculty of intuition is reliable and/or static from (say) an evolutionary/biological point of view.

However, our intuitions needn't be seen as a priori, a-historical or even as constituting a faculty as such.

It would be wise, then, to say that when contemporary metaphysicians appeal to intuitions, they don't (or, at least, they ought not to) refer to some magical ability which only they possess. 

Others on Intuitions

If an “experimental” or “naturalist” philosopher says that intuitions aren't scientific data, then a metaphysician may simply say: “Yes, I know. And?”

On the one hand it may be understandable to argue against intuitions regarding, say, quantum mechanics, cosmology or the nature of DNA. On the other hand many mathematicians and scientists (ranging from Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing to Roger Penrose) have happily stressed the importance of intuitions in both mathematics and physics. (Though, admittedly, perhaps not in quite the same way these guilty metaphysicians do.)

In any case, what are now called “experimental philosophers” have a problem with (much) analytic metaphysics for this reason. As stated, they believe that they place too much emphasis on intuitions and their corresponding “thought experiments”. Of course speculation and even thoughts experiments are of vital importance in science too – especially in physics. However, experimental philosophers have something else in mind here. It's not that physical experiments are wrong: it's that thought experiments are wrong. In physics, speculations are eventually tested via experiment, observations, etc. This isn't the case when it comes to metaphysics. In analytic metaphysics, experiments or observations don't – or may not - make a blind bit of difference. Such metaphysical theories usually stand or fall regardless of experiments and even regardless of science taken more generally.

The other thing is that experimental philosophers are questioning the intuitions and thought experiments of analytic metaphysicians from a scientific or experimental point of view. That is, they use the empirical studies found in psychology and cognitive science to cast doubt on the efficacy or truth of human intuitions and philosophical thought experiments. Such empirical research on human subjects shows them that its very unwise to trust intuitions and what follows from them.

Of course metaphysicians and some philosophers aren't too keen on the views of these new kids on the block – the experimental philosophers (such as Jesse J. Prinz, etc.). Timothy Williamson (in his 'Philosphical intuitions and scepticism about judgement'), for example, believes that although intuitions can be taken as being very basic; they can also be - at least in some cases - the end result of previous high-level reasoning. This must mean that intuitions are actually the products of implicit/tacit prior knowledge. (They may also have value from an evolutionary point of view.) Even the imagination, according to Williamson, is a good guide to reality, at least if it's used correctly. (Of course Descartes said this about the mind and reason itself – i.e., if you use your mind and reason as God intended you to use them, then you can't go wrong.)

In the senses stated above, then, intuitions aren't really... well, intuitions at all. These judgements, positions or premises may simply have the phenomenological feel (as it were) of intuitions. However, this is also problematic in that it ties seemingly intuitive judgments, positions or even a priori premises to the subject's history and perhaps also to his/her sociological position within that history. Either way, we can ask whether intuitions come out well after all this contingency.


The metaphysical realism of (some/all?) analytic metaphysicians (though it's not necessary for an analytic metaphysician to be a metaphysical realist) has been challenged since the beginning of philosophy.

Take the position of John Locke.

John Locke believed that it may be permanently impossible for us to ascertain the true nature of the world or reality (i.e., his “something, I know not what”). In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke writes:

“…it is impossible for us to know, that this or that quality or Idea has a necessary connection with a real Essence, of which we have no Idea at all, whatever Species that supposed real Essence may be imagined to constitute.” 

That's also partly why Bishop Berkeley turned towards empirical idealism; as well as away from scientific materialism and the scepticism it engendered. In his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley wrote:

.... the whole issue can be allowed to rest on a single question: is it possible to conceive of a sensible object existing independently of any perceiver? The challenge seems easy enough at first. All I have to do is think of something so remote—a tree in the middle of the forest, perhaps—that no one presently has it in mind. But if I conceive of this thing, then it is present in my mind as I think of it, so it is not truly independent of all perception.”

Then Kant brought noumena into the debate. The Kantian problem of noumena caused various later philosophers to embrace (Kantian) transcendental idealism once again – and so did many late 19th-century and early 20th century scientists (e.g., Mach, Helmholtz, Boltzmann, Hertz, early Einstein, etc.).

A semi-Kantian position is also offered – here in the 21st century - by Mauro Dorato. He writes (as quoted by Ladyman and Ross):

.... the concept of unobservable entities that are involved in the structural relations always has some conventional element, and the reality of the entities is constituted by, or derived from, more and more relations in which they are involved.”

So why is this Kantian? Ladyman and Ross (again) write:

... an epistemic structural realist may insist in a Kantian spirit... there being such objects is a necessary condition for our empirical knowledge of the world.”

This is a good description of the noumenal grounding of Kant's metaphysics and indeed his epistemology. You can sum it up with a simple Kantian question:

If there are no noumenal objects (which ground our representations, etc.), then what's it all about?

If we can now come up to date, Frank Jackson says that “we know next to nothing about the intrinsic nature of the world”. Indeed we “know only its causal cum relational nature”.

Scientific & Metaphysical Structuralism

One way out of this impasse (of noumena and the consequent embracing of idealism) is to become some kind of metaphysical or scientific structuralist. Thus Peter Unger, for example, argues that “our knowledge of the world is purely structural”. What's more, Peter Unger adds that

things in themselves [i.e., noumena]... are idle wheels in metaphysics and the PPC imposes a moratorium on such purely speculative philosophical toys”.

However, there is indeed a major philosophical problem with this 21st century "anti-realism"; which may be highlighted by some metaphysical realists.

Even if our representations, models, "posited objects", etc. don't somehow “mirror” - or even represent - nature or reality (or if we didn't have the noumenal grounding in the first place), then surely we have precisely nothing. Or as Ladyman and Ross put it (almost quoting Kant word-for-word):

...there being such objects is a necessary condition for our empirical knowledge of the world.”

So, again, we may not mirror nature or things; though we must capture something. Then again, how can we represent - let alone mirror - something as strange as Kantian noumena? How would that work?

This is when structuralists say:

Yes, we capture structure.

Yet that response won't quite work because metaphysical realists believe they're capturing (if not mirroring) determinate reality. Structuralists may not think that; though structure is real. That's why Ladyman and Ross, for example, appear to make what can be seen as the obvious conclusion when they write:

.... we shall argue that in the light of contemporary physics... that talk of unknowable intrinsic natures and individuals is idle and has no justified place in metaphysics. This is the sense in which our view is eliminative...”

One can conclude that because we can't get at things and reality in their pristine metaphysically-realist state: then, if that's a necessary truth, we may as well say that “structure is all there is”. This ties in nicely with the structuralist position that Kantian noumena may as well also drop out of the picture. Or, as Wittgenstein put it in his Philosophical Investigations (though about something else), things or noumena are

wheels which can be turned though nothing else moves with them is not part of the mechanism”.

To put the case very simply, there's an argument which one can adopt here:

i) There are things and a determinate reality, though we can never access them as they are “in themselves”.
ii) And if we can't access reality and things as they are in themselves, then why not drop the notion of a determinate reality completely from the philosophical picture?

It can be said that ii) follows from i); though it can't also be said (strictly speaking) to logically follow from i).