Does your inspiration come from the laboratory or the library?

Penelope Maddy’s book Second Philosophy is exhilarating in its scope and content. She advocates a brand of methodological naturalism, ‘Second Philosophy.’

The first section of the book is Maddy’s exposition of The Second Philosophy. She doesn’t come right out and define it explicitly, but explores it via a series of historical clashes. First, how would the Second Philosopher (SP) respond to Descartes’ arguments in the Meditations? She then goes on to tackle radical skepticism, Hume, Kant, Carnap, Quine, and Putnam in the voice of the SP.

As for Descartes, the SP doesn’t reject Decartes’ First Philosophy on abstract principle, based on some absolute distinction between science and non-science (i.e., she doesn’t follow the principle ‘trust only the methods of science’), but tries to find some way in which the Cartesian methods show us something new or useful about the world, or some reasonable doubts about the methods she uses to understand the world around her. Sure, sometimes perception is misleading, as we know from various illusions. Sure, some of the beliefs we acquired in childhood were false. But do such facts justify Descartes’ method of universal doubt? Maddy (pp 16-17) says, ‘[The SP] will agree that many of her childhood beliefs were false, and that the judgments of common sense often need tempering or adjustment in light of further investigation, but she will hardly see these as reasons to suspend her use of the very methods that allowed her to uncover those errors and make the required corrections!”

More generally, the SP vigorously applies (what we would call) the methods of science to every problem with which she is confronted. She is perplexed by the claim that we should step outside our best
understanding of the world to answer particular questions. She doesn’t appeal to general principles to justify a claim, but to the concrete evidence and reasoning that led her to her conclusions (e.g., if you want to know why the voltmeter reads ‘9 V’ when placed across the leads of a battery, she will discuss electrochemical theory, facts about batteries, and explain how the meter works).  She starts out as we all do, en media res, with a particular understanding of the world, and tries to expand that understanding by observing the world and generating and testing theories about how it works. She might be described pejoratively as ‘scientistic,’ but if that means she is applying the best methods she has learned to solve the problems with which she is confronted, then she would happily agree.

In Maddy’s words (from her article Second Philosophy, p 77):

This inquirer is born native to our contemporary scientific world view; she practices the modern descendants of the methods found wanting by Descartes. She begins from common sense, she trusts her perceptions, subject to correction, but her curiosity pushes her beyond these to careful and precise observation, to deliberate experimentation, to the formulation and stringent testing of hypotheses, to devising ever more comprehensive theories, all in the interest of learning more about what the world is like. She rejects authority and tradition as evidence, she works to minimize prejudices and subjective factors that might skew her investigations. Along the way, observing the forms of her most successful theories, she develops higher level principles-like the maxim that physical phenomena should be explained in terms of forces acting on a line between two bodies, depending only on the distance between them–and she puts these higher level principles to the test, modifying them as need be, in light of further experience.

Likewise, she is always on the alert to improve her methods of observation, of experimental design, of theory testing, and so on, undertaking to improve her methods as she goes. We philosophers, speaking of her in the third person, will say that such an inquirer operates ‘within science’, that she uses ‘the methods of science’, but she herself has no need of such talk. When asked why she believes that water is H2O, she cites information about its behaviour under electrolysis and so on; she doesn’t say, ‘because science says so and I believe what science says’.

Getting back to her response to Descartes and the question of how we should “ground” science itself, let’s look at Maddy’s synopsis of how the SP would go about analyzing the enterprise of science itself (from p 107):

[S]uppose she is engaged in her scientific study of science: she calls on her physiological, psychological, neurological accounts of human perception and conceptualization, her linguistic, psycholinguistic, cognitive scientific theories of the workings of human language, her physical, chemical, astronomical, biological, botanical, geological descriptions of the world in which these humans live; she uses these and any other relevant scientific findings to explain how these humans, by these means, come to know about this world.

Something like The Second Philosophy seems to have gained a good deal of traction in the past few decades, stoked by the likes of Quine, Sellars, and their descendants (indeed, I look at Sellars as pushing SP in a less alloyed way than Quine, a bit less taken in by philosophical fashions such as behaviorism). But of course it leaves many questions open. For one, what of philosophers? What good are they, if any? I will discuss Maddy’s answer to this question in a future post.

One caveat is in order. There are many second philosophers out there. Some of them know it and talk about it, are advocates for something much like the second-philosophical view. Others are just doing it (her example is Wilson and his book Wandering Significance). But if we are to follow out her thinking, we need to be very careful of thinking that any philosopher, including Maddy, has provided the ‘Second Philosophical answer’ to open scientific questions.  The answers come as our scientific reach into the phenomena deepens, and for phenomena like consciousness, our reach is pretty damned short. I think Maddy would only agree, perhaps even enthusiastically, given the thrust of the book.

Because I like Maddy’s general approach so much, I worry that the next few sections of her book (where she provides a ‘Second Philosophical Analysis’ of things like truth, logic, and mathematics) will make people confuse the nice methodological analysis she has laid out with her logically independent attack on the forementioned presently unexplained phenomena. After all, she is only one Second Philosopher, and for those phenomena, I found her analysis somewhat myopic. I’m tempted to say that her analysis of truth falls into a trap commmon to philosophers that take themselves to be doing Second Philosophy: their ‘inspiration comes from the library, not the laboratory’ (page 90, quoting Fogelin (1997) referring to Quine). I will say a little, in a future post, about what makes me say this.

Despite that caveat, I love this book. It is clearly written, exciting, and readable even for those of us that are not professional philosophers (though Part II will be tough going for those that have not studied Tarskian model-theoretic semantics). Anyone interested in post-Quinean methodological naturalism will enjoy the book. I certainly did, and I’m not even particularly interested in post-Quinean methodological naturalism.


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