Natural Metaphysics Blowing Through the Air

In November 2009 the Center for Ethics and Values in the Sciences at the University of Alabama Birmingham hosted a conference entitled Does Scientific Naturalism Exclude Metaphysics? The speakers were Michael Friedman, Andrew Melnyck, Ron Giere, Mark Wilson, Don Ross, Daniel Dennett, J T Ismael, James Ladyman, and Paul Humphries. The conference was video taped and the videos are now up on YouTube  here courtesy of Sarah Vollmer and her graduate student Morgan Anders who are also in the process of making a short documentary film on the issues raised.

The conference focused on Ladyman and Ross’ new book Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized where they argue, first that scientism is true and second that a lot of contemporary metaphysics, even from philosophers who claim to be naturalists, physicalists, and scientismists (Armstrong is cited as an example), relies on a fundamentally misguided and outdated conception of scientific reality as consisting of little billiard balls flying around in space banging into each other, you know basically the idea that Democritus had 2,500 years ago. Scienticism is the view that science, in particular physics and the methods it employs, is the only real way to know about the world. A priori reasoning on this view is no good, especially when it is detached from science or especially when it employs this outdated model of the scientific model. They argue that the proper role of metaphysics is that of elucidating the connections between the various special sciences so that they form a unified picture of the nature of reality. This is a task that falls to no specific science and so can be called metaphysics (they cite as an example the claim that chemistry unified is physics and physics unified is metaphysics).

My own reaction is to be sympathetic to the criticism of philosophers who try to derive conclusions about the actual world from current a priori reasoning. Given the track record it is far from clear that a priori intuitions are a good guide to the nature of the actual world. They are however a fine guide to the possible worlds. A priori reasoning fills out the space of possible and impossible worlds and science then locates the actual world in that space. The “fictional world” that occupied David Lewis, David Armstrong, as well as philosophers like Locke, Hume, and Kant, is a perfectly respectable possible world and is interesting in so far as it is a live option, which roughly means that it hasn’t been ruled out by scientific inquiry. The main thrust of Ladyman and Ross can then be seen as an argument that science doesn’t bear this picture out and so naturalistically minded philosophers should stop thinking about one set of possible worlds. But nothing in the argument suggests that a priori reasoning about a different set of possible worlds. In fact we need the a priori reasoning about possibilities to make sense of the empirical data and this is the way we will ultimately identify the the mind with the brain, for instance. .

What we get from this kind of picture is a two-dimensional view on which a priori reasoning gives us the primary intensions of statements and science gives us the secondary intensions, or to put it in more Kripkean terms, the job of science is to reduce the epistemically possible to the metaphysically possible. This is still an empiricist position broadly construed since the claim is that for beings like us the only way to know about the actual world is via empirical means. In fact i would count this as a scientismist position. This is perfectly consistent with the claim that an ideal agent who knew all of the facts would be in a position to know about the actual world in an a priori manner.

Cross-posted at Philosophy Sucks! 


  1. As you know the DNA – our genetic code – is hidden in the cells of every living creature.
    A lot of books are written about it. It however strikes me that the question – who is reading the code – has never been stated, whereas this would be a logical question!
    Also a book is read by somebody.
    It are not my eyes or my brains who are doing this job but it is me!!
    Therefore there must be a second inhabitant of the body (apart from our me or soul).
    The Russian philosopher Constantin Karmanov has given it a name ‘coordinating subject’.
    So this subject is reading our DNA and working with it.
    Thanks to this subject we can further move our hand because we ourselves do not know which part of the brain must be activated and many other activities.

    Therefore it is necessary that you get to know about the philosophy of the subjectism.
    According to this philosophy each living being has 2 inhabitants i.e.

    1. the I
    2. the coordinating subject.

    The I
    We mean the character

    The coordinating subject

    The subject is:

    1. invisible
    2. Immaterial
    3. infinitely big

    These qualities are also valid for the I.

  2. gualtiero

    Richard, thanks for this interesting post. The relationship between metaphysics and science is a very important topic. I agree that metaphysicians should strive to take science into account, and so does Cian Dorr. But I was also struck by the criticisms of the Ross and Ladyman’s book by Cian Dorr in NDPR ( In a nutshell, Dorr finds their dismissal of contemporary metaphysics mostly unfair, and he seems to accuse Ross and Ladyman of being poor insufficiently careful as metaphysicians.

  3. John Jones

    Whether we think that the actual world is empirical would depend on our preferences for what counts as actual.

    If our preference is that actuality is empirical we can eliminate other possibilities, such as mind, by a non-empirical means such as reductionism.

    But then reductionism involves a play on an identity that simply isn’t empirically manifested. Not only that, but if we apply a reductionist programme to two elements we don’t have any means of identifying the preferred or priviliged (“actual”) member of the binary.

    For example, if we claim that mind is brain, then not only do we have a non-empirical play on identity (is identity empirically manifested at all?) but we can’t identify or have an epistemologically productive or meaningful relationship with any object that we care to call a brain.

    THIS was Kant’s point about the a priori. Any object that isn’t established a priori (“thing in itself”) simply, epistemologically, practically, empirically, cannot be identified as an object at all. This short-circuits any toying with the idea that Kant’s is one possible world among others. Wittgenstein falls in with this when he establishes the nature of objects for any possible worlds. But then it’s always been a bit of a cop-out (hate that word) to present the final analysis of philosophical possibility in terms of the “possible worlds” conceptual template, which has its own empirical problems with identity.

  4. John Jones

    Attend to this.

    In reply to your article, above, I recently posted two original observations concerning elements in a reductionist program.

    As that post and others of mine are no longer appearing here I am beginning to suspect that this website, and related websites (Philosophy Sucks) have three functions. One is promotional, another is congratulatory backslapping.

    The other possible function worries me. If it is your casual or directed intention to scoop ideas from respondents, perhaps to brood over them, put them to one side, and resurrect them in a new form as your own, then be mindful that claimed or feigned forgetfulness of original, intellectual, ownership shall be no defence against plagiarism.

    My PhD is in preparation. It’s subject matter is pictures, frames, domains, and matrices. Reductionism and the a priori are sub-topics. I do not expect to see any reference to my ideas coming from your pen.

    John Jones

  5. Richard Brown

    I just read the Dorr review this morning over coffee (it has been sitting my inbox!)…I agree with it almost completely. I was least impressed by Dennett’s criticism in the videos…did you get a chance to look at it?

  6. I’m late to respond to this post, but I only read it today. I haven’t read Ross, et al. But I’ve skimmed parts of the book and read the review by Cian Dorr. After reading Dorr’s review I’m less interested in reading Ross, et al. What follows are some comments that border on being ad hoc but reflect at least one way of thinking about the task of metaphysics endorsed by some today (who describe themselves as naturalists).

    Metaphysics is too often driven by conceptual analysis. Ross, et all and some current analytic metaphysicians may agree on this much. We cannot read the nature of reality off of our language and concepts. Metaphysics is not philosophy of language.

    Many practitioners these days have given up on analyzing language and concepts to understand reality (Armstrong does not think he is doing this–he counsels doing philosophy of language last). They may think of the tasks of the metaphysician along the following lines.

    First, our theories are not ontologically innocent–they often involve significant ontological presuppositions. Metaphysics at its best sorts out what the basic ontological categories are from which we can build our larger theories (minimally, what categories we need in order to make our theories true). This requires not only working out a criterion of ontological commitment (frankly, Quine’s criterion is not sacrosanct and has, fortunately, been challenged in recent work). But it requires working out what the basic categories are and providing an account of the nature of the elements of each of the basic categories (always with an eye to what our best science tells us). Debate over what our basic ontology should look like will be unavoidable. This is neither a purely a priori enterprise, nor is it simply a matter of doing science. (See C.B. Martin and John Heil, “The Ontological Turn,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 23 (1999), pp. 34-60.)

    The other task of metaphysics at its best is that of model building. A model is an imagined or hypothetical structure that is described, investigated, and used to understand some more complex, real world domain. (See Peter Godfrey-Smith, “Theories and Models in Metaphysics,” Harvard Review of Philosophy, 14 (2006), pp. 4-19.)

  7. Joshua Stern

    I’ve taken a quick view of the book on Amazon, and cannot easily tell what they are for or what they are against. I think it boils down to an empirical rationalism, a disinclination to seek reduction or to honor it. If this is true, then what they are selling – is a plea that philosophy should respect the appearance that the sun orbits the Earth, rather than to seek other models that may not be quite as intuitive.

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