I’m pleased to report that just over a week ago the Academy of Finland awarded me a grant for a three year Postdoctoral Researcher’s Project, A Study of the Foundations of Metaphysics: The A Priori, Modality, and Essences. This is essentially the Finnish equivalent of a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. The project will be based at the University of Helsinki, more precisely, at the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies in the subject of Theoretical Philosophy. The project also includes up to seven months of research abroad; I’m planning to spend the majority of this at New York University working with Kit Fine, presumably during the first year of the project. A probable option for the remaining time would be Geneva some time during the second year of the project, although this is still open. I spent a month and a half at the eidos Center for Metaphysics in Geneva a year ago as well.
The total funding awarded for the project by the Academy of Finland is 246.240€, which constitutes 80% of the full costs. The remaining 20% is covered by the department. I will start the project in January 2011, but I am already in the process of moving back to Finland. In the current economic climate I’m quite happy to have secured anything, but to secure funding for a three year project is excellent news. I’m looking forward to going back to Finland after spending five years in the UK, although ideally I may have preferred to stay here. In any case, I won’t be stuck in Finland given the time abroad within the project. There is also a good possibility that I will end up back in the UK at some point.
The following is the abstract of the project aimed at a general audience rather than experts. It emphasizes one topic in particular — the relationship between science and metaphysics — although the details of the project deal with rather more technical metaphysical topics, such as the relationship between essence and modality, and specifically the sense in which modality can be said to be grounded in essence.
What is it that we do, when we do metaphysics? There are as many answers to this question as there are metaphysicians. Yet, it seems impossible to engage in metaphysical inquiry if we do not have a very clear understanding of what metaphysical knowledge is about. This project is a survey of the foundations of metaphysics; I wish to offer an account of how we reach metaphysical knowledge, why we need it, and indeed what it is.
The project aims to develop my previous research towards a monograph — first of its kind about the foundations and methodology of metaphysics. The topic has recently gained a central role in analytic metaphysics and the role and nature of not just metaphysics but all of philosophy is currently being re-evaluated. One of the key questions is the relationship between philosophy and other disciplines, especially natural science. To determine the relationship between philosophy and science we must engage in a foundational analysis concerning the nature of philosophy. In this project I will put forward one suggestion as to what that nature is.
As I already suggested in my doctoral dissertation, metaphysics is what Aristotle calls ‘the first philosophy’. The key question here is: how do we acquire knowledge about the structure of reality? The obvious answer is that we do it by engaging in empirical research — perhaps in terms of physics. While I do not wish to question the importance of the natural sciences, I would like to consider their status in more detail. Specifically, what is the structure of empirical knowledge? On the face of it, empirical research is purely experimental knowledge, but in what sense is this the case? It is true that experiments are a crucial part of scientific inquiry, but is there anything else that scientific inquiry needs? It seems clear to me that the answer is: yes, there is indeed something else.
Consider theory-forming in physics. Typically, theories concerning the fundamental structure of the physical world start from mathematical models, not from experiments. These models are generally tested by empirical means, but this is not always possible. In any case, a central part of scientific inquiry uncontentiously concerns modelling possible explanations for our previous empirical observations. This is arguably the most important part of scientific inquiry. What is striking is that it is thoroughly non-empirical. Scientists construct thought experiments, models, theoretical frameworks and other such things with one goal in mind: to put forward a possible explanation as to why the world appears to us in the way it does. The project I am proposing attempts to get in the bottom of this part of scientific inquiry, and my claim is that it is grounded in metaphysics. The details of the project concern the metaphysical framework that enables scientific inquiry, this includes topics such as the possibility of non-empirical, a priori knowledge, and the nature of modal concepts like possibility and necessity.
The external panel that reviewed my application had some concerns about my extremely wide definition of apriority — understandably so because it is rather radical. Already in my ‘A New Definition of A Priori Knowledge: In Search of a Modal Basis’ (2008) I proposed that apriority deals in metaphysical possibilities and that any metaphysically possible statement can be regarded as a priori, whether or not it holds in the actual world. The panel asks, would I consider the proposition ‘It will rain tomorrow in Helsinki’ as a priori? The worry is legitimate, as this proposition does not seem to be a priori, but it might appear to fulfil my initial criteria, since it is surely metaphysically possible. I can certainly address this worry though, since I think that a priori justification requires more than just metaphysical possibility. So, although the above proposition is metaphysically possible, it does not qualify as a priori if someone with no knowledge of meteorology utters it in Paris based on a hunch of some sort. However, if the proposition is based on a predictive mathematical model which takes into account previous empirical information about weather, then it would indeed count as a priori according to my account. More generally, a priori knowledge concerns metaphysically possible scenarios which are compatible with our current best empirical knowledge and employ non-empirical, a priori methods to establish those scenarios. A lot of details remain to be specified, of course, but the account is supposed to rule out mere guesswork.
Although the external panel had this concern about my account of a priori knowledge, their overall assessment of the project states that ‘This is an extremely strong proposal by an applicant who has already built up an international profile in the area’. The panel appears to have been satisfied with my record so far as well, as they comment on my merits as follows: ‘He has built up a significant set of publications in this field already and has international recognition in this area. The other researchers that he plans to consult and work with (e.g. Kit Fine) are all of the highest international calibre’.
On that note, goodbye England!