Here is finally a much belated report from the British Society for the Philosophy of Science annual conference which took place at Norwich this year. Mostly it’s a rant about metaphysics vs. science though.
The conference was quite good, I liked the keynote presentations, and the session where I presented myself was quite good as well, with papers from Juha Saatsi, Peter Vickers & Steven French, and Kerry McKenzie (all from Leeds!). My presentation was entitled ‘The A Priori and Scientific Knowledge’, which is something that I will talk about in much more detail at the European Philosophy of Science Association conferencein Amsterdam in October. The Norwich campus is pretty horrible though. The photo on the right is the nicest bit of the campus, so that should give you some idea…
Of the plenary sessions, the most interesting was the last one with James Ladyman and Anjan Chakravartty (Anjan giving his presentation below) on the theme of ‘Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science’. This would naturally be of interest to me as it is something that I have been writing about before. In fact, I was just asked to referee a paper on the very same topic. Sadly, James Ladyman himself couldn’t make, due to being ill (H1N1), so Steven French delivered the paper.
I should read some of Ladyman’s stuff about this. What I gathered from the presentation, and what seems to be a fairly commonly shared conception amongst philosophers of science, is that Ladyman believes metaphysics to be somehow continuous with science. But there’s a catch: according to this line of thought, the relationship between metaphysics and science is such that metaphysics should be based on science. I understand that this is the line that Ladyman (with Don Ross) defends in his recent book, Every Thing Must Go
, indeed, the subtitle of the book is Metaphysics Naturalized
. I think I should get hold of the book, because, being a proponent of Aristotelian metaphysics, I find this approach deeply flawed. For Aristotle, metaphysics is of course the first science, something that is prior to any inquiry in the natural sciences.
I suppose that it is progress of sorts if philosophers of science at least admit that metaphysics can be of some use, rather than stick to the obsolete positivist view which is still surprisingly popular among actual scientists. And of course I as well acknowledge that metaphysics should be done in such a way that recent results from natural science are taken into account. But there is a serious problem here: if physics and other sciences are expected to answer metaphysical questions, then the nature of metaphysical questions has been profoundly misunderstood. The blurb of Every Thing Must Go includes the following passage:
[T]he only kind of metaphysics that can contribute to objective knowledge is one based specifically on contemporary science as it really is, and not on philosophers’ a priori intuitions, common sense, or simplifications of science.
But how could metaphysics be based on science! As I have argued in a number of papers, metaphysical inquiry concerns metaphysical possibility, scenarios of what is possible, i.e. modal knowledge. While natural science is certainly necessary if we hope to determine what is the case in the actual world, it can never establish what is metaphysically possible, e.g. whether a physics based on a different set of fundamental forces is possible. Nor can it inquire into matters concerning necessity. In fact, I think that the role of metaphysics is much more profound, as I share the view that Jonathan Lowe has defended for a long time: metaphysics is required even to establish that something is actual. Here is a relevant passage from his paper entitled ‘The Rationality of Metaphysics’ which is forthcoming in Synthese:
Our task as metaphysicians is partly to envisage, in a very general way, what sorts of things there could be in the world, at its most fundamental level of organization or structure, and then to develop arguments for or against the existence of things of this or that general sort—for instance, for or against the existence of immaterial souls or abstract objects.
But, it may be protested, aren’t we then just trespassing upon the proper territory of empirical science, so that metaphysics is either subordinate to empirical science or else is an illegitimate rival to it? No, [...] no empirical science can legitimately have the concerns of metaphysics, since any such science is confined to the study of just one part or aspect of reality as a whole. Nor can the conjunction of all empirical sciences replace metaphysics in its task, for none of these sciences has the authority to adjudicate whether or not its theories and findings are compatible with those of the others. Each science pursues truth within a limited domain. But reality as a whole is unified and truth about one part of it cannot conflict with truth about another part. Only a discipline whose proper subject-matter is the fundamental structure of reality as a whole can have the authority to adjudicate whether the theories and findings of one empirical science are consistent with those of another. And that discipline
can only be metaphysics.
That should be fairly self-explanatory: a metaphysical delimitation of what things could possibly exist is required before we can proceed to analyse the coherence of the claims of the natural sciences. I might return to this once I’ve had the chance to take a look at Every Thing Must Go.
In the meanwhile, I’m off to Geneva for the SOPHA 2009 conference in less than a week. Reports from there and the other conferences that will follow will be added in due course. Finally, a photo from the BSPS conference dinner: