Physics, Metaphysics, Physics

I’ll be the first to say that a lot of physics and a lot of metaphysics goes right over my head. Whoosh. Modern analytic philosophy, which is what most folks mean when they say metaphysics, is about as comprehensible to me as advanced mathematics (I’m terrible at math). A lot of modern physics, at least the mathematical parts (which is a lot) is the same – whoosh.

However, I do try and keep up at least somewhat with the latest developments of the broader ideas and underpinnings of metaphysics and physics – especially physics, which is way more metaphysical than a lot of folks think it is. Philosophy of physics and the broad metaphysical ideas behind and under modern cosmology are just as important, and in my mind way more interesting, anyway.

I say all this to pick a fight with something Tim Maudlin says in his great book, ‘The Metaphysics within Physics,’ :

‘Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.’ (p. 104)

Now, it should be fairly obvious the issues here: the definition of ontology. Ontology is not the study of what exists, ontology is the study of being, or existence (you can be real anal and dispute whether or not those two words mean the same thing. I’m not going to). Being as such, not this or that particular thing that has being – or existence as such, not this or that thing that happens to exist. Being qua being. This is a pretty significant thing to get wrong.

A more concrete example: metaphysics studies how it is that change is possible (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Aristotle) and not this or that example of change (a chemical reaction, for example). What Maudlin does is to shift metaphysics from being the study of the absolute fundamentals of reality to a slightly more abstract form of empirical science, which analyzes various empirical theories. That isn’t metaphysics, that is just normal thinking.

In a nutshell, Maudlin’s scheme is that we derive metaphysics from physics, and further, ontology from physics. Our notions of existence comes from physics. Earlier in the same volume:

‘First: metaphysics, i.e. ontology, is the most generic account of what exists, and since our knowledge of what exists in the physical world rests on empirical evidence, metaphysics must be informed by empirical science.’ (p. 78)

I’m tempted to say that simply knowing what exists gives us no knowledge past bare sensory knowledge of particulars, which doesn’t really lead to knowledge of any kind, which is what Maudlin is setting out to do by analyzing various theories. But why restrict our knowledge of what exists to the physical, as Maudlin implicitly does? Twice above he says that whatever exists in the physical world is supported by empirical, or physical evidence. But that’s only trivially true – obviously, if something exists in the physical world, it will have physical evidence. But it doesn’t follow from that that the only notions of existence, or what exists comes from the physical world.

This seems to be a tangled way of thinking, which has its origin in Maudlin’s confusion of what metaphysics is. Now, as I said above, this isn’t my game. Analytic philosophy ain’t my thing, so it’s possible I’m quite wrong in my analysis. But what I see, in another nuthsell, is (a) a confusion of terms (ontology as the study of what exists), which leads to (b) the idea that our only knowledge of what exists is physical. To make ontology the study of what exists is to make metaphysics and ontology, as stated above, a slightly more abstract brand of empirical science.

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20 thoughts on “Physics, Metaphysics, Physics

  1. zguinn February 22, 2014 / 3:50 am

    Note very carefully here, that Dr. Maudlin is not saying that “We only need to study that which science tells us exist and how they relate to each other to understand reality, and those things only should we allow into our ontology.” The quote you gave of him says this.
    “Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.’”
    The empirical data implies certain truths. These things might be invisible or non-emperical. For example, in recent years there have been scientific and philosophical discussions about the implication of the ‘fine tuning of the universe for observers’(1) and whether or not that implies that God exists or if some multiverse exists or what is the best metaphysical explanation for the physical phenomena.
    This is what I think Dr. Maudlin is putting forth as his approach to ontology. But I don’t know. Ontology is not my particular area of philosophy, but it is interesting nonetheless.

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    • whitefrozen February 22, 2014 / 7:41 am

      Right, he doesn’t explicitly say what that – that’s kind of an inference I’m drawing, in a reading between the lines kind of way. As I read it, he is restricting ontology to the empirical, but again, this isn’t explicit.

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      • zguinn February 22, 2014 / 8:03 am

        I agree that he’d have trouble with things like Numerical sets(whether or not they exist), properties, God, etc, but what sorts of things are you supposing we have ideas of that he couldn’t include in his ontology? Some of these there are empirical evidences for, others….you just have people arguing about how coherent it makes a worldview or whether logical problems arise.

        I think he’s saying the only ontology worth doing is one you can make some sort of progress on.

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        • whitefrozen February 22, 2014 / 8:10 am

          Well, in my mind, part of the problem, as I articulated in my post, is the definition of ontology. I’m a classicist – ontology isn’t a study or catalog of existing things, it’s a study of existence or being *as such*. So it’s not that I have ideas of things to be included in his ontology that he can’t account for, and from there say ‘ha! how does this fit into your ontology?’, it’s that his ontology isn’t even really ontology.

          This isn’t to say I don’t sympathize. Metaphysics is so convoluted that I understand the desire to tie it to physics such that the metaphysics, as his volume is named, is within the physics, so that a kind of progress can be made.

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          • zguinn February 22, 2014 / 8:25 am

            Ah! Thank you for your clarification. You did say that in your post I just didn’t get it for some reason. (It was late, I should have been sleeping.)

            How do you suppose we should go about studying being qua being?

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  2. guymax February 22, 2014 / 8:41 am

    What Maudlin says about examining physical theories seems correct to me, as part of what metaphysics should be doing. But it would be ridiculous if metaphysics was no more than this. I agree with your criticisms. His view looks naïve from here.

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    • whitefrozen February 22, 2014 / 8:47 am

      Indeed – the mistake of locating all that metaphysics can study in the realm of the physical is a serious one. Like I said above, that’s just a slightly more abstract brand of science.

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  3. SamL February 24, 2014 / 7:08 am

    Hi there,

    A nice post – the state of metaphysics (and contemporary attitudes towards it) is a topic I’m forever interested in.

    I’ve not read any Maudlin, but it sounds to me like he’s adopting naturalism then doing metaphysics, rather than doing metaphysics to establish naturalism. I don’t think this is entirely untenable – my suspicion would be that it is not down to confusion about what metaphysics is (in the Aristotelean sense of being qua being), but due to wider shifts that took place in C20 thought which reject the possibility of metaphysics in the sense of first philosophy.

    For someone sceptical that metaphysics can provide a ground for science (as was thought by the early moderns, for example) it makes sense to look to science first and then allow treat metaphysics as an interpretive activity which reconstructs (or deconstructs) our familiar ontology – chairs, desires, agents, moral values, free actions, whatever. Here we would be doing metaphysics in the sense of being qua being, it’s just that we’re no longer giving it primacy.

    The term ‘naturalism’ is a little confusing here, as it’s not entirely clear whether it equates to physicalism. I don’t think it does – naturalism is really just a rejection of supernaturalism, which in this context might as well mean the ‘unstudiable’. In this sense, then, science can only reveal natural entities (by definition), but to that it could only reveal physical ones seems to be a stronger claim. Many contend that intentional states and qualia are natural but non-physical, for e.g. (though of course this raises its own questions of coherence.) The point I’m making is just that you could do metaphysics in a naturalistic framework (of the sort that Maudlin seems to be describing), without being committed to the view that the physical is all there is.

    Sam

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    • whitefrozen February 24, 2014 / 11:49 am

      Good thoughts. Naturalized metaphysics is, as you say, a legit enough enterprise, if you’re onboard with what you rightly observed as some big shifts in thinking about metaphysics as first philosophy. I’m not so sure I find that while enterprise convincing, myself.

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    • whitefrozen February 24, 2014 / 7:54 pm

      To expound a bit on my last comment (I was on my phone at the time): naturalized metaphysics is, as you observed, entirely tenable. I don’t think the wider shifts in thought you mention are entirely correct (though I’m hardly an expert in, say, analytic philosophy). It seems that if one works with the methodology you describe, then all that’s done is simply making science, instead of metaphysics, first philosophy. I don’t think one can avoid first philosophy in any meaningful sense. One may replace it/give primacy to something else/what have you – but there is always first philosophy, the question is just whether or not its being done well. I recently posted a quote by Gilson which goes into a bit of detail on this issue.

      I guess if I had to be pinned down and give a more formal objection, I’d say that if science is given primacy (call it a first philosophy) and naturalized metaphysics is simply an interpretative activity, then it seems that our knowledge is restricted to particulars, as science is a particular science.

      But, again, I’m far from an expert in this field. These are simply off the cuff remarks.

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      • SamL February 25, 2014 / 10:58 am

        Re. science becoming first philosophy, I’m not sure a rejecting the primacy of metaphysics would necessarily entail that. Certainly the early C20 analytic philosophers were bent that way (to the point of rejecting metaphysics outright in many cases), and I’m sure many are of that persuasion these days, but another way to see it would be as something more like a levelling – on the one hand there would no such thing as a result of a priori metaphysics that could not unseated by new science, but on the other there would be no such thing as science done without tacit metaphysical commitments, and which could potentially be influenced by metaphysical considerations. In this situation metaphysics would still be seen as interpretive, it’s just that interpretation would not be regarded as secondary, but rather an integral component of the venture. What this would mean is giving up on the hope of gaining knowledge of the real world purely off the back of the a priori.

        I may be reading you wrong, so please correct me if I am, but the idea that a naturalistic metaphysician could only argue for the existence of particulars seems to me to be something that they would just flat out deny. Their mantra would be something like “What exists is whatever science tells us exists”, but this need not be constrained to particular physical entities. For example, the NM might argue along the lines of “Our best theories of science make heavy use of the mathematics of imaginary numbers, so we should be committed to their existence.” This would of course pose a problem for a naturalist who is also a materialist, and who would then have his or her work cut out.

        My own view is in line with the one I described above, in which science and metaphysics (and the rest) are engaged in essentially the same wider project, with nothing playing the role of ‘first philosophy’ as such. To take Otto Neurath’s metaphor, it is not like the house which must be built from solid foundations, but like the boat which must be repaired upon the open sea. I really do think that when we do metaphysics we are concerned with concepts and their relationship to one another, not reality. However, I think this activity has far more value than many people appreciate, and that vast swathes of what has over the years been called ‘metaphysics’ survive its dethroning in tact.

        Sam

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        • whitefrozen February 25, 2014 / 1:22 pm

          ‘ I may be reading you wrong, so please correct me if I am, but the idea that a naturalistic metaphysician could only argue for the existence of particulars seems to me to be something that they would just flat out deny. Their mantra would be something like “What exists is whatever science tells us exists”, but this need not be constrained to particular physical entities. For example, the NM might argue along the lines of “Our best theories of science make heavy use of the mathematics of imaginary numbers, so we should be committed to their existence.” This would of course pose a problem for a naturalist who is also a materialist, and who would then have his or her work cut out.’

          Good point about imaginary numbers – but even still, this seems to still be purely particular knowlege, which doesn’t necessarily commit one to physicalism/materialism/what have you – but does commit one to a kind of nominalism, no?

          ‘I really do think that when we do metaphysics we are concerned with concepts and their relationship to one another, not reality.’

          This, to me, is the crux of the issue under debate. To me, metaphysics is exactly about being concerned with reality, not only concepts and their relationships. Again, sorry for the brevity of my reply – I’m on my lunch break.

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          • SamL February 25, 2014 / 4:16 pm

            Hmm, I’m not sure that would make the NM committed to nominalism, but nominalism would certainly be a solution open a materialist faced with the ontological problem posed by imaginary numbers. Also worth noting that if you were a nominalist then that you were only able to know about particulars wouldn’t be something that bothered you, because that’s all you believe exists anyway! On the other foot, the NM could just adopt a kind of Platonism towards mathematical entities while retaining naturalism. Here the entities are non-physical, but they’re natural. (I’m not convinced this makes any sense, but hey, that’s why I’m a materialist. I’m pretty sure there are people who take this stance though.)

            Do you have an example of the sort of metaphysics you’re referring to in the final point? I suspect if we consider a concrete example we might locate some common ground.

            Sam

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            • whitefrozen February 25, 2014 / 6:29 pm

              Well, Maudlin’s, for starters – I suppose naturalized metaphysics in general. As I said before, it’s not a field with which I have a *huge* amount of familiarity -hence my remarks are more open-questions than refutations and whatnot. I suppose (though I’m not certain) that various forms of structuralism would fall under this heading – I seem to remember reading about something called ‘ontic structural realism’ some time ago and, if i’m remembering it, it wasn’t too different from Maudlins view. Perhaps, even more broadly, a kind of pragmatism?

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  4. guymax February 25, 2014 / 7:41 am

    I see no way to make science first philosophy.without making a shambles of our classification system. First philosophy has to deal with issues that are off-limits to the physical sciences.

    Having said that, I don’t see that it makes any difference whether we start our investigations in physics and end up in metaphysics or travel the other way. I have no problem with seeing metaphysics as the interpretation of physical theories, as long as this is not all it is supposed to be, or with seeing physics as an exploration of the implications of metaphysical theories. .

    I would completely agree with SamL about naturalism. Whether naturalism is materialism will depend entirely on what is natural and what is not, and is not something we can decide by committee.

    Agree also (WF) that what counts is not what we call it, but whether we are doing it well or badly. It is an almost universal rule, and it may even be totally universal, that people who complain about metaphysics, want to subsume it within physics etc,, are people who have failed to solve its riddles and so want to change the rules of the game.

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