Metaphysics and (lack of) grounding

by Massimo Pigliucci

I must admit to always having had a troubled relationship with metaphysics. My first exposure to it was during my three years of philosophy in high school (in Italy), where the bulk of our exposure to metaphysics came down to the medieval Scholastics (of course, we also studied Aristotle and Descartes, among others). The Scholastics still have a bad reputation in philosophical circles, where the very term “Scholasticism” is a polite synonym for mental masturbation, despite the fact that medieval logicians actually did excellent work (think William of Ockham and Buridan, to name just a couple) [1,2]. As a teenager prone to (intellectual) rebelliousness, though, I couldn’t but reject the Scholastics.

A bit later on, in college, I discovered (logical and empirical) positivism, which dealt yet another blow to my regard, such as it was, for metaphysics. The positivists, (in)famously, applied their verification principle to establish not just whether a given notion was true or false, but even to determine if it made sense or was rather incoherent [3]. Metaphysical concepts (such as that of God) cannot be verified, so they are literally meaningless, not even wrong. I loved it!

Jump a number of years forward, when my interest for philosophy began to rekindle while I was in the midst of my career as a scientist, and there comes David Hume and his famous fork [4]:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Again, such a neat and no nonsense kind of view, and from one of my favorite philosophers! Nonetheless, I tried to keep an open mind about metaphysics as a viable project within modern philosophy by, among other things, reading a book on the subject at least once in a while [5].

Which, of course, soon led to the next blow, delivered by James Ladyman and Don Ross’ difficult but highly rewarding Every Thing Must Go [6]. It proposes a different model for metaphysics, what they call “scientific” or “naturalized” metaphysics. The idea is that metaphysics can not longer be conceived as a search for a priori truths about the world, because the only reliable sources of such truths is (a posteriori) empirical evidence (and therefore science), aided by mathematics and (to a lesser extent) logic. Indeed, Ladyman and Ross tellingly label the standard way of doing metaphysics “neo-Scholasticism” (which they assuredly don’t mean as a compliment), referring to their own approach as neo-positivist in spirit (thus acknowledging both that there was something profoundly wrong with the original positivism, but also that there were valuable insights to be preserved and built upon).

Ladyman and Ross conceive metaphysics as a philosophical project directed at examining how fundamental physics and the so-called “special sciences” (i.e., anything but fundamental physics) hang together, how they can be interpreted as offering a coherent view of the world despite very disparate methods and findings (think, for instance, quantum mechanics vs economic theories).

Again, this very much appeals to the scientist in me, while at the same time maintaining, in modified form, a core component of philosophical inquiry: metaphysics gets to go on as a field, but properly re-conceived (just like, I might add, philosophy, which has constantly reinvented itself over the centuries).

I could stop here, except for the fact that I keep occasionally reading “standard” (i.e., non Ladyman &  Ross style) metaphysical papers or books, and going to standard metaphysical talks, such as one I attended a few days ago at CUNY’s Graduate Center, delivered by Rutgers University’s Jonathan Schaffer [7], and entitled “The Ground between the Gaps.”

Schaffer has been thinking (for about a decade, according to his own recalling) about “grounding,” a relatively new concept that has gotten metaphysicians (or, according to some, metaphysicists) all excited [8]. I have tried and failed to understand grounding for a while now, and specifically how it differs, if at all, from causality. Relatedly, I have tried, and again failed, to understand the idea of metaphysical truths (or necessities) as distinct from either nomological (law based, from science) or logical ones [9]. These are precisely the two topics that Schaffer’s talk set out to clarify, so I eagerly, if somewhat skeptically, seated myself in the first row and took notes. As it turns out, my skepticism was justified.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Schaffer began by reminding his audience of the “explanatory gap” between the physical and the phenomenal: we just don’t understand (yet) how masses of cells interconnected in certain ways inside our brains generate “the feeling of what happens,” to put it as philosophically savvy neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once did [10].

Notoriously, there are two major ways to understand the gap: one is to say that phenomenal consciousness is somehow the result of brain activity, but we haven’t figured out how, as of this writing; another is to say that no matter how much we are going to learn about the brain, there is an unbridgeable divide between physicality and consciousness. I have no problem at all with the first way of looking at things, and I refer to the second one as the Chalmers delusion, after notorious “philosophical zombies” guy David Chalmers [11].

Schaffer seemed to buy into Chalmers-type explanatory gaps, and indeed claimed that they are not limited to phenomenal consciousness, but are rather all over the place. Even supposedly uncontroversial cases of reduction, such as from chemical to physical theory, are metaphysically problematic, they are not “transparent,” to use Schaffer’s terminology, and they therefore require some sort of “opaque” metaphysical bridging principle to account for them.

Now, typically the metaphysical concept invoked in these cases is that of supervenience [12], where the relations between lower and higher level phenomena is such that no change in the latter can occur without some (to be specified) change in the former. For instance, consider the money I have in my pocket at this moment: at a lower level of analysis, it consists (say) of two 25-cent coins, one 1-dollar bill, and two 20-dollar bills; at a higher level of analysis I have a total of $41.50 in my pocket, regardless of the “mechanistic” details. The higher level description obviously has a one-to-many relation to the lower level one, since I could have, say, six 25-cent coins, no 1-dollar bills, and two 20-dollar bills. This would still amount to a total of $41.50, but the makeup of the phenomenon at the lower level would be different in the two cases. The relation of supervenience says that no matter how the total is instantiated in terms of coins and bills, the only way to change the total value of $41.50 is to alter the composition of the system at the lower level. Another way to say this is that the total is (very, in this toy example) weakly emergent from the ensemble of the lower level constituents.

The problem is, according to Chalmers and others, that you can’t get phenomenal experience from neurobiology this way, some more robust metaphysical relation is needed. Which is why Chalmers invokes dualism and Schaffer calls on grounding. I think Schaffer’s approach is more sensible than Chalmers’ (unless one is a radical reductionist [13], which I am not), so let’s see where he goes with it.

Schaffer’s next move was to explain that grounding plays in metaphysics the same role that causality plays in science: just like physical phenomena are caused by other physical phenomena, metaphysical concepts or principles are grounded (i.e., explained, accounted for) by more basic metaphysical concepts or phenomena [14].

Now, how would we know whether an attempt at physicalist reduction is bound to fail (as opposed to simply having failed so far), indicating the need for grounding? Schaffer here gave the same (disappointing) answer that Chalmers is infamous for: conceivability. If it is conceivable, say, that there could be a being that is made exactly like me, atom per atom, and who however doesn’t experience any phenomenal consciousness, then this is sufficient to show a lacuna in physicalism. The difference between Chalmers and Schaffer, again, appears to be in how they seek to fill such a lacuna.

But I reject the very idea that conceivability is a reliable guide to metaphysics at all. It is too vague a concept, too flexible, and too prone to error. I’m sure someone out there can conceive of squaring the circle, for instance, and yet we know that’s a fantasy [because π turns out to be a transcendental number: 15]. My response to the p-zombie argument [9,11] is simply that they are logically possible (only because logic imposes very loose constraints on reality) and physically impossible. I don’t recognize an intermediate category of metaphysical possibilities as distinct from the other two.

Still, let’s continue with Schaffer’s entertaining and enlightening (about the status of classical metaphysics) talk. At this point he made an interesting move: following up on his analogy between grounding and causality, he proposed that we could deploy the metaphysical equivalent of structural equation modeling (SEM) [16].

SEM is a very highly developed set of statistical techniques, especially useful in biology and the social sciences, which allows us to test causal models against empirical observations. It works by constructing alternative “path diagrams” [17] specifying different possible causal relations among a given set of variables, some of which may even be unobservable directly (so called “latent” variables, like fitness in evolutionary biology, or intelligence in psychometrics). One then extracts covariances among empirically observed variables and uses them to test a set of alternative causal models, hopefully pruning a number of them from the realm of viable possibilities. SEM, incidentally, is also the technique that shows why, contra popular opinion, one can — under certain specific circumstances — infer causation from correlation [18].

What does all of this have to do with metaphysics? Schaffer suggests that any time we are faced with a problem of reduction such as that of chemical to physical theory, or of psychology to biology, we can build a SEM-type model where the causal relations among variables are replaced by different types of grounding relations (yeah, this is a bit fuzzy, but it gets very technical very quickly, though to his credit Schaffer did provide a couple of examples, mostly having to do with mereology [19]).

The (big) problem is that I don’t think the analogy is going to work, at all. You see, actual SEM is based on two components: on the one hand the causal model(s) to be tested; on the other hand the actual variance-covariance matrices summarizing the observations and telling us how the variables are statistically related to each other. Assuming that Schaffer can get a bit less fuzzy about how exactly he is going to replace causal links with grounding relations (I’m doubtful he can), he’s still faced with the fact that he has no “data” to “test” his models.

I actually asked him about this specific point in the q&a following the talk, and he made some gestures toward “counterfactual covariation,” meaning, I assume, that one could generate “data” from thinking about how two variables are related across possible worlds (using modal logic [20]). But this won’t do. Besides the fact that Schaffer would have to get other metaphysicians to agree that his particular way of generating counterfactual covariation is acceptable (good luck with that!), he would still be left, in my opinion, with nothing like SEM-style variance-covariance matrices, and therefore with no way to actually carry the analysis through, except by handwaving. Which metaphysicians can do even now, with no need to invoke either SEM or possible worlds (well, actually a good number of them do invoke the latter).

I also asked Schaffer a second question during the q&a: could he please provide me with just one convincing example (by which I mean nothing to do with theology) of metaphysical necessity? He couldn’t. He tried, of course, but all he could come up with was to outline a way, using his approach, in which such an outcome could be arrived at. Which wasn’t what I asked. If even one of the leading metaphysicians who has thought long and hard about grounding cannot answer a simple direct question like that one, I’m afraid my skepticism about the current status of standard (as opposed to “naturalized”) metaphysics still appears more than justified. Hume docet.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] William of Ockham, SEP entry.

[2] John Buridan, SEP entry.

[3] Logical Empiricism, SEP entry.

[4] An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by D. Hume, Wiki entry.

[5] For instance: What is this thing called Metaphysics?, by B. Garrett.

[6] Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, by J. Ladyman and D. Ross.

[7] Jonathan Schaffer’s philosophy page.

[8] Metaphysical Grounding, SEP entry.

[9] p-zombies are inconceivable. With notes on the idea of metaphysical possibility, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 4 August 2014.

[10] The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by A. Damasio, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

[11] What Hard Problem?, by M. Pigliucci, Philosophy Now, issue 99, 2013.

[12] Supervenience, SEP entry.

[13] Reductionism, IEP entry.

[14] A full paper by Schaffer on grounding as analogous to causality is: Grounding in the Image of Causation, final pre-publication draft; to appear in Philosophical Studies.

[15] Squaring the circle, Wiki entry.

[16] Structural equation modeling, Wiki entry.

[17] Though technically path analysis is a subset of SEM: Path analysis, Wiki entry.

[18] See the excellent Cause and Correlation in Biology: A User’s Guide to Path Analysis, Structural Equations and Causal Inference, by B. Shipley.

[19] Mereology, SEP entry.

[20] Possible Worlds, SEP entry.

103 thoughts on “Metaphysics and (lack of) grounding

  1. Here’s a friendly challenge for you Massimo.

    Does philosophy have value if only the professional philosophers can understand it?

    We don’t need to understand the language and theory of say, electrical engineers, as they can give us the electric light switch, a very accessible interface to their contributions. The electric engineer makes a contribution, even if few of us understand how they did it.

    But what of the philosopher? If the vast majority of their fellow humans have no idea what their words and ideas mean, what is the philosopher’s contribution?

    Thanks for the site!

    Like

  2. “For instance, consider the money I have in my pocket at this moment: at a lower level of analysis, it consists (say) of two 50-cent coins, one 1-dollar bill, and two 20-dollar bills; at a higher level of analysis I have a total of $41.50 in my pocket”

    it’s $42.00… Just saying

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed the article but doubt that it would be possible to understand metaphysics starting from here or taking this approach, and history is on my side.

    If ‘grounding’ is the idea that metaphysical concepts or principles are explained or accounted for by more basic metaphysical concepts or phenomena then this is not an interesting idea but a new name for reductionism or ‘sublation’. It fails to explain how the regress is going to end so seems to add nothing new to the debate. I see it as wriggling on the hook, complicating the issues in order to disguise incomprehension or avoid unpalatable conclusions. Unless I’m missing something.

    Grounding is what Hegel did with his ‘spiritual unity’. I’m guessing that this is not the sort of grounding that would appeal to Schaffer.

    There may be a clue to the way out of this muddle in Massimo’s comment that he keeps ‘occasionally reading “standard” (i.e., non Ladyman & Ross style) metaphysical papers or books, and going to standard metaphysical talks’. This seems a self-defeating approach to the subject. The current standard approach in our universities is to fail to make any progress and to over-complicate the issues instead. I would suggest that the “standard” approach is exactly the one that would have to be avoided for any progress. The standard approach gives sceptics like Tyson et al all the ammunition they could ever need.

    The idea that metaphysics can be naturalised is incomprehensible to me and seems to be another diversionary tactic. Metaphysics is what it is and it can never be anything else. The ambition should surely be not to re-define it but to solve it. This can be done but not by simply moving the goal posts.

    So no, not impressed either by the idea of ‘grounding’.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a rule: Searching for things in reality that are beyond the physical or the computational is a waste of time. That’s not to say that the domain-specific languages we will have for different aspects of reality will be necessarily inter-reducible.

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  5. The great sage Wikipedia once offered this introduction to metaphysics for beginners, such as myself….

    “Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it, although the term is not easily defined.

    Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

    What is ultimately there?

    What is it like?”

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  6. Short initial thought.

    I think Ladyman/Ross are a bit too charitable to issues of metaphysics, and Schaffer even more so.

    Without totally going back to the “standard” approach, but approaching claims that “Idea X can only be understood from a metaphysics POV” or similar, I suggest borrowing a page from Husserl.

    That is, that such claims be “bracketed,” or similar. They be discussed as best they can within current naturalistic understanding. If that fails to solve them, we “bracket” them until our naturalistic understanding advances.

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  7. SocraticGadfly – Could you give a definition for what you mean by ‘naturalistic understanding’.

    From here it looks like it might be an understanding of everything except metaphysics.

    Personally I either understand something or I don’t, and no qualifier is needed for distinguishing types of understanding.

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  8. Interesting metaphysical questions that have nothing to do with how science hangs together (and some of the interesting philosophers working on them).

    1. The nature of personhood and personal identity. (Derek Parfit)
    2. The nature of properties and relations (universals). (D.M. Armstrong)
    3. The ontological status of numbers. (Paul Benacerraf)
    4. The ontological status of languages. (J.J. Katz)
    5. Metaphysical Realism vs. Anti-Realism (Nelson Goodman)
    6. The ontological status of artworks — esp. literary works and musical compositions. (Peter Kivy)

    These are just six off the top of my head.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Metaphysics: Beyond the uncertainties of science and the blind faiths of religion is a single absolute truth. I can’t promise to take you there because we already are there; to see it One must simply be it, be true. =

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  10. Two thoughts:

    First: When the question arises about whether some level of knowledge will (1) NEVER be achieved or (2) simply has not YET been achieved, it is dangerous to make either assumption. Clearly the “god of the gaps” is a spectacular mistake, but, on the other hand, Einstein’s belief that we would “eventually” resolve measurement beyond the limits set by Heisenberg appears now to be settled in the negative.

    So far as I know, no one has a clue at this point how to “prove” the impossibility of soul-less consciousness, but it is not (I hesitate to use the word) inconceivable that it could be done.

    Second: I, too, am impatient with any meta-physical system that purports to tell us how reality “really” is through a definite system. However, the fact is that science, itself, DOES assume a metaphysics. The methodology is based on principles that are absolutely un-testable through the methodology itself: that logical systems work; that sense-data gives us knowledge (however imperfect) of reality.

    So, while any “prescriptive” metaphysics is speculative, saying that metaphysics is meaningless is just as uncertain. We DO make assumptions about reality whether we acknowledge doing so or not.

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  11. Thanks, Massimo. But I’m afraid that I’ve just come to a point in my life where I can’t deal with much more than contingency. I let my dreams while I sleep deal with the metaphysical, and I can’t remember most of my dreams anyway when I awake.

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  12. First, general remarks:

    A problem: Language is laced with metaphysics; or, let’s say, the components of metaphysical claims. Let’s look at some fairly commonly occurring metaphysical claims, or assertions dependent on metaphysical claims:

    “Life sucks and then you die.”

    “(Ethnicity of choice) are lazy, dishonest, amoral,(etc.).” Or, alternatively, (ethnicity of choice) is just better at (activity of choice).”

    “What goes around, comes around.”

    “Women should behave in (X) fashion.” (This is a normative claim implicating an ontological claim, i.e., the status of women determines their ‘proper’ behavior.)

    “Human intelligence has so increased, we now recognize the inherent value of a free-market economy.” (Sorry, Michael Shermer, I just had to get that in; such a statement contains ontological, epistemological, and teleological claims, as well as an implicit metaphysical remark on the status of the world in which we live today.)

    “The sun rises, and the sun sets.” (Admittedly no longer a metaphysical claim, but derived from metaphysics.)

    “Tomorrow is another day.” (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”)

    “The future hasn’t happened, the past no longer exists, the present is all there is.”

    “Trust in your higher power.”

    “There must be a store in this town that sells banana bread.”
    (I admit that this can be interpreted non-metaphysically, as ‘what town could have a populace not interested in eating banana bread?’ but nonetheless there is implicit a metaphysical claim that such stores exist in a fundamental fashion, related to the utterer’s desires.)

    “This seed will become a tree.” (Category ‘seed’ passes into category ‘tree’ through a process basic to the existence of life in the universe.)

    “It is a good day to watch ‘Die Hard.'”

    To say ‘it is a good day’ is clearly recognizable as an expression of satisfaction. Nonetheless, it is also a metaphysical claim – ‘there is something fundamental to this temporal period that is determinately “good,” as we define that term.’

    Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying the utterer intends this metaphysical claim! I’m saying the components of the expression have possible metaphysical claims embedded within them. In the immediate example, the claim is that ‘there is something in the very nature of this temporal period that warrants the watching of “Die Hard.”‘ Usually, nobody’s going to hear and analyze the expression in that fashion, but the logic of it is clear upon reflection through a given perspective.

    I’m not saying we should reflect on it through that perspective. What I’m saying is that language simply does lend itself to such reflections.

    This suggests to me that efforts to ‘dismantle’ metaphysics to get to something more basic, or to simply dismiss metaphysics, are simply doomed to failure. It is likely true that much metaphysics arises from confusing language for reality. But it is equally likely that we can’t avoid such confusions.

    Due to the fact that the brain tends to generalize its experiences for future reference, it is likely that metaphysics is an inevitable function of consciousness.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. One possibility that might clarify some of the issues would be to explore the dichotomy of bottom up, versus top down.
    In its simplest version, bottom up is the whole as a sum of its parts, while top down are the parts as components of the whole. It’s my impression that bottom up is ultimately energy, while top down is form, but I’ll leave that idea to hang.
    Now in Massimo’s example of money in his pocket, bottom up is that it equals a certain amount.
    While top down, what gives function and meaning to those pieces of paper and metal, is how much he owes the cashier. Say it is $34.27. Now he isn’t going to say; I don’t have it in that form, would you take $21.50? Rather he will give her the 20’s and she will give him change. This is because the top down function of those bottom up denominations is to fill the need. Now if the bill were $47.82, he will have to put back the chips and granola bars, because there isn’t sufficient bottom up notational value(energy) to fill that need, so the bottom up amount sets limits for the top down functions.
    Now consider this in terms of the relations between the bottom up desires and needs of a population and the top down function of the civil order/state to which they subscribe; Now we all want to be able to express ourselves fully and assume the most desirable civic structure would be one that is the sum of its people’s needs and wants, but obviously that can’t be so. The top down structure depends on various factors, such as geography, history, expectations, international relations, resources, etc. Along with the fact that those who control more power(energy) tend to bend the will of the state(structure) to their interests. Occasionally to the detriment of that structure. So sometimes people grow fat and happy and sometimes they are cannon fodder.
    So then when we consider the multitude of feedback loops between these economic and political forces and forms, it will be a fairly dynamic process of expansion, consolidation, creation, dissolution, rising, falling etc.
    Does this relationship apply across disciplines such as physics to chemistry and chemistry to biology? I’m no professional in those fields, but one suspects a fair amount of feedback.
    I think though, that if we were to go to the most elemental expression of this relationship, it would be waves. There is the bottom up energy propelling it, to which the top down form is that of frequency and amplitude. Presumably those forms are entirely the sum of the energy of the wave, but en masse, there are lots of different factors, other waves, spatial limits etc, as well as the same amount of energy expressed as more oscillations of lower energy being equal to less oscillations of more energy and so the energy being expressed is also limited by those forms it encounters, like the money flowing from Massimo’s pocket is set by how much food he seeks to purchase.
    So what might seem to be gaps in one approach, might be explained by taking the opposite view.
    Hope this isn’t too far afield, but I like to clarify what can be clarified, before considering what is obscure.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Hi Massimo,

    I do always enjoy your articles.

    However, yet again, I feel you’re getting Chalmers wrong.

    My response to the p-zombie argument [9,11] is simply that they are logically possible (only because logic imposes very loose constraints on reality) and physically impossible. I don’t recognize an intermediate category of metaphysical possibilities as distinct from the other two.

    Chalmers would agree with you that p-zombies are logically possible and physically impossible (by which I mean, not possible in this world or any world like it). His argument states not that they are possible in the real world, only that they could exist in some possible world.

    If you don’t recognise the category or metaphysical possibility, then metaphysical possibility (what can be true of possible worlds) collapses into either logical possibility or physical possibility.

    If you choose physical possibility, then you believe that the only possible worlds are ones which follow the laws of this world. Is that what you believe? Seems a little tricky to justify.

    The alternative option would imply that you believe that the possible worlds are just the logically possible worlds. If you think that philosophical zombies are logically possible, then you must agree with Chalmers that there is a possible world populated by philosophical zombies.

    But if so, that implies there is a possible world where there are beings which are physically just like us but which are not conscious. If they are just like us, then all the physical facts about them are just the same. If all the physical facts are just the same but they are not conscious, then consciousness cannot be inferred from the physical facts. This is the essence of the p-zombie argument.

    My answer to Chalmers is to reject that p-zombies are logically possible, for just the same reasons that you reject arguments from conceivability (squaring the circle). I think this ought to be your answer too.

    Another example of this tendency of yours to dismiss Chalmers unfairly arises when you claim (elsewhere) that there is no Hard Problem of consciousness despite being a biological naturalist and at times entertaining the notion (as with the Chinese Room) that a machine could simulate and so behave just like a conscious being.

    If we build such a machine, we have solved all the functional problems of consciousness, what Chalmers calls the easy problems. If there is no Hard Problem, we are done, there is nothing more to do, that machine must be conscious. But that is not your position. You maintain it is not conscious, that consciousness is a biological phenomenon and so we still need to find out what it is that biological brains do to allow consciousness. This remaining problem is just what Chalmers means by the Hard Problem.

    In both cases, though you ridicule Chalmers and dismiss his conclusions, you agree with his premises and his conclusions do actually follow from his premises. You should either reject his premises or accept his conclusion.

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  15. Hi Michael JA. Thumbs up from me. I share your view.

    I would not agree, however, that there need be many uncertainties in metaphysics. Unknowns, certainly, for metaphysics will never be more than speculation, but its results are not ambiguous just difficult to comprehend. The only necessary uncertainties would relate to our initial axiom,

    I’ll defend metaphysics where I can since if we trust it then it becomes a way of working out what it would be most sensible to believe about the world. If we stop fighting against its results and simply concede them then we will end up having to adopt your world-view, as you’ll know was shown by Nagarjuna. Hence Bradley can call metaphysics ‘an antidote for dogmatic superstition’. Not a very popular one by the look of it, but this is not the fault of the antidote.

    I’m not as sure as Harry Ellis that the ‘god of the gaps’ is a spectacular mistake, but perhaps we could agree that the fact there is this gap is a spectacular problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Massimo,
    This was an interesting piece. To my mind you deserve great credit for doing out loud what most philosophers do quietly and in private, reading and testing views in different areas and refining their views as new information and arguments arise. It gives people a great chance to see behind the scenes. Kudos.

    So as I see it this piece is structured as follows: you are suspicious of metaphysical arguments in general and this argument by Schaffer in particular, you give reasons for rejecting Schaffer’s arguments and indicate how these suggest grounds for rejecting (traditional) metaphysical arguments more or less in general. The local trouble is indicative of more general trouble. And here the general trouble is to do with Hume’s fork.

    You find that Schaffer essentially leaves himself speculating on the way the world is without data. In this way he fails to justify his speculation. He is essentially asserting, in the Humean register, matters of fact without the appropriate justification (experience or data). In this way he is perhaps indulging “sophistry and illusion” and so might be all non-naturalizing meta-physicians. Here Ladyman and Ross, of course, have data-the data of science-and so can distinguish themselves from the competition.

    I would want to demotivate this worry by demotivating Hume’s fork. Hume stood in the middle of a tradition begun by Leibniz and carried on through Kant of distinguishing propositions into two exhaustive and exclusive classes. These classes which Kant, following scholastic precedent, called analytic and synthetic defined these two sets of propositions, crucially, in terms of how they can be justified. Analytic claims can be justified by logical, conceptual arguments (what Hume called “relations of ideas”). Synthetic claims were justified on the basis of experience (what Hume called “matters of fact”). Kant made a crucial observation which remained standard up through logical positivism (which is unsurprising as positivism was essentially German and Kant has cast a long shadow over German thought). If analytic statements were justified by appeal to the content and relations of ideas and concepts, they could only reasonably be *about* ideas and concepts. Hence “All bachelors are unmarried.” tells me, somewhat counter intuitively, not about a set of objects considered bachelors but about the concept “bachelor”. This consequence flows from defining propositions in terms of their potential justification. If analytic propositions are justified only by recourse to concepts, they can at best be about concepts. Only synthetic propositions can be said to be about objects since *experience* puts them in contact with objects.

    By now you have expected to come across the name Quine. And indeed Quine’s web of belief offered quite a different picture.Quine argued (and I don’t have space to rehearse the arguments) that the difference between propositions like “There are brick houses on Elm St.” and “All bachelors are unmarried” are differences of *degree*. This is to say that all the propositions we endorse tell us something about the meanings of our terms, something about the world. So “All bachelors are unmarried” tells us something about the term “bachelor” but also something about bachelors: they are unmarried. Less intuitively “There are brick houses on Elm St.” tells us something about terms like “red” and “brick”. The thing to notice is that dissolving the two categories dissolves, or ought to dissolve, our expectation in two distinct modes of justification. Some justifications will be dependent largely on observation in a straightforward way and will be little impinged upon by ambiguities in concepts. Want to know if there are brick houses on Elm St? Go out and check. Want to know if all green objects are extended? You are going to need to entertain arguments that dwell much more on the conceptual, heretofore “analytic” side. This funny business is called philosophy.

    Bringing this home to the matter at hand, it was said early on that the problem with Schaffer’s argument is that he cannot reasonably trace out what data would vindicate his claims. I want to suggest that on a Quinean view this is neither surprising nor undermining. On a Humean view Schaffer appears to be making statements about the world without experience (or data) that would connect such satements to the world at hand. This appears idle speculation and perhaps Scholastic “mental masturbation”. But on a Quinean view Hume’s simple taxonomy is too severe. Metaphysical arguments are ultimately derived from experience, but always indirectly. These arguments are our most abstract and conceptual reflections on our everyday experience. They are constrained not by this or that observation but by the sum total of everyday observation, what is now somewhat too agnostically called our “intuitions” but which I would call our pre-theoretical commitments. This may make metaphysics seem tricky and uncertain but not, a la Hume, hopelessly cut off from the objects.

    I accept that this long comment was at least two comments and shall restrict myself accordingly. I hope someone read it.

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  17. I go as minimal on metaphysics as I can: what are the minimum axioms I need to make the social sciences and education happen, and for me to understand works of art. Badiou’s aphorism holds up pretty well: “Set theory is all the metaphysics you need, and physics all of the ontology.” He loses me when he tries to go from that to Maoism.

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  18. As someone who has worked a bit with structural equation models (though I am not an expert) I have to say I’m with Massimo on this one. The advantage of structural models as the wiki page indicates is that they can ‘isolate observational error from measurement of latent variables’. As Massimo points out I’m not sure what is gained by the analogy since ‘metaphysical grounding’ has no real observational data? When there is appropriate observational data SEM can be used to test the fit a given theory against the data with a model that approximates the theory. One thing about SEM is that even if a model fits the data within accepted criteria it doesn’t rule out that other models may fit same data. Alternative models can be compared, but one is never really sure if they have tested the ‘best ‘ model. When a model fits the data, depending on the type of structural model the relations of the observed variables to the latent factors as well as those between latent factors can be examined. All of this however depends on having some set of observed data.

    It is interesting however that Massimo brought Ladyman & Ross into this topic since they point out that ‘everything must go’. I think this suggests that the ‘data’ we generally conceive to be grounding our scientific models itself ultimately has no singular grounding. So the observations I referred to above tend to be based on coarse-grained measurements, and I think sometimes (or often) we forget potential metaphysical assumptions that are hidden in the aggregation process. There is I think often an unspecified theory defining the data we take as given.

    I fail see how quantitative methods can be applied to metaphysics pretty much by definition. If it can be quantified we can use science although we just need to be careful regarding hidden assumptions. If the links across different levels of description require different models, and if their observables are based on different theories that don’t reduce (per Markos essay) than I think the gaps need to be speculated on through non-quantitative theories (metaphysical?).

    Of cousre all of what I just said probably just demonstrates my state (lack) of knowledge base more than anything else. I’m not sure I really get what the link between SEM and ‘metaphysical grounding’ provides, but reading this post didn’t make to clear to me what ‘metaphysical grounding’ is.

    I am very interested in ideas/theories that attempt to cross or reduce the divides across our knowledge bases (between the sciences, and between science and philosophy). I do think like brodix that thermodynamics is interesting in this respect. For example the work of Terrence Deacon the Asher previously referred to, as well as that of Jeremy England (https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140122-a-new-physics-theory-of-life/), and takes Karl Fristons ‘free energy’ ideas relating to consciousness (http://open-mind.net/papers/the-neural-organ-explains-the-mind), and (http://open-mind.net/papers/embodied-prediction). slightly off topic but readers of this site might find this collection of papers interesting: http://open-mind.net/papers.

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  19. My response to the p-zombie argument [9,11] is simply that they are logically possible (only because logic imposes very loose constraints on reality) and physically impossible.

    But the point is that they are not physically impossible. Removing the hypothesis of consciousness does not require taking away a term from the Dirac equation, or any kind of adjustment to any sort of physical equation.

    There is no sort of physical contradiction involved in the neural processes associated with a feeling of nausea would working just as they do but for there to be no actual feeling of consciousness.

    So you don’t actually need that category of “metaphysical possibility”, which never actually meant anything anyway.

    Physics does not require the hypothesis that there is something it feels like to be us.

    I think that this is the reason that some scientists want to say that we are not conscious at all (and that I must be a “credulous and egocentric” Creationist geocentrist to think so). But we are conscious.

    While others say that consciousness plays no part at all in our behaviour, which is incoherent, since it would imply that it would be impossible for us to talk about our conscious experience (language being one of our behaviors). Which, again, is not true.

    At some point we have to face the fact that we are conscious and consciousness plays a part in our behaviour and develop theories of consciousness on that basis.

    Finding out why P-zombies are physically impossible is just exactly the hard problem of consciousness.

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  20. D’oh, I need a sub editor. let me rephrase:

    There is no sort of physical contradiction involved in the neural processes associated with a feeling of nausea would working just as they do but for there to be no actual feeling of nausea.

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  21. If you ground ‘understanding’ in something like ‘agency’ then you achieve (at least) two very useful things: 1. You avoid grounding it in additional terms that are also inherently cognitive (e.g.: intelligibility, explanation, consistency/coherence, (causal) narratives, recognition, intuitive feeling, sense making, etc.) This just generates definitional circularity; 2. You know you have ‘understanding’ when and only when, you have the concomitant agency to show for it. Metaphysics doesn’t give you this- you can’t use it to leverage your capacity to cope with the environment (or anything in it). Neo-Scholastic or Naturalised- it’s all cognitive embroidery.

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  22. I rarely contribute to this blog, but for the umpteenth time I agree with Aravis.

    > metaphysics gets to go on as a field, but properly re-conceived.

    What does “properly conceived” à la Ladyman & Ross mean when we’re talking about language, art etc.?
    I’m a physicist – but seemingly a rare one on Scientia Salon. I don’t believe the tools of the sciences and their metaphysics are very relevant when talking about art etc. So why should the metaphysics of Ladyman & Ross be relevant for all those other things for which the tools of the sciences are powerless?

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  23. Patrick G noticed the following:

    “Metaphysics gets to go on as a field, but properly re-conceived…”

    ———————————–

    Yes, this statement stuck out to me too. (Hence my list of perfectly credible and “interesting” topics in metaphysics). You’d almost think that John Haldane needs permission to continue working in analytical Thomism (He was just hired by Baylor, from St. Andrews, to take up the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Chair in Philosophy) or that Derek Parfit needs permission to continue working on personal identity. (The guy is an emeritus Fellow at Old Souls, Oxford, and visiting Professor at NYU, currently the #1 Philosophy department in the world.)

    I know…I know…it’s all rubbish, all that theology and metaphysics stuff…and there’s no evidence…and it falls off of Hume’s fork…etc…etc… The problem is, an awful lot of very important people and institutions don’t agree. That ought to at least give one pause, when engaging in blanket dismissals of entire disciplines; disciplines in which many very smart people are currently working. Maybe one has missed something? Or maybe, just maybe, one is….wrong.

    Better to live and let live, no? I’m inclined to think that more inquiry is better than less, even if it won’t stay on the damned fork.

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  24. Phil,

    “Does philosophy have value if only the professional philosophers can understand it?”

    Does quantum mechanics have value if only fundamental physicists understand it? (And, according to Richard Feynman, not even them?) Does high mathematics have value if only a small number of mathematicians understand it? (I think only a handful of people understand the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem.)

    Besides, plenty of philosophy is easily understandable by the public, witness the innumerable philosophy clubs, Stoic Weeks, Socrates Cafes, etc. around the world.

    Peter,

    “It fails to explain how the regress is going to end so seems to add nothing new to the debate”

    To be fair, you wouldn’t say that of causation in science, right? And since Schaffer is drawing a parallel between the two…

    “The standard approach gives sceptics like Tyson et al all the ammunition they could ever need.”

    Maybe, but I’m more interested in understanding what smart people like Schaffer are doing (or think they are doing) rather than be too worried about physicists who are manifestly ignorant of philosophy.

    “The idea that metaphysics can be naturalised is incomprehensible to me and seems to be another diversionary tactic. Metaphysics is what it is and it can never be anything else.”

    By the same token then ethics couldn’t be naturalized either, and we should leave it to the gods? Even Plato disagreed with that one (see Euthyphro).

    Philip,

    “Searching for things in reality that are beyond the physical or the computational is a waste of time”

    That would eliminate much of logic and mathematics, which don’t deal with “things in reality,” understood as physically defined. And the word computational, I’m afraid, is getting used so widely and imprecisely these days that is about to lose meaning (as in “rocks are computers because they can have different states”).

    Aravis,

    your list is a good one, but I’m afraid I think of many of those questions as issues of language and understanding of concepts, and I’m surprised that a fan of Wittgenstein such as yourself might seem them differently. Take personal identity, for instance: unless you think that there is a universal “essence” to personhood (and I most certainly don’t think there is), what constitutes a “person” is a matter of agreeing among ourselves to play a certain language game, nothing else. Or consider the ontology of numbers: do they “really exist”? That depends entirely on what one means by “exist,” unless you are really positing a Platonic realm “out there,” which not even the most ardent modern Platonists do.

    Gregory,

    “did you read Bennett’s “There is no Special Problem With Metaphysics”?”

    No, I will take a closer look, but this struck me as interesting, right at the beginning of the paper:

    “we should not make grand claims about the Status of Metaphysics, but should instead only make small, localized claims about the status of particular metaphysical disputes”

    In principle, yes. Unless it turns out that there is a very large number of troubling localized claims, in which case one is justified in asking the broader question about the field / approach. We do this in other instances as well, witness the current discussions about “the trouble with physics,” with reference to the status of string theory and similar approaches.

    “there it is a dangerous slippery slope to scientism: if Metaphysics of Science is metaphysics enough, isn’t Philosophy of Science philosophy enough?”

    I don’t believe in slippery slopes, they are fallacious… For instance, no, philosophy of science wouldn’t be enough, because where we would be put ethics?

    Harry,

    “no one has a clue at this point how to “prove” the impossibility of soul-less consciousness, but it is not (I hesitate to use the word) inconceivable that it could be done”

    True enough, but that isn’t the point. Chalmers, for instance, claims that p-zombies *prove* that there is something wrong with physicalism, and they do nothing of the sort. Also, I’m simply not interested in any claim for which there isn’t sufficient evidence / reason, such as that of soul-less consciousness. Blame it on the scientist in me.

    “the fact is that science, itself, DOES assume a metaphysics”

    True enough, of course. But perhaps it would be best to leave it at that? Science’s metaphysical assumptions are just that, assumptions, i.e., unprovable axions, which will be retained while and until they work.

    “saying that metaphysics is meaningless is just as uncertain”

    I didn’t make that claim, that was the logical positivists, and I ain’t no logical positivist.

    ej,

    “To say ‘it is a good day’ is clearly recognizable as an expression of satisfaction. Nonetheless, it is also a metaphysical claim – ‘there is something fundamental to this temporal period that is determinately “good,” as we define that term.’”

    I’m not convinced. To say that it is a good day is to make a value judgment, which can be entirely grounded in personal preferences, with no metaphysical implication at all, at least not in the sense in which I understand metaphysics.

    “I’m not saying we should reflect on it through that perspective. What I’m saying is that language simply does lend itself to such reflections”

    Do I smell Wittgenstein lurking nearby? (Which would be fine, by the way.)

    “But it is equally likely that we can’t avoid such confusions.”

    But isn’t one of the major businesses of philosophy precisely to clarify language, to show the fly out of the fly bottle? (Witty, again!)

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  25. It is interesting how the new metaphysics just collapses into the old metaphysics. Ladyman and Ross tell us that we can’t talk about P-zombies because they are just some weird idea which has nothing to do with science.

    But at the same time a theory in neuroscience (Integrated Information Theory) is being touted as our best hope of explaining consciousness and this theory implies that there can be functional equivalents of people which are not conscious “true zombies” is the term Tononi uses for these. In particular a high res algorithmic simulation of a human being which models all of our biological functions and demonstrates all of our behaviours would not be conscious under the theory.

    So if there is one of these F-zombie equivalents of me then why am I conscious and zombie Robin is not? Because my brain has a high value of Phi, integrated information, and zombie Robin does not.

    So, basically, “integrated information” is the posited reason that I am not a P-zombie. If IIT is wrong then we still do not know why we are not P-zombies, but it has become a perfectly respectable scientific question.

    Here is a theory which has been backed by Max Tegmark and neuroscientist Christof Koch who is a long time collaborator with Francis Crick. Koch says that it is the only promising theory of consciousness that there is.

    More importantly for the Ladyman/Ross proposal, research into IIT is funded by bona fide funding organisations, which is their criterion for theories that might be considered in metaphysics.

    So, yes P-zombies are back, baby, and in a big way.

    Mention of Buridan makes me think of Buridan’s ‘Tunnel through the Earth’ thought experiment which was discussed here (or rather Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s television exposition of it).

    Buridan’s pupils, Oresme and Albert of Saxony, came to much the same conclusion as presented by Tyson, only they thought that the oscillations would decrease over time. They also had a thought experiment about a stone poised equidistant to two worlds which just stays where it is with pulled equally by each world.

    How this must have seemed like weird ideas with no relation to actual science.

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  26. brodix,

    “when we consider the multitude of feedback loops between these economic and political forces and forms, it will be a fairly dynamic process of expansion, consolidation, creation, dissolution, rising, falling”

    Maybe, if I follow you correctly. But I fail to see what that has to do with discussions of analytic metaphysics.

    DM,

    “However, yet again, I feel you’re getting Chalmers wrong”

    I knew you were going to say that. And, yet again, I feel you get me wrong. I guess that’s fair.

    “His argument states not that they are possible in the real world, only that they could exist in some possible world.”

    Right, p-zombies are logically possible. My point is that that tells us precisely nothing about consciousness, which is a real world phenomenon. And also that logical constraints are simply too loose to be of use in discussions in philosophy of mind.

    “If you choose physical possibility, then you believe that the only possible worlds are ones which follow the laws of this world. Is that what you believe?”

    No, obviously, if by “possible” you mean logically so, then there is an infinite number of logically possible worlds.

    “If you think that philosophical zombies are logically possible, then you must agree with Chalmers that there is a possible world populated by philosophical zombies.”

    No, and this is the crux of the matter: I don’t think that possible worlds exist (as hinted at by the word “possible”), so there is no world in which p-zombies are possible, so there is no hard problem of consciousness, so there is no problem with physicalism.

    “If all the physical facts are just the same but they are not conscious, then consciousness cannot be inferred from the physical facts.”

    You are confusing physical and logical (and so does Chalmers). As I said above, that something is logically possible tells us precisely *nothing* about whether it is physically instantiated in the world, and consciousness is a phenomenon that is physically instantiated in the world, and the only way we are going to make progress on it is to take this notion seriously and wait until neuroscience has made a bit more progress. Chalmers is simply not helping (indeed, he’s confusing things).

    “My answer to Chalmers is to reject that p-zombies are logically possible, for just the same reasons that you reject arguments from conceivability (squaring the circle)”

    I’d very much like to see your proof that p-zombies are logically impossible. That squaring the circle is impossible has been rigorously proved.

    “If we build such a machine, we have solved all the functional problems of consciousness, what Chalmers calls the easy problems. If there is no Hard Problem, we are done, there is nothing more to do, that machine must be conscious. But that is not your position.”

    See, you keep misunderstanding me: of course it would be possible — IF that machine were made not just in the same way, but of the same materials. But we can do that already, easily and pleasurably: we call them babies.

    David,

    “you deserve great credit for doing out loud what most philosophers do quietly and in private, reading and testing views in different areas and refining their views as new information and arguments arise”

    Much appreciated, thanks. Of course, this is the very project on which Scientia Salon is built. Hopefully it will take hold.

    “”All bachelors are unmarried.” tells me, somewhat counter intuitively, not about a set of objects considered bachelors but about the concept “bachelor”. This consequence flows from defining propositions in terms of their potential justification. If analytic propositions are justified only by recourse to concepts, they can at best be about concepts. Only synthetic propositions can be said to be about objects since *experience* puts them in contact with objects”

    Very nice indeed. And yes, I would say that analytic propositions are about concepts and apply directly only to concepts. But I don’t think it follows that they apply *only* to concepts, for the simple reason that concepts are creations of the human mind, which refer to objects in the real world (some don’t, of course, like the concept of a unicorn). This is similar to math: mathematical proofs are analytical statements, and they strictly speaking apply only to mathematical objects. But it doesn’t follow that mathematics doesn’t pertain also to the real world, right? Notice that, I think, this isn’t Quine’s approach, which I am not very sympathetic too (despite my agreement with the general idea of a web of beliefs).

    “it was said early on that the problem with Schaffer’s argument is that he cannot reasonably trace out what data would vindicate his claims. I want to suggest that on a Quinean view this is neither surprising nor undermining”

    Besides my comment above about Quine, remember that it is Schaffer who makes the analogy between grounding and causation, and who wishes to use SEM in metaphysics. It is he who’s calling for some sort of “data,” not I. Still, I get your point, and I’ll think it over some more.

    Erik,

    “Badiou’s aphorism holds up pretty well: “Set theory is all the metaphysics you need, and physics all of the ontology.” He loses me when he tries to go from that to Maoism.”

    You reminded me of why I don’t like Badiou: both sentences, about metaphysics and ontology, strike me as grossly inadequate. And yes, I have no idea where he gets Maoism from.

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  27. SciSal wrote:

    “I’m afraid I think of many of those questions as issues of language and understanding of concepts, and I’m surprised that a fan of Wittgenstein such as yourself might seem them differently.”

    ——————————

    They might turn out to be nothing more than matters of language. Some or perhaps, even all. (Certainly, that’s my feeling about Free Will.) But I can’t say that I’m sure. And certainly, I’m not sure enough to dismiss them as proper questions or points of inquiry. I am too aware of my own limitations and of the intelligence of the people I listed to do that.

    Part of the problem, here, may be our conception of “metaphysics.” You seem to suggest that it must involve some sort of crude Platonism, but this is untrue. All that it requires is that synthetic a priori knowledge be possible (i.e. the category between Hume’s fork), and that certainly does not entail a crude Platonism or, indeed, Platonism at all. It simply means that reason is the thicker, richer substantive stuff that the Ancient Greeks conceived, rather than the narrow, thinner, purely instrumental stuff conceived by Hume and the other agents of the Enlightenment.

    But even if metaphysics does involve Platonism, this need not entail anything that is obviously absurd. Put another way, a “Platonic realm out there” is hardly the only way of thinking about realism, regarding abstract objects. The late and great Jerry Katz, formerly of your own institution — and my own mentor, through graduate school — spent a good portion of his career arguing that languages are abstract objects. His arguments are formidable and not easily dismissed. (He was one of the few people that everyone was afraid of debating.) And yet, they involve nothing like a “Platonic realm out there.” (Even Aristotle did not conceive of Form as belonging to a “realm out there.” Read Metaphysics Zeta.)

    I guess that I just think about inquiry in a very different way. Yes, I tend to be mostly skeptical about positions that one would deem “metaphysical.” I am also an atheist, despite the fact that I am heavily involved in my religious community. But I still spend a good amount of time reading work done in metaphysics and theology. I believe I have learned a lot from it. And the last thing I would want is for people to stop doing this work, even if my skepticism ever reached the level of certainty, which, given my temperament, it will not. I’m glad that there are neo-Thomists like Alasdair MacIntyre working in Ethics, as the field has only benefited from their work. I’m glad that there have been Platonists like Jerry Katz, bucking the cognitivist tsunami in the Philosophy of Language, as the field has only benefited from their work. And I’m glad that there have been people like Martin Buber and CS Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle talking about the experience of the divine, because my own experience — of *everything* — has only benefited from their work.

    As I said in my last post, I am in favor of more inquiry, rather than less. Even if, at the end of the day, I don’t think that the conclusions drawn from that inquiry are true.

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  28. Metaphysics Rises From the Ground Dreams Are Made Of

    Metaphysics is everywhere. Everybody uses it, as EJ Winner pointed out. Some will say: ”Oh, that just language.” Yes, but language is ideas, and ideas get embodied as brain structure. So here we see that not only metaphysics exists, but it is physically embodied. Any victim of Jihadism can testify that metaphysics has real consequences.

    Before defining Metaphysics, one has to define “physics”. That was what the Romans called nature. Physis is “nature,” from phyein “to bring forth, produce, make to grow” (related to phyton “growth, plant,” phyle “tribe, race,” phyma “a growth, tumor”). Physis is everywhere.

    Science is physical phenomena so well known that they can allow us to predict how things will grow.

    But in the original sense all discourses about what exists and changes in nature is part of physics. Call this
    Common Sense. Call it CS. Metaphysics is about telling a story beyond what we are sure all others will agree they also observed.

    The brain is all connected inside: that’s how logic is embodied. Much of it is individualized, call it I. So we have: Metaphysics = I – CS.

    CS depends upon one’s tribe. Metaphysics and I are, of course dependent upon the Individual.

    And what is the Individual (brain) made of, and with? Experiences. Individualized experiences. (So I agree with David Ottlinger, yes we read what you wrote).

    All metamathematics is, clearly Metaphysics in some sense (arguably mathematics itself is, literally, metaphysics).

    Set Theory is Metaphysics. That can be demonstrated easily: as all genuine Metaphysics, it is full of contradiction(s).

    According to the definition I gave above, the very definition of Metaphysics is that it is the set of all thought systems that harbor contradiction(s) to Common Sense (otherwise it would be Common Sense).

    Could we do without Metaphysics?

    Of course not. Metaphysics is beyond Common Sense. But we know something exists beyond Common Sense, say for example future or possible science, research projects, and, in general various guesses of all sorts, including artistic ones.

    So it’s not all a question of “data”, in the restrictive sense, or, even more generally, “quanta”. Metaphysics is grounded beyond “data” in the restrictive sense. Guesses, intuitions, even desires and provocations, the feeling of what might be, or ought to be, are part of the “data” that grounds Metaphysics.

    Our minds are not just grounded in hard facts, personal experiences and feelings, but even dreams, vague tendencies, feelings and emotions, let alone collective rages, and misunderstanding of history, much of it that we harbor in our inner spiritual recesses, as various infantile trauma.

    In all this our very individualized Metaphysics are grounded. Lots of dream stuff. So people are invited not to deduce lethal consequences from it.

    We need it.

    But we also need to understand it. Especially when it animates our thermonuclear hands. Or those of others.

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  29. Massimo,
    I didn’t think my point was particularly obscure, nor is it completely thought out. It seems to me that much of science tends to be bottom up and yet not quite sure how these higher levels emerge.
    While metaphysics seems to be more of the top down view(therefore the associations with religion and philosophy), as to how this larger reality functions as a whole.
    The impression I have is that there is no bottom up, even of the most elemental quantum fluctuations, without a top down effect, possibly what we might consider a measurement of itself. Which then affects those lower levels, creating feedback, etc.
    Like I said, it’s just an idea I’m putting out to see if it rings any bells.

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  30. Massimo

    “Relatedly, I have tried, and again failed, to understand the idea of metaphysical truths (or necessities) as distinct from either nomological (law based, from science) or logical ones [9]. ”

    Metaphsyics is what you have when falsifiability in not possible. “Truths” of physics are falsifiable, as I explained to tientzengong in pervious threads. Say “pinciples” instead of “truths” for starters. You realize that a most fundamenatl “aspect” of reality is momentum? And as I explained clearly to tientengong, Brodix, Coel, and Marko V in previous threads, momentum cannot be measured, by defintion – you cannot catch it “in flight” as it were. As explained also, the Uncertaintly Principle, which says you cannot measure momentum at one space and instant (which is how all measurement is done – not “in flight”), merely conforms to the definition of momentum, ebacuse there is no meaureable momentum at a freeze frame of ane spatial & temporal event.

    Your discussion really tracks over old ground without reaching for these principles. Why? What does it mean when momentum cannot be measured? It means a great deal of likely errant invention goes on about what is happening in “the gap”? What is a putative “:wavelength” doing in that gap? It is putative, and can never be measured by, definition, and therefore it is metaphysics informing physics. It may be that some of your readers are looking at metaphysics without that lens of logic. There will be other factors that are, by deifnition, unmeasurable by physics, which allso must fall into the category of metaphysics. When you draw a theory, you model using both physics and metaphysics, but nobody appears to understand the difference or care – so physics gets inflated.

    You can read about all this here http://sdrv.ms/1a4HBbk I have given this reference many times, and it is extremely useful. In it you will find clear logical explanations for a layperson that remove many or indeed most of these obfuscations. As I have explained many times, progress is made by big new ideas, not minor adjustments to old ones. Of perhaps you do not agree? My logical reliance on metaphysics for the non-falsifiable aspects of phsyics does not mean metaphysics is not science, it obviously means science must include metaphysics or we could not even (try to) falsify momentum! Metaphysics extends further, but I will let you ruminate on the link and see how you go. The only reason physics has not understood what I have written is beacuse it has not obviated the Uncertainty Principle as I have done. Why? Good question.

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  31. I suspect Massimo has missed Phil’s (first comment) point. He’s suggesting that the average person need not ‘understand’ the intellectual/theoretical underpinnings of a particular (cultural/scientific/industrial/…) enterprise, but can be rest assured of the ‘productivity’ (and relevance) of the enterprise by virtue of the technological fruits it provides for use and consumption. With the exception of an endless sea of literature, Metaphysics (and perhaps philosophy in general) don’t appear to provide this. I’m assuming this is a good reason to be suspicious about its capacity to deliver any genuine information that helps us- as I have said above- cope with the actual environment.

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  32. My comments are:

    1. It seems to me that metaphysics can be done as both philosophy and science as follows. If metaphysics is the study of “being” and existence, and the universe “be”s and exists, and physics is the study of the universe, then logically physics should be derivable from the principles of metaphysics. Ideally, if metaphysicians could think of answers to fundamental questions like “Why does a thing exist?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, then they could use these solutions to build models of the “be”ing, existent universe and eventually make testable predictions. To me, this metaphysics-to-physics or philosophical engineering approach would provide a faster route to fundamental knowledge about existence than “standard” metaphysics or physics.

    2. I fail to understand why phenomenological consciousness is considered hard. It seems like when we see the color red, this triggers certain memories of other times we saw the color along with their associated memories of red-associated sights, sounds, physiological stimuli, etc. This all pops into our mind frame when we see red and we therefore “experience red”.

    3. To Peter J: I totally agree that grounding sounds the same as reductionism to me and that reading standard academic metaphysics papers is the surest way to lose faith in metaphysics. Try some new approaches. Heaven forbid :-), read some good amateurs’ sites like https://theworldknot.wordpress.com/
    and others.

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  33. Double-doctor, Professor Pigliucci,
    A friend and I were curious to know if this was mostly intended as a pure criticism of the current state of metaphysics, or if you were also intending to open up some space for neo-positivism and its advocacy in writing this article.

    Either way, the criticisms of modern metaphysics stand, and I’m not saying that neo-positivism is incorrect in any way. We were just curious to learn about motivations and goals.

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  34. The Schaffer graphical approach reminds me of Spivak’s book “Category Theory for Scientists”, which I am (very) slowly working through:

    Click to access 1302.6946.pdf

    I would probably reserve the term structural equation modelling to Gaussian models myself – graphical or causal modelling as terms for these generalizations are well accepted.

    About metaphysics, I too liked Aravis’s list. One book I have finished, Mario Bunge’s “Matter and Mind” champions metaphysics as central to science:

    “[K]eeping one’s ontology tidy and up to date pays far more than damning metaphysics…”

    Another of his quips (possibly he is misrepresenting Kripke):

    “Saul Kripke (1971) revived this … myth [of the immaterial mind] by claiming that mental processes
    cannot be neural because the brain-mind association is contingent rather than logically necessary ­ – hence people in alternative worlds might not need brains to think. This is all that modal (or possible worlds) metaphysics manages to tell us about mind.”

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  35. Massimo,

    Yes, a good dose of Wittgenstein, with John Dewey looking over his shoulder; and perhaps more than a smidgen of Continental philosophy, which has approached the problem of metaphysics from a constructivist perspective on language since Heidegger’s ‘linguistic turn’ in the ’40s.

    The point is that the one move not to make here is to claim that we are ‘beyond’ metaphysics, and done with it. (I know you’re not making that claim, but I also know there are readers who will.)

    The real question is, what kind of metaphysics do we want to pursue, what is its basis and what is the shape of its development?

    I agree that Chalmers and Shaffer are simply headed down cul-de-sacs. Chalmers problem may be a confusion of language and reality – simply because we have traditionally discussed consciousness in immaterial terms, does not mean that it is immaterial in origin; it simply means we haven’t developed the language to give a completely material description of it.

    Shaffer’s problem is actually more pronounced. Frankly, even setting aside the empirical problems you point out, I don’t see how one can derive metaphysics from any kind of statistics. Metaphysics by its nature tends toward general claims, themselves tending toward absolutes (‘all consciousness is this,’ ‘any substance is that’), whereas statistics tends towards means and averages. (I have no idea what it would mean to claim, say, ‘human life seems composed of 98% percent materiality, plus or minus 2%.’) But I am unfamiliar with the particularities of SEM, so I could be wrong.

    Metaphysics arises from human efforts to grasp the reality in which we live. It devolves into quite human desires, then elaborates into metaphysics again. And yes, it is a function of philosophy to clarify this process, so that we don’t chase chimeras and become enamored of our own ideas.

    This effort is actually unique to philosophy. Science is too concerned with the empirical and the mathematically determinable; sociology and other human sciences can only give us descriptions of it. Only philosophy can confront this process on its own terms.

    This may very well have formed the basis of philosophy among the ancients. But that is another discussion.

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  36. Metaphysics happens when you pull paper and metal out of your pocket and ‘see’ it as money.

    Metaphysics happens when you read this sentence. Your particular metaphysics began when your mother sang to you the abc song. Your physics were alive and kicking a few years before your metaphysics.

    Thank you for a stimulating post!

    Like

  37. Hi Massimo,

    The whole Chalmers thing is one I’d really like to get to the bottom of, so I’ll persist if you’re willing (I don’t have a lot to say about the article apart from that other than that I enjoyed it and mostly agreed with it).

    > I don’t think that possible worlds exist (as hinted at by the word “possible”),

    OK, but to say there is a possible world just means that this is a way the world could have been — there is no logical or metaphysical principle preventing such a world from existing. That the actual world is not such a world is contingent. Possible worlds don’t have to actually exist except in our imaginations.

    > As I said above, that something is logically possible tells us precisely *nothing* about whether it is physically instantiated in the world

    This is where you get Chalmers wrong, because he would agree with you here. He is not claiming that the logical possibility of p-zombies tells us anything about whether consciousness is physically instantiated. Recall that he certainly knows that consciousness is physically instantiated, so this is not the point at issue!

    Rather, that p-zombies are logically possible only proves that consciousness is not necessarily entailed by the physical facts about humans. If this is so, then the question of whether consciousness exists or not is underdetermined by the physical facts (despite the fact that we know it does in fact exist), and if this is so we cannot explain why consciousness exists by appeal to the physical facts alone.

    So, again, you should either refuse to accept the logical possibility of p-zombies or accept the possibility that consciousness is not entirely physical.

    > See, you keep misunderstanding me: of course it would be possible — IF that machine were made not just in the same way, but of the same materials

    That’s completely sidestepping the issue. When I said machine, imagine I said Turing machine and the argument still stands. Let me reiterate.

    If we build a Turing machine that behaves just like a human, passing a robust Turing test, implementing the Chinese Room algorithm and so on, as you seem to allow may be possible in principle, then we have made a Turing machine which implements all of the functional “easy” problems. If there is no Hard Problem, this machine is conscious. If there is a Hard Problem, then it may not be. So to reject the Hard Problem, you must either reject the possibility of building a Turing machine which can do all the functional information processing a human can do or you must accept that such a machine would necessarily be conscious.

    Hi David Ottlinger,

    I for one very much enjoyed your long comment and was glad it was published.

    Hi Aravis,

    I agree with both your comments and Massimo’s. I think these are valid and worthwhile intellectual pursuits, even though I think most of them (including Platonism, by the way) amount to little more than language games.

    Like

  38. I don’t know why lack of grounding is perceived as a problem for metaphysics — quite obviously, there’s literally nothing to ground, so expecting the study to be grounded is completely unfair!

    Certainly there are many, many scientific questions that can be explored that touch on metaphysical concerns (e.g. how does human biology influence the construction of human conceptual spaces and human realities?), but ultimately metaphysics is all about how we end up organising, connecting, and interpreting the physical sensory data that is pumped into our brains — and while some ways of categorising and organising can be more or less useful depending on particular teloi, there’s ultimately no right or wrong way of doing it. External actuality very well might be, but we’re always going to be stuck in human reality, created similarly yet differently by each of our similar but different two pound brains.

    I really get the intuition that some sort of grounding would be useful, but sadly if we import the assumptions and/or methodologies that emerge from the empirical and correspondent nature of science (i.e. a type of inquiry where we literally have external objects to correspond to) into metaphysics, we make a serious category error because there’s literally nothing to correspond to or with or against.

    So yeah, a lot of metaphysics is pretty worthless (aside from historical interest) — especially modes of thought that make connections and assumptions that are now so foreign to us that we can’t make heads or tails of them. But as long as we remain human, our brains are going to be trying (mostly unconsciously, I might add!) to make some sort of sense of the data that our senses feed into it. And as long as it does this, we’re going to be doing metaphysics. Obviously we should always be using the insights of science to better understand external actuality (including with regard to our own hardware!), but the objection that metaphysics is ungrounded and therefore crap is just fundamentally a result of a not-so-useful metaphysics that hasn’t yet figured out how metaphor does and doesn’t work.

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  39. It is depressing to read many of these comments. Very few people seem to have any respect for an area of study that to me would be more important than physics.

    Massimo – It is impossible to have a debate here, but one time I’ll respond to your comments if I may.

    P – “It fails to explain how the regress is going to end so seems to add nothing new to the debate”

    M – To be fair, you wouldn’t say that of causation in science, right? And since Schaffer is drawing a parallel between the two…

    P – I would say exactly this of causation in science.

    P “The standard approach gives sceptics like Tyson et al all the ammunition they could ever need.”

    M – Maybe, but I’m more interested in understanding what smart people like Schaffer are doing (or think they are doing) rather than be too worried about physicists who are manifestly ignorant of philosophy.

    P – Okay. But Schaffer can be little help if we want to understand metaphysics. Afik he does not claim to understand it himself. It is a curious feature of metaphysics in our society that we study almost exclusively philosophers who could not understand it and who say so quite openly.

    P – “The idea that metaphysics can be naturalised is incomprehensible to me and seems to be another diversionary tactic. Metaphysics is what it is and it can never be anything else.”

    M – By the same token then ethics couldn’t be naturalized either, and we should leave it to the gods? Even Plato disagreed with that one (see Euthyphro).
    .
    P – I’m afraid I’m not quite sure what it would mean to naturalise ethics. Do you mean take the gods out of ethics, as do Buddhism and Taoism? I’d be okay with that. But I would not be okay with defining ‘natural’ in the arrogant, conjectural and arbitrary way that science usually does. Let’s face it, physicists hardly have a clue as to what is natural and what is not. They cannot have a definite opinion until they have a workable and completely general theory, and the task of creating such a theory belongs to metaphysics,

    That’ll be four posts I think, so almost time to shut up.

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  40. The aim of this comment, and its continuation, is to defend a sound conception of metaphysics in a context of partial skepticism about it. It also address the skepticism about philosophy in general that arises here.

    Analytic philosophy came into being (with Frege and his immediate successors, such as Russell and Wittgenstein) in part as reform of philosophy in the wake of philosophers who 1) didn’t take language as the central object of philosophical concern and 2) took philosophy (metaphysics) as a kind of theory of reality (world-building) that could be done by directly considering reality in some sense, that is, by considering something beyond language.

    This reform consisted effectively in noting the errors of (1) and (2), that is, in recognizing the rigor afforded by making language central and in noting the hopeless folly of trying to understand reality while ignoring or looking past language. On these new principles, metaphysics was revamped as a particular study of language, wherein the workings of language and the nature of language-related entities, such as propositions, were nearly the whole of metaphysics. Frege’s essays on “thoughts,” for instance, are a paradigm of metaphysics in the new sense. With this reform, philosophy transformed from the hazy branch of literature it was becoming to a worthy companion of science, though with concerns broader than science. As some conceived it, the role of philosophy was not to develop substantive a priori conceptions of reality but to develop language into a general framework for human knowledge, one that the sciences would fit into as subcomponents. The soundness of this analytically (and non-empirically) developed framework would rest on being concerned merely to set the general terms of substantive knowledge, such as the meaning of knowledge itself, and not to pursue substantive knowledge itself. A deep appreciation of conceptual versus empirical knowledge was built into the project from the beginning. Analytic philosophers have been generally very keen that philosophy not get in the way of science in its aim to tell us how the empirical world is.

    I mention the above in part to make the point that some in this thread who are skeptical of metaphysics seem to me like world-builder metaphysicians who have become skeptical of world-building. That is, they correctly see the folly of world-building but, through a trivializing conception of language, miss the solution that a focus on language represents. This is especially odd given that there seems to be a general appreciation of Wittgenstein here and his life’s work might be summarized as: Don’t look up from language for very long.

    Knowledge is centrally a linguistic project.

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  41. (continuation)
    Analytic philosophers, on my view, are properly those philosophers who see philosophy as a kind linguistic analysis; one might say “conceptual analysis” but this means pretty much the same thing; that the realm of language and the realm of concepts are distinct is an illusion–a bewitchment by language. Anyway, there is a strain of metaphysicians who consider themselves analytic but in fact have, in my view, regressed back to the mentality of the world-builders. These are the platonists who think our ability to grasp platonic entities, such as platonic propositions, properties, and so on, excuses a concern for ordinary language in philosophy. I assume many here will know the kind of heavily platonic metaphysics I mean. If this were all metaphysics could be, I too would be skeptical. But there is a good kind of metaphysics that is genuinely analytic. I would count John Searle as a practitioner of such, with his work on social reality a paradigm example.

    Speaking of which, that philosophy of social reality is metaphysics, or largely such, serves as an illustration that metaphysics is concerned with reality in a much broader sense than the physical sciences. Despite its name, metaphysics, properly conceived, has no special relation to physics. Physics is just another topic. There are as many interesting and basic metaphysical questions in sociology, psychology, literature, law, and (of course) language as there are in physics. The question of what a society is, for instance, is as much a metaphysical question as any perplexity in quantum physics. If physical scientists are prone to have an uncomprehending view of philosophy, part is this is likely to be a rather blinkered conception of reality. Metaphysics and philosophy generally deal with reality at a general level–one represented by the general aspects of language–that might be invisible to all but those have decent experience with philosophy.

    So on my view, metaphysics, in the good sense, is concern with that aspect of our language that distinguishes kinds of being, draws distinctions between real and unreal, and so on. Ontology arises from the nature of language. The aim of philosophy in this regard is to extract the relevant systems inherent in language and refine then with linguistic prescriptions. It is self-conscious language development. Here one might object that we can’t determine what really exists by analyzing language. While that’s true regarding substantive questions of existence, such as a specific kind of fish or a moon around a distant planet, the general workings and general distinctions of the system is what metaphysics is interested in; these matters are a matter of framework clarification rather than observation. While questions of existence are philosophically exalted, at root, existence/non-existence is just a mechanism of language, like the clutch in a Porsche. To find out how the clutch works, we must study the Porsche, not merely ponder clutchhood.

    Logic, epistemology, and ethics–the other proper fields of philosophy–are also initially subsystems of ordinary language. Philosophy ofs move philosophy down a notch of generality to specialized languages, such as the languages of art, literature, history, psychology, physics, and law. In this context, concern is with the workings of more specific word systems and with applying the insights of general philosophy to special cases.

    It might be objected to all of this that some philosophical questions are not matters of language analysis. An example might be the question of what ethical obligations present people have to future generations. My response is that the hard part of answering a question like this is developing a conceptual framework for answering it, and that is a matter of linguistic analysis. What makes the question difficult and philosophical is a lack of a clear framework for answering it. As might be seen, trying to answer the question immediately leads to questions of conceptual clarification.

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  42. Phil Thift

    I’d say that your version of Hume’s fork is much too narrow (especially as Searle argues that computation is firmly on the observer relative side of the divide, despite any physical substrate for it’s realisation. But let’s not start that one again!)

    I see that Aravis is way ahead of me on counter-example; perhaps I can add something, and explore my own uncertainties at the same time.

    When not provoking arguments about AI, John Searle has more recently focused on social ontology, in his books “The Construction of Social Reality (nice dig at Berger and Luckmann) and Making the Social World, he looks at the distinction between those aspects of reality that are observer –independent, for example physical aspect such as rocks, and those that are just as real, but only because they come about through social agreement, convention and consensus, like natural languages, political power and office, money and marriage. Moreover, he argues that some things such as tools have a physical underpinning, but are only defined by agreement and practice as hammers, say, by social convention – a rock can become a hammer without changing a single atom, for instance.

    Now the first book starts with a section outlining the complexity of the issues called “the metaphysical burden of social reality”. Searle uses the M-word often, and he finishes with two chapters defending external realism and the correspondence theory of truth, surely areas where metaphysic thinking in some senses are inescapable?

    I suspect that metaphysics is another of those words that invite vast amounts of equivocation. I find it hard to see how anything but the most radical scepticism can function ontologically or epistemically without some kind of metaphysical support or presuppositions, however interim and tentative. Massimo mentions William of Ockham, for instance. If we throw out metaphysics wholesale, do we have to do without some of the tools he provided? And if we want to keep some metaphysics, what non-metaphysical criteria do wee use to decide what to keep or eject?

    It might be that Lady and Ross can help; I feel I don’t understand their ideas well enough to judge yet.
    I’m not sure whether any of this is useful or to the point; perhaps I’m just wibbling.

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  43. SciSal: “That [“Searching for things in reality that are beyond the physical or the computational is a waste of time”] would eliminate much of logic and mathematics, which don’t deal with “things in reality,” understood as physically defined. And the word computational, I’m afraid, is getting used so widely and imprecisely these days that is about to lose meaning (as in “rocks are computers because they can have different states”).”

    The first part: This may be case for mathematical platonism, but not for mathematical constructivism, e.g. in type-based constructive mathematics, where all mathematical objects and proofs ultimately consist of actual computer programs operating on real (physical) computers. (I bet that the current trends are towards more mathematicians being constructivist rather than platonist.)
    https://coq.inria.fr/

    The second part: I would use the term “computational” to include the hardware of “natural computing”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_computing#Nature-inspired_novel_hardware
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_computing#Nature_as_information_processing

    As I pointed out in a comment to the previous essay, computing can be done with slime. Apparently, also with rocks. But I still don’t know about computing with black holes.
    http://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/research-and-journals/computing-with-slime
    http://www.cnet.com/news/quartz-crystal-computer-rocks/
    http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/Black_Hole_Computers.pdf
    http://www.maths.bris.ac.uk/~mapdw/borel2.1.pdf

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  44. Hi Gregory Gaboardi,

    From there it is a dangerous slippery slope to scientism: …

    Obviously this is some new meaning of the word “dangerous” of which I was previosly unaware. 🙂 So, with my scientismist hat on:

    Hi Harry Ellis,

    … science, itself, DOES assume a metaphysics. The methodology is based on principles that are absolutely un-testable through the methodology itself: that logical systems work; that sense-data gives us knowledge (however imperfect) of reality.

    You indeed *can* test whether logic works scientifically! It’s merely one part of the Quine-style web of ideas that models the world. We adopt logic because it works, in the sense that it enables us to correctly predict solar eclipses and to build aircraft that fly. If it didn’t work, we’d ditch it and try something else.

    Thus, the logic and the maths used in a prediction of a solar eclipse have exactly the same epistemological status as the law of gravity used to predict an eclipse. All are adopted because they work, and all are tested by the verification of such predictions.

    As for “reality”, the claim is that science models our sense data (or, even more basically, our “stream of experiences”) and then the nature of “reality” is something that we investigate and deduce, again by constructing the web that works best.

    Hi David Ottlinger,

    … this long comment … I hope someone read it.

    I did, and enjoyed it!

    Hi Massimo,

    Does quantum mechanics have value if only fundamental physicists understand it?

    Yes, since you benefit from that fact that your iMac, iPad, iPhone and all those other gadgets do work, even if only a few people understand how to construct them.

    For instance, no, philosophy of science wouldn’t be enough, because where we would be put ethics?

    You just naturalise ethics, making it a property of evolved animals, and thus ethics comes within the domain of a scientific understanding of the living world (aka biology; cf. de Waal).

    Indeed you do it exactly like this (quoting you):

    To say that it is a good day is to make a value judgment, which can be entirely grounded in personal preferences, with no metaphysical implication at all, …

    Lastly:

    Chalmers is simply not helping (indeed, he’s confusing things).

    Would you say the same about Searle, since they are both arguments along the lines of “my intuition tells me that there is something missing, but I can’t actually say what”?

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  45. Seth,

    “One thing about SEM is that even if a model fits the data within accepted criteria it doesn’t rule out that other models may fit same data. Alternative models can be compared, but one is never really sure if they have tested the ‘best ‘ model.”

    Precisely.

    “I fail see how quantitative methods can be applied to metaphysics pretty much by definition”

    I agree, metaphysics is not a science, and as readers here know (unlike deGrasse Tyson) I don’t think that’s an insult.

    “reading this post didn’t make to clear to me what ‘metaphysical grounding’ is”

    That makes two of us. Here is what the SEP article says:

    “(i) an act is lovable by the gods in virtue of its being pious, (ii) complexes exist because simples exist, and (iii) the fact that our use of the term ‘Aristotle’ is causally connected in the right kind of way to how it was originally used explains why ‘Aristotle’ refers to Aristotle when we use the term. … some suggest that claims like those described above should be read as grounding claims—claims about what grounds what.” Not sure that helps…

    Robin,

    “But the point is that they are not physically impossible. Removing the hypothesis of consciousness does not require taking away a term from the Dirac equation, or any kind of adjustment to any sort of physical equation.”

    I submit that’s only because we haven’t the foggiest idea of how to get consciousness from Dirac’s equation. As I said, let the neuroscientists work for a few more decades, at the least.

    “There is no sort of physical contradiction involved in the neural processes associated with a feeling of nausea would working just as they do but for there to be no actual feeling of consciousness.”

    I don’t know what a physical contradiction is, but I can tell you that everything we know from science tells us that if you get the same exact physical conditions at work you get the same exact physical results. Hence, no such a thing as p-zombies.

    “Physics does not require the hypothesis that there is something it feels like to be us.”

    But that’s a limitation of physics. That’s why biology is a separate, and largely independent, discipline.

    “At some point we have to face the fact that we are conscious and consciousness plays a part in our behaviour and develop theories of consciousness on that basis.”

    Completely agree, as you know I don’t belong to the “it’s all an illusion” crowd.

    “In particular a high res algorithmic simulation of a human being which models all of our biological functions and demonstrates all of our behaviours would not be conscious under the theory”

    Tu quoque on the “whatever simulations tell us is the real” bandwagon?

    “So if there is one of these F-zombie equivalents of me then why am I conscious and zombie Robin is not?”

    Because he ain’t you, he is a simulation of you.

    “Here is a theory which has been backed by Max Tegmark and neuroscientist Christof Koch who is a long time collaborator with Francis Crick. Koch says that it is the only promising theory of consciousness that there is.”

    I’m going to bet my money against Koch, particularly because I have a relatively low opinion of both Crick (qua neuroscientist) and Tegmark’s mathematical fantasies.

    modvs1,

    “Neo-Scholastic or Naturalised- it’s all cognitive embroidery.”

    Cognitive embroidery is what provides humans with understanding. We don’t understand things just because we look at facts (or equations).

    Patrick,

    “I don’t believe the tools of the sciences and their metaphysics are very relevant when talking about art etc”

    Neither do I, but I’m happy to leave that talk to aesthetics (and art criticism), without invoking metaphysics (see my response above to Aravis).

    “So why should the metaphysics of Ladyman & Ross be relevant for all those other things for which the tools of the sciences are powerless?”

    It wouldn’t, and L&R don’t pretend they would. My guess is that they would say that those other things are outside of *both* the scope of science and of that of metaphysics.

    Aravis,

    “You’d almost think that John Haldane needs permission to continue working in analytical Thomism”

    Nobody needs permission to do metaphysics, or to pursue whatever other kind of academic endeavor, and certainly not by me. But I find this sort of statement puzzling and overly defensive: do *I* need some sort of permission in order to criticize some of my colleagues? Do I need a special license to put forth my personal opinion that Thomism is best left to the *history* of philosophy, rather than its current practice?

    “an awful lot of very important people and institutions don’t agree. That ought to at least give one pause”

    Lots of institutions and smart people think there is nothing wrong with the current status of economics. I, and (more importantly) a number of economists beg to disagree.

    “Better to live and let live, no? I’m inclined to think that more inquiry is better than less”

    Should we apply that, Feyerabend style, also to creationism and astrology?

    “They might turn out to be nothing more than matters of language. Some or perhaps, even all. (Certainly, that’s my feeling about Free Will.) But I can’t say that I’m sure.”

    I’m not either, but it’s by far the best bet I am willing to make at this point.

    “All that it requires is that synthetic a priori knowledge be possible (i.e. the category between Hume’s fork), and that certainly does not entail a crude Platonism”

    I did bring up Platonism as an example, but of course you are right, one only needs the possibility of synthetic a priori — which you know very well is, shall we say, highly controversial within philosophical circles, to put it mildly.

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  46. Roger – Thanks for the heads-up.

    You say …

    “If metaphysics is the study of “being” and existence, and the universe “be”s and exists, and physics is the study of the universe, then logically physics should be derivable from the principles of metaphysics. Ideally, if metaphysicians could think of answers to fundamental questions like “Why does a thing exist?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, then they could use these solutions to build models of the “be”ing, existent universe and eventually make testable predictions”

    I would half-agree, but would be strongly against making the kind off assumptions that these questions require. Questions with less baggage would be, What do we mean by existence and does anything qualify? Is there something rather than nothing?

    When we ask these questions we do arrive at testable predictions. For example, we can predict that physics will never establish the non-relative existence of anything at all, will never prove the objective reality of time or space, and will never solve consciousness within its current paradigm. A bit negative, sure, but predictions all the same.

    The idea that metaphysics makes no predictions is a non-starter. Whether it makes predictions for physics may depend on our definitions and conditions, but I would say so. At the very least it predicts, just by virtue of its name, that there is more to all this than physics will ever know.

    A bugle sounds the last post and that’s it for me.

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  47. Patrice,

    “Metaphysics is everywhere. Everybody uses it”

    Seems like a number of people are taking my essay as an attack on metaphysics tout court. It is nothing of the sort, it is a criticism primarily of a particular new fashion in certain metaphysical circles, that of grounding; and secondarily a statement of general perplexity about the soundness of a lot that goes under the rubric of analytical metaphysics.

    John,

    “Your discussion really tracks over old ground without reaching for these principles. Why?”

    Because I don’t think they enlighten much when it comes to the topics discussed in this essay.

    “The only reason physics has not understood what I have written is beacuse it has not obviated the Uncertainty Principle as I have done. Why?”

    You really need to ask that to professional physicists, I am content to rely on their judgment when it comes to these matters.

    modvs1,

    “I suspect Massimo has missed Phil’s (first comment) point. He’s suggesting that the average person need not ‘understand’ the intellectual/theoretical underpinnings of a particular (cultural/scientific/industrial/…) enterprise, but can be rest assured of the ‘productivity’ (and relevance) of the enterprise by virtue of the technological fruits it provides for use and consumption”

    I don’t think I missed the point, but let me be more clear: metaphysics doesn’t “deliver” in the same way a lot of other intellectual pursuits don’t deliver, including, by the way, a lot of fundamental science, which has absolutely no application and is pursued out of curiosity. So I refuse to play the game of having to provide instrumental reasons to discuss metaphysics or anything else.

    Roger,

    “then logically physics should be derivable from the principles of metaphysics”

    I am quite sure that not even the most ardent supporters of analytical metaphysics would make that claim. And that’s because, again, physical possibility is but a tiny fraction of logical possibility, and the only way we have to narrow things down from the latter to the former is by way of empiricism.

    Evhan,

    “A friend and I were curious to know if this was mostly intended as a pure criticism of the current state of metaphysics, or if you were also intending to open up some space for neo-positivism and its advocacy in writing this article.”

    As I wrote above, my interest here is to provide some criticism of a particular notion of metaphysics (analytical), and of a particular concept being deployed within that notion (grounding). I am currently agnostic about whether Ladyman-Ross style neo-positivism is a viable project or not.

    david,

    “I would probably reserve the term structural equation modelling to Gaussian models myself”

    SEM is a technical term that already has a definition and a realm of application, I would rather stick to that, to avoid confusion.

    “Saul Kripke (1971) revived this … myth [of the immaterial mind] by claiming that mental processes cannot be neural because the brain-mind association is contingent rather than logically necessary ­ – hence people in alternative worlds might not need brains to think. This is all that modal (or possible worlds) metaphysics manages to tell us about mind.”

    I’m not positive that was Kripke, but it sounds like a beautiful indictment of Chalmers…

    ej,

    “The real question is, what kind of metaphysics do we want to pursue, what is its basis and what is the shape of its development?”

    Correct, those are the questions.

    DM,

    “The whole Chalmers thing is one I’d really like to get to the bottom of, so I’ll persist if you’re willing”

    We’ve tried this before, many times, so I’m willing to engage in one more round, no more.

    “but to say there is a possible world just means that this is a way the world could have been — there is no logical or metaphysical principle preventing such a world from existing”

    I don’t recognize metaphysical principles, only logical ones. And to say that something is logically possible, again says close to nothing about reality: the real world is, by definition, logically possible; but it is one of an infinite number of such worlds, the others being non-existent, and therefore irrelevant to understanding the mind, which is something very much of this world.

    “that p-zombies are logically possible only proves that consciousness is not necessarily entailed by the physical facts about humans”

    I know! But that is entirely *irrelevant* to any meaningful discussion of consciousness. The freaking laws of physics are not *logically* entailed by the physical facts of the universe, so far as we know, so what?

    “then the question of whether consciousness exists or not is underdetermined by the physical facts (despite the fact that we know it does in fact exist)”

    Like anything else, given the infinite -> relationship between logical and physical possibility. So we’ve learned nothing, and somebody has made a highly visible career out of talking about nothing. You see my problem?

    “then we have made a Turing machine which implements all of the functional “easy” problems. If there is no Hard Problem, this machine is conscious.”

    Once more: no. You are *assuming* functionalism, which I reject on the basis of my understanding of biology. What things are made of matter, a lot.

    yar,

    “I don’t know why lack of grounding is perceived as a problem for metaphysics — quite obviously, there’s literally nothing to ground, so expecting the study to be grounded is completely unfair!”

    Tell that to Schaffer. But I do think he has a point there: it is particularly illuminating that he is drawing an analogy between causality and grounding. Imagine doing science without the concept of causality…

    “ultimately metaphysics is all about how we end up organising, connecting, and interpreting the physical sensory data that is pumped into our brains”

    Sounds like the sort of naturalized metaphysics proposed by Ladyman and Ross.

    “as long as we remain human, our brains are going to be trying (mostly unconsciously, I might add!) to make some sort of sense of the data that our senses feed into it. And as long as it does this, we’re going to be doing metaphysics.”

    And I never said we shouldn’t. But should we not try to do it better?

    Peter,

    “It is impossible to have a debate here”

    I thought people wrote thousands of words, and I have answered so far with more words than were in the original essay, precisely because we were having a debate…

    “I’m not quite sure what it would mean to naturalise ethics. Do you mean take the gods out of ethics, as do Buddhism and Taoism? I’d be okay with that”

    Yes, that’s part of what I meant. I also meant taking into account that ethics is a human construct, rooted in a type of instinct that we share with other social primates.

    Paul,

    “As some conceived it, the role of philosophy was not to develop substantive a priori conceptions of reality but to develop language into a general framework for human knowledge, one that the sciences would fit into as subcomponents”

    Yes, and I see nothing wrong with that, in principle.

    “Knowledge is centrally a linguistic project.”

    Absolutely.

    “there is a strain of metaphysicians who consider themselves analytic but in fact have, in my view, regressed back to the mentality of the world-builders”

    Precisely.

    “Despite its name, metaphysics, properly conceived, has no special relation to physics. Physics is just another topic. There are as many interesting and basic metaphysical questions in sociology, psychology, literature, law, and (of course) language as there are in physics”

    Again, good point.

    “It is self-conscious language development.”

    Nice way to put it.

    “To find out how the clutch works, we must study the Porsche, not merely ponder clutchhood.”

    He he.

    Philip,

    “in type-based constructive mathematics, where all mathematical objects and proofs ultimately consist of actual computer programs operating on real (physical) computers”

    This is getting too far from my field of expertise, but I doubt it. I think mathematicians would say that theorem proofs, or anything else they do, are independent of the physical substrate that happens to be used in pursuing them.

    “As I pointed out in a comment to the previous essay, computing can be done with slime. Apparently, also with rocks”

    In principle it can be done with anything, but that wasn’t what I was referring to: I was talking about pan-computationalism, the idea that rocks *are* computers. Which to me pretty much eviscerates the meaning of the word “computing.”

    Coel,

    “Yes, since you benefit from that fact that your iMac, iPad, iPhone and all those other gadgets do work, even if only a few people understand how to construct them.”

    While I doubt the iPhone could not have been built without an understanding of quantum mechanics, my point is that there is a *lot* of basic science that is irrelevant to practicalities, and that moreover, it is a bad idea to couch everything in instrumental terms.

    “You just naturalise ethics, making it a property of evolved animals, and thus ethics comes within the domain of a scientific understanding of the living world (aka biology; cf. de Waal).”

    I think you are confusing de Waal (a sophisticated thinker) for Harris (a hack).

    “Would you say the same about Searle, since they are both arguments along the lines of “my intuition tells me that there is something missing, but I can’t actually say what’’?”

    No. I really think you (and DM) do not understand Searle, as Aravis has pointed out a number of times, and precisely for the reasons he has written about. Cheers!

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