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Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has an interesting article over at Rationally Speaking. Entitled Ah, metaphysics! it criticises attempts to revive metaphysics in philosophy.phil-fieldtrip

I too am sceptical at the way ’metaphysics’ is used. While I can appreciate the concept of understanding underlying principles the word is often used to justify ’supernatural’ ideas. Or to justify positions without recourse to empirical testing. Even to argue that ’metaphysical’ knowledge is somehow ’better’ or more reliable than scientific knowledge.

Pigliucci’s article says in part:

’ Metaphysics these days has a bad reputation even among philosophers, so I was aware of its ’fall,’ but I was rather curious about the possibility of a ’revival.’ I came out of the lecture without much conviction that the 21st century is going to see anything like a resurrection of metaphysics.

Metaphysics, of course, is that classical branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental nature of the world.  . . . It is an honorable tradition, of course, but it has ceded most of its terrain to fundamental physics. These days those philosophers who have something to say about such issues are likely to be philosophers of science or mathematics working in fields such as quantum mechanics or string theory. Saying that ’water is the principle of all things,’ as Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BC—ca. 546 BC) used to do, just doesn’t cut it anymore.

’After Aristotle, for a long time metaphysics was taken over by theological considerations, from the Scholastics to Hegel, and it became increasingly esoteric, self-contained, and at every iteration, inching closer and closer to complete absurdity. The Monadology (1714) by Gottfried Leibniz was one of the last pre-physics attempts to account for fundamental aspects of reality by simply thinking about it, but again to say that monads are a basic unit of perceptual reality is to assert something rather obscure without a shred of evidence, and moreover something that has been superseded by much clearer and more evidence-based accounts provided by modern science. And let us not even get started with all the metaphysical fluff about the existence of god, of course (if someone mention’s the ontological argument I will reach for my metaphorical gun!).’

’It was within this context that the 20th century saw the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) critique of metaphysics by the logical positivists, whose position was that metaphysical concepts – in philosophical parlance – have no referent. In lay terms, metaphysicians talk literally about nothing, and therefore do not and cannot make any sense. These days it isn’t polite in philosophical circles to show much sympathy for the neopositivists, but I must admit that as far as certain kinds of metaphysics are concerned, it seems to me that they got it largely right.’

. . . .

Limitations of philosophy

’ (classical, Aristotelian) metaphysics has run its course, it has achieved what it could achieve, and has now receded into the background and left the initiative to physics? ’

. . .

’But as for a satisfactory description and explanation of our basic beliefs about the world, it seems to me that they are much more likely to come from, respectively, the cognitive sciences and evolutionary biology than philosophy. Moreover, as someone pointed out in the Q&A following the lecture, we know now (thanks to fundamental physics) that a lot of our folk metaphysics is, in fact, wrong, which is not surprising considering that we have evolved as macroscopic animals needing to be equipped with ways to handle those aspects of the world pertinent to our survival and reproduction – aspects that don’t include an understanding of quantum mechanics or string theory.’

’What, then, is metaphysics good for? Other than its (invaluable, I think) historical contribution to human thought, there are two things that modern metaphysics can do for us: on the one hand, aspects of it can serve as good models for a fruitful relationship between philosophy and science (think of attempts at understanding the nature of time and space, for instance); on the other hand, it is a constant reminder that even science can get started only on premises that cannot be justified empirically within science itself (think of causality, or reality).’


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