Science cum Metaphysics

Today’s contribution to the Science and Metaphysics event comes from Fabio Gironi, someone who has given quite a lot of thought to their relation. He also blogs at Hyper Tiling and has published an article in the journal Speculations.

Fabio Gironi, Science cum Metaphysics

Considering the renewed interest, in continental circles, towards metaphysical speculation and new kinds of realism, a clarification of the relationship between science and metaphysics is one of the most theoretically urgent issues which philosophy faces today. If we understand philosophy as a social enterprise, inextricably involved with the world, simple intellectual honesty requires us to come to grips with what we think is worth exploring, and to clarify how such an exploration should proceed. I don’t think any satisfactory answer can yet be given. Here I can only present a fragmented exposition of my own unresolved concerns.

On a most general level, there are several ways in which, today, philosophy and science interact. Many philosophers reflect upon the methodologies of science: such a philosophy aims at clarifying how scientific knowledge gets produced and validated. Logical positivism attempted to offer a complete rational reconstruction of the scientific enterprise, interpreting scientific theory-making as a linguistic process of construction of logically meaningful sentences about the world. After the failure of such an ambitious project, and having relinquished the aim of discovering the rational core of science, philosophy of science is now attempting to find other, more nuanced ways, to improve science’s self-understanding. Having played down the idealized understanding of science as the rational activity, increased attention has been given to its historical unfolding and its practices leading to a plural understanding of sciences (especially with respect to the post-Kuhnian emphasis on the contextualized dimension of experimentation and on the social milieu of scientists, with the work of philosophers like Hacking, Pickering, Haraway and Latour). Similarly, the study of the processes of formulation of new theories have started to question any sharp differentiation between the context of discovery and the context of justification, and the cognitive role played by representations, models and metaphors has acquired renewed importance.

Once scientific theories are formulated, philosophers of science try to determine in what sense they can be said to represent the independent reality which the natural sciences investigate. Hence the debate around scientific realism, split into epistemological problems concerned with the limits of reason (do we actually know nature through theories? Do the observations employed to validate a theory transparently offer a window on reality or are they inescapably theory-laden? Can our cognitive capacities exhaustively map reality? Can subjectivity be effectively bracketed away in scientific enquiry?), and ontological ones concerned with the nature of reality (how does reality itself condition what we can scientifically determine? does reality possess objective properties which can be known? Is there an ultimate constituent of such a reality? Is nature intrinsically deterministic?). Proponents of realism, arguing that theories tell a true story about the world in its observable and unobservable features, are confronted with (at least) anti-realist instrumentalist positions, arguing that theories are mere tools to predict the behavior of unobservable phenomena—shut up and calculate!—and, more recently, ‘constructive empiricist’ positions, taking an intermediate position which accepts the meaningfulness of claims made about unobservables but is uncommitted regarding their truth. Far from being ‘metaphysical speculations’, the role of these debates is often not even acknowledged by all practicing scientists. Paradigmatically, Steven Weinberg clarified that the ‘working philosophy’ of scientists—a ‘rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories’—is ‘learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the teaching of philosophers’. At best, philosophy can be specialized in order to deal with specific disciplines: philosophy of physics (for example trying to make sense of the consequences of quantum mechanics, relativity or thermodynamics), philosophy of biology (for example attempting to formulate a definition of life, or of biological species) and so on. Scientific data are given, and philosophy gets to untangle them.

According to this brief overview, science seems to possess the privilege of discriminating between the still unknown and the simply meaningless and, while philosophical tools are employed to achieve a rigorous conceptual analysis of science’s methods and statements, full blown philosophical metaphysics gets at best reduced to a ‘metaphysics of the gaps’, tentatively dealing with fringe questions of dubious legitimacy, waiting to be replaced by an ever-more-complete scientific image.

Even subdividing the notoriously vague term ‘metaphysics’ into smaller, more manageable ‘research projects’, doesn’t help: ontological inquiry (as the study of Being or beings, trying to define what is the mode—or modes—of existence of reality); the nature of causation (how beings interact with each other); the attempt to define the most general conditions for beings to exist, space and time (whether they are, for example, to be understood substantially or relationally) and the resolution of the problem of free will, to name a few, are all areas which contemporary sciences (whether physics or neuroscience) claim patronage of. From such a ‘scientistic’ point of view, philosophy’s magisterium is to be relegated to the social realms of ethics and politics (following the hackneyed separation of ‘ought’ and ‘is’) and any attempt to build a metaphysical system not firmly grounded on scientific results becomes at best wishful thinking: all factual questions must be answerable by science. The most general object of metaphysics, being-qua-being, can now be described (or reduced) in terms of the fundamental constituents of matter—empirically testable—and epistemology is the only branch of philosophy which can be of use to the scientific practitioner (at least if it is not to be dissolved in a thoroughly naturalized epistemology). In other words, it is not up to metaphysics anymore to determine what kinds of entities we can commit ourselves to believe as really existing: physics is enough, meta-physics is redundant, and philosophy remains a second-order discipline.


In the last few decades, historians, sociologists and philosophers of science have painstakingly demonstrated how deeply the 16th- and 17th-century founders of early modern science (natural philosophers) were influenced by (if not necessarily acting according to) precise metaphysical and anthropological doctrines—largely derived from a mesh of Christian theology and rediscovered Platonism—in their expectations regarding the nature of reality (crucially, the expectation of nature’s possessing embedded and necessary laws), the capabilities of human reason, their reliance on experimentation as the primary mean for knowledge and their confidence in the power of mathematical formalism. Yet, it is in this period that the schism between ‘experimental philosophy’ and ‘speculative philosophy’ relegated metaphysics out of the purview of ‘scientists’ (a term employed only around mid-19th century) practicing in an increasingly self-sufficient field, thanks to its clear method.

Historico-sociological reconstructions, showing the ‘socially constructed’ structure of science as a set of practices guided by a core of metaphysical assumptions, are often met with skepticism by those who equate constructionism with a (willfully obscurantist) ‘debunking of’. To deny the objectivity and purity of science, it is felt, amounts to a denial of independent reality: if we show science as human-dependent, the results of science (and the realities it examines) will become human-dependent as well. The rationale of this response is a form of the ‘no miracles argument’ (science’s consistent predictive success cannot be just a continuous miracle but must be granted by the fact that it grasps some true aspect of reality), which can ultimately be summarized in a one-line t-shirt slogan: ‘Science: it works, bitches!’. The assumption is that epistemic success is possible only thanks to science’s correct metaphysical commitments: once the scientific method is formulated, granting reality-based objectivity to its results, pre-scientific metaphysics becomes the proverbial ladder to be thrown away. Science beat metaphysics at its own game. Post-scientific revolution metaphysics is just armchair physics, that is—given the stress upon experimental testing and confirmation—bad physics. [Note that a diffuse hostility towards speculative thinking is present even within the scientific community, as recent events can testify, further proven by the often rancorous split between observational and theoretical scientists].

Two objections could be raised. First, don’t we have here a meta-metaphysical assumption at work, arguing that there cannot only be one way for reality to be? Second, even assuming that reality ‘is’ in some definite manner, can we legitimately infer that science’s predictive success depends on a complete understanding of such a reality? Can there be equally real aspects which escape the scientific vision? The first objection is actually motivated by physics: what quantum mechanics has shown is not that ‘nature is random’ but that some properties of nature we can know with precision, while some others are intrinsically indeterminate – whether we are looking or not. There is no denying that science tells us about real properties of reality. But there is no guarantee that it tells us about all properties of reality: we should give up this quintessentially modern form of dichotomizing thought. This second objection is not a step towards reactionary supernaturalism (since firstly, the ‘supernatural realm’ is the production of a consciousness anxious for otherworldly redemption and, secondly, nature is simply the name of inescapable immanence) but merely a warning against the residual, Adamic hubris of having the whole of reality distended before-us for humans to name.


Heidegger’s ‘historicism’ taught us that to study the history of metaphysics means to learn the contingent nature of different epochs’ understanding of being. Once we have recognized the contextual dependency between science and a certain historical deployment of metaphysics (new epistemes) we should also ask how today’s metaphysics is influenced by the scientific thought it once contributed to generating. Seen in such a large historical field of view isn’t Whitehead’s pre-Process and Reality (a book aiming at constructing a shamelessly ambitious metaphysical system) confrontation with General Relativity a prime example of this bootstrapping process?

Yet to admit this mutual dependence does not allow us to adopt an antirealist thesis: not everything goes. To claim that knowledge of reality is never the pure product of either a reason deducing a priori principles or of an empirical activity reconstructing these principles via probing and experimentation does not amount to establishing the ontological dependence of the real upon either philosophical or scientific thought; it is an epistemological claim. The question is: does an epistemological ‘antirealism’ force us to be agnostic regarding metaphysical issues? No, that would be an epistemic fallacy. But does it make of any metaphysical statement an arbitrary decision? Or, once we have done away with the understanding of nature as an inert object to be toyed around with, are there ways for reality-in-itself to impose new metaphysical thoughts upon us? Can metaphysical novelty be possible through an active, concrete irruption of reality into thought? How to become receptive to this (immanent) irruption? To adopt a scientific worldview is not necessary the best way, since attention to the ‘dance of agency’ of the non-human world does not necessarily produce an attitude which shares mainstream scientific values (especially when it comes to reductionism—physical and disciplinary alike).


Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of ‘mathematical metaphysics’, conjoining the perfect abstraction of mathematics with its (unreasonably?) successful description of non-human realities. Only mathematics, it is argued, is a truly baggage-free language able to express those primary qualities which lie beyond the semantic horizon of natural languages (or, in more radically neo-Pythagorean positions, only mathematical structures are really real). For Meillassoux, indeed, mathematics is the language of contingency, and thanks to this it is able to ‘speak of the absolute’. But note how this is a striking reversal of the way in which mathematics was brought to bear on scientific practice in the first place. In the Aristotelian Middle Ages mathematics was considered a mere descriptive abstraction (contra Platonic/Pythagorean mathematical realism), a human imposition onto the order of nature guided by physical causes—at best employed as a tool in those ‘subalternate sciences’ which could not reach the status of natural philosophy—and inadequate for describing phenomena ‘realistically’ (hence Osiander’s preface to the De Revolutionibus, reassuring the Aristotelian authorities that Copernicus’ model was a mere mathematical fiction, not a true representation of reality). On the other hand, is it only with the post-Galilean understanding of mathematics as the veritable ‘language of Nature’ that the revolutionary move of joining natural philosophy and mathematics was fully actualized — but this renewed mathematical ‘realism’ was said to be secured by the will of God. Nature was mathematically discoverable because God willed the Universe to be organized according to necessary mathematical relations, as a mark of His potestas: the immutability of mathematical relations was warranted by the immutability of God himself. This shift from medieval qualitative regularities to quantitative mathematical laws paved the way for the modern understanding of Laws of nature, which preserved mathematical necessity and gradually left behind the mark of God (this idea has been fairly resilient, considering that as late as the 20th century Paul Dirac allegedly claimed that ‘God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world’). Meillassoux’s rejection of ontological necessity and of the necessary existence of a God (leaving aside his less fortunate Kantian move of re-habilitating a ‘future God’ to safeguard the possibility of justice and hence to ensure a heartening answer to the question ‘what can we hope?’) therefore cuts the historical link between mathematics (the structure of nature) and necessity (impressed onto nature by God) by creating a Platonism of Chaos. As such, it is a radical (perhaps too radical to be immediately assimilated) break with the basic understanding of mathematics and of reality which is found in contemporary scientific practice: an example of metaphysics restructuring the grammar of science, starting from science.


What counts as a cause? This is the core of the well-known science vs. religion debate, where scientists disqualify the very possibility of why questions (not to mention their theistic answer) as either meaningless ruminations or misconceived how questions, which new scientific knowledge will eventually be able to answer (see Hawking’s recent pronouncements on the origin of the Universe and M-Theory). Scientific physicalism renounces the ‘why is there something rather than nothing question’ and answers ‘for no reason’. Yet, it considers it legitimate to expect the question ‘how did something rather than nothing come to be?’ as being answerable by giving a precise account of the necessary laws which guide causal cosmological chain. The universe (like the evolutionary past of biological life) has no designer but is still guided by intelligible principles. As Iain Hamilton Grant recently observed, reflecting on speculative realism’s break with anthropocentric thought (and targeting New Atheism’s pundits), ‘the real atheism hasn’t even begun’. The mistaken transcendentalization of human reason into a Divine mind cannot be corrected by an immanentization of reason into nature but only by an abandonment of the expectation of finding a familiar structure in what is utterly alien. Even human self-understanding remains bound to an unwarranted position of pre-eminence: the way that the Darwinian narrative offers an a posteriori legitimization for the uniqueness of our consciousness is a speculum to the religious myth of a once-perfect being, now fallen and seeking to re-achieve perfection (science, normally exalting simplicity and elegance, brackets its basic beliefs when declaring with awe that the human brain is ‘the most complex object in the whole universe’, singularly able to ‘get’ the universe). Victim of an inherited ‘Cartesian anxiety’, scientific thought balances the unheimlichkeit of scientific data (which offer us an increasingly alien picture of the universe—and of ourselves) by promising an ultimate intelligibility (after all, the universe can be described by just six numbers), granted by some a-theological form of necessity which allows to expect the discovery of the ‘hidden structure’ and a forthcoming theory of everything. As a well-known scientist-blogger unequivocally put it: ‘One of the things I love about science is how everything fits together. Since we’re describing reality, things have to fit together!’.


The two human enterprises of science and metaphysics are always mixed, constantly negotiating their independence but never fully achieving it. Good metaphysics depends on increasingly refined scientific insights regarding things and their causes: a reformed experimental metaphysics can indeed be imagined as founded upon an encounter with a world which is recalcitrant to thought (and this recalcitrance is the best evidence for ontological independence). But science’s intellectual grammar was laid down according to precise metaphysical guidelines. The aim of a contemporary metaphysics is to tweak this grammar: it is more a matter of inventing new constructions than creating metaphysical neologisms. What a new metaphysical project could do, however, is to look backwards upon its own history, trace the metaphysical assumptions of science and demonstrate them as contingent. I would thus slightly paraphrase Dennett and claim: ‘there is no such thing as [metaphysics]-free science; there is only science whose [metaphysical] baggage is taken on board without examination’. The question becomes: can epistemic success be enough to justify metaphysical decisions? The mistake is to believe that science already offers a complete way to ‘speak realism’, achieved in independence (or oedipal emancipation) from the Pindaric flights of metaphysicians. Van Fraassen once scornfully remarked that ‘metaphysicians interpret what we initially understand into something hardly anyone understands, and then insist that we cannot do without that’: well, I actually think we should stand by that. Ultimately, we all must pay homage to the opaque authority of reality—and its injunctions are never obvious.

6 thoughts on “Science cum Metaphysics

  1. To start at the end, your citation from Van Fraasen surely invites the rejoinder from Feynmann that “nobody understands quantum mechanics.” The pragmatic T-shirt response to this — “well, big deal, it works” — runs aground, because, in fact, it doesn’t — not if “works” means “is consistent with all the other accounts of physical reality which also work.”

    I find myself in complete accord with you that science has always had and will always have metaphysical ramifications, echoes, and presuppositions. I think I hear you saying that there is always a realist dimension to science,and that on some level this pertains to metaphysics as well; I might go further and say that philosophy just is realism in some sense, and fails to avow this at the price of performative contradiction.

    However, I am not sure I follow you when you sketch the “task” of contemporary metaphysics as you see it. You seem to be suggesting some historical excavation or genealogy, but in a different mode than Heideggerian historicism. I am all for the intertwining of scholarship and philosophy “in a new key,” aware of what the stakes are, and perhaps uncovering different possibilities still to be lived out. Even though there is no extra-historical spot from which to do this (there is no exit from the hermeneutic circle), I’d like to think that we might aspire to something more ambitious than just the business-as-usual-but-with-bigger-R-&-D-budgets the old new atheists seem to envision. I agree with Grant that the real atheism is so far barely a glimmer in our Nietzschean eye; yes, and the theism too.

    But I am wondering whether “tweaking grammar” a noble enough name for the restored dignity to which metaphysics would aspire?

  2. Well yes, but Van Fraassen would reply that none understands QM precisely because ‘interpretations’ are attempted, while it should be merely used as an empirically adequate theory.

    Anyway, as for the ‘tweaking grammar’, I know it is pretty vague. Truth is, this is a delicate topic for me because I often go through phases of uncertainty regarding my career choices. More than once I’ve found myself thinking: ‘fuck it, I’ll start from scratch with physics and become an astronomer or something!’.

    However, as you say, I have a strong belief in the historicity of our metaphysics and even in my most pro-science moments I cannot put it on the pedestal of infallibility.

    Whatever active role metaphysics can come to play in contemporary science, it will be a matter of decades, probably generations. This is probably what I meant with ‘tweaking grammar’. Metaphysicians cannot write new systems and expect scientists to listen to them. But they can –starting from a deep knowledge of current science– influence the ways in which new generations of scientists will think.

  3. Wonderful stuff, Fabio — and a feast of links to return to.

    I think the metaphysical enterprise suffers from fearfulness. Fear of science, for one thing, and fear of operating from anything other than bedrock. When the concepts we employ to describe the universe become really alien, we are in a big hurry to bracket metaphysics. And when we’re looking for metaphysical bases, we rush to deflect scientific theory. We need metaphysicians who know their science — and ones who are not afraid of following a hunch.

    In a hundred years or so, we will probably find it ironic that our best advances in metaphysics came about through an understanding of the human mind. We’ve already started the excavation of scientific concepts. We’ve already begun to use the objects we’ve created as metaphors to understand things we had no isomorphic models for (the computer is a good example of this, and so is the economy). In my opinion, you’re in exactly the right field.

    Since there isn’t (and never will be) metaphysical bedrock, part of the project will be to reconcile ourselves to two ideas: 1) that our conceptual models will never describe reality; and 2) that our conceptual models are the direct result of reality, and consequently have an important sort of access to it. Our concepts are the forensic evidence left at the ontological crime scene. We’ll follow them forward and know we’re onto something when we end up where we started.

  4. Thanks Asher, sorry I saw your comment only today.

    I quite like your ‘ontological crime scene’ image, and I agree with you (and with Ladyman and Ross…) regarding the rejection of a metaphysical bedrock, or fundamental physical/ontological level.

    There is indeed a ‘sort of access’, but it is not a direct one: I guess that I am a ‘speculative realist’ inasmuch I do believe in this access (which requires belief in things-in-themselves of course), but I am unhappy with any sort of top-down characterization of how this access happens.

    I guess that I am a metaphysical realist while being skeptical on the possibility of epistemological realism. Some would argue that its an untenable position, which easily slides into idealism (as post-Kantian philosophy did) and correlationism. I am not sure it is that straightforward.

    And of course, regarding access to reality, what I really lack is a solid ‘philosophy of mathematics’–but I’ll need to study math a bit more seriously before developing any opinion.

  5. I’m a physicalist (as an Ockham’s Razor sort of proposition) so the idea of direct access is not crazy problematic for me. If I can accept billiard ball causation, I can accept the world affecting sensory receptors affecting the brain affecting conceptual models. So the question really comes down to what one would accept as being “direct”. There are obviously lots of indirections (or “translations” as Levi would say) between reality and concepts, but there’s also a direct causal line. That is to say that the way reality is directly constrains our concepts of it. Or, put another way, if reality were different, we’d have different concepts than we do.

    I think it’s reasonable to say that we can’t call the access “direct” because we are obviously able to perceive and conceptualize reality incorrectly. I’m happy with that, as long as we don’t posit some sort of causal gap. So I guess I’m for a weak sort of epistemological realism.

    My guess is that progress in “transcendental”-style metaphysics will come from re-conceptualizing causality in a way that helps us explain complex systems (and especially how causality works as constraint rather than billiard-ball-like efficient cause). So the most pressing questions are the ones that relate to reductionism and “emergent” causality.

  6. Pingback: links for 2010-12-05 « Blarney Fellow

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