The Metaphysics of Naturalism

[This is a guest article posted for purposes of constructive discussion between a “naturalist” philosopher and Catholic philosophers. For myself, there isn’t much in its content that I can object to, even as an opponent of metaphysical naturalism. Perhaps that means I’ve misunderstood David. If so, that question would be a good way to start the combox. —ML]

by David Hirst

Metaphysical naturalism and scientific realism

Methodological naturalism – that is, the assumption, for the ends of scientific investigation, that explanations of physical phenomena are only acceptable when they postulate ‘natural’ causes – is a generally accepted element of the scientific method. There is, of course, no particular requirement that a scientific theory should not have recourse to ‘supernatural’ evidence; even so, the criteria of observation, prediction, and experimentation leading to reproducible results are not congenial to the introduction of such evidence. Indeed, the very success of the scientific method, and the concomitant paucity of evidence for any supernatural phenomena, is seen by some as providing strong evidence for metaphysical naturalism – the thesis that the arrangement of matter and energy in spacetime exhausts ‘what there is’. Nonetheless, metaphysical naturalism is not as easily defended as some of its more vocal contemporary supporters might wish to believe.

Scientific theories do not, in general, make metaphysical claims; a given scientist can conform to methodological naturalism in the exercise of her discipline (in the generation and testing of hypotheses) while remaining entirely agnostic concerning the corresponding metaphysical view. While – once again – the scientific method in no way requires that she should, it is common for the scientific practitioner to proceed as if the physical world were both real and mind-independent; this corresponds largely to the naïve or commonsense (pre-Humean) view of the objective reality of the physical world in which many of the practical or technological aspects of science have their origins. To take the well-known puzzle: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no-one to hear it, the naïve proto-scientific view is that the ‘physical nature’ of its fall is such that, if there were an observer present, the observer would hear it. This, of course, is where what we might call the ‘proto-scientific’ and the ‘proto-philosophical’ accounts diverge. While a proto-philosophical account would depart from the phenomenal experience – from the event as ‘sound’ – the proto-scientific account postulates that, as a kind of physical event, the fall of any tree has the same general characteristics (including the characteristic of displacing a certain quantity of air). The account is completed by suggesting an elementary causal relation: the supplementary proto-law that, given the right conditions, any such event would be audible.

Insofar as they correspond to a first level of ‘theoretical speculation’ about the relations obtaining between observable phenomena and the observation sentences used to describe them, these are ‘proto-refinements’ of our naïve or pre-theoretical intuitions; I shall return later to a more sophisticated account of the process of refinement itself. Suffice it to say for the present that the proto-scientific account allows for the metaphysical theses that the physical world is real and mind-independent by suggesting that certain conditions obtain whether or not they are observed (or even, by extension, observable). While a philosophically-refined account of the proto-scientific view would undoubtedly point out that ‘allowing for’ is not ‘showing that’, the scientifically-refined account simply evacuates further metaphysical speculation (thus, scientifically-refined accounts are sometimes philosophically naïve). The proto-philosophical view is more sophisticated in that it departs from the given of the phenomenon – the experience of ‘a sound’. Such a view has already questioned the naïve realism of the proto-scientific view: whatever the physical characteristic of the falling of some tree, if there is no-one to hear it, there is no experience of ‘sound’. While the proto-scientific view postulates regularities in the world, all that we effectively know about these regularities is that they correspond to certain sequences of phenomenal experience. Thus, while it is the case that the falling of a tree makes a sound in the presence of a (human) observer, we are unable to affirm that it effectively ‘makes a sound’ when there is no human observer.

So, in a certain sense, metaphysical naturalism might seem philosophically naïve, as it departs from the view that the physical universe is effectively real and mind-independent. In philosophical terms, it gives precedence to what we experience over the way in which we experience it; it differs from naïve realism in postulating that the phenomena we experience are determined not by the object of perception itself but by the more general ‘causal structure’ of the physical universe – of which we are also a part (indeed, much of its sophistication is borrowed from scientific refinements of naturalism; this finds its full expression in the thesis that our perceptual apparatus has developed in response to the physical characteristics of our environment). Now, while it would be philosophically naïve to accept it too hastily, the view that the physical universe is effectively real and mind-independent is commonsensical enough, insofar as it conforms to certain of our most basic pre-theoretical intuitions. Of itself, the view doesn’t preclude dualism, and is even compatible with certain supernaturalist accounts. Metaphysical naturalism, however, draws from this ‘reasonable’ or ‘commonsensical’ view the entirely more substantial metaphysical conclusion that only the physical world has objective reality, and that non-physical phenomena can either be reduced to physical phenomena, or simply eliminated from our account.

The how of this conclusion is evident: it satisfies the principle of parsimony. While an idealist could argue that his view is perhaps a more parsimonious response to the mind-independence (and thus, by elimination, the objective reality) of the physical world, the thesis that only the physical universe is real allows for parsimony while also preserving our very basic pre-theoretical intuition that physical things actually exist (thus avoiding the multiplication of unobservable, supplementary, or ad-hoc entities which idealism implies). The why of the conclusion is perhaps more pertinent to our immediate common interests. A preference for parsimony is, for many of us, a question of aesthetics – a preference for Quine’s ‘desert landscapes’; this is perhaps no more than a matter of taste, though it evidently reflects a heuristic common to much of naturalist thinking, and one which reflects the common historical origins of both philosophical empiricism and the scientific method. As naïve realism is evidently irreceivable, physicalism is only meaningful if it can been shown to correspond to some reasonably coherent and consistent body of knowledge about the physical world. Unsurprisingly, the majority of contemporary physicalists therefore defend some form of scientific naturalism (to such a degree, indeed, that in certain undergraduate-level presentations of naturalism, ‘metaphysical naturalism’ and ‘scientific naturalism’ are given as equivalent terms). The scientific naturalist’s appeal to parsimony applies the scientific method to methodological naturalism itself, arguing that if in scientific enquiry we adopt as a methodological postulate the view that the physical universe is real and mind-independent, then in metaphysical enquiry we should adopt the postulate that only the physical universe is real.

Scientific realism – or scientism?

Naïve acceptance of supernaturalism within a philosophical position does not seem intellectually viable for those of us who have no pre-theoretical reasons for accepting supernaturalism (and, at this point, I would underline that there are no arguments for supernaturalism which are convincing to one who is not already predisposed to a supernaturalist account). Yet the naturalist’s appeal to, and faith in, the theories and findings of contemporary science might – to one holding the opposing view – seem equally naïve.

A number of naturalists – and many of those most present in the popular eye – are scientific realists. Yet scientific realism, like supernaturalism, has various forms. Generally speaking, the scientific realist can hold either that scientific theories are largely true (the semantic commitment); that we have reason to believe them, or a significant part of them (the epistemological commitment); or that they describe objective, mind-independent aspects of reality (the metaphysical commitment). How these commitments are organised, and what priority relations obtain between them, depends largely on the individual commentator; for present purposes we are more concerned with metaphysical commitment. A strong metaphysical commitment would, for example, hold that the hypothetical entities of physical science have effective existence; such a view is largely open to the argument from ‘pessimistic induction’, to the problem of the underdetermination of theory by evidence, and to the objections formulated by instrumentalism and by ‘confirmation holism’ (unsurprisingly, the majority of objections depart from epistemic considerations); it is further weakened by the partial nature of scientific theory and by unreconciled incompatibilities between our best-candidate physical theories. Indeed, given the present state of scientific knowledge, strong metaphysical commitment to scientific realism is as great a leap of faith as is supernaturalism; as such, it would be reprehensibly scientistic.

The ‘neo-Quinean’ view is perhaps more acceptably modest: for the neo-Quinean, the adoption of metaphysical naturalism in philosophy reflects the adoption of methodological naturalism in the sciences; nonetheless, her approach is more concerned with the methods of scientific enquiry than with its immediate findings. As Smart1 has remarked, Quine held “that philosophy and science are continuous with one another”; this is not a matter of subordinating philosophy to science, but rather of aligning scientific and philosophical investigation, and particularly in matters of ‘first philosophy’. Now, the methodology of scientific investigation is independent of any metaphysical commitment – science has little to say about what ‘exists’. The scientific investigator can thus proceed ‘as if’ naturalism were true while avoiding any deeper questions concerning the actual ontological status of the entities he postulates (indeed, his approach is compatible with an instrumentalist view). The naturalist philosopher, on the other hand, cannot so easily evacuate such questions, and particularly if her field is metaphysics; however, for the neo-Quinean, scientific naturalism is not an matter of scientific realism, but rather a ‘working hypothesis’ from which we can evaluate and investigate certain metaphysical puzzles.

Science, philosophy, and scientific materialism

Taken to the letter, scientific realism is naïvely, even quaintly, optimistic about the contribution scientific accounts can make to metaphysical speculation. Indeed, while science can have metaphysical implications, we must – as Sklar2 reminds us – be wary of “reading off a metaphysics” from the “overt appearance” of some given theory; likewise, confirmation holism requires that we take into account the metaphysical assumptions – and the pre-theoretical intuitions – which underlay the initial formulation of the theory. Above all, we should bear in mind that a scientifically-refined notion might bear no relation either to our intuitive notions, or to our philosophical refinements of those notions. In the Stanford entry3 on ‘causal determinism’, Carl Hoefer reminds us that “neither philosophers’ nor laymen’s conceptions of events have any correlate in any modern physical theory. The same goes for the notions of cause and sufficient cause” and, in a note, that “some philosophers are misled on this point by the fact that some now-defunct presentations of Special Relativity theory seem to be grounded on an ontology of events. But Special Relativity does not need to be so presented, nor were the “events” used anything like common sense events”.

Hoefer’s remarks are justified, but nonetheless require comment and elucidation. In a scientifically-refined theory (here, the contemporary theory or family of theories that are themselves refinements of Einstein’s theory), it is indeed the case that there are no direct correlates for our intuitive or traditional philosophical understanding of either ‘events’ or ‘causation’. For example, in special relativity, and given the limitations imposed by the speed of light, a light-cone shows what points lie in the ‘past’ of a point p, what points lie in its ‘future’, and what points are in its ‘absolute elsewhere’ (that is, no light from them can reach p). As such, this is nothing more than an informal description of the geometry of spacetime (not allowing, of course, for gravitational effects); it corresponds rather to a mathematical model than to a ‘physical description of spacetime’. Similar observations found what Katherine Hawley4 has called ‘radical pessimism’ concerning the validity of scientific findings in metaphysical enquiry: the (primarily mathematical) models with which the scientist works are at best generalisations or approximations of conditions obtaining in the physical universe, and as such, are incommensurable with the entities and relations postulated in metaphysics. Yet are we really dealing with notions that are entirely incompatible?

Evidently, when working within a given theory, on its implications for associated theories, and in peer-to-peer discussions within his speciality, the scientist tends to use a mathematical formalisation of spacetime. Nonetheless, in informal or semi-formal descriptions of spacetime (such as those used in teaching, in certain reflections on the interpretation of theory, and in presentations of the specialist’s field when addressing scientists in other disciplines), the refined view is frequently related to (a semi-refined version of) the intuitive notion from which it is – however distantly – derived. Thus, the notion of light-cone is frequently introduced by discussing the ‘events’ which can ‘influence’ or ‘be influenced by’ some ‘point-event’5. Likewise, the series of pairwise B-series orderings between point-events (that is, the series of events as ordered by the relations ‘lies in the past light-cone of’ or ‘lies in the future lightcone of’) is said to determine the ‘causal structure’ of spacetime. Evidently, the adoption of intuitively-recognisable entities and relations in what have been called ‘lies-to-children6‘ should not mislead us concerning the probable incommensurability of these intuitively-recognisable elements with the notions adopted in the refined theory. Nevertheless, the characteristic of a ‘lie-to-children’ is that it is ‘wrong for the right reasons’ – frequently, in that it takes a local, but well-known, case of some more general feature and proceeds ‘as if’ that case held generally. The ‘weight/mass’ example illustrates this well. ‘Weight’ is a local semi-constant under common conditions on Earth which is entirely eliminated from the Newtonian account; nevertheless, we continue to employ ‘weight’ as a measurable quantity in our everyday discussions of the mass of commonplace terrestrial things such as gold funerary masks, sacks of potatoes, or American film actresses.

Proto-scientific theories are often generalisations from entirely local features of some given set of phenomena; these local features are in many cases causally related to the regularities more properly described by one, or several, more refined theories (and in some cases by theories from widely differing disciplines). While it is certainly the case that the regularities underlying the distribution of mass and energy in spacetime bear little resemblance to the ’causes’ and ‘effects’, or the ‘objects’ and ‘events’, of either our commonsense or our philosophically refined notions, the naturalistic view would nonetheless suggest that such everyday phenomena depend upon, or are determined by, the more fundamental regularities. While we cannot simply cite a given scientific theory in defence of some pre-established metaphysical position, is it perhaps possible that examination of the informal or semi-formal notions employed in the interpretation and exposition of the theory might nonetheless answer certain requirements of philosophical investigation into such areas as events or causation?

The philosophical and scientific refinement of commonsense notions

In a recent paper7, Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi attempt to account for the “plurality of concepts” subtending the general category of ‘event’ as it is understood in our pre-theoretical intuitions; as it is understood in scientific revisions of our pre-theoretical intuitions; and as it is understood in the various philosophical discussions of mind, action, causation, change, time, and the like. Casati & Varzi refer the specific problem to the more general question of how our intuitive notions are taken up, refined – and, in some cases, superseded by – philosophical and scientific enquiry. Science, they suggest, departs from the phenomena postulated by our commonsense notions and examines them “with respect to exogenous empirical considerations”; it has no particular interest in saving or accommodating our pre-theoretical intuitions. Philosophy also departs from our phenomenal experience of the world; however, philosophical refinement of our intuitive or commonsense notions is dictated by “endogenous a priori considerations”, such as certain internal inconsistencies in some commonsense notion. Unlike scientists, philosophers are generally sensitive to the charge that their refinements run counter to our pre-theoretical intuitions about some phenomenon, and will scrupulously weigh the advantages of any given refinement against its cost in terms of subverting some commonly-held intuition. Many philosophers (and as many – if not more – scientists) would say that this divergence does indeed represent a fundamental difference in orientation between the two disciplines, and that the possibilities of dialogue are minimal. In philosophy, this is the view represented by – for example – Peter Hacker8, for whom “whatever utility such language [that of contemporary physics] might have for specialized purposes, it cannot incorporate our concepts of event or material object, for they are firmly embedded in our conceptual scheme, and intimately bound up with our ordinary notions of space and time” (cf. Hoefer’s remarks above).

Such objections would be justifiable were we to follow a strong scientifically realist programme, and attempt to subsume or to reduce philosophically-refined notions to scientifically-refined notions (as in the naïve hypothesis that mental phenomena can be subsumed or reduced to brain activity). Yet such simplistic positivism is a relic of another age. We have seen that, while a naturalist approach in philosophy can be seen as prolonging and developing on the scientific project, we are not justified in simply grafting the theoretical notions of physical science onto our metaphysics. If we follow Casati & Varzi’s characterisations, the role of metaphysics should be to clarify our intuitive notions about the world and our place in it, and to investigate any inconsistencies we might find either within some intuitive notion, or between associated notions. It follows that any such project would also require that we compare our intuitive notions with our knowledge of the world, and it is perhaps here that we can find an area of fruitful exchange between scientific and philosophical modes of investigation. In an unpublished critique9 of contemporary philosophy of time, Craig Callender suggests an explanatory or mediating role for such investigation: philosophy should seek “to refine our description of what needs to be explained, carefully examine science and the way it treats time, compare the two, and then try to account for any explanatory gap that arises”. Callender’s suggestion strikes me as eminently reasonable. While the scientific refinement of a certain notion might evacuate all semblance of, or correlation with, the pre-theoretical or naïve intuitions with which the notion is associated in our everyday lives, there remains a philosophical requirement to explain any residual lacunae between, on the one hand, our best candidate for knowledge about a certain phenomenon and, on the other hand, our experience of that phenomenon.


While scientific realism is philosophically naïve, physical science can and should guide the metaphysician when she is addressing the (actual) physical world and any ‘possible worlds’ derived from or referring to some physical theory (such as the ‘many-worlds’ interpretation in quantum mechanics). We should indeed be wary of conflating scientific and philosophical accounts of this or that phenomenon when the accounts address the world at entirely different orders of magnitude. But a philosophical account of the physical world should, nonetheless, be compatible with our knowledge of the physical world at an equivalent order of magnitude. Should we say “such-and-such a condition holds at such-and-such an order of magnitude”, then we are constrained to defend its claim at that order of magnitude. A similar remark applies to any metaphysical notion concerning the physical world and our relation to it which generalises from local conditions (a fictive example would be some notion of ‘absolute weight’; in the philosophy of time, there is the very real example of the ‘absolute present’).

In these respects, and perhaps in these respects alone, physical science can be a guide for metaphysics (similar remarks apply to the biological sciences and – with the evident provisos – to the human sciences). Undoubtedly, the naturalist metaphysician’s self-elected role consists in part in showing up incompatibilities and inconsistencies between scientific and philosophical notions about the physical world, or in identifying inappropriate generalisations from local conditions. A further part consists in tracing the limits of what science can tell us about the world of our everyday experience. But the naturalist philosopher is not restrained to a merely critical role: by following Callender’s recommendations, she can play an active part in tracing and clarifying the various parallels and divergences between our phenomenal experience and our knowledge of the physical world.



1 “Quine’s philosophy of science”, Synthese, 19 (1968).

2 1981, “Time, Reality, and Relativity”, in Healey (ed.), Reduction, Time, and Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3 “Causal Determinism”,

4 “Science as a Guide to Metaphysics?”, Synthese, 149 (2006).

5 Indeed, in their 2002 article “Ephemeral point-events: is there a last remnant of physical objectivity?” (Dialogos, 37), Pauri and Vallisneri remark on “…an unfortunate ambiguity in the usage of the term space-time points in the literature: sometimes it refers to an element of the mathematical structure that is the first layer of the space-time model, sometimes to the points interpreted as physical events”.


7 Casati, R. & Varzi, A. (2008) “Event Concepts” in T. F. Shipley & J. Zacks (eds.), Understanding Events: How Humans See, Represent, and Act on Events, New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

8 Hacker, P. (1982), “Events and Objects in Space and Time”, Mind, 91.

9 “Time’s Ontic Voltage”,


Brief bio:

David Hirst is British, but lives and works in France. He earned his Master’s in philosophy at the Sorbonne and took his PhD with the Sorbonne and the French Institute for the Philosophy of Science; he also holds degrees in linguistics and semiotics. Since 2001, and to meet the financial requirements of a young family, he has been working in executive training, but he plans both to reorient himself towards popular science education and to return to academia (probably by taking a PhD with an Anglophone university).

David has worked primarily in metaphysics, language, and the philosophy of science. At present, his main areas of interest are events and the philosophy of space and time; he is also interested in the philosophy of mind (and particularly the divergence between our best-candidate theories of spacetime and our phenomenal experience of time).

David is a “Bright,” but would distance himself from certain of his more ‘bulldoggish’ fellows: his interests as a Bright lie rather in combating ‘magical thinking’ and in promoting better popular understanding of science. While he defends both metaphysical and scientific naturalism, he considers that the term ‘atheism’ has no place in philosophical debate, and would argue for more debate between believers and naturalists.


24 Responses

  1. “The “debate” [in opposition to ideologists] has, therefore, to assume the forms of (1) a careful analysis of the noetic structure of existence and (2) an analysis of Second Realities, with regard to both their constructs and the motivating structure of existence in untruth.”

    Thanks for the reliable Catholic resource!
    25yr old Catholic,
    Matthew M.

  2. The older naturalism said that all knowledge must be learned by scientific method, Mr. Hirst’s naturalism claims that all knowledge must correspond to something known by scientific method, or run parallel to it. One must be sure to coordinate the “order of magnitude” that philosophy has with an “order of magnitude” that a scientific theory has. The role of the naturalist philosopher is to make sure that these magnitudes are always kept in the right proportions. Or perhaps it’s not this. Pehaps the philosopher must make sure that that our philosophy line is always parallel to a scientific method line.

    A simpler explanation would be that one and the same thing can admit of different kinds of analysis. Analysis means simply breaking up something into parts, and one can divide the same thing into different parts. Take the following thing:


    One can divide this in any number of ways:

    1.) It’s the letters C A and T, and in that order.

    2.) It’s kind of sign, specifically, a word.

    3.) It exists, as opposed to not existing.

    4.) It’s a creature, as opposed to the Creator.

    5.) It’s a kind of matter (sound) and form (pronunciation).

    Note that all of these things explain the whole thing we laid down. Each of them account for the same thing, but as five different subjects- using five different kinds of analysis. If each subject is studied in a systematic, objective and unbiased way, each will give rise to a distinct science. Each science explains the whole thing, but it is not the only account of the thing.

    Hirst shows some subtlety in avoiding Positivism and crude reductionism, but his account fails to take into account that the physical world as a thing is a vast number of subjects, and gives rise to a vast number of sciences that are not related as science. Hirst wants to decide in advance, before any experience of a given subject, that anything found by that subject must correspond to or be proportionate to “the scientific method”. I say this is an artificial constraint at best, and it viciates our experience of the physical world, which we encounter as different subjects requiring different methods and modes of analysis.

  3. A summary:

    Hirst does not distinguish the thing the science knows from the subject. In general, he wants to speak of the relation of methods (to the scientific method) before he understands the very subject that is the source of the existence of the science. If he asked first what the subject of the scientific method was (the quantifiable, or in Physics, mobile being as measured) and then asked what the subject of metaphysics (being as such) he would see a far greater autonomy in the varius sciences and the need for diverse methods which are each suited to diverse subjects. Asking all sciences to relate themselves to the scientific method is the same sort of thing as expecting them all to relate to a microscope. A method is simply a tool.

  4. Thomist – areply to your initial comments; I shall return to your summary. But thanks for both !
    Your comments are, of course, entirely justified, (though I would perhaps take issue with one or two of your points). The approach I sketched out depends on the a priori choice of a certain ‘conceptual scheme’ – that of scientific naturalism. I agree wholeheartedly – and given my maîtres de pensée, this is unsurprising – that there are numerous rival or parallel conceptual schemes that also correspond to a greater or a lesser degree to ‘the facts’ (and that, between them, certain of these schemes even diverge on what ‘the facts’ actually are). In a similar vein, Dr Liccione has remarked elsewhere on the problem of the possible underdetermination by a purely physicalist account of the entire set of ‘facts about the world’ (which by definition includes ‘facts’ about mental phenomena, universals, &cetera; and might also include ‘facts’ about certain supernatural phenomena or entities).
    Quine – who, among the principal analytic philosophers of the mid and later twentieth century, is notable for having given the clearest indications for an eventual convergence of the philosophical and the scientific projects – famously suggests that we should not consider the specific entities which might or might not inhabit the world, but that we should rather consider as a whole the conceptual scheme in which those entities figure. Now, Quine considers – as do I – that the findings and theories of contemporary physical science constitute the best candidate for a reasonably consistent body of knowledge about the world; however, this preference is largely determined by prior assumptions concerning the criteria we should adopt in deciding what constitutes a ‘reasonably consistent body of knowledge about the world’. I would be the last to say that one ‘must’ adopt this line; one can elaborate any metaphysics one wants, provided that it is internally consistent and that it corresponds, at some level or another, to our experience of and our knowledge about the world.
    It is perhaps, as Quine says, a *scientific* error to hold that ‘the gods of Homer’ have the same ontological status as do the physical objects of our everyday and our scientifically refined notions. But I agree that this begs the question concerning the degree to which we should give preference to the scientific account. For Quine, “our acceptance of an ontology is… similar in principle to our acceptance of a scientific theory… we adopt, at least insofar as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged”; this assumes that parsimony – which is itself an essential element of the scientific method – should be a fundamental consideration when choosing between one conceptual scheme and another. While Quine or I might hold that the scientific account is more ‘agreeable to reason’ than is a supernaturalist account, our criteria for judging what is or is not agreeable to reason depend on our prior acceptance of the scientific account. There is indeed a degree of circularity: as I remarked in my presentation, if – to avoid begging the question – we set aside scientific criteria for preferring parsimony, we are perhaps left with no more than an aesthetic preference.
    Shall we say that scientific naturalism is preferable GIVEN THAT one allows (1) that the scientific account is our best candidate for knowledge about the physical world; (2) that the scientific method is the best method by which we can generate knowledge about the physical world; and (3) that we are willing to adopt as a ‘working hypothesis’ the view that knowledge about the physical world exhausts knowledge of what is real (this last being the most substantial metaphysical thesis). Such a project concerns those who seek to investigate the relation obtaining between scientific knowledge and our more intuitive notions about the world (including, in this context, certain of our philosophically-refined notions, such as ‘causation’), and it is to this end that I orient my work as a philosopher. But I am well aware that other philosophers do not share this concern with ‘what science tells us about the world’ (I quoted Hacker; the good Dr Liccione is an example closer at hand). We cannot set sweeping limits to philosophy, decreeing that all philosophers *must* or *must not* adopt this or that approach (though whether this courtesy should extend to Continental Philosophy is a matter of individual taste and credulity); we can only work by the lights we know, and compare our findings with those who have taken parallel or divergent paths. I’m well aware that certain high-profile naturalists have a less liberal attitude to divergent views, yet I doubt that the violence of their arguments can compensate for their lack of philosophical pertinence.
    To turn to your conclusion: while it is indeed the case that there are certain difficulties in correlating the accounts given by one or another of the sciences (the best-known, and most problematic, being the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and relativity), I would take issue with the well-foundedness of your comment that “that the physical world as a thing is a vast number of subjects, and gives rise to a vast number of sciences that are not related as science”. The ONLY thing that would relate such accounts AS SCIENCES is that they share a common conceptual scheme (that of methodological naturalism): if they did not, they would not be ‘sciences’. The problem, as you would see it, is anterior to any scientific account, and concerns rather what might or might not be ‘left out’ in the a passage from an intuitive notion to a scientifically-refined account of this or that aspect of the physical world. This is precisely the question explored by Casati and Varzi; it is answered in part by Callender’s suggestion.
    By the way, and for form’s sake, I would also point out that only your arguments one to three apply to ‘CAT’: it is indeed a sequence of letters, it is a sign, and it exists (as a representamen, though I doubt that that’s what you meant). It is most certainly NOT a creature (its putative denotation might be, but that’s another matter); nor – given that it is written – is it materially realised by sound nor formally realised by pronunciation (but by pixels and orthography). This is a typical analyst’s quibble, so forgive me!

  5. Thomist

    Concerning your “summary” : I am not sure that we can distinguish between ‘what a science knows’ (that is, its epistemic claim) and its ‘subject’. For that matter, I’m none too sure I understand what you mean by ‘subject’. The various entities over which we quantify are themselves theory-dependent; the reduction or correlation between entities postulated by one theory and those postulated by another is rather a matter of theoretical than of ontological reduction or correlation.

    The first subjects of physics are our naïve pre-scientific notions about the physical world (such notions as ‘weight’). These notions concern observations and generalisations from observations; however, the naïve or pre-scientific notion of ‘what is being observed’ might well be eliminated from the refined theory (as is the case with ‘weight’). If we can generalise a ‘subject’ for physics (and, by extension, the physical and natural sciences), it is the ‘causal structure of the universe’; but this is already a philosophical extension of the ends of the various disciplines which constitute ‘physical science’. Indeed, once we attempt to integrate the findings of any one discipline within a wider framework of cross-disciplinary (or even inter-disciplinary) theories, the frontiers between scientific and philosophical speculation become blurred; attempting to integrate the findings of *all* disciplines is *primarily* a philosophical enterprise. This, I think, is where Quine’s legacy has proven most valuable.

    What, then, *are* we talking about in the physical sciences? The most general answer would be ‘spacetime and/or its contents’ – and even here we’re facing what is primarily a metaphysical choice (between realism and relativism about spacetime). Such choices might seem far removed from concern about the cats, the colours, and the catastrophes that constitute our day-to-day experience of the physical world, and on which our pre-scientific metaphysics has been based; yet if physical theory is to have any validity as knowledge about the world, it must surely account for cats, colours, and catastrophes as well as it accounts for photon emission or length contraction.

    On a more particular note: there seems to be some confusion when you say “asking all sciences to relate themselves to the scientific method is the same sort of thing as expecting them all to relate to a microscope”. It is, I would say, definitionally true of a science that it should follow the scientific method. Perhaps we should agree on an understanding of what the scientific method entails before continuing.

    I’ll post something on the subject!
    Best regards,

  6. “…but [David Hirst] plans both to reorient himself towards popular science education and to return to academia (probably by taking a PhD with an Anglophone university).”

    Goodness, I can only hope and pray that Mr. Hirst is successful in these endeavors, and posthaste, since, giving the appallingly unbalanced perspective presented by the current crop of naturalist popularizers, his success couldn’t arrive a moment too soon.

  7. David:

    The circularity looming here can be summed up in the unexceptionable maxim that epistemology and ontology are interdependent. Thus, our criteria for what shall count as adequate explanation of what there is depends in part on what we believe there is, and vice-versa. One cannot escape the circle by appealing to a principle of parsimony, if such a principle be taken to govern our choice of a quite general ontology, as distinct from governing choice of ontologies within specific disciplines. That truth, I believe, is the strength of Thomist’s criticism.

    For instance, even in natural science (or what Aristotelians would call “physics”), there just is an irreducible “observational” ontology of objects given in experience along with the measurements of those objects. One may and should grant that there is no theory-independent account of what those are, and no concept-independent way of experiencing them, without its thereby following that the best “explanation” of them will be the most parsimonious one. One can only say that the best explanation will be the most parsimonious ceteris paribus. And that would be true. But of course the other things are rarely equal; even when they more-or-less are, they rarely stay that way; and we will still not have addressed the question what further realities there might be to take account of by means of a different theory or even a different conceptual scheme. So, as you are well aware, there must be criteria for “good” or “adequate” explanation beyond parsimony. Some of them might be called “aesthetic”; e.g., that lawlike generalizations be expressed mathematically. But it is almost trivially true that only the quantifiable is mathematizable; and one of the most important issues in a discussion such as this is whether everything in our ontology is, or ought to be, quantifiable.

    Cutting to the chase, I think it must conceded that some features of human experience are not quantifiable in any reductive way, and which prompt meaningful questions which aren’t scientifically answerable. As an example of the former, the experience of something as blue is phenomenologically quite different from that of observing and measuring correlations between optical inputs and neural firings.The observation and measurement are fit to establish a quantifiable correlation between the subjective experience of blue and the physical features thereof; but that is no evidence whatsoever that the former may reasonably be reduced to the latter. As for general ontology, a scientific “theory of everything,” even if achievable in principle, would not take us one step closer to answering the question why the world is like that rather than any other way the world might conceivably have been.

    This is why I can support something called “methodological naturalism” while maintaining a “supernaturalist” ontology. I am willing to embrace the possibility that the physical world is a causally unitary, scientifically describable whole—even though we don’t know that it is—without at all conceding that the “laws” by which the world is such a whole are the only ones to which a duly parsimonious “explanation” of the world must appeal.


  8. Mr. Hirst,

    A subject is the class we place a thing in. One and the same thing (say, an airplane) can be understood as being in many different classes: an artifact, a mobile thing, something subject to gravity and turbulance, an existent thing, or simply as an airplane. Depending on what class we place it in, there is the possibility of a systematic, objective, unbiased account of the things in that class as such: a science. The subject, which we encounter in experience, is the ground of science, and the science is simply an attempt to give a systematic account of it. This requires us to find a means of discovery appropriate to figuring out that subject. Scientific methods are such means, and they are wholly subordinate to the subject they seek to explain.

    I simply disagree with both you and Quine- I think you are failing to distinguish the world as a thing from the world as a subject. Distinct subjects can generate distinct sciences, each of which needs a method corresponding to its distinct subject.

    Naturalism is the claim that the legitimacy of a means of knowing nature depends on a single method: the “scientific method”. You do not say that it is the only method, to be sure, but you do believe that all methods of understand ing the world must correspond to it in such a way that if something in them does not correpond to it is therefore illegitmate. But since methods derive their whole existence from their subject, to say that all relate to one method means that all things are somehow one subject, which is simply not true. Even if one studied all subjects as subjects, they would not have a science of the physical world as such!

  9. a thomist,

    Have you read Benedict Ashley’s book on metaphysics, The Way Toward Wisdom?

    Maybe the way Hirst’s proposal could be accepted by thomists is that since being is analogous, then there are (analogical) common principles among the sciences.

  10. Mike

    A great pleasure to be replying to you after all these years !

    I understand your and Thomist’s criticism, though I think we need to be careful of suggesting that we can draw any general distinctions between the principle of parsimony as it applies within and across scientific disciplines. Parsimony not only founds the ontologies of specific disciplines, but also governs the various theoretical correlations and reductions between theories, it being a standard – if perhaps somewhat optimistic – view that any scientific theory can ultimately be restated in the language of fundamental physics. This latter explains the common tendency to address on the level of physics questions of the relation between our intuitive view and the scientific account.

    But, as you say, “there must be criteria for “good” or “adequate” explanation beyond parsimony”. Indeed, parsimony is an insufficient criterion *within* a theory or discipline – it is, at best, the ‘upper limit’ of a theory. The ‘lower limit’ – the bottom line, one might say – is that it gives a full account of the phenomenon under consideration. If a given theory leaves some intuitively essential element of the phenomenon unexplained, then the theory is incomplete (and is furthermore incompatible with the wider set of beliefs by which we order the world). This, I think, is the thrust of your objection, and I would agree wholeheartedly (but then this is why I’m here rather than Dawkins – that, and the lousy pay). When we consider a given thing’s being blue, once we have described the optical and physiological processes taking place, we have said all that there is to be said about the physical phenomenon – save why it is ‘blue’. Similarly – and more pertinently to my field of enquiry – it is the case that there is no absolute present, and thus little reason to think that there is any absolute difference in the ontological status of the past, the present, and the future. Nevertheless, this in no way explains our phenomenal experience of the distinction between time and space or our intuitive sense of temporal passage. As an explanation of our intuitive notion of time, our best theory of the most general features of spacetime is woefully incomplete. Thus my seconding of Callender’s suggestion.

    The question of reduction is indeed thorny and – here above all! – hazard-ridden. Generally, a naturalist will consider reduction as an end in itself; nevertheless, there is a distinction to be drawn between reduction and elimination. We can, I think, effect ontological or theoretical reductions (relating qualia to certain neurological events, or the notion of temporal passage to elements of the causal structure of the world); we cannot, however, simply *eliminate* qualia and the notion of a privileged present. In the philosophy of mind, the dependency argument is well-known and so well-visited that it’s become invisible; there has been less work on possible dependency relations in the philosophy of time – though I personally believe that we can’t get far on the problem of mind until we’ve got a handle on the problem of time. Here, we have no adequate theory until we have a theory which either correlates our knowledge and our phenomenal experience, or shows that there is no correlation possible (that is, that our experience of time has nothing to do with the causal structure of the physical universe).

    It’s a moot point whether a scientific “theory of everything” would take us closer to answering the question of why the world is as it is rather than any other way it might have been. I could point out that if it is indeed a ‘theory of everything’, then by definition it would explain EVERYTHING – including why the world is the way it is. But I rather fear that the ‘real’ answer to you interrogation is that the world is the way it is because it is the way it is, and that it isn’t any other way because it isn’t. The quest for a ‘reason’ why the world is as it is – insofar as it goes beyond explaining our apprehension of the world – is most likely meaningless when applied to the mind-independent physical universe. We can postulate other ways it could have been, but there is perhaps nothing that corresponds to our intuitive notion of a ‘reason’ for it actually being the way it is (the anthropic principle mistakes a consequence of the way the universe is for a ‘reason’ for it being that way).

    As far as the physical universe is concerned, I think that we might be able – one day – to answer ‘how’ with a reasonable degree of accuracy; I don’t think the question ‘why’ is appropriate. This is probably the sticking point in our different world-views: I find it intuitively improbable that the world as a whole corresponds to our local notions (such as ‘beginnings’ or ‘endings’ – or, a fortiori, ‘reasons’ for beginnings and endings). My reasons for rejecting a personal god are perhaps evident (and tediously commonplace): it seems highly improbable to me that any putative entity operating on the level of ‘the whole of spacetime and it contents’ would have anything that we could understand as a motivation (and it certainly wouldn’t be concerned about our reproductive behaviour). This, I believe, was Einstein’s view… though that is no argument for its well-foundedness. But this is one of those areas where belief and unbelief must perhaps shake hands and part company, wishing at best ‘au revoir’, but perhaps constrained to ‘adieu’ (and I’d like to see Richard bloody Dawkins write as restrained and courteous an apology for his unbelief!)

    However, the question why we should EXPERIENCE the world in such-and-such a way *is* appropriate, and allows for dialogue – even though our paths diverge on the longer road. Thus, the seeming irreducibility of our personal experience of temporal passage – of an immutable past and an undetermined future – is a common given that both you (as a Christian) and I (as a four-dimensionalist) must square with a notion of the ‘eternal’ which, for our differing reasons, we would hold to be equally, if not more fundamentally, real than is our sense of ‘human time’. Augustine makes certain comments which, even taken within his conceptual scheme, are incompatible with experience (and indefensible at the order of magnitude they imply); however, I have no knowledge whatsoever of Aquinas’ view of the matter. This, perhaps, is a concrete example of those areas in which, despite our differing programmes, dialogue could be mutually enlightening…

    I shall return to the other comments in this thread tomorrow – it’s bath-night in Paris – but thank you all for your interest and your tolerance!

    Best regards,

  11. Apolonio,

    Part of explaining what Hirst is saying involves seeing his use of metaphor (as opposed to analogy). His argument relies on ideas of “orders of magnitude” between sciences and the idea of things running “parallel” to science. Analogy does have a role to play here, but in order to get a look at it we need to see the subject of the scientific method- the sensible world as measured. This measurement presupposes quantity but adds to it a correspondence to a unit we create- like base 10 numerals, meters, percentages, seconds, degrees of temperature etc. This correspondence must be verified by an experiment, which involves verifying hypotheses as well, and so it is precisely the subject of the scientific method that requires that the scientific method be hypothetical and experimental. But what if I don’t want to study the sensible world as measured? What if I like studying other things, even about the sensible world? Hirst comes in and says, in effect “you must be sure that whatever you study derives legitimacy in some way from this other subject with its own distinct method”. Why? If I have an experience of the same world he has, but it is not given in metrical terms, it is at least superfluous to relate it to scientific method. I further think it is simply wrong, and vitiates our experience of the world.

  12. Thomist

    You say “depending on what class we place it in, there is the possibility of a systematic, objective, unbiased account of the things in that class as such: a science”. Well, yes; if it’s pink, we place it in the class of pink things, and if it’s blue, in the class of blue things. Unless we restrict ourselves to enumeration of the members of the class, the ‘account’ of blue things is (i) optical and neurological or (ii) just the case that we perceive certain things as blue. A full account would explain the relation between (i) and (ii). No account is objective.

    You also say that ‘scientific methods are means of discovery appropriate to figuring out some subject, and they are wholly subordinate to the subject they seek to explain’. Thus, a theory of pink things is wholly subordinate to the property of being pink, which in turn is wholly subordinate to the property of ‘being coloured’. Yet this leads to optics, which in turn is concerned with the interaction of light with matter. The interaction of light with matter is described by special relativity and (under higher gravity) by general relativity. Furthermore, ‘matter’ is an ambiguous term that many physicists would prefer to replace by talk of particles (fermions, for example). From an initial explanation of pink things we have arrived at the two fundamental physical theories – and whatever physical characteristic might found membership of some class, we would arrive (ultimately) at one or the other, and probably both, of these theories through the systematic application of one ‘method’: that of observation, hypothesis, prediction, and testing, guided by the dual criteria of explanatory power and parsimony. The very success of the scientific method is that it is *not* local.


    “I think you are failing to distinguish the world as a thing from the world as a subject”.

    The world as thing is mind independent, the world as class is not. We can quantify everything about how a pink thing is pink, save why it is ‘pink’ (that is, why it has that particular ‘quality’). A failure to make this distinction would lead to the naïve view that the scientific refinement of a commonsense notion serves the clarification of that commonsense notion. Such a view evidently substitutes science for philosophy (cf. the comments by Casati and Varzi). My article militates against such naïve reductionism: the role of philosophy in the naturalist project is to show up, clarify, and in certain cases explain, incompatibilities between the scientific account and the phenomena of our everyday experience.


    “Naturalism is the claim that the legitimacy of a means of knowing nature depends on a single method: the “scientific method”.

    Naturalism is the thesis that the physical world is real and mind-independent.(‘nature’ is a vague and somewhat literary term which is usually avoided in scientific discourse). While other theories might account for the mind-independence and the reality of the physical world (starting with naïve realism), none of these theories is as successful as the scientific account. Therefore, and until such time as it can be *shown* that a rival theory can account for the ‘physical facts’ as successfully as the scientific method (allowing for both explanatory power and parsimony), the scientific method remains the most effective way of amassing ‘knowledge’ about the physical world. As a corollary, any statement about the physical world (such as ‘the Sun rises in the East’) is open to scientific revision. A statement about the physical world which controverts a known scientific law is indeed illegitimate – nevertheless, I made it abundantly clear (or rather, I thought I had made it abundantly clear) under what limited conditions this criterion can be applied.


    “Since methods derive their whole existence from their subject, to say that all relate to one method means that all things are somehow one subject, which is simply not true”.

    You mistake me entirely – I would hold that one thing is all subjects. But to conclude: there are evident problems in extending the scientific method to philosophy, and it would be naive to argue that philosophy can be subsumed to science. Philosophy can best serve the scientific project by clarifying the relation between, on the one hand, phenomenal experience and the intuitive theories derived from that experience and, on the other, the regularities that, on the scientific account, underlie our phenomenal experience.

  13. The Thomist Wrote: “His argument relies on ideas of “orders of magnitude” between sciences and the idea of things running “parallel” to science. Analogy does have a role to play here, but in order to get a look at it we need to see the subject of the scientific method- the sensible world as measured. ”

    A Great Man in the Past Once Wrote:

    What we know, in a sense in which we know nothing else, is that the trees and the grass did grow and that number of other extraordinary things do in fact happen; that queer creatures support themselves in the empty air by beating it with fans of various fantastic shapes; that other queer creatures steer themselves about alive under a load of mighty waters; that other queer creatures walk about on four legs, and that the queerest creature of all walks about on two. These are things and not theories; and compared with them evolution and the atom and even the solar system are merely theories. The matter here is one of history and not of philosophy so that it need only be noted that no philosopher denies that a mystery still attaches to the two great transitions: the origin of the universe itself and the origin of the principle of life itself.

  14. “Part of explaining what Hirst is saying involves seeing his use of metaphor (as opposed to analogy). His argument relies on ideas of “orders of magnitude” between sciences and the idea of things running “parallel” to science”.

    I fear that you have perhaps misunderstood my comments on “orders of magnitude”. I developed the argument more fully in an article on “Events and Duration” (in which I point out certain inconsistencies in the classical philosophical account of ‘instantaneity’). If I might quote :

    “Most philosophical accounts of such events as departures and arrivals consider only a macroscopic level – an approach we could call ‘naked-eye’ philosophy. There seems to be an unstated consensus among such philosophers that, as our everyday experience does not provide us with direct access to individual events taking place at (let us say) a molecular level, we should make no appeal to these levels when discussing our phenomenal experience of events. [NOTE : This is a reversal of – or perhaps a corollary of – the requirement expressed by Smith and Varzi in “The Formal Ontology of Boundaries” (EJAP, 1997): “…true, from the perspective of the physical sciences, ordinary physical objects are not continuous and do not have boundaries of the sort countenanced by common sense. But even if naive boundary talk is deemed inadequate with respect to the entities of atomic physics, one still needs it when it comes to the regions of space and time occupied by the objects of ordinary discourse”].

    The argument for ‘naked-eye’ philosophy in such areas as action or mind is indeed persuasive: if philosophical investigation into everyday occurrences such as departures, movements, or actions has as its object the clarification of our commonsense notions about such occurrences, then it is surely to the level of these notions that we should address ourselves. For the naked- eye philosopher, while science might tell us a great deal about the various regularities underlying physical phenomena, we cannot appeal to science to arbitrate in philosophical debates about the way human beings experience, and intuitively order, the world. The specialisation of the scientist leads him to develop a formal description of that aspect of the phenomenal world he seeks to understand; we cannot, as philosophers, incorporate his technical use of some term or another into our discussions of the intuitive, pre-theoretical view of the world expressed in our everyday language: while we may use the same word – ‘event’, for example – he and we are no longer talking about ‘the same thing’ [cf. Casati & Varzi (2008) “Event Concepts”]. In brief, such a view depends on the perhaps defensible assumption that the objects and events of our everyday experience are more directly ‘real’ to us than are the various processes and entities described by the natural sciences, and that it is to the orders of magnitude of these everyday objects and events that we should therefore address our attention as philosophers.

    Nevertheless, there are certain constraints on such a view; and while it might be possible to justify ‘naked eye’ philosophy as the foundation of some humanistic enterprise in philosophy – in ethics, perhaps – it risks missing the point when it strays into metaphysics. It might well be better not to conflate scientific and philosophical accounts of this or that phenomenon, and particularly when the accounts address the world at entirely different orders of magnitude. But a philosophical account of the physical world should, nonetheless, be compatible with our knowledge of the physical world at an *equivalent* order of magnitude. Should the philosophical account say “such-and-such a condition holds at such-and-such an order of magnitude”, then it is constrained to defend its claim *at that order of magnitude*. This is particularly the case when the philosophical account appeals to some absolute notion, such as ‘strict instantaneity’.”

    Thus, if a philosopher were to hold that, for example, the present has no extension whatsoever, he is effectively making claims about the world down to and beyond the Planck time; and this is the case whether or not he is aware of the Planck constants. Thus, if some x is F before t and is ~F after t, and our philosopher claims that a change takes places ‘instantaneously’ at t, then he is *effectively* claiming that at t-10-44s x is F and at t+10-44 x is ~F. However, the kinds of everyday change that the ‘naked-eye’ philosopher discusses (such as ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’) are such that they usually take place at *at the very least* orders of magnitude around 10-6s to 10-5s. At orders of magnitude below a nanosecond, we cannot identify the physical boundaries of the ‘objects of ordinary discourse’ (I am, of course, taking for granted that measurements of time and of space represent measurements of spacetime).

    So, you can study sensible phenomena as much as you like, and say whatever you want about them, but if you say – for example – that a change takes place instantaneously, you are constrained by the *philosophical* definition of instantaneity to show that the change is effective, and can be identified, at orders of magnitude way below any possibility of macroscopic (and most microscopic) observation.

  15. “While other theories might account for the mind-independence and the reality of the physical world, none of these theories is as successful as the scientific account. Therefore, and until such time as it can be *shown* that a rival theory can account for the ‘physical facts’ as successfully as the scientific method (allowing for both explanatory power and parsimony), the scientific method remains the most effective way of amassing ‘knowledge’ about the physical world.”

    I am rather shocked to discover that as Dr. Hirst’s thesis has elements of Materialism & Positivism for its framework; that somebody with caliber as that of Dr. Liccione would actually have conceded to such a view.

    For there are matters of the Faith that even Science cannot explain.

    If it were the case, it would not be Faith to begin with.

    Mind you, Science itself is not so perfect that all can ultimately be explained, either currently or eventually, by mere application of it and by whatever measurement at whatever magnitude.

    For how can the Infinite ever be measured by the Finite?

    Need we be reminded, especially in our times (where the grandeur of modernity has but seduced most, if not, all men including those of seemingly unshakeable faith), that Man, like all things he produces (including science & technology), has even its limits.

  16. “These are things and not theories; and compared with them evolution and the atom and even the solar system are merely theories.”

    This sounds suspiciously like the “evolution’s only a theory” pseudoargument (it’s not an argument, it’s obfuscation). But then again, Bertrand Russell would have written lousy “Father Brown” stories…

  17. “While other theories might account for the mind independence and the reality of the physical world, none of these theories is as successful as the scientific account. Therefore, and until such time as it can be *shown* that a rival theory can account for the ‘physical facts’ as successfully as the scientific method (allowing for both explanatory power and parsimony), the scientific method remains the most effective way of amassing ‘knowledge’ about the physical world.”

    And this thesis suspiciously invokes elements of Materialism & Positivism for its framework.

    For there are matters of the Faith that even Science cannot explain.

    If it were the case, it would not be Faith to begin with.

    Mind you, Science itself is not so perfect that all can ultimately be explained or even accounted for (for that matter), either currently or eventually, by mere application of it and by whatever measurement at whatever magnitude.

    For how can the Infinite ever be measured by the Finite?

    Need we be reminded, especially in our times (where the grandeur of modernity has but seduced most, if not, all men including those of seemingly unshakeable faith), that Man, like all things he produces (including science & technology), has even its limits.

  18. Quine, theory, and things (1)

    In order to answer more generally the comments here – which, despite my habit of firing off answers, I continue to ruminate on, trying to find a ‘proxy function’ by which to align them to my own ‘conceptual scheme’ – I’d like to return to the questions raised by a Chestertonian ontology and (in the following part) by the question of ‘classes’, revisiting certain questions of ontology and – to a certain and undeveloped extent – epistemology.

    Quine’s account of the passage from sensory stimulation to our various theories about the regularities we observe in the world, and thus to the diverse objects called for by such theories, is classically – some might say excessively – behaviourist. He is, nonetheless, evidently justified in remarking that the passage relies entirely on language – the “question of assuming objects” should rather be understood as “a question of verbal reference to objects”. He is furthermore justified in underlining the semantic primacy of sentences in the “development leading from sensory stimulation to objective reference” (though ‘semiotic’ might perhaps be more ‘scientifically-appropriate’ than ‘semantic’ when considering the underlying concrete processes). Quine begins by considering ‘occasion sentences’ – simple sentences which are true or false of certain occasions, such as “it’s raining” or “it’s cold”, but which can include the ‘one word sentences’ of language acquisition (“the primitive phase of learning by ostension”, as he puts it). Thus, an infant’s use of the expression “milk!”, uttered in the presence of or in the anticipation of milk, should not be considered as a term denoting some ‘object’ – ‘a certain quantity of milk’; similarly, the infant’s use of names such as ‘Mummy’ or ‘Rover’ should not be seen as denoting some individual or other [I would point out Quine’s unwarranted assimilation of proto-declaratives with proto-imperatives; nevertheless, it is not his intention to suggest a fully worked-out theory of language acquisition]. A given ‘occasion sentence’ is integrated into our language by its regular coincidence with a certain situation of sensory stimulation; its ‘object’ – should we wish to retain the term – is rather pragmatic than ontic.

    For the sake of brevity, I won’t reproduce Quine’s full account here (given in his paper “Things and their Place in Theories”, 1981); suffice it to say that it progresses though individuative terms – such as ‘dog’ and chair’ – to predication; then through the introduction of relative clauses to quantification and to the pronouns which, when “regimented in symbolic logic… give way to bound variables of quantification”. Unsurprisingly, Quine’s immediate conclusion is that “to assume objects of some sort is to reckon objects of that sort among the values of our variables”.

    But what kinds of object do we thus “assume”? ‘Bodies’ are for Quine the model and the pattern for our understanding of objects; at the level of our first theoretical organisation of our sense impressions, there is no immediate ontological requirement for any distinction between animal bodies and other physical bodies (cricket balls and asteroids are as ‘real’ as people, cats, and parrots). Further reifications proceed analogously: wood, milk, and other substances (which we tend to think of as ‘masses’); but also – given the ‘grammatical analogy’ between general and singular terms – reifications of general terms, a “realm of properties, or sets”. Indeed, the plethora, in our everyday language, not only of nouns but of ‘nominal forms’ – gerunds, clauses, and the like – would seem to provide ‘hypostatic objects’ enough to satisfy the wildest ontological extravagance. The “common man’s ontology” is indeed “varied and untidy”, but – short of accepting that any nominal form denotes some ‘real’ thing – it is hard to see where we might draw clear ontological boundaries. But this, Quine reminds us, is a philosopher’s error: the language of the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus does not require the ‘fenced-off’ ontologies of science or philosophy. Linguistic expertise brings both finesse and, when accompanied by a moment’s reflection, a heightened capacity to distinguish terms which assume ‘things’ from the ‘stylistic variations’ of unrestricted nominalisation. But it is still, first and foremost, a language of bodies and of a “succession of dwindling analogies” of bodies. It is also, first and foremost, a pragmatic enterprise: the notion of a clear and fundamental boundary separating being from non-being is a refinement of philosophy and, in a more technical sense, of the more abstract sciences. “Ontological concern,” Quine reminds us, “is not a correction of lay thought and practice; it is foreign to the lay culture, though an outgrowth of it”.

    We can, when riding the Clapham omnibus, be as Chestertonian as we like in our appreciation of, and our talk about, the luxuriance of the phenomenal world. I would go further and say that as philosophers we can, if we so wish, explore the deepest thickets of the various ontologies assumed by this or that way of talking about the world (and this was thomist’s first point). Whether such ontologies can be reduced, subsumed, or correlated to the physical ontology of naturalistic or ‘scientific’ metaphysics is, of course, the principle cause of disagreement; yet we should bear in mind that the ‘scientific project’ (if we might thus reify a very vague set of pursuits) is, in its most general origins, a pragmatic enterprise tending to the continuous refinement of our capacities to predict phenomena on the basis of certain sensory stimulation. It might not be ‘reality’, but is perhaps our best instrument for apprehending reality – given that we bear in mind that ‘reality’, in this sense, is a philosopher’s term-of-art.

    When reading our morning papers on the Clapham omnibus in the present economic tempest, our sense of the ‘reality’ – of the pragmatic actuality – of the world around us is no more mediated by questions of ontology than is our recognition and categorisation of the various bodies and events we perceive during our journey. When reflecting on economic theory, however, such questions start to come into focus.

  19. If something is not materially perceived; if, for instance, it cannot be accounted for & measured by whatever means and at whatever magnitude; does that ‘something’ exist?

    This is why, as far as mine own small mind is concerned, I rather prefer the Zubirian metaphysics (at least, that which my little mind could grasp) a notable Catholic, who unfortunately no longer graces the Catholic blogosphere with his presence, once wrote about:

    …Zubiri takes Husserl’s idea of “notes,” observable features or characteristics of things, and digs down beneath it to the underlying reality by first noting that, paradoxically, one cannot get to the reality!

    Much like the Cappadocians could make an argument for the unknowability of reality by recourse to the complexity of a single ant, Zubiri argues that reality cannot ever be fully exhausted by investigating its notes.

    On the contrary, reality is inexhaustibly fecund, which gives to Zubiri his formulation of reality as dar de si (giving of itself), and apophatically defeats all attempts at the “entification of reality” (confusing reality with being, i.e., existence of notes) or “logification of intellect” (description of reality in terms of concepts, such as a “nature” being “genus and species”).

    In recapturing the fundamental incomprehensibility of reality, Zubiri is really appealing to the same Christian tradition of the Cappadocians that was used to defeat pagan rationalism. Where Zubiri takes things a step farther is in his introduction of an entirely new metaphysical concept of reality: that of reality as structure.

    Zubiri recognizes that even the most simple object is revealed by science to be an incredibly complex structure, literally billions of atoms interacting with one another. Moreover, even at the smallest scale, it is impossible to identify the tiniest parts of matter with absolute certainty in absolute separation from anything else, because of the quantum mechanical nature of reality.

  20. Philos – an answer to your earlier coment :

    Materialism isn’t the term I’d use. This may seem like a quibble, but a contemporary metaphysical naturalist can and should overcome the parochial materialism and positivism of earlier naturalist programmes. However, I would indeed hold – as at least a methodological posit – that the four-dimensional universe of spacetime and all it contains exhausts reality; in the words of Einstein, “if something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it”, though ‘spiritual’ would be a more correct term ‘religious’. I quite honestly do not know whether there is or is not some ‘conscious’ entity equal to or greater than the extent of spacetime; though I fear that the term ‘conscious’ applied to such an entity would be a meaningless generalisation from our local conditions. Similarly, that such an entity might correspond to a ‘person’ seems to me an entirely unreasonable generalisation from human psychology.

    But, as you say, this is a question of faith. Your faith, like Dr Liccione’s, is not the product of a certain line of (philosophical) reasoning; it is rather the point of departure from which any philosophical enquiry departs. For whatever reason of psychology, such faith is alien to my ‘conceptual scheme’. However, as a philosophical posit, my metaphysical naturalism is as much a question of ‘belief’ as is Dr Liccione’s Christianity. I can, perhaps, appeal more easily to ‘reason’ in matters of first principles than can Dr Liccione, but this is solely because I refuse any first principle that is not approximated by some physical law. My ‘reason’ is of the bull-headed kind that balks at the improbability of the Virgin Birth – naturalists are a po-faced lot: we purse our mouths and say “it just isn’t done!” in a tone that would put to shame the most upright of school-marms.

    But – as Quine famously remarked of Homer’s gods – our scheme is no different in its epistemological foundations than is Dr Liccione’s; indeed, he can argue from ‘experience’ to support the set of beliefs on which he founds his scheme while I can only argue against that scheme from a lack of experience (not the most sure of logical foundations). This, I think, should lead to a critical distinction between metaphysical naturalism and atheism: it is entirely beyond the scope of the naturalist project to take any stance whatsoever on the ontological status of any conscious entity equal to or greater than the universe of spacetime (including any singularities, parallel worlds, hidden dimensions or what-have-you it might contain or be part of).

    The position taken by several well-known naturalists is philosophically untenable. The only arguments we naturalists can bring against theism depend on a prior acceptance of the primacy of the physical world, and of the best-candidate status of the scientific method as a means of generating truths about the physical world. This, as Dr Liccione has rightly remarked, is not a sufficient basis for the claim that the scientific method should guide all metaphysics; it is merely a methodological choice for those who have already decided – for whatever reason – that, given the success of the scientific method in describing the physical world, it is worthy of extension into the realm of metaphysics.

  21. Dr. Hirst,

    Thank you for the generous response!

    Greatly appreciated.

  22. Philos

    I shall impose on your courtesy!

    We should, I think, take care to separate social and philosophical debate on the question of belief. To take an example: the comments I made to you, and my remarks on ontology, could be said to found the argument for the exclusion of faith-based notions in the teaching of physical science (by ‘faith’, I mean of course a theistic, rather than a general epistemic, view). Whether or not such a view is unduly reductive, physical science is predicated on the assumption that the physical world is real and mind-independent; thus, notions depending on any supernatural phenomenon cannot be given any meaningful formulation within its conceptual scheme, nor can we ‘translate’ supernaturalist language into the language of science. It’s an unforgiveable act of misrepresentation to suggest to learners that the conceptual scheme of science can extend to supernaturalist notions; it is furthermore counter-productive to the theistic project, as it suggests that supernaturalist accounts are to be evaluated on the same criteria as scientific accounts. Yet, if this is the case, the result would be to reinforce the scientifically naturalist account: while intelligent design and naturalist evolutionary theory are mutually underdetermined with respect to the evidence, the naturalist theory better satisfies the principle of parsimony. Given that the supporter of intelligent design requires that his account be considered as a rival *scientific* theory, the preference for parsimony proper to scientific method should also be taken into account when assessing his claim.

    To be honest, ‘intelligent design’ is a rather silly notion – a bastard compromise between creationism and evolution. Better to render unto Caesar (or Darwin) the things that are assumed by Caesar’s conceptual scheme, and to leave to God the things that are of God. Indeed, there is every reason for the theist philosopher to adopt a supernaturalist version of the neo-Quinean programme I suggest in my initial article. The theist cannot ignore the findings of physical science – this has been shown repeatedly from Galileo through Darwin to Hawking; however, if he is of a philosophical bent, and rather than trying to refute or to revise the findings of science, he would do better to try to account for the lacunae between physical theory and the theistic account.

    Here, I should underline that I am not suggesting that all and every theistic philosopher should follow such a programme. This consideration returns us to the parallels, analogies, or (if you wish) metaphors mentioned by ‘a thomist’, and to the subsequent debate on orders of magnitude. My remarks are addressed to the theistic philosopher who seeks to address matters of what we could call ‘natural metaphysics’ – that is, questions of our relation to the physical world and of the successes, and limitations, of the scientific account in describing the world.

  23. As I’m not philosophically trained I apologize if Mr. Hirst has already made this clear but I do not understand how Mr. Hirst deals with justice from a “metaphysical naturalist” perspective. It does not seem reducible to a molecular level without, ahem, doing injustice to the concept.

    I also hesitate to point out that Mr. Hirst’s complaint of a God being incoprenhensable is dealt with from the Christian perspective by proposing that he has revealed himself to us in history and personally.

  24. Common Man

    I must admit that moral philosophy isn’t my strong point at all… nevertheless, I’d imagine that moral judgements (such as evaluating an action as ‘just’ or ‘unjust’) are entirely local attitudes which cannot be generalised – this is the problem Hume identified with ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

    The lack of any absolute basis for morality is – apparently – the occasion for one of the most common ‘myths’ about non-believers : witness the comments such as “Without God, atheists have no reason to behave morally. What’s the point of being moral is there is no God?” or “Without God’s Absolute Standards, There’s No Basis for Good Moral Choices” (these were taken from a couple of websites). While such comments are evidently the product of extreme philosophical naivety, they do clearly underline the apparent lack of any self-evident moral absolute.

    God’s self-revelation in History would not be at all evident were it not for those who tell us that God has revealed himself in History. Taken at face value, human history doesn’t really suggest the working out of God’s purpose (indeed, one might be tempted to conclude the opposite). As for the personal touch, I fear he hasn’t got my e-mail address…

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