Metaphysics: The Good, The Bad, and The Harmful?

Posted on September 28, 2017 by


Recently I began a postdoctoral research position at the University of Calgary with the project From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics.  I (along with Oliver Lean) was asked to present Amanda Bryant’s paper entitled, “Keep the chickens cooped: the epistemic inadequacy of free range metaphysics” (2017) as part of a graduate seminar cowboy and chicktaught by Ken Waters and Marc Ereshefsky for that project. I was delighted—Amanda and I have known one another since grade school and finished our PhDs around the same time. Additionally, her paper is written clearly and concisely, which of course made my job easy. It serves as an excellent metametaphysical assessment in favour of a more naturalistic or scientific way of conducting metaphysics. Ultimately, the paper rightly served as a precise launching point for reasons to consider alternatives, especially when our metaphysics of a traditional stripe don’t hold well against the sorts of criticisms Bryant raises.  Free range, or unconstrained metaphysics, she concludes should remain cooped.

Specifically, free range metaphysics, i.e. the sort of metaphysics that is not constrained by science, might have practical value but lacks in epistemic credentials. Bryant also identifies a potential harm in practicing free range metaphysics (FRM). And so, in this blog post, I will consider the good, the bad, and the harmful aspects of metaphysics directly inspired by Bryant’s work. Her paper raises some important questions concerning how one might assess different ways of doing metaphysics more generally. In this case, FRM as the sort of metaphysics generally unconstrained by science, and the sort of scientific metaphysics sensitive to science, are both on the table. I’ll first briefly sketch what I take to be the general message of her paper before turning towards a question I’ll pose to the readers of this blog.

Free Range Metaphysics is Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be

On the one hand, metaphysics might be assessed according to whether epistemic aims are satisfied, that is, whether epistemically justifiable theories of reality are produced.  On this picture, one avenue of assessment is scientific investigation, however, in cases where metaphysical theories are allowed to roam freely, other constraints come into play, such as explanatory power, for example. On the other hand, metaphysics might be assessed according to whether pragmatic aims are met, that is, does FRM, for instance, have some use for philosophers generally, scientists, and philosophers of science?  As I take it, the satisfaction of these aims—epistemic and pragmatic—determine the value of metaphysics. Bryant concludes that metaphysics of the free range sort fail to satisfy epistemic aims, but have “collateral benefits.” She says:

“I cannot in good conscience recommend the discontinuation of free range metaphysics.  But I can recommend resolving the discipline’s bad faith” (p. 19).

This is exactly the reasoning I would like to examine more closely. Bryant forcefully argues that FRM does not produce epistemically justifiable theories of reality. They fail to satisfy the following FRM constraints: consistency, simplicity, intuitive plausibility, and explanatory power. That failure is determined by two criteria used to assess those constraints: First, whether one of these constraints is robust or not concerns how much theoretical content it lets into a theory. The more theoretical content let in, the less robust the constraint is. Second, whether a constraint admits of falsehoods and claims for which we have little reason to believe determines its epistemic warrant.  Bryant rejects each constraint individually and together (I will not repeat the details of her critique here as I encourage you read the paper itself).

Certainly, according to Bryant’s analysis the epistemic prospects for FRM seem dire. However, Bryant points out that FRM is pragmatically valuable in that it has beneficial techniques and standards of clarity, a potential ability to incubate (or speculatively develop) ideas for science, and it serves as a toolbox for philosophers of science (for more on the toolbox view see French and McKenzie 2011).   Such pragmatic value Bryant gives as a reason to keep FRM investigation around. Though her analysis concerns FRM specifically, what does it tell us about delineating good from bad metaphysics more generally?

Evaluating Metaphysics: The Good

One might think that good metaphysics gets at the truth (or satisfies any other epistemic virtues worth noting), and so it’s valuable for that reason.  However, it looks as though epistemically bad metaphysics can still be pragmatically good. So, what does good metaphysics amount to according to Bryant? The answer to this question is ambiguous:

(1) Either good metaphysics gets at the truth (or satisfies some or other epistemic virtue) by operating in a way that is sensitive to science, OR good metaphysics is useful, OR ideally good metaphysics both gets at the truth and is useful. Presumably, then, what makes a metaphysic good on Bryant’s picture is its scientific constraint because science is considered our best investigative means to accessing the way things are (or at least understanding the world in some respect). What can also make a metaphysic good is its pragmatic value, that is, its usefulness whatever that amounts to. Perhaps then great metaphysics has some combination of these qualities.

(2) Or maybe Bryant thinks that good metaphysics gets at the truth (or satisfies some or other epistemic virtue) and mediocre metaphysics is (merely?) pragmatically valuable.

I suspect that Bryant intends (2) because she ultimately seems dissatisfied with FRM—the tone of the paper suggests that pragmatic value is a consolation prize barely keeping FRM metaphysics afloat.  She states that her article “aims to better motivate the naturalization of metaphysics” (p. 1). And if FRM metaphysics is epistemically inadequate, i.e. it fails to satisfy epistemic aims, then perhaps naturalized metaphysics (NM), the sort constrained by science, is good because it has a better shot at epistemic satisfaction.  But why is this the case?

Consider the epistemic aim of achieving true or approximately true accounts of the world. Does NM better satisfy the epistemic aim of truth because its constrainer, namely, science, gets at the truth? Certainly the affirmative answer to that question would assume a sort of scientific realism, namely that science gives us an accurate picture of the world and so any metaphysical theory should be assessed against it. But what if we’re not scientific realists, then how do metaphysicians satisfy epistemic aims better when constrained by science?

Lest we forget that there are other epistemic virtues besides ascertaining truth. Yet I also wonder how naturalized metaphysical theories can be said to satisfy any other epistemic aim because of their scientific constraints: how does science inform the simplicity of a metaphysical theory? Does satisfaction of consistency amount to consistency with science? Setting charges of scientism aside, because that is certainly not what Bryant has in mind when she favourably discusses the role of scientific constraints, one might worry about the additional evaluative work science as a constraint does beyond demarcating free range from scientifically-constrained metaphysical inquiry.  In other words, science (suddenly?) has a place of normative authority over metaphysics, which calls for further elaboration of why that is the case and whether that is acceptable. This is not to say that the normative authority of science is impossible or unlikely: Although philosophy has a long somewhat parental or instructive history over other disciplines, a student can still become a master.

Despite the concerns above, that FRM has (only?) pragmatic value leads Bryant to the conclusion that FRM is subpar, which suggests that naturalized metaphysics is at least epistemically good, and perhaps also pragmatically valuable. Being constrained by science definitely has something to do with metaphysics’s goodness, though cashing out exactly what that amounts to is a hefty task indeed.

Evaluating Metaphysics: The Bad and The Delusional

Another insight about evaluating metaphysics one can draw from Bryant’s paper is the following: Metaphysics is bad when it is delusional about aim-satisfaction or when it has “bad faith.” As I take it, this means that a metaphysic is bad when its metaphyscians think they’re getting at the truth and they’re not, OR when they think they’re being useful and they’re not, OR (worse yet!) when they think they’re getting at the truth and being useful when they’re not.  Such “bad faith,” according to Bryant, causes harm:

“So free range metaphysics is harmful to the extent that its proponents believe it to be an epistemically adequate form of inquiry…” (p. 17).

Here is my not-so-sunnyside-up concern about Bryant’s accusation of harm (pun intended!!): It’s not clear what the harm is. For something to be harmful it must be harmful to some enterprise or some person. As far as I can see, there is not a clear object of harm. For example, it’s not obvious that philosopher x is doing harm in his office by conducting free range metaphysical investigation. Moreover, to have bad faith typically includes some sort of intent to deceive and surely free range metaphysicians are not engaging in such intentional deception. Okay, okay, perhaps my concern isn’t quite fair. Bryant likely means some sort of institutional harm. She says,

“While the harm is serious, some institutional delusion does not so far outweigh the above pragmatic benefits that it warrants consignment to the flames” (p. 18)

Bryant also specifies “a sort of bad faith” (p. 18), which indicates she has something else in mind besides the intent to deceive. Regardless, I cannot shake the following question: To whom is free range metaphysics harmful and what does this harm amount to?


More information about Alison’s research can be found on her website.

Also check out Amanda Bryant’s post on what metaphysics is all about.