Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: Initial Impressions
by Daniel A. Kaufman
A number of recent – and not so recent – essays and shorter pieces, plus several dialogues with Massimo Pigliucci and discussions on Twitter have begun to converge in my mind around several points, all of which suggest (a) a fundamentally pluralist metaphysics and (b) a central role for Wilfrid Sellars’ landmark paper “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” in that metaphysics.† I find myself increasingly convinced that in such a Sellars-inflected metaphysics lie the “solutions” to perennial philosophical problems in the philosophies of mind and action, as well as social-political philosophy and ethics.
This essay begins a series of sketches of what will become prolegomena to a pluralist metaphysics. I doubt that I ever will do a full treatment of such a metaphysics beyond this, however. As those who have read my essay in Philosophy Now will know, I think that most significant philosophical positions suffer from a kind of indeterminacy; that the most valuable work we do, consequently, is accomplished during the initial forays into a subject; and that it doesn’t take very long before our philosophical pursuits begin to suffer diminishing returns. A metaphysics cannot be proven or otherwise demonstrated and competing metaphysical views may be empirically equivalent (as metaphysical Realism and Anti-Realism are), so a thorough and well-drawn impression of it is all we require. If others who are sympathetic think otherwise, they are free to develop these ideas further. I have no proprietary feelings with regard to such things.
There are certain theses that one could only credibly advance in an intellectually desperate context; which, in ordinary times, would be non-starters. I include among these Panpsychism, Illusionism (regarding consciousness, as well as ordinary objects), Eliminative Materialism, Dualism (psychological and metaphysical) and Determinism. That so many intelligent, knowledgeable contemporary philosophers embrace views like these and are being taken seriously indicates that they – and we – feel ourselves to be in desperate times. The question is “why?”
I want to suggest that a number of core assumptions under which we have been operating – some for decades; some for a century; some going back to the Enlightenment – have yielded dilemmas that seem to force us in the directions I’ve just mentioned. A return to philosophical normalcy will require critical examination of these assumptions and the development of alternatives. The Sellarsian, pluralistic metaphysics I will be suggesting is one such potential alternative. I call it “Sellarsian,” because there is substantial disagreement as to how Sellars’ paper on the Scientific and Manifest images should be interpreted and because it makes no difference to my project whether my version of Sellars is historically true to the man or not.
In these initial impressions, I want to describe the most significant of these core assumptions and point to some of the ways in which they lead to the “desperate” philosophical positions I have itemized.
The view that everything that exists is made of matter/energy. I will use the term ‘physicalism’ to refer to the thesis within the philosophy of mind.
 Ontological commitment and hypostatization
Many think of our ontological commitments as representing our view of which entities exist, and when we think of entities, we think of things in the sense of discrete objects in space. That is, we tend to hypostatize our ontological commitments and to think of existing as something that things, in this sense, do.
 Explanatory unity
For any number of reasons – the explanatory generality of physics; Materialism (as described above); methodological (and I would argue, psychological) commitments to parsimony and coherence – many have thought that all of our explanatory frameworks should ultimately cohere with one another and thus, constitute what is essentially a single framework.
 The assimilation of reasons and causes/actions and events
As a result of philosophical developments in the 1950’s and 60’s, many philosophers are inclined to assimilate reasons and causes: to say that reasons are causes and vice versa; that the beliefs and desires to which we refer in explaining our actions are causes of those actions, just as the motions of certain billiard balls are the causes of and explain the motions of other billiard balls. Simultaneously, we assimilate actions with motor movements and consequently, with events, understood more generally.
Let’s look now at some of the ways these assumptions intersect to create the kinds of problems with regard to which we turn to “desperate” positions to solve.
First, with respect to so many of the things that we encounter in our daily lives the idea that they are “made of” matter/energy – or indeed, “made of” anything – is obscure at best. Parking regulations certainly exist, but are they “made” of matter/energy or of anything else? People obviously exist and possess a number of body parts that also exist, but are people “made of” matter/energy in the way that the parts of peoples’ bodies are? Again, the notion seems obscure at best.
This initial Materialism-induced puzzle promptly metastasizes when one takes some of the other assumptions on board, leading people down one rabbit-hole after another. Here are just a few examples (see how many “desperate” contemporary philosophical positions you can spot):
- If something exists, then it must be a “thing,” but what kind of a “thing” is a non-matter/energy thing? It must be a transcendent thing! But what kind of thing is that? And how does such a thing interact with the things that are made of matter/energy?
- Since all things that exist are material and these (laws, people, etc.) are things and exist, they must ultimately be material. So, we must find some way to reduce laws, people, etc. to biological and ultimately physical entities.
- Reductionism is a bust. It can’t be done. Those things that we thought existed and which don’t reduce to material things must not exist after all, so we must ontologically eliminate them. But what attitude should we take with regard to them, in light of their ontological elimination? We could treat them as instrumentally useful illusions. Sort of like the icons on your computer desktop! Or we could treat think of them as harmful, distracting falsehoods that should be purged even from our very language. They are like bad old non-existent entities such as phlogiston or the ether!
Even regarding the kinds of things about which saying that they are “made of” matter/energy is somewhat more intelligible, the way in which they are is not particularly straightforward. Saying that my desk is made of matter/energy makes more sense than saying that a parking regulation or person is, but physicists tell me it’s made of molecules and atoms and sub-atomic particles, whereas it seems to me to be made of wood, metal, and paint and even more so, out of legs, a desktop, drawers, etc. As a result, given the same underlying assumptions – Materialism and a hypostatized conception of ontology – one can take the aforementioned “desperate” moves employed in the philosophy of mind and apply them to the metaphysics of the “furniture” of daily life, yielding reductionist, eliminativist, illusionist, and even Platonist treatments of tables, chairs, etc.
Second, as already indicated, philosophical developments in the 1950’s and 60’s led many philosophers to assimilate reasons and causes. We say of a teenager that he went to the mall, because he wants to meet girls, and we say of an 8-ball that it went into the corner pocket, because it was struck by the cue ball, and we interpret the “because” in the analysis of the teenager’s actions in the same way that we interpret the “because” in the analysis of the 8-ball’s movements. In doing so, we identify the teenager’s actions with the relevant motor movements – i.e. the motions of his arms, legs, and other body parts – and by extension, assimilate them with the movements of the billiard balls.
As a result, a number of mystifying problems arise pertaining to agency and so-called “free will,” with even more mystifying implications for ethical responsibility. Once again, see how many “desperate” contemporary philosophical positions you can spot.
- If something’s movements are caused, then they are determined, in the sense that they are governed by physical laws. The 8-ball cannot choose not to go into the pocket, upon being struck, for example. That means that if human actions are caused, they too are determined and governed by physical laws, which means ultimately that we cannot choose to act or not to act in certain ways either. Human beings therefore lack agency, and we should take a deterministic view of our behavior.
- If human beings lack agency, then it makes no sense to view our behavior through a moral lens. As a result, we should drop moral discourse and judgment; abandon notions like accountability and responsibility; move Beyond Freedom and Dignity!
- We cannot do away with the concept of moral accountability and responsibility, upon which a good amount of our social forms of life and practices depend. Of course, these concepts presuppose that we have agency, but given Materialism and the assimilation of reasons and causes and actions and events, our behavior is entirely caused and law-governed, which entails that we lack agency. Consequently, we must reject materialism and assume a transcendent person; a noumenal or Cartesian or other such self.
- Both of these conclusions are unacceptable. Yes, our behavior is caused, and yes, that would seem to suggest that we lack agency, but we are accountable and responsible for our actions, nonetheless. Consequently, we must find some sort of “agency-light” and explain why being caused is compatible with it and thus, with responsibility and accountability. [Trigger endless iterations and variations on Compatibilism].
Hopefully, my readers can see the trend in these two examples. One could produce many more. And hopefully, readers, having read the things I’ve written and listened to the things I’ve said about the indeterminacy inherent in these sorts of philosophical problems and their “solutions,” will recognize that they are hopeless; not just because many of them are batshit crazy, but because they are subject to endless iteration and unresolvable disputation. A really thorough treatment would require painstaking illustration of this, and that is something I am not going to do. I am content to leave it as a provocation and to tell those who disagree not to hold their breaths waiting for the iterations or disputations to be resolved.
What I want to do next is begin sketching some of the ways in which a pluralist metaphysics and Sellarsian approach to inquiry can help us to avoid starting down any of these futile roads to begin with. To do this, however, I will first talk about how I read Sellars, the distinction he makes between the Scientific and Manifest Images, and how I understand their relationship.
https://meaningoflife.tv/videos/41227 (Philosophy of Action and Free Will)
https://meaningoflife.tv/videos/40477 (Ontology and Materialism)
https://meaningoflife.tv/videos/33625 (Explanations in the Social Sciences)