Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: Explanatory Disunity

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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As readers know, I have been running a series of conversations with Crispin Sartwell, as an accompaniment to these prolegomena. I asked Crispin to do this with me for two reasons: First, he is the only person within my circle capable of addressing the many and diverse subject areas across which the prolegomena reach; and second, Crispin disagrees significantly enough with my views in these areas to provide the sort of interrogation that such complex and controversial ideas require. I am making a number of very strong claims, with regard to a number of well-entrenched – in many cases highly venerated – philosophical views, so it is critical that I receive pushback and counterargument from someone with sufficient knowledge of the relevant subject areas to do so effectively. Crispin is the first and only person I considered for the job, and I am very grateful that he has accepted it.

One important result has been that as I write these prolegomena, the course I follow is influenced significantly by Crispin’s examinations. On a number of occasions now, his objections and concerns have been motivated by a (sometimes explicitly stated) desire for explanatory unity, so I’m going to address that issue in this installment.

In the 20th century, the discussion of explanatory unity/disunity was focused on the logical positivist inspired idea of the unity of the sciences.  As Jerry Fodor, an advocate of explanatory disunity described it, in his landmark paper, “Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis”:

[Philosophers] wish to endorse the generality of physics vis a vis the special sciences: roughly, the view that all events which fall under the laws of any science are physical events and hence fall under the laws of physics.  For such philosophers, saying that physics is basic science and saying that theories in the special sciences must reduce to physical theories have seemed to be two ways of saying the same thing…

What has traditionally been called ‘the unity of science’ is a much stronger, and much less plausible, thesis than the generality of physics.  If this is true it is important… Reducibility to physics is taken to be a constraint upon the acceptability of theories in the special sciences, with the curious consequence that the more the special sciences succeed, the more they ought to disappear… [T]he assumption that the subject-matter of psychology is part of the subject-matter of physics is taken to imply that psychological theories must reduce to physical theories…

I wrote an entire essay on Fodor’s “Special Sciences” paper, so I’m not going to do a close reading of it here.  Suffice it to say the following, in a summary capacity:

–By ‘special sciences’, Fodor intends mainly psychology and the social sciences.

–The primary explanatory mechanism of a science is its laws. (I should add that the argument need not depend on any particular account of what scientific laws are.)

–Scientific laws describe relations between a science’s kinds.

–To show that a law of one science is equivalent to another, one must show that the kinds described by that law have equivalents in the other science.

–Social scientific kinds are are only equivalent to disjunctions of physical scientific kinds, often of indefinite length.

–These disjunctions are not kinds in any science.

–The laws describing the relations between these disjunctive kinds are not laws in any science.

If social scientific laws cannot be reduced to physical laws, then social scientific explanations cannot be equivalent to physical explanations, which demonstrates that the social and physical sciences are not and cannot be explanatorily unified. Of course, laws/explanations in biology (which are teleonomic) cannot be reduced to laws/explanations in physics (which are not teleonomic) either, as my friend and biologist-turned-philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has pointed out in numerous discussions in which the subject has come up – and in one dialogue entirely devoted to the subject of teleology/teleonomy – so it would appear that explanatory disunity is ubiquitous across the sciences; that it is the rule, not the exception.

Some have tried to embrace a non-reductive physicalism that depends on the idea that psychosocial properties supervene upon physical ones. By ‘supervene’ I mean nothing beyond the standard philosophical use of the term:

A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B just in case no two things can differ with respect to A-properties without also differing with respect to their B-properties.

Supervenience is invoked to retain the idea that there is a strict “dependence” of the psychosocial on the physical, without offering any account of what the dependence consists of, which is what differentiates it from the reductionist approach. This strikes me as objectionable, in that it comes down merely to asserting a dependence relation without either justifying or explicating it. This essentially is what Stephen Schiffer (a former teacher of mine) said in his 1987 book, Remnants of Meaning:

could being told that non-natural moral properties stood in the supervenience relation to physical properties make them any more palatable? On the contrary, invoking a special primitive metaphysical relation of supervenience to explain how non-natural moral properties were related to physical properties was just to add mystery to mystery, to cover one obscurantist move with another.

There is of course the further problem that given an externalist conception of mental content (the only viable notion, as far as I am concerned, in light of the sorts of problems Wittgenstein raises with his rule-following and private language arguments, not to mention Hilary Putnam’s twin-earth thought experiment), one could duplicate a person atom by atom and that person nonetheless could be in different psychological states, since the content of those states is determined by their external relations, not just to things in the world, but to the representations, interpretations – and more broadly, the forms of life – of other people in the world. Put another way, if “meaning ain’t in the head,” as Putnam famously put it, the psychosocial will not supervene on the physical.  This really should come as no surprise, in light of what I’ve already said in prior installments.  Actions neither reduce to, nor supervene upon motor movements (physical events), which is why two identical sets of motor movements may constitute entirely different actions, depending on their context/interpretation, and similarly, thoughts do not supervene on neurological (physical) events, given that two entirely identical neurological events can constitute different thoughts, given their context/interpretation. Thoughts and actions are irreducibly social entities – non-hypostatically understood, of course – and are part of the space of reasons and ends which means that they belong entirely to the Manifest Image.

So much effort has gone into exploring the ways in which explanatory unity might be realized that few have bothered to ask why it even should be considered a reasonable goal. And those like Fodor who have opposed the idea of explanatory unity, have proceeded primarily from the angle of its not being achievable, rather than its being an unreasonable/undesirable goal to begin with.

That there is just one world would not seem any kind of reason for thinking that everything we know about it should ultimately cohere, as part of one account. Certainly, the fact that there is but a single world implies that the things we know about it cannot be mutually contradictory; that is, they must be consistent with one another.  But the desire for explanatory unity is not simply the desire that the various things we know about the world should not contradict one another – that what we know, say, about legislation and law in democracies should be consistent with what we know about the characteristics of elementary particles – but rather that all the things we know should cohere, by which is meant not merely that A and B are consistent, but that they are mutually supporting and reinforcing. I see no reason for thinking this is true, nor even for thinking it particularly desirable.

Of course, I have said that the Manifest and Scientific Images are complementary, in that taken together, they give us a complete and single picture of the world (a use of the term that I know Mark English does not like).  The manner in which they do so is in the manner of a stereoscope, but this does not require or even suggest that the two images cohere with one another or that they should be taken as part of a single explanatory framework. That there is a single picture as a result of this combination no more requires or entails explanatory unity than does the fact that there is just one world.

I don’t want to speculate as to Crispin’s reasons for wanting explanatory unity so badly, but I do wonder whether it is essentially part of a religious outlook or sensibility, as I know that Crispin is much more inclined towards religious thinking than I am. I plan to bring this up with him in the next conversation.

26 Comments »

  1. Maybe Crispin is religious because he is attracted towards explanatory unity rather than being attracted to explanatory unity because he is religious.

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    • Crispin Sartwell might be religious in the balancing of the natural with the supernatural or finding in the natural a radical contingency – why is there something rather than nothing. He may feel along with the pragmatic pluralist William James that there is a high at the tip of his mind that cannot be struck through as ‘crazy’.

      No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.

      (from The Varieties of Religious Experience)

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  2. Having had to wrestle with one of the great unified explanatory systems in the West – Hegel’s – without trying to analyze Crispin here, I think I can speculate as to why some would seek a unified explanation of everything.

    Having been raised a Catholic, I vaguely remember my Catechism:
    “Who made you?
    “God made me.”
    “Why were you made?
    “Because God loves me.”

    In parody, the unified explanation we may get from a reductive physicalist might sound like this:
    “What made you?
    “Chemical interactions between sperm and egg made me,”
    “Why were you made?
    “Physiological history and mechanisms brought a male and female together briefly in coitus.”
    (… not quite as comforting, but certainly shuts down the conversation in a similar fashion….)

    Skipping forward, I remember, as an undergraduate, a staunch Marxist trying to elaborate how (according to Engels) Dialectical Materialism could even explain the sciences: “Hydrogen is the thesis, oxygen the antithesis, the synthesis is water!” (Not making this up, folks.) Amusing at best. What will these young people believe?!

    But consider this explanation: ‘The processes of the universe – attraction and repulsion, the forceful mergers and falling apart – produced life; the antagonistic struggles of living beings in the process of evolution produced a consciousness; the consciousness reflectively recognizes the physical process and the biological processes as adversarial conflict and resolution as fundamentally dialectical in nature, which then impels this consciousness to realization of its highest truth in achievement of absolute knowledge.’ – the culmination of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

    Now, the Catechism is childish (and its Rosenbergian reductionist version no less so, when we come to think of it), and the explanation attributed to Engels is rather silly (and Engels without Marx could get rather silly). But while wrong, perhaps even wrong-headed, the Hegelian explanation is neither childish nor silly. It is on reflection almost breath-taking in its vision of an entire universe functioning in an organic manner rather than as soulless machine – perhaps even teleologically, since it at last realizes itself in the self-reflection of human consciousness. Since my consciousness is the result of a purposive process, it has inherent purpose in the struggle to self-awareness and knowledge – we are the universe knowing itself “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.” A beautiful, comforting, *meaningful* realization, if we may grant it that. (Religious? perhaps,; but what religion? – for the Hindu philosopher Shankara arrived at much the same ‘realization’ some 600 years before Hegel.) Indeed it is meaning itself realized as historical process.

    And of course, if one gets ‘on top’ of the Dialectic, masters it as both process and practice, one gets to understand all manner of phenomena 0 indeed, pretty much everything. It is the explanation that provides explanatioon to everything. Who wouldn’t want that. Even Charles Peirce was tempted. And I suppose I was too in my youth. But Peirce introduced a notion that even he could not evade – that ours is essentially a universe of chance, where even physical laws can express themselves in utterly random occurrences/ If a comet smites the earth, it is certainly doing so due to physical laws; yet a mere few centimeters in trajectory and it could miss us entirely. Perhaps a wind current initiated by the flutter of a butterfly’s wing would be enough to cause this? and of course us, the impact would prove calamitous; but the planet would still revolve around the sun.

    Once chance is excepted as an over-riding principle, all bets are off – or rather, everything becomes a matter of probabilities. One might say that in the ‘hard sciences,’ these will present as ‘hard’ probabilities, since they can be reduced numerically; but in human matters we are stuck with what we can call ‘soft’ probabilities – mushy, fuzzy-logical, open to intervention by unseen circumstances and individual intent and motivation – to the point where statistics is just one more premise to consider in reaching a conclusion.

    There are many reasons to learn from, but abandon, Hegel’s explanatory system; I am particularly sympathetic to Peirce’s judgment of the universe of chance, because this undoes Peirce’s own sympathy for Hegel. Contra Einstein, god does play dice with the universe. Or better yet, as Bohr told Einstein: “Stop telling god what to do.”

    Meaning isn’t in the universe, it’s what we humans do.

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    • (Sorry for the bad typography – wow – writing way too fast. “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.” – this is from a song by the Grateful Dead, by the way. was Hegel a proto-Dead Head? Probably not. Shankara, on the other hand…. “Perhaps a wind current initiated by the flutter of a butterfly’s wing would be enough to cause this? and of course *for* us, the impact would prove calamitous; but the planet would still revolve around the sun.” Chaos Theory has lost our interests overall; but there is still something to be learned from it.)

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  3. Dan,
    By the way, your discussion brought back warm memories of our arguments with Coel over at SciSal.

    Supervenience makes human experience a kind of epiphenomenal ‘cloud’ technology – but if so, why get involved in it? Doesn’t it then become mere repository of trivial opinion and behaviors? Shall we wait for our scientists to sort it all out for us? Or is it more the case of an explanation that explains nothing, but diverts inquiry without answering it?

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  4. Dan

    You raise he issue of religious motivation. Steve Fuller said this in 2012:

    “Fodor and Nagel were the leading non-naturalist philosophers of mind of the 1980s, in relation to which students such as myself had to stake out their own positions. Interestingly, both wrote their doctoral dissertations in the 1960s exploring Existentialism from an analytic-philosophical standpoint — Fodor on Kierkegaard, Nagel on Sartre. I suspect that this choice reflects a God-shaped hole in their personal ontologies that throughout their careers has led them to have a soft spot for Cartesian dualism and a resistance to any sort of vulgar materialism, which the current wave of Darwin-inspired atheism has brought to the fore… An interesting book could be written on the collective psychology of this generation of American philosophers that would start with Hilary Putnam (and possibly include Noam Chomsky and Saul Kripke) as purveyors of [a] secularised form of dualism […] which places great store on the fact that mind talk is relatively autonomous from body talk, which ultimately reflects a sublimated theological desire to suppose that we are more – if not other – than our bodies.”

    It is obvious in my opinion that many analytic philosophers of this time, including some without any apparent religious commitment, were strongly motivated to resist not just the old unity of science idea but even a much more modest and pragmatic naturalism. Something is definitely going on beneath the surface of many of the arguments to which you are appealing which I think we need to acknowledge and take into account.

    The irony here is that Crispin Sartwell, a religiously-inclined philosopher with a special interest in Kierkegaard, has (like me) expressed reservations about the dualism implicit in your approach.

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    • I’ve explained quite extensively why the dualism charge is misguided and inapt. I am not aware of any subsequent counterargument from any quarter.

      I would also suggest that my approach is far more pragmatic and modest than either yours or Crispin’s.

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  5. Rorty [1981] says this all succinctly, quoting Apel [1967], and then going on:

    the protagonists of “understanding” (i.e., of the Geistes­wissenschaften) always attack the supporters of the the­ory of explanation (i.e., of the objective social or behavioral sciences) from behind – and vice versa. The “objective scientists” point out that the results of “un­derstanding” are only of pre-scientific, subjectively heuris­tic validity, and that they at least must be tested and supplemented by objective analytic methods. The protag­onists of understanding, on the other hand, insist that the obtaining of any data in the social sciences – and therefore any objective testing of hypotheses – presupposes “actual understanding” . . . of meaning.

    Those who are suspicious of hermeneutics want to say that the fact that some beings talk is no reason to think they
    escape the great unified web of predictively powerful laws, for these laws can predict what they will say as well as what
    they will eat. Those who defend hermeneutics say that the question of what they will say has two parts – what sounds
    or inscriptions they make (which might become predictable enough, perhaps through neurophysiology), and what these
    mean, which is something quite different. At this point, the natural move for the defenders of “unified science” is to say
    that it is not different, since there are procedures for trans­lating any significant utterance into a single language – the
    language of unified science itself.

    …In reply to this, defenders of hermeneutics should just say that, as a matter of brute fact rather than of metaphysical
    necessity, there is no such thing as the “language of unified science.”

    He contrasts his (particular usage of the term) hermeneutics with epistemology, which he sees, following Quine, Sellars and Davidson, as bankrupt.

    He too makes the point that supervenience doesn’t help explain anything of the complexity of the “higher levels” it supports/gives body to. Of course, I personally don’t think much of his suggested resolution to these conundrums.

    “…one could duplicate a person atom by atom and that person nonetheless could be in different psychological states, since the content of those states is determined by their external relations”: people who act as if they are in another environment than the one they are actually in are usually regarded as loopy – I don’t see this as saying anything profound.

    As to disunity, if one is a scientific materialist, then you use whatever explanations you need for that domain. As per Bunge, if a physicist is asked to predict the trajectory of the soccer ball, he will need to invoke the off-side rule. He might even be able to deduce it from a large enough dataset, but it will be easier just to ask.

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    • “…one could duplicate a person atom by atom and that person nonetheless could be in different psychological states, since the content of those states is determined by their external relations”: people who act as if they are in another environment than the one they are actually in are usually regarded as loopy – I don’t see this as saying anything profound.

      = = = =

      I have no idea what point this is trying to make.

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      • What point are you trying to make with your thought experiment? If I am dreaming, in a reverie, or just remembering dinner last night, obviously my psychological state has nothing to do with my current external relations, and the fact that the dudes operating the duplicator don’t know what I’m thinking is irrelevant to my mental contents. Any causal relationships are with my personal history, along with design features arising from evolutionary history. Are you suggesting that my self-interpretation will instantly change? We know roughly 90% of all my brain activity is recursive at any one time, that is, again roughly, running over my representation of the world, and checking it’s still working.

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        • You seriously think that the fact that people dream is some sort of counterexample the externalist conception of mental content?

          And there is no thought experiment. The “atom by atom” point is simply a very common way of expressing/confronting the idea of psychosocial supervenience on the physical.

          I clearly failed in my characterization of these ideas, as your comment suggests a basic lack of understanding of supervenience and the externalist view of mental content. After these installments are done, I will endeavor to do better in the revised version.

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          • Hi Dan. Given that you know my position comes out of physicalism, you can hardly accuse me of not understanding supervenience and externalism.

            “…two entirely identical neurological events can constitute different thoughts, given their context/interpretation.”

            See, this kind of remark still doesn’t really make any sense to me. If they are “identical”, that immediately entails, to someone from a biomedical background, that either its relations with all other events in the rest of the nervous system are also identical, or that “event” refers to a global state of the nervous system. Consider the “Halle Berry neuron”
            https://www.nature.com/articles/nature03687
            that “selectively [was] activated by pictures of the actress Halle Berry as well as by a drawing of her (but not by other drawings; for example, picture no. 87). This unit was also activated by several pictures of Halle Berry dressed as Catwoman, her character in a recent film, but not by other images of Catwoman that were not her (data not shown). Notably, the unit was selectively activated by the letter string ‘Halle Berry’”. The definition of identical here refers to the fact that the same cell responds in the same way to the same set of stimuli, but is not activated by other stimuli. This response or non-response will be associated with global broadcasting to multiple brain regions, which one guesses is what gives rise to the conscious experience of recognition. That the same cell could have counterfactually been the Jennifer Aniston neuron doesn’t seem particularly contentious.

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          • The content of an intentional mental state is in part a matter of what it is about, which is determined by its external relations, not its intrinsic composition. Add to this the implications of Wittgenstein’s observations concerning meaning, rules, and the inherently social nature of the latter, and the quoted statement you cite at the beginning should be quite clear.

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  6. Dan

    On the idea of supervenience.

    “There is of course the further problem that given an externalist conception of mental content (the only viable notion, as far as I am concerned, in light of the sorts of problems Wittgenstein raises with his rule-following and private language arguments, not to mention Hilary Putnam’s twin-earth thought experiment)”

    I agree with this, it’s also in agreement with how people develop and function at the biological level -in concert with others.

    “…one could duplicate a person atom by atom and that person nonetheless could be in different psychological states, since the content of those states is determined by their external relations, not just to things in the world, but to the representations, interpretations – and more broadly, the forms of life – of other people in the world.”

    I don’t see how you can suppose to have duplicates in a same state, the instant they are duplicated they occupy a different space and so would have different perspectives which would immediately be reflected in their configuration atom wise.

    “Put another way, if “meaning ain’t in the head,” as Putnam famously put it, the psychosocial will not supervene on the physical. This really should come as no surprise, in light of what I’ve already said in prior installments.”

    I agree meaning isn’t in the head, but I don’t think that shows that an atom by atom thought experiments don’t work because that kind of thought experiment doesn’t need to be restricted to modeling one person.

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  7. “one could duplicate a person atom by atom and that person nonetheless could be in different psychological states, since the content of those states is determined by their external relations“

    Ok, so let’s eliminate the issue of external relations. Let’s say we duplicate atom by atom the entire universe which includes that person. Could that person be in a different psychological state? I don’t think so, and I think that is what supervenience is about

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  8. Dan

    I’m having trouble understanding, and, expressing myself.

    “…two entirely identical neurological events can constitute different thoughts, given their context/interpretation.”

    I not sure why one would assume that a neurological event doesn’t include or reflect context and interpretation.

    “The content of an intentional mental state is in part a matter of what it is about, which is determined by its external relations, not its intrinsic composition.”

    Intrinsic composition? I think external relations are reflected in neural composition/state in an ongoing fashion.

    I’m assuming mental states or thoughts (or persons), like the brain and nervous system, are embodied.

    = = =

    If I’m not mistaken your emphasizing there’s a distributed nature or component to social being, and I agree.

    On Putman like thought experiments, or more generally language, I think meaning in those contexts ultimately depends on a community of individuals, be they construed as a group of persons or a network of embodied brains for example, and therefore in supervenience terms meaning depends not only on properties of the individual but also on properties of the group of individuals the person is embedded in.

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    • A lot of people are getting tied up with the “atom by atom duplicate” thing. This is how *supervenience* enthusiasts explain what they mean by ‘dependency’. It is not an invention of mine.

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  9. I think that all the psychosocial, biological and physical sciences consist of different representation levels devised by humans to describe, with all the limitations of a human perspective, the same and unique reality, i.e. the world that we are part of. They satisfy practical human needs of “controlling” such world and they are equally valid in their own domains of applicability.

    Problems arise when ontologies are attached to those representations, and those ontologies are in conflict. So for example, how can consciousness, free will, etc. come out of an ontology of physical particles whose vocabulary includes position in space and time, energy, momentum, etc. but certainly not words like qualia? So you end up denying the existence of consciousness (its ontology) in favor of the physical ontology, and that does not make much sense.

    But there is no need, in my mind, to attach ontologies to all those theories. Their value is in the practical, empirical knowledge they contain, and that is sufficient, at least for me.

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      • It depends on what you make of the expression “there are”. I understand you give an ontological dimension to it. I give it a pragmatic interpretation (“it’s just one of the possible useful descriptions of the reality in front of me”), without any ontological commitment (my use of those concepts would be the same even if I was living in a dream, even if our world was a computer simulation, etc). That way there is no possibility of ontological conflict with other theories of reality

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