That groovy cat Fine

Wed 28 Mar 2012 10:31 AM

A recent interview with 3:AM magazine introduces Kit Fine as "a groovy metaphysician".

Reading it makes me reprise my musing on the nature of metaphysics.

When Fine identifies metaphysics in a general way and in terms of some exemplary metaphysical questions, it's pretty standard fare: "Metaphysics is the philosophical study of the general nature of reality. It asks questions like: what is the nature of space and time?; what is the relation between mind and body?; do abstract objects exist or is everything concrete?"

Much of the interview is about the methods which are appropriate in metaphysics. Fine maintains that metaphysics, like mathematics, is a priori. It's just that metaphysics is about more than mathematical structure.

The interviewer asks at one point about experimental philosophy. Fine replies, "I am not especially enamored of my armchair and would be happy to leave it if I thought that it would be of help in answering the questions of interest to me. But I fail to see how it could be. ... How could asking the folk possibly be of any help in answering these questions? Physicists don’t ask the folk to look down telescopes and mathematicians don’t ask folk to assess the plausibility of their axiom. And so why should it be any different for philosophy?"

He takes the question to pose a dilemma between (a) metaphysics as a priori intuition mongering which philosophers can conduct from their armchair and (b) metaphysics as polling the folk about their intuitions; that is, between an aristocracy of philosophers' armchairs and a pure democracy of everybody's armchairs.

[a brief digression]

It is odd that both sides accept the 'armchair' idiom. Suppose that metaphysics is (as Fine maintains) a priori in the way that math is. The stereotypical workplace of a mathematician is a blackboard with formulas and theorems, where things need to be derived and worked out. There are interesting questions as to how much working something out on a blackboard is like working something out in a lab, but neither is at all like sitting in an armchair silently ruminating.

[end digression]

The opposition between (a) and (b) is a false dilemma, because there is an obvious (c): Metaphysics must be informed by our best accounts of what the world is actually like.

Consider Fine's specimen question about the nature of space and time. This is not something to be settled from the armchair, because the question is partly empirical. One can work out topology at a blackboard, but one cannot know the topology of the universe or even a corner or the universe without going out to look around a bit. So it's not an a priori issue. Moreover, the intuitions of the hoi polloi seem like the wrong kind of data to consult. Common sense embodies solutions to problems of navigating around human environments, sure, but such environments are only a small part of everything.

Option (c) in this case does not mean that physicists or cosmologists say everything that there is to say about space and time. Rather, any serious enquiry into the nature of space and time must reckon with the physics.

A similar lesson applies to the relation between mind and body. Neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science are importantly relevant. And they provide a resource which goes beyond the armchair without asking the man on the street for his opinion.

Fine makes the claim that philosophers' intuitions are better honed than the intuitions of ordinary folk. Perhaps that's true, but the third way makes it mostly irrelevant.