Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Rodney King moment

Over at Secular Right, the esteemed John Derbyshire (a.k.a. Bradlaugh) and I continue the exchange sparked by my comments on Heather MacDonald. Starts out nasty on both sides, but soon degenerates into all-around amity and reasonableness. The moderator may soon have to throw in the towel before each of us violently insists on declaring the other one the victor.

Anyway, interested readers can start with Bradlaugh's initial post and then scroll through the comments section...


  1. Mr Feser,

    I've ordered your book today as well and look forward to reading it.

    One question though. While I'm glad John Derbyshire became more reasonable, he mentions how neuroscience and other sciences are producing hard results - meanwhile philosophy and metaphysics' results are 'ethereal'. Isn't that exact distinction something you wrote your book to in part dispel?

    I don't have it in hand yet, as I went with super saver shipping, but it seemed like an obvious point of contention, and I wanted to verify as much. I'm still trying to grasp your basic claim by piecemeal.

  2. Derbyshire's complaint could only have force if metaphysics were supposed to be the kind of inquiry that 'produces hard results.' But if we try to unpack what he means by 'hard results,' then we can only give his phrase one of two senses: 1) an inquiry produces 'hard results' when it yields greater knowledge about how things in the world behave or how they work; 2) an inquiry produces 'hard results' when qualified authorities in the field agree that the results of the inquiry are true. But another way to express the first sense is to say that an inquiry gives hard results when it gives us empirical knowledge, and metaphysical arguments are not even supposed to do that. The second sense excludes metaphysics, but it also excludes much empirical science; and the reason why agreement is easier in empirical science than in metaphysics is, in part, that an empirical research program only gets off its feet after inquirers adopt a common set of concepts in terms of which to interpret the empirical data. Many of the most hotly disputed topics in empirical science turn out to be, in part, disputes about the right way to interpret the data, or even the right way to frame the questions. Once a community agrees on the questions, empirical research becomes a fairly straightforward matter. It's because empirical sciences don't worry too much about metaphysical questions and adopt the most pragmatic conceptual models to frame their inquiries that their research can be so successful at all. But that clearly leaves all kinds of questions -- all kinds of questions that nobody can rationally regard as optional -- unaddressed.

    So Derbyshire isn't going to get anywhere with this sort of objection.

  3. Note too that this is true even if Derbyshire or someone with his sympathies adopts a resolutely anti-metaphysical stance. Denying the possibility of genuine metaphysics isn't really an alternative to doing metaphysics; it is itself an attempt to answer metaphysical questions, albeit in a strange way. Just consider the example of pragmatists and hard-core Wittgensteinians. Their disavowal of metaphysics is far from the claim that only empirical inquiry counts as genuine inquiry.