Science, Philosophy, and Placement Problems

ACU-Ritchie-cover.inddAs I have been doing research this holiday season on naturalist metaphysics, I have been reading philosopher Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism. Ritchie, unlike myself, is a non-physicalist naturalist, but I greatly appreciate his open-minded discussion of some of the metaphysical problems posed by physicalism — such as how one can explain things like consciousness, morality, or mathematics in purely physical terms. Ritchie also proposes a number of solutions for how physicalists can respond to these problems.

One solution that Ritchie proposes for explaining apparently non-physical things— like internal subjective experiences —within a purely physical universe is not to argue that the methods of physics can conceptually explain all things, rather than that physics can causally explain all things. This proposal leads to an interesting understanding of the relationship between science and philosophy, and what Ritchie (citing Frank Jackson in From Metaphysics to Ethics) calls “placement problems.”

Ritchie (pg. 133) writes:

“Metaphysical naturalists who call themselves physicalists do not have to endorse the idea that the methods of science and those of philosophy are continuous. Philosophy finds a special role in dealing with … placement problems. Science tells us that everything is physical; the philosopher’s job, then, is to show us how the things that don’t seem physical – minds, meanings, morals – fit into the physical world. The work of placing non-physical things into the physical world is not (or at least need not be considered to be) science or like science in its methods, but a priori metaphysical work … [This] leads to the surprising conclusion that a naturalist should be committed to work that he calls conceptual analysis.”

Personally, I found this approach to be rather interesting, and it also resonated with some of my recent thinking. One thing that strikes me doing research in metaphysical naturalism is just how much of it is abstract “metaphysical” work. That would seem odd, because naturalists are normally thought to eschew metaphysics and rely solely on the methods of science. But that is not so.

A lot of scientists have been criticized for arguing that the scientific method has replaced the need for philosophy in the modern world, and that philosophy is now “dead” or “useless.” Physicist Sean Carroll, however, has criticized this attitude in his post “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy.” Among the complaints against philosophy that Carroll discusses is the following:

  • “Philosophers care too much about deep-sounding meta-questions, instead of sticking to what can be observed and calculated.”

To which Carroll responds:

“Here we see the unfortunate consequence of a lifetime spent in an academic/educational system that is focused on taking ambitious dreams and crushing them into easily-quantified units of productive work. The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.”

This criticism made me think of Jack Ritchie’s analysis above. The methods of science and philosophy do not need to be continuos. Science can be our primary method for telling us what exists, but we will still need philosophy for describing what it is like. Science is empirical. Philosophy is conceptual.

That is why, here on Civitas Humana philosophy is fully embraced, even among us scientific, physicalist naturalists. We will always need philosophy to deal with the placement problems of what science discovers. Only then can we explain things like consciousness, morality, mathematics, etc. within a purely secular framework.

Cutting philosophy out of the picture will only give advantage to critics of metaphysical naturalism, who delight in posing philosophical problems. But, for the philosophically-minded naturalist, these problems can all be easily addressed. They cannot be addressed, however, if we just ignore the conceptual analysis of philosophy and only study science. So, study philosophy too! It will make you smarter and better equipped to articulate and defend the naturalist worldview!

-Matthew Ferguson


One thought on “Science, Philosophy, and Placement Problems

  1. Wow! I just finished this book yesterday. It was an enlightening and engaging read. Like you, I don’t agree with Ritchie’s deflationary methodological naturalism; he, however, does approach the topic with an open mind and gives us a good survey of the problems physicalist’s have to deal with. I, for one, don’t think morality is that much of an issue anymore. If we want to, for example, keep realism whilst discarding god(s), Korsgaard’s procedural realism, to my mind, is up to the task. Numbers aren’t much of an issue either. Recently, I’ve delved into some scholarship on the realism/nominalism debate in the philosophy of mathematics. Nominalism makes a stronger case than I ever gave it credit for. Prior to actually handling the scholarship, I considered myself a mathematical realist. Even if the indispensability argument holds, numbers don’t have to be real (i.e. in some Platonic realm of forms) to retain their role in science. Juha Saatsi, for example, states: “For it seems that mathematical properties cannot ensure the instantiation of causally efficacious properties in any realist view of mathematics without some unduly ad hoc metaphysical connection being postulated between the concrete world and mathematical abstracta.” In a nutshell, mathematical realism has more issues than one would initially think. Perhaps the realists’ best case are program explanations; those are definitely worth looking into. Thanks for sharing. Best of luck on the thesis!

    Saatsi, Juha. “Mathematics and Program Explanations”. Australasian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 90, No. 3, pp. 579–584. Web. 6 Dec 2014.

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