Metaphysical determinism

There is a hypothesis called the Sapir-Whorf Thesis (also known as linguistic relativity) in language that one can only think what one’s language permits you to think, and indeed forces you to think. This idea that some conceptual scheme can determine how you think is widely held. It appears again in the notion of a Weltanschauung, or “world perspective”, which is the idea that one has an all-encompassing conceptual scheme. It appears in Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm”, later revised to “disciplinary matrix”. It appears in Wittgenstein’s notion of a Lebensform, or form of life. In each case, the idea is that there is a conceptual scheme that somehow constrains or determines what we do or think.

Conceptual schemes have been criticised. Donald Davidson once gave a talk, titled “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, which attacked the coherence and salience of this notion. Davidson’s target was the conceptual relativism that seemed allied to this notion, which is another matter, but I want here to discuss a related idea. I call this idea metaphysical determinism.

This is the commonly held idea that science is somehow determined by the metaphysics of its practitioners. Back in the 1920s people began to consider how the metaphysics of theories led to their content. E. A. Burtt’s Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science claimed that underlying the development of modern physics were several metaphysical assumptions, including the primary/secondary qualities distinction of the empiricists that led to the Kantian noumenal/phenomenal distinction.

Obviously nobody thinks that science is incapable of changing its metaphysics (beyond a few who want to claim that science is just another religious worldview like their own, and so a matter of faith). But there is underneath this view the idea that somehow metaphysics forces scientists and occasionally scientific views to think in particular ways. It is this that I think is false, or at least only weakly true.

I gave a talk last week on the philosophical foundations of biological essentialism in which I concluded that essentialism in biology (which is very different from essentialism in psychology or identity politics) was invented not by Aristotle but by philosophers of biology in the late 1950s and early 1960s, around the time of the centennial of the Origin, after Quine and Popper had introduced the idea of a philosophical (in both cases a methodological or linguistic) essentialism. In short, the essentialism that is supposed to predate Darwin actually postdates him by a century or more.

I wondered aloud how it might be this way, and decided that we had by then swallowed the idea that world views force our thinking; when instead it seems to me that scientists are more moved by facts and experiments, and good explanations, than by philosophical ideas, and that when they do philosophy (like all scientists they do it a lot less well than they often think), they invent a philosophical justification for what they would do in any case. My fundamental rule is: never believe what a scientist says, but instead believe in what they do. Peter Medawar is a case in point: a vocal Popperian, his own work was quite ordinarily inductive, and relied on naive observation as much as anyone else.

Metaphysical determinism is one of those myths philosophers like, because it makes philosophy relevant. The talk the next week was by my friend and philosopher and historian of physics, Kristian Camilleri, who noted that at one time philosopher-physicists often thought that physics could make a contribution to philosophy, while ill-tempered critics of philosophy in the physics community like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawing and Leonard Mlodinow seem to think, echoing Feynman, that if philosophy can’t contribute to physics, it is worthless or moribund.

Philosophers of course respond by claiming that philosophy does make a contribution to sciences, but the evidence is that it rarely does, only in rare theoretical cases. I do not think that people became philosophically sophisticated because Darwin published; all the evidence though, is that philosophy was influenced by Darwin, not Darwin by philosophy, although he read a fair bit of it including the early positivists.

Any intellectual exchange between fields is going to be two-way. However, the bulk of it seems to be science to philosophy and a lot less the other direction; and as I often say, when scientists do philosophy they usually do it badly; however, science generates philosophical reflection no matter who does it, whether it is Lawrence Krauss or Daniel Dennett or whoever.

It is time to recognise that science is largely independent of philosophical trends and schools, but that scientists are still creatures of their time and place and it is hard to think about things nobody has ever raised as contestable. One of the real contributions of philosophy to science is to ask the questions that everybody thinks are obvious; and it is this that the scientist critics of philosophy fail to understand. Also, they tend not to like anyone raising their own views to criticism and inspection…

16 thoughts on “Metaphysical determinism

  1. “the Kantian nominal/phenomenal distinction” (parag. 3)

    Were you thinking of the opposition of nominalism and realism while trying to refer to the distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal?


  2. The only way I can think of to get you to rethink the orientation you’ve expressed here is to ask you why you are equivocating “philosophy” and “philosophy of science”. The former is a vast, sprawling plurality of modes of study, within which the latter is a relatively small subdivision.Krauss rightly saw, in his resonse to the brouhaha, that he was guilty of this same equivocation, writing of his respect for Peter Singer, for example. Yet, again and again it appears.

    Perhaps some philosophizing is in order: we need to know what standard of value we have swallowed wholesale that enables us to conclude that a field of study must contribute directly to the hard sciences in order to be, as you put it, “relevant”.


    1. The metaphysical determinism thesis is not restricted to philosophy of science. The claim is often made that neo-Platonism, idealism, monism and the like have influenced or affected the progress of the development of scientific theories. This is about how philosophy is supposed to determine science, not whether there are philosophical issues in the development of science, which of course there are. There are philosophical issues, and positions to be held, in everything humans do. I am simply saying that science tends to do philosophy after it has done the science.


  3. Metaphysical concepts may not be a working part of the machinery of the sciences, but they aren’t just instances of philosophers horning in on somebody else’s turf. At a minimum, scientists need comprehensive and comprehensible basic ideas for purposes of pedagogy and public relations and even more to explain to themselves why what they do has more dignity then cosmic bookkeeping. Of course there’s no necessity that philosophy professors should be be the ones who meet these needs—these discussions always seem to involve an equivocation between the philosophy as an academic discipline and philosophy as an unavoidable human activity.

    It also occurs to me that what differentiates doing science and doing philosophy is far from clear. For example, are the various interpretations of quantum mechanics philosophy or physics? It seems inevitable, to me at least, that there be explanation/exegesis above the technical/experimental activities of the sciences; but it remains an open question whether there is only one such level or if an ultimate level even makes sense. Maybe it’s a case of turtles all the way up.


  4. I am simply saying that science tends to do philosophy after it has done the science.

    Great point. And as you know, I’m more than a little preoccupied with the argument of a certain tradition, that thinks science should do all its philosophy before the science. (And indeed tends to disqualify all science philosophizing that’s been done after the science.)


    Here’s a recent example.


  5. I am not familiar with Sapir-Whorf but I don’t think I will enjoy reading that theory much. Lot of this in anthropology.

    My defense from using wide ranging comparative data from ethnography would be that when you are dealing with beliefs that are wide spread ( I won’t use the word universal as, cough, I have yet to fully engage with the philosophy here, but I don’t like the term) is that meaning is perhaps not the only thing of interest and may be retrospectively drawn in a local context.

    I think you can make a more general point that with regard to belief, meaning is often retrospectively drawn, although I don’t think this undermines the argument made here.

    At the moment I am looking at male sexual avoidance and abstinence in hunting, warfare, monasteries, sportsmen etc. Can’t ignore local cultural context it’s vitally important but also can’t ignore the fact this is a widespread belief that is not culturally specific.

    I don’t know what the processes are at work here. I would hope that recent developments in brain and culture would yield some hard evidence.

    I would run with the notion that biology must lurk at the core that leads sexuality to be viewed cross culturaly as an aggressive predatory activity that should be avoided when you are engaged in other aggressive predatory activities.

    I suspect I would be accused of old hat positivism here. Ethnology is not without it’s issues but I think it does come in for a range of entrenched philosophical criticism that is somewhat misplaced I think.


    1. It seems to me this is a widespread belief since the early nineteenth century and it relies a lot on idealist assumptions, or at the least neo-Kantian presumptions about what we can think.

      Clearly thought is influenced by our social context, our language and other cultural styles, but if it were determined to any real degree we’d never have managed to find anything out we didn’t already know. So it is not positivist to claim that evidence leads us to a better understanding, and that our language and thought can follow in its trail (but it is very empiricist).


  6. Seems to me that various forms of cultural determinism seem plausible because of what amounts to a trick of perspective. If I’m a linguist studying a language, I’ve got a disciplinary obligation not to go beyond the evidence. But if my best reconstruction of Etruscan doesn’t leave the idealized Etruscan speaker with any way to talk about counterfactuals or the wave/particle duality, or whatever, that doesn’t mean actual Etruscans couldn’t have talked about such things since they had citizen’s rights in their own language and could have cooked up a way of doing so, just as nothing prevents English from having seventy two words for different kinds of snow except, perhaps, for a lack of any reason to devise ’em.

    That said, I remain enough of an idealist to think that at any give time, certain elements of our inherited mental furniture act as if they were Kantian-style categories even though propositions that represent them can function as mere stipulated definitions or facts in succeeding eras—I believe Quine made the claim that f=ma had this sort of slippery career. From this perspective, which I identify, rightly or wrongly, with guys like Ian Hacking, it’s perfectly reasonable to find yourself saying “this sort of thing is a priori in Germany.” I don’t know if that counts as cultural relativism exactly. It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t talk to the Germans or that the transition from the categories of one era or discipline to another is an intractable mystery.


  7. “Clearly thought is influenced by our social context, our language and other cultural style”

    Two way processes. The cultural entities that interest me are serious historical survivors. Successes is down I think to the ability to look like and become many different things, they can embed in a range of niches in any given historical context/ landscape and adapt to changes in thought, shifts in social and cultural context and wholesale linguistic replacement.

    They do not survive by being some form of static repetition or one thing.

    Beliefs are not uniform things, long term traditions are not static or if they are they are very short term things; institutional conservatism may help them linger to a slight extent but if they can’t move and transform they are dead things walking.


  8. John S. Wilkins: but if it were determined to any real degree we’d never have managed to find anything out we didn’t already know. So it is not positivist to claim that evidence leads us to a better understanding, and that our language and thought can follow in its trail (but it is very empiricist).

    Is this true? The Ptolemaic solar system was predictive, once elaborated. It was “determined” by the existing social and metaphysical belief that the earth was stationary, but once given it permitted us to “find out” quite a bit about planetary motion (though much of it was wrong) and the same could be said of Brahe’s system. Newton’s theory of motion, also, was based on (seemingly empirical!) socially determined ideas about cause and effect that we know recognize as macroscopic illusions.

    I think the fallacy in your argument comes from wanting to ascribe all metaphysical priors to explicit and formal “philosophies.” Finding that actual metaphysicians like Hegel or Schopenhauer haven’t actually influenced the sciences that much would seem to suggest that philosophical speculation on metaphysics doesn’t amount to much compared to everyday empiricism. But it depends on where you look. Hobbes, Smith and Malthus had a huge impact on Darwin. The whole concept of a “theory of everything” rests heavily on the ideas of the Presocratics, and Leibniz. The Newtonian concept of inertia is compatible with Christian theology in a way it would never be with animism or panentheism. The question to ask is not whether (formal) philosophy makes a contribution to the sciences, but rather what philosophy is implicit in scientific thought.

    I also think you need to be careful about not making “determinism” a straw man. Neither Kuhn nor any neo-Kantians I am aware of suggest that cultural priors forbid us from changing our Weltanschauung. (Whorf overstated the problem, but he’s just one man). The word “force” is too strong. Facts are “determined” in part by logic (you can’t conclude what has not been premised) by that is not to say that one cannot examine and revise one’s underlying assumptions.


  9. Jim Harrison:
    Of course there’s no necessity that philosophy professors should be be the ones who meet these needs—these discussions always seem to involve an equivocation between the philosophy as an academic discipline and philosophy as an unavoidable human activity.

    Yes! and this is why philosophy of science is so important, even if it isn’t always practiced to our satisfaction. The more scientists insist that the “academic discipline” is unimportant to their work, the more they will have to resile to unexamined folk forms, or invent their own metaphysics on the fly. In which case you cannot, as Krauss and Hawking do, refuse an interface with existing metaphysical ideas.


  10. I think what Johns perspective does allow is for science to be viewed in context as a group of dynamic and creative processes rather than the work of a cultural group that can be determined by the continuity of its traditions.

    De-emphasis of the Chinese box view of culture is a good thing.

    “ethnic oppositions are segmentary in character, the group created through common cause expands and contracts situationally, and it has no absolute existence in relation to unambiguous principles of inclusion and exclusion. This mechanism of segmentation does not always create a neat system of concentric circles or Chinese boxes of identities, or an otherwise internally consistent segmentary classificatory system ”



  11. Understood as rational the connection between reason and action cannot be described in terms of any strict law. Yet inasmuch as the connection is also a causal connection, so there must exist some law-like regularity, though not describable in the language of rationality, under which the events in question fall (an explanation can be causal, then, even though it does not specify any strict law). Davidson is thus able to maintain that rational explanation need not involve explicit reference to any law-like regularity, while nevertheless also holding that there must be some such regularity that underlies the rational connection just inasmuch as it is causal. Moreover, since Davidson resists the idea that rational explanations can be formulated in the terms of a predictive science, so he seems committed to denying that there can be any reduction of rational to non-rational explanation.


  12. Interesting piece that i find persuasive and useful! Science is not deterministic even if one has biases. That is why all results are tested multiple times by the originator of the theory and other scientists. That eliminate bias in the long run and thus “determinism.” PTxS


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