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Metaphysical foundations for science

[Photo: Tuomas E. Tahko]

E.J. Lowe interviewed by Richard Marshall.

E.J. Lowe is a frost-cool deep fry who goes to the heavy core of the metaphysical lodestone and thinks about kinds of being all the time by building a system in the old style in order to get a grip on the very nature of reality itself. He thinks metaphysics is a slow business but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking slowness is stasis, doesn’t think that common sense is riddled with confusions but there are some inconsistencies in it, thinks ontologies are expensive and in-car/out-car ones are too cheap, thinks there’s a four category ontology, thinks Aristotle the king of the metaphysicians but prefers his own version of the ontological square, thinks hard about the nature of the laws of nature, thinks about universals and particulars, about powers and categories, can count tables but not red things, thinks empty sets can’t be empty sets, thinks he has hands, thinks freewill can’t be disproved by any empirical evidence, and thinks scientists should be more philosophical when entering important philosophical debates than they have tended to be recently. Which makes him hard-core.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always having these metaphysical thoughts even when young? Or did they just emerge?

EJ Lowe: As a schoolboy, I was extremely interested in science and mathematics, but especially in astronomy and cosmology. I had my own telescope – a 6-inch Newtonian reflector – of which I was inordinately proud and fond, although light pollution in my home town was so bad as to make it pretty useless for observing the stars. Cosmology was in an exciting state of turbulence in those days, with the rivalry between the now accepted ‘Big Bang’ theory and Fred Hoyle’s elegant theory of the continuous creation of matter and energy, according to which the universe, even as it continuously expands, remains spatiotemporally homogeneous on the large scale. I might even go so far as to say that Hoyle was my scientific ‘hero’ at that time. I went up to Cambridge University in 1968 – where Hoyle was Professor of Astronomy – to read Natural Sciences, with the hope of eventually getting into cosmology. But I found the first-year course dull and tedious, especially the experimental side of it, and also began to realise that I probably didn’t possess the necessary mathematical aptitude to be really successful as a theoretical physicist. So, after one year, I changed to History, and took a BA in that subject two years later (1971). I’d always been interested in history anyway, and soon discovered that I could concentrate a good deal on the history of political thought, which especially attracted me. This introduced me to early modern political philosophy, including the works of Locke, which soon led me on to early modern metaphysics and epistemology. However, this wasn’t what first acquainted me with philosophy. My eldest brother, who is 11 years older than me, took a degree in physics at Oxford and then went on to do the BPhil in philosophy, eventually becoming a lecturer in that subject in London for a while, so even as a young teenager I had a pretty good idea of what philosophy is. As a teenager, I started to try to work out a metaphysical system of my own, partly drawing on my (admittedly rather limited) understanding of developments in modern physics, especially the idea of symmetry and equivalence principles of the sort that lie at the heart of Einstein’s theories of relativity – which I tried my best to understand.

My idea was that one might hope to frame some very general equivalence principle which enabled one to see that all the great metaphysical systems are ultimately just different ways of formulating the same basic facts about the ultimate structure of reality, one implication of this being that no empirical test could possibly choose between them. This, I thought, fitted in well with Karl Popper’s idea that what distinguishes science from metaphysics is that scientific theories are empirically falsifiable whereas metaphysical theories are not – although this doesn’t mean that metaphysical theories are meaningless or worthless, indeed, quite the contrary, since they provide indispensable ‘framework’ principles for scientific theorising. Actually, I still believe something like this to be the case. Anyway, in time I began to realise that my early interest in cosmology was really an interest in fundamental metaphysics and ontology, and this is what eventually took me away from history and political philosophy to pure philosophy. After completing my BA degree, I wanted to switch to do a PhD in philosophy, but Cambridge wouldn’t let me do that, so I departed to Oxford to do the BPhil in philosophy and subsequently a DPhil. At that time, I concentrated in metaphysics and the philosophy of science, having Rom Harré as my BPhil dissertation supervisor and Simon Blackburn as my DPhil supervisor, with a thesis entitled ‘Induction and Causal Inference’ (1975). In that thesis, I criticised Hume’s account of induction and causation (while recognising that he espoused what later came to be known as a ‘sceptical realist’ view of causation and causal powers) and developed a theory of ampliative reasoning which appeals to our knowledge of causal powers, linking the notion of such powers with a ‘dispositional’ account of natural laws according to which such laws primarily concern natural kinds and only derivatively their particular instances (a view which resembles the Armstrong-Dretske-Tooley view of laws as involving universals rather than regularities amongst particulars, but also differs importantly from that view with regard to the type of universals involved). These ideas eventually developed into the view that I defended in my first book, Kinds of Being The foregoing is, in as short as space as possible, a summary of my philosophical development and education.
3:AM: Armstrong, van Inwagen and Lewis (and Lewis in particular I guess) kind of give the general options for contemporary metaphysics. Are you cutting free from these and setting out a new option? You think Lewis’s approach tends to be engaged in an exciting battle between revisionary and merely descriptive metaphysics, which is a thrill but may not help us understand better the nature of the world don’t you? Is serious metaphysics dull?

EJL: I have always thought that metaphysics needs to be tackled systematically, rather than piecemeal. I liken the task to that of putting together the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle: it’s no use just trying to perfect many small but disconnected parts of the puzzle in the hope that these will eventually fit together, since it’s likely there are several different ways in which any small number of pieces will fit together, no more than one of which will be correct. Rather, you need to work simultaneously on the ‘big picture’ and on its many parts.

I don’t altogether accept P. F. Strawson’s distinction between ‘revisionary’ and ‘descriptive’ metaphysics, much though I admire his book Individuals, which was in fact one of the first serious books in metaphysics that I read, long before I became a student of philosophy. I do, however, follow Aristotle and Locke in taking it that ‘common sense’ is a reasonable – indeed, the only reasonable – starting point for philosophical thinking. But it is only a starting point, and some common sense ideas will inevitably have to be abandoned by the philosopher, since some of them, when pursued to their logical conclusions, give rise to puzzles and paradoxes, which it is the task of the philosopher to try to resolve – an idea, of course, that goes back at least as far as Socrates. The revisionary/descriptive distinction is best seen as marking the poles of a spectrum of positions, with the most sensible and defensible positions lying somewhere in the middle. Common sense cannot intelligibly be abandoned completely, but neither can it be defended from every charge of incoherence. The task of the philosopher is to strike the right balance between its rejection and its revision. Russell once said that common sense leads to science, and science shows common sense to be false. But that is too stark a judgement. Certainly, many common sense notions – for instance, those of so-called ‘folk physics’ – are shown to be false by modern science. But a physics which is so disconnected with common sense as to be nothing more than an abstract mathematical formalism can at best be of only instrumental value: it cannot help us to understand the fundamental nature of reality, which is the aspiration of metaphysics. In pursuing its task, metaphysics must take notice of developments in theoretical science, but should not be in servitude to them. It will need to deploy distinctive formal methods and tools of its own, but these too should not simply be carried over slavishly from logic and mathematics – for instance, in the shape of formal logic, set theory, and classical mereology – as though metaphysics were some kind of applied logic or mathematics. In my view, metaphysics, with ontology at its heart, is an autonomous and fundamental mode of inquiry, beholden neither to the empirical sciences nor to the a priori sciences of logic and mathematics. It really is, as Aristotle said, ‘first philosophy’, and as such an implicit pre-requisite for any more specific form of intellectual inquiry whatever. In that sense, I am not a ‘naturalistic’ metaphysician. But my kind of metaphysics is far from being ‘dull’, I would venture to say. It seeks to articulate a coherent system of ontological categories and a consistent account of the fundamental formal relations obtaining between entities belonging to these categories, in terms of which we may hope to understand the fundamental structure of reality as a whole. That is just about the most ambitious intellectual task that anyone could hope to undertake. And because it is so difficult, we should not be surprised that progress in it is slow – much slower than in theoretical physics or mathematics, for instance. We should not mistake its slowness for complete stasis. Genuine progress can be and has been made in metaphysics.  
3:AM: You say that common sense ontology is riddled with confusions – are these errors? If so, how come we manage to survive? Survival suggests either that they can’t be all that confused, or that common sense ontology isn’t that important. Both alternatives seem to be threats to the whole business of metaphysical examination of ontologies, especially revisionary metaphysics. What’s your push-back?

EJL: I’ve already implicitly answered this question. I don’t think that common sense ontology is ‘riddled’ with confusions, only that it harbours some inconsistencies which emerge in the form of various puzzles and paradoxes. These inconsistencies only manifest themselves when common sense notions are pushed to their limits, and that’s why common sense thinking serves us well enough for everyday purposes, or is ‘adaptive’, to use the jargon of evolutionary psychology. One task of philosophy in general and of metaphysics in particular is to tease out these hidden inconsistencies and consider how best to deal with them – either by replacing common sense notions with significantly different ones, or by revising common sense notions in certain ways. It is this process that eventually leads to the development of a comprehensive system of ontology, such as the one that I currently favour, the ‘four-category ontology’, as I call it, which has its historical roots in Aristotle’s early work, the Categories. A good example of the sort of puzzle or paradox that I have in mind is the ancient problem of the Ship of Theseus, which forces us to rethink certain aspects of our common sense understanding of the identity of material objects over time (their diachronic identity). Another equally ancient one is the problem of Dion and Theon (Theon being Dion except for, or ‘minus’, one of his feet, so that when Dion loses that foot he coincides with Theon, even though, it seems, Dion and Theon must remain numerically distinct). This problem forces us to rethink our understanding of the identity of material objects at a single time (their synchronic identity).
3:AM: I think we get a good handle on the way you come at metaphysics in your subtle argument against Hawthorne’s views about ‘parity’ and ‘plenitude lovers’ when discussing the in-car/out-car example of Eli Hirsch. You conclude that we shouldn’t be supplementing common sense ontology on the grounds of parity but instead ‘rather than either embrace and add to that ontology or simply reject it, we do better to reform or refine it.’ You worry that contemporary metaphysicians don’t handle common sense ontology carefully enough don’t you. You are kind of harsh: you say that if you’re a young metaphysician wanting to discover new kinds of objects you should retrain in physics! Could you explain why you disagree with the ‘plenitude lover’ and their notion of ‘parity’ – and just explain the Hirsch example which is a pretty cool and weird scenario?

EJL: The in-car/out-car example can be summarised this way. Consider your drive to work each morning. As we ordinarily think of it, you get into your car and drive it out of the garage. Here, a single object – your car – moves continuously across a borderline, marked by the door of your garage. But it seems that we might think of this situation differently, as follows. Inside your garage there is your ‘in-car’. As you drive out, this in-car shrinks until it eventually disappears, and at the same time another object, your ‘out-car’, grows outside your garage until it eventually reaches the same length that your in-car originally had. Here there are two adjacent objects, neither of which moves, but one grows as the other shrinks. (If you drive further than the door of your garage, the same process is repeated with a subsequent series of non-moving but alternately growing and shrinking objects.) The first way of thinking is the common sense way, but can we really charge the other way with being any less satisfactory as a way of thinking of the situation? Should we say that the two ways are just two of many ‘equivalent’ ways of thinking of the situation, no one of which should be privileged as being the ‘true’ way? My answers to these questions are ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively. I think common sense is correct in supposing there to be objects which retain their identity through processes of movement across space – at least, if this is wrong, then it is only wrong for reasons to do with issues in fundamental physics. I don’t think that there are any such things as in-cars and out-cars. Just thinking about the example in isolation may not reveal any problem with the in-car/out-car way of describing the situation. But we have to remember that what we are looking for, as metaphysicians, is a comprehensive system of ontology, not just a piecemeal treatment of particular cases. To be consistent in the example under consideration, we have, for example, to apply the in-car/out-car mode of description also to you, the driver. We shall have to speak of ‘you’ not in terms of your being a single person who moves from being inside to being outside your garage, but in terms of a shrinking ‘in-you’ and a growing ‘out-you’, which are numerically distinct objects. So, suppose you start having a thought as you go through the door of your garage (as we would ordinarily describe it). On the in-you/out-you model, we’ll have to say that in-you begins the thought and out-you completes it. So one and the same thought must be attributed to two distinct subjects, and this appears to make no sense.

As I’ve just suggested, there might turn out to be reasons based in fundamental physics for thinking that the common sense notion of objects moving through space is problematic – for instance, that we do better to think of ‘movement’ as really consisting in variations of mass/energy density across tracts of spacetime. An analogy would be with the way in which we now understand that sea-waves don’t literally move in from the sea towards the beach, but consist in the regular rising and falling of the seawater’s height above the seabed, giving the illusion of real movement. But there’s no reason to abandon the common sense notion of moving objects, or to regard it as merely ‘conventional’, on purely philosophical grounds. It is deeply entrenched in common sense ontology, which is largely very successful in this regard, and it’s very difficult to see how it could be rejected without rendering other aspects of that ontology – such as its inclusion of ourselves as objects which both move and think – incoherent. So it should only be rejected as a last resort. The in-car/out-car fantasy might sound exotic and intriguing, but this is a cheap way to try to install a radically new ontology. Fundamental physics, with its invocation of such strange entities as superstrings, which have a genuinely explanatory role to play in physical science, is the place to look for interesting new and non-commonsensical types of entity. Such entities can genuinely earn their keep, but not so entities such as in-cars and out-cars. In fact, the latter are really just parasitic upon common-sense ontology, as their very names suggest: the only way to introduce them into philosophical discourse is by way of redescribing a common-sense scenario, such as your morning drive to work, in a bizarre new fashion. Our understanding of the in-car/out-car description of the scenario would be impossible without this reliance upon our prior common sense description of it. That’s not the case with entities like superstrings, where even the ‘string’ metaphor is not essential to understanding their nature.
3:AM: You’ve written a couple of books about Locke. Do you find Locke’s metaphysics of more than historical interest? And is he a good example of the way you think contemporary metaphysicians should operate?

EJL: It was more by accident than by design that I wrote the first of these books on Locke. A former student of mine – Tim Crane, in fact – asked me if I’d write it for the new ‘Guidebook’ series that Routledge was starting, in the mid-1990s. I lectured on modern philosophy for many years, and maybe Tim enjoyed my lectures on Locke – I do hope so! Anyway, I was happy to write on Locke, both because he is, like Aristotle, a philosopher with a healthy regard for common sense, combined with a respect for developments in empirical and theoretical science, and because I felt, and still feel, that Locke is often traduced by his commentators, who are too often willing to attribute indefensible and even downright silly views to him. Moreover, I share Locke’s general opinion about many key matters in metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind and action. For instance, like him, I defend volitionism in the philosophy of action. So, in that first book, Locke on Human Understanding, I tried to offer sympathetic but faithful interpretations of Locke’s views and defences of modern versions of some of them. But one deficiency of Locke’s overall approach, I feel, is that it is not sufficiently systematic – it is too piecemeal. In this respect, as well as others, I consider Aristotle to be the vastly superior philosopher, indeed as being unsurpassed.
3:AM: You have defended what you call a ‘four-category ontology’, something that has an ancestry that traces back to Aristotle. It’s often useful to know what a philosopher sees as rival positions that require seeing off. So before telling us about this ontology, what are the rival positions that you are facing up to and why do you find them inadequate?

EJL: I am first and foremost opposed to those metaphysicians who see no need at all to frame a system of ontological categories (categories of being). I describe them as espousing a ‘no category ontology’. Typically, these philosophers think that we can just talk indiscriminately of ‘entities’ or ‘things’, distinguishing between them merely in terms of different descriptive predicates whose application is determined purely empirically. This is the ontology of Lewis Carroll’s walrus and the carpenter, who spoke of many things – of ships and shoes and sealing wax, cabbages and kings. In logico-philosophical terms, an ‘entity’, for such a theorist, is just any possible value of a bound variable, in line with W. V. Quine’s famous dictum, ‘to be is to be the value of a (bound) variable’. Even Quine himself didn’t really espouse a no category ontology, but rather one containing two basic categories: spacetime regions and sets (although at one point he thought that the regions could be reduced to sets). Such an ontology clearly has very little in common with common-sense ontology and that, fundamentally, is why I am not at all sympathetic to it. I don’t believe, for instance, that it can find a satisfactory way to accommodate ourselves, as thinking subjects, amongst the furniture of reality.

Other fashionable modern systems of categorial ontology include D. M. Armstrong’s ontology of states of affairs, with particulars and universals as their ‘constituents’, and the pure ‘trope’ ontology, which is a one-category ontology of property-instances. With regard to states of affairs, I find difficulty in understanding their supposedly ‘non-mereological’ mode of composition (as, notoriously, did David Lewis). With regard to pure trope ontology, I find difficulty in understanding how tropes are supposed to be individuated – that is, what determines their identity conditions. I think much better of the two-category ontology of C. B. Martin and John Heil, which includes not only tropes (or ‘modes’) but also, as an irreducible type of entity, objects or ‘individual substances’, conceived as bearers of such tropes. Where I disagree with this system is with its rejection of universals of any type, which I, like Armstrong, regard as indispensable for a satisfactory account of natural laws.
3:AM: So you defend your ‘ontological square’. How does this work?

EJL: The term ‘ontological square’ is not one that I coined myself, but I am very happy to use it. The square is a diagram depicting the formal ontological relationships between the entities in my four fundamental ontological categories: the categories of object (or individual substance), (substantial) kind, attribute, and mode. The bottom left corner of the square is occupied by objects, the bottom right by modes, the top left by kinds, and the top right by attributes. Kinds and attributes are universals, whereas objects and modes are particulars. Accordingly, objects instantiate (are particular instances of) kinds and modes instantiate (are particular instances of) attributes, so each vertical side of the square consists of an upward-directed arrow denoting the formal ontological relation of instantiation. Next, attributes and modes are properties, whereas objects and kinds are property-bearers, i.e. are entities which are characterized by properties. Accordingly, each horizontal side of the square consists of a right-to-left-directed arrow denoting the formal ontological relation of characterisation. Finally, there is a diagonal arrow leading from the bottom left (object) corner to the top right (attribute) corner, denoting the formal ontological relation of exemplification.

Kinds characterisation Attributes

instantiation exemplification instantiation

Objects characterisation Modes

My version of the ontological square is based on a four-fold distinction that Aristotle introduces very early in the Categories, utilising the notions of ‘being in a subject’ and ‘being said of a subject’. According to Aristotle, individual substances (my ‘objects’) are neither in a subject nor said of a subject, substantial kinds (in his terms, species and genera) are said of but not in a subject, attributes (as I call them) are both in a subject and said of a subject, and modes (individual accidents or particularised properties) are in a subject but not said of a subject. Naturally, I prefer my version to Aristotle’s, but the difference between them is not enormous. Both his and my version map rather nicely on to syntactical features of sentences in everyday natural language, and this is part of what makes them align with common-sense thinking. For instance, there is a clear difference between saying something like ‘Rover is a dog’, in which we assign Rover, a particular animal, to a certain natural kind or species, and saying something like ‘Rover is brown’, in which we attribute a certain property or quality to Rover. Modern first-order predicate logic completely obliterates this distinction, representing both sentences as having the logical form ‘Fa’. My view is that our formal logic should perspicuously reflect our fundamental categorial ontology, so that modern first-order predicate logic is, in my view, deficient and in need of revision in this respect. Too many modern metaphysicians uncritically accept the formalism of modern first-order predicate logic and allow it to influence their thoughts about ontology. Ontology should drive formal logic, not the reverse, in my opinion.
3:AM: This is a system that you think handles laws of nature and the power-categorical distinction better than rivals. Starting with laws of nature, how does your theory conceive of laws of nature and what does it do better than Armstrong’s view, which I guess is the most powerful contemporary rival view?

EJL: My view about laws of nature can be explained fairly simply in terms of the ontological square. There is an arrow denoting characterisation going from the top right (attribute) corner of the square to the top left (kind) corner. In other words, attributes (which are one type of universal) are said to characterise kinds (which are another type of universal). Sentences expressing such facts have the form ‘Ks are F’ – for example, ‘Dogs are carnivorous’ and ‘Planets move in elliptical orbits’. Linguists call such sentences ‘generics’. ‘Dogs are carnivorous’ doesn’t mean the same as ‘All dogs are carnivorous’, which attributes the property of being carnivorous to each and every individual dog. The truth of ‘Dogs are carnivorous’ is consistent with the truth of ‘Rover is a dog and Rover is not carnivorous’, because Rover might be an abnormal dog. Armstrong, like me, thinks that natural laws involve universals rather than particulars, but he recognises no distinction between substantial universals (kinds) and attributes. Thus, he takes the basic form of a natural law, in the simplest sort of case, to be ‘N(F, G)’, where F and G are first-order attributes (that is, attributes of particulars) and N is a second-order relational universal of ‘necessitation’, holding between first-order attributes. So, for example, he would regard Kepler’s first law of planetary motion, which I earlier expressed in the form ‘Planets move in elliptical orbits’, as having the logical form ‘Being a planet necessitates moving in an elliptical orbit’. My way of expressing the law is clearly much more in tune with everyday natural language and avoids any appeal to a ‘second-order’ relational universal. Armstrong’s account is particularly vulnerable to what is known as ‘the inference problem’, posed by critics such as Bas van Fraassen. According to Armstrong, ‘N(F, G)’ entails ‘For all x, if Fx then Gx’ (where the variable ‘x’ ranges over particulars), but it’s not clear what licenses this inference, which doesn’t appear to be formally valid. My account doesn’t have this problem because, according to it, ‘Planets move in elliptical orbits’ – for instance – doesn’t entail ‘Every planet is moving in an elliptical orbit’ (which is clearly not strictly true, given the gravitational interference between the planets and other disturbing factors) but only ‘Every planet is disposed to move in an elliptical orbit’, in which only a disposition or tendency so to move is ascribed to all individual planets: and my theory of dispositions or powers explains why this is so and why the corresponding inference is formally valid. (The technical details are rather too complex to be described here, but can be found in the last few chapters of my book More Kinds of Being; I also say more about these matters in my newest book, Forms of Thought.)

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 18th, 2013.