L. A. Paul interviewed by Richard Marshall.
L.A. Paul is a deep howdy of metaphysics. She plumbs the depths of why philosophy matters, thinks metaphysical exploration is like scientific exploration in important respects, thinks causation a key puzzle, thinks xphi contributes to the philosophical conversation, thinks fundamental parts of the world are a mix of intrinsic natures, and outlines what you can’t expect when you’re expecting. All in all she’s hardcore. Fabadooza!
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
L.A. Paul: Strangely, I don’t really know what caused it. I just realized, sometime early on in college, that I wanted to be a philosopher. I basically decided that I wanted to spend my life thinking as deeply and carefully and reflectively as I could about the nature of reality and our human engagement with it, and that taking a philosophical approach was the best way to go about doing this. I don’t know why I decided this: I hadn’t taken any philosophy classes, or even read much philosophy.
3:AM: You’re interested in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, amongst other things. Some might wonder whether there’s a point to philosophy in these fields saying that science will get the answers to any puzzles. So why should we listen to philosophers in these fields and not just wait and see what the scientists tell us?
LP: It’s a reasonable question. We should listen to both philosophers and scientists, because the philosophical contribution is different from the scientific contribution, and both of them are worthwhile. Philosophers, especially metaphysicians, explore features of reality and of our mental life that are different from those explored by scientists. For example, metaphysicians are interested in giving a developed account of what it means for objects to have properties that are essential to them, that is, whether there are any properties that objects must have in order to exist, even if the world were to be physically very different from how it actually is. And they are interested in questions about what the causal relation is (what it is to bring something about or make it happen), and about the way in which the present seems to be more real than the past or the future . These are not topics directly explored by scientists, even if some of the facts drawn from natural science are relevant to them.
Contemporary metaphysicians also recognize that there are interesting places of overlap with the natural sciences and with cognitive science. For example, work in fundamental physics is relevant to the way we think about spacetime and about causation. Work in cosmology is relevant to how we think about time, especially the temporal direction, and work in cognitive science is relevant to how we think about our experience of causation and our experience of time. I have argued that we should think of metaphysicians as developing models of parts of reality, like the nature of causation, that science is not investigating directly, and that metaphysicians should draw on natural science when they seek to understand features of reality like spacetime. I have also argued that metaphysicians can usefully draw on cognitive science when they seek to understand and explain our causal and temporal experiences.
3:AM: You argue that metaphysical exploration is like scientific exploration – but it’s hunting different subjects. So what’s it after, and why, if it’s not science, is it still able to make important contributions to our knowledge of the world?
LP: I do think that metaphysical exploration is like scientific exploration, in the sense that philosophers and scientists are both developing models of reality, and furthermore that we all rely to a significant extent on the idea that models which provide elegant, simple and satisfying explanations are more likely to be true. The distinctive contribution that metaphysics makes to our understanding of reality is first that it considers questions about features of reality that the sciences don’t, such as the intrinsic nature of causation or the dynamic character of temporal experience. Often the features metaphysicians are interested in, like causation, time, and essence, involve features that seem so basic or are so generally embedded in the way we experience the world that it takes special attention and focus to draw them out and develop an account of their nature.
A second distinctive difference is that metaphysics works by developing a very wide range of models of these features of reality. This range is much wider than you normally see in the sciences, and we use this wide range of different models to enrich our capacity to understand the world in very different or competing ways. The idea is that by doing this we can gain a special sort of understanding of the world . Each different angle that each metaphysical model explores gives us a new way to think of that part of reality, and thus a new way to understand it. By thinking of the project of metaphysics as modeling different ways to think about the world, instead of thinking of it like the scientific project where the objective is arguably to get a unified picture of the world or a single true model of reality, we get a sense of how the main goal of philosophy, especially metaphysics, is the development of a kind of wisdom about ways the world might be. What I mean by this is that while there’s often a lot of derisive talk about science superseding philosophy as it gets a better and better picture of the world, the history of both fields shows much more exchange—e.g., while philosophy learns from the empirical discoveries and physical theory of science, science has often taken advantage of philosophy’s commitment to rigorously working out seemingly weird models of how the world might be.
3:AM: You’ve pondered on the nature of causation. The story about Suzy breaking her wrist helped show why it’s a difficult idea to pin down. Can you say something about all this and say what it shows about our ideas about causation?
LP: What has emerged from thinking about causation and its puzzles is that there is a deep divide in our intuitions about causation, and correspondingly, a divide in how to handle two very central issues: problems with cases of causation involving multiple causes of the same effect, and problems with causation involving omissions, that is, involving events that don’t occur. In my new book, Causation: A User’s Guide (written with Ned Hall), after surveying the literature in some depth, we conclude that, as yet, there is no reasonably successful reduction of the causal relation. And correspondingly, there is no reasonably successful conceptual analysis of a philosophical causal concept. This conclusion is not wholly pessimistic, however, since we also explore how the search for a reductive theory of causation, and its sister search for an analysis of the concept of causation, has opened up many interesting and fruitful lines of enquiry. As a result of the search for an analysis of causation, philosophers have discovered new causal features and developed richer, more nuanced treatments of the causal relation. And these treatments can be the basis for a productive connection to applied work in statistics and the natural and social sciences, even from this most “metaphysical” of topics.
3:AM: Are things like causation and time just part of the manifest image rather than something science needs to explain the world? Are they just useful illusions, like meaning and free will that evolution has selected us to have or are they fundamentals of nature?
LP: I suspect that these are not opposing ideas: causation and time exist in nature, we also experience them as part of the manifest image, and our experience of them incorporates a certain amount of illusion. What I mean by this is that causation and time exist in human-independent reality. They’d exist even if there were no beings around to experience them. But in addition to causation and time themselves, there are our subjective experiences of causation and time. Some elements of these experiences map onto the intrinsic nature of real causal and temporal relations, perhaps mapping their real character in some way that is transmitted across experience. Other elements do not: some features of our experience do not map onto the real character of causation and time. Instead, these features of our experience flow from the way that the human cognitive system processes causal and temporal and other sorts of stimuli.
3:AM: I guess these questions are connected to the idea of scientific realism and anti-realism. Which are you?
LP: I plead the 5th. Although I usually assume scientific realism in my work.
3:AM: Do you agree with Nancy Cartwright that there are no universal laws of nature, and if there aren’t, does that mean the idea of a law of nature is redundant?
LP: For this, I will assume the realist stance. My answer is “No.” I think Nancy’s work is brilliant, challenging and insightful, but I also think she is wrong. There are laws of nature—of course there are—even if they don’t exist in some sort of bizarre Platonic Heaven. I think she was over-influenced by the empiricism of the twentieth century when she drew her skeptical conclusions. A lot of people were.
LP: I have quite a bit of sympathy for the idea that psychology and cognitive science have much to offer philosophy, and that the reverse is true as well. While I do not agree with all of the claims made by experimental philosophers, especially those who seem to think xphi will somehow replace the rest of philosophy, I think xphi projects are interesting and important, I love Josh Knobe’s work, and that these projects contribute something new and worthwhile to the philosophical conversation. I think, in fact, that the connections between philosophy and cognitive science haven’t gone far enough, since as I noted above, metaphysicians should be working closely with cognitive scientists when they try to understand the sources of our experience of parts of the world such as its causal and temporal parts. There have been some direct connections, that is, connections not routed through xphi, drawn between cognitive science and metaphysics recently, but not nearly enough of them.
3:AM: You’ve thought a lot about the role of mereology in working out the fundamentals of the world. You ask one of the big questions – what is the fundamental structure of the world? So perhaps before asking you how to go about answering it you should say what we shouldn’t do to answer it. What are the rival approaches to yours that you reject?
LP: I reject what I see as flat-footed accounts of the fundamental structure of the world, where we somehow assume that, because ordinary experience involves middle-sized objects in space and time, that fundamental reality must be essentially like that. I argue, instead, based on metaphysical and physical considerations, that we should think of the fundamental parts of the world as a mix of intrinsic natures, rather like a paint-pot filled with a rainbow of colors, loosely mixed to give a richly varied, spatiotemporally inseparable, spread of qualities, and that this mixture is what gives rise to ordinary reality.
I also argue that my approach is better than its rivals, especially those which require spacetime to be fundamental. Since my view can be fitted equally well to physical theories that require spacetime to be fundamental and theories that do not, my view does a better job of capturing metaphysical reality, because it grasps the more abstract and general and thus metaphysically deeper features about qualities that are recognized by all of our best fundamental physical theories.
3:AM: Are you some sort of essentialist, and if so, are you a deep one or a shallow one?
LP: Well, of course, it’s always better to be deep rather than shallow. And I’m deep.
3:AM: And what can’t Mary expect when she’s expecting – and why is this important?
LP: The idea behind the paper “What you can’t expect when you’re expecting” has two dimensions. The first dimension is that there is a paradox at the heart of the modern romantic sense in which prospective parents are supposed to decide whether or not they want to have a child by thinking about what it would be like to have a child.
The idea comes out most clearly when we consider it from a woman’s perspective. If you are female, and conditions are otherwise apt, you are supposed to decide whether you want to become a mother by thinking carefully about whether you really want to have a child of your very own, what it would be like to be a mother, whether this is something you really want and will be happy with, etc. In general, you are supposed to evaluate whether you should have a child largely on the basis of what you think it will be like for you to have a child.
The paradox arises from the fact that, until you’ve had a child, you cannot know what it will be like to have one. And moreover, the experience may change you in ways that you cannot predict or even understand before you have the child. This means that you can’t rationally choose to have a child on the basis of what you think it will be like, because there is no way for you to know what it will be like. Even worse, the same is true if you choose not to have a child: since you can’t know what it would have been like for you to have a child, you can’t know the value of what you are missing. And so there is no way to rationally choose whether or not to become a parent.
The second dimension of the idea is that these issues with predicting the nature of one’s own future generalize to other situations. I explore this in detail in my forthcoming book Transformative Experience. The idea is that there is a modern cultural notion (at least in wealthy western societies) that if you are authentic and responsible and thoughtful, you should take charge of your own destiny and map out your subjective future. The process of this form of self-realization involves deliberation, where you reflect upon who you really are and what you really want, in order to plan your life’s path and determine the kind of person you want to become. But I argue that this notion of how best to realize one’s future is deeply confused. The reason it is so confused is that it is impossible to predict what it will be like to have many of the central, determinative experiences of our lives (like having a child, or choosing a career, or trying a drug, or getting married), and so we cannot rationally choose to have them or avoid them based on what we think they will be like. But even though we can’t predict what it will be like to have these experiences, we have them anyway—they are just part of what it is to live one’s life.
If this is the case, then the lesson to draw is that we need to reformulate the way we approach our lives, and stop thinking of our big decisions as involving somehow knowing or predicting what it is going to be like when we choose a particular path of self-realization. Living rationally and authentically does not mean that you map out your future by thinking carefully about what it would be like if you chose one path versus another path and then choosing on that basis. Living rationally and authentically means understanding that life centrally involves making leaps of faith, both small and large, and that the value of living is to a large extent the value of experiencing your life, whatever that experience is. We should realize that we are choosing to have or avoid experiences based on the value of having experience itself, even if the experience involves suffering or pain.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
LP: Four philosophy books, two by David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds and Collected Papers, volume II, one by Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings, and one by Quentin Smith, The Felt Meanings of the World. And one psychology book (that is also very philosophical) by Susan Carey, The Origin of Concepts.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 31st, 2013.