Pragmatism at the Intersection of Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science

June 4-5, 2015 | Center for the Study of Mind in Nature | University in Oslo

This workshop is made possible by generous support from the Center for the Study of Mind in Nature


    Some topics, such as causation or laws of nature, are central to both metaphysics and philosophy of science. The approaches used for these shared topics in these different fields can vary, sometimes widely, which has often enough prevented fruitful discussions or interactions between those two fields. There is a long history in philosophy of science, dating at least to logical empiricism, of dismissing metaphysics as useless and emphasizing science as a superior method for understanding the nature of the world. Recently, though, philosophers of science have come to a clearer understanding of the metaphysical commitments involved in many of their own views, and metaphysicians have drawn in much more depth on empirical work in the sciences. Pragmatism is an intriguing thread through the last century of philosophy that can serve as an alternative to logical empiricism in situating philosophy of science versus metaphysical approaches to common topics of interest. It also highlights potentially problematic assumptions, such as that physics should be the go-to science for metaphysics rather than, for instance, biology.

    This conference aims to provide a forum in which to discuss pragmatic approaches to metaphysics from the perspective(s) of philosophy of science. The invited speakers share an interest in pragmatism, either in general or as a way to approach particular issues in their own field. The goal is start from a broadly pragmatic perspective to examine particular issues at the intersection of metaphysics and philosophy of science, as well as considering more general issues about how pragmatism can mediate interaction between parallel discussions in the two fields.
    In order to make the most of our time, a set of prereadings and other materials will be available in advance (details available soon). Registration is not required, although it is helpful and appreciated; it is available here.
    This conference is the second in a series. Information about the first can be found here.


-Sandra D. Mitchell (University of Pittsburgh HPS)
-Huw Price (Cambridge)
-James Woodward (University of Pittsburgh HPS)
-John Dupré (University of Exeter)
-Holly Andersen (Simon Fraser University)
-Christopher Hitchcock (CalTech)
-Edward Hall (Harvard)

Schedule and Location:

Pragmatism at the intersection of Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science

room 652 (6th floor), Georg Morgenstiernes house, University of Oslo

Order of speakers pending

Thursday, June 4th
9:00AM - 9:30AM Coffee and Registration
9:30AM – 9:45AM Introduction and overview
9:45AM – 11:00AM Jim Woodward, with ½ hour Q&A
Sketch of some themes for a pragmatic philosophy of science
11:00AM – 11:15AM Break
11:15AM – 12:30PM John Dupre, with ½ hour Q&A
Structure and Function: A Pragmatic, Process-Centred View
12:30PM – 1:45PM Lunch
1:45PM – 3:00PM Edward Hall, with ½ hour Q&A
On some connections between explanation and metaphysics
3:00PM – 3:15PM Break
3:15PM – 4:45PM Holly Andersen, with ½ hour Q&A
What happens when we keep the door open on the Metaphysics Room?
A pragmatic philosophy of science take on Sider's Writing the Book of the World.
Friday, June 5th
9:30AM – 10:45AM Huw Price, with ½ hour Q&A
'Here' is the tip of the iceberg: Pragmatism about indexicals and causality.
10:45AM – 11:00AM Break
11:00AM – 12:15PM Chris Hitchcock, with ½ hour Q&A
Pragmatic metaphysics between reduction and analysis
12:15AM – 1:30PM Lunch
1:30PM – 2:45PM Sandra Mitchell, with ½ hour Q&A
Perspectivism, Pluralism and Pragmatism: Lessons from Protein Science
2:45PM – 3:00PM Break
3:00PM – 5:00PM Open discussion section with speakers and audience:
Moderated by Megan Delehanty, University of Calgary


Click here to register.

Titles and Abstracts:

Edward Hall

On some connections between explanation and metaphysics
Gideon Rosen begins his (excellent) paper “Metaphysical Dependence” with a “plea for ideological toleration” (of the notion of grounding in particular – but similar pleas could be made on behalf of a host of related metaphysical notions). While wholly in favor of such toleration, I also think there are also reasons to be cautious. Very cautious, as it happens: For it is all to easy to think you’ve spotted interesting and distinctive metaphysical structure, where there isn’t any. I have in mind one specific way this can happen. Suppose we have latched on to some feature F of reality that we hope to understand. (Perhaps we want to understand what F is; perhaps we want to understand why F exists.) What is it that we seek? One answer is that we seek information about metaphysically distinctive relationships that F stands in to something else. (E.g., we want to find out what grounds F.) But another answer is that we merely seek information in light of which we can locate F in an appropriately comprehensive organizing scheme. Confuse these two answers, and you’ll see metaphysically significant results where there aren’t any (e.g., the ‘result’ that sets are grounded in their members, but not vice versa). The upshot is that there is no easy road from intuitions about what is explanatory to weighty metaphysical conclusions.

Chris Hitchcock

Pragmatic metaphysics between reduction and analysis
In this “big picture” talk, I outline a pragmatic approach to metaphysics that is broadly in the spirit of Kant and Carnap (despite the latter’s aversion to metaphysics). I contrast this approach to the more traditional philosophical projects of conceptual analysis and metaphysical reduction. I illustrate the approach with recent work on causation. In particular, I argue that the pragmatic approach gives us more of what we want from a philosophical understanding of causation.

John Dupré

Structure and Function: A Pragmatic, Process-Centred View
The understanding of function has been a prominent topic in the philosophy of biology for at least 40 years. Various philosophers have advocated some version of “Cummins functions”, after Robert Cummins (1975), which treat functions as the contribution of parts to the overall behavior of a larger system, or “Wright functions”, after Larry Wright (1973), directed more specifically at biology, that see the function of a trait or an organ as the selective advantage it confers, and which explains its current presence in members of a species.
Both these approaches assume a similar background ontology: entities are composed of smaller entities, and the fixed properties of the latter combine somehow, to generate the properties or dispositions of larger entities. The function of an entity (whether or not tied to the explanation of its selective advantage) is seen as its contribution to the behavior of a system of which it is part, and this contribution is seen as made possible by its structural properties. This picture has gained support from its congruence with the so-called new mechanism, the rising influence of which has been a prominent feature of recent philosophy of science.
In this talk I shall argue that this picture is seriously misleading when viewed against a more nuanced attention to biological phenomena. Biological systems, for example organisms, do not consist of a fixed set of component parts with fixed properties. The persistence of an organism is achieved by constant adaptive changes of the whole, and by countless internal processes in which constituent entities at different levels of the organizational hierarchy are being continuously produced, transformed, and destroyed at varying turnover rates. The delimitation of fixed structures in an organism is at best an abstraction, implicitly assuming an appropriate time scale over which the structures in question are sufficiently well-stabilized to be treated as static things for the purposes of their investigation.
I shall argue that function and structure in biology are, in fact, more aptly seen as alternative ways of abstracting a massively dynamic and changing reality. While these abstractions are unquestionably useful in helping us understand and interact with biological systems, there are serious dangers in interpreting either too realistically.
This view converges with the position advocated by a number of early twentieth-century theoretical biologists, who also interpreted structural and functional characterizations of living systems as complementary means of representing an underlying processual reality. The implication they drew from this is that structure and function are interdependent and interdefining concepts. In the words of J. S. Haldane (1931: 22), “Structure and functional relation to environment cannot be separated in the serious scientific study of life, since structure expresses the maintenance of function, and function expresses the maintenance of structure”. Similarly, L. v. Bertalanffy (1941: 251) remarked that “The old contrast between ‘structure’ and ‘function’ is to be reduced to the relative speed of processes within the organism. Structures are extended, slow processes; functions are transitory, rapid processes”.
My talk will explore the advantages of, and problems with, this process-centred perspective on structure and function in biology. I will illustrate my argument by drawing on examples from two distinct areas of biological enquiry, namely plant morphology and protein biochemistry.

James Woodward

Sketch of some themes for a pragmatic philosophy of science
My hope is to give a talk which sketches, in a very partial and preliminary way, some ideas about what a “pragmatic” approach to philosophy of science might look like. The goal is to get us talking, despite the likelihood that I will end up making a fool of myself because of the abstractness and unclarity of what follows.
Some themes:
1) Science, at least sometimes, works successfully to deliver information of various sorts about nature and a pragmatic philosophy of science should seek to understand how this is possible—what sort of information is so delivered, what the methods and strategies are that are involved in its production, and how it is that these methods are successful to the extent they are.
2) This enterprise should have both a descriptive or interpretive component – characterizing accurately relevant aspects of scientific practice and reasoning—and, I would argue, an evaluative or normative component: we want to understand why various methods and strategies are successful in delivering knowledge, to the extent that they. We also want to identify cases in present methods and strategies fail to deliver what they claim to deliver and how, in the light of this, these might be improved. A pragmatic philosophy of science thus makes methodology a central focus.
3) More generally, the focus of a pragmatic philosophy of science should be on what scientists do when they reason, intervene and so on and what the function or point of these activities is, rather than on the metaphysics or ontology that supposedly underlies these activities. Pragmatic philosophers of science should approach science from what Huw Price calls a “subject naturalist” perspective.
4) The enterprise described under 1- 3 is naturally pursued within a means/ends framework: Investigators have certain ends or goals. A very partial list includes but is not limited to successful prediction, causal analysis and explanation, description and classification for specific purposes, and building and making things. Investigators employ various means (methods, strategies etc.) for achieving those goals. These means can either be well-adapted to or conducive to these goals or not and both description and evaluation should be pursued in the light of this. (Hitchcock’s “Events and Tines: A Case Study in Means-Ends Metaphysics” is one recent illustration of this strategy.) Because science is characterized by a plurality of goals, different means or strategies will be appropriate for different goals, leading to the expectation that we should often expect to find, even with respect to the same system, a plurality of partial models, rather than some single, all encompassing fundamental theory. This theme is emphasized in Sandy Mitchells' work on integrative pluralism.
5) This means/ends analysis and the accompanying emphasis on goals or functions can be applied to a wide range of issues in philosophy of science including causal reasoning, reasoning about evidence and prediction, choices regarding variables or vocabulary in which theories are framed and issues having to do with scientific representation.
6) A common although far from universal theme among many pragmatists, emphasized particularly by Dewey, is a distaste for “spectator” theories of knowledge. We don’t just passively observe the world, we often can act on it, changing and manipulating it. In the context of philosophy of science, pragmatists should thus attach a great deal of importance to the role of experimentation and to activities like making, constructing, and building. These activities are legitimately part of science and are not to be dismissed as of “merely pragmatic” significance or as unimportant because they are only part of “applied” (as opposed to “pure”) science. These activities are particularly important in understanding the role that modal information (about physical possibility, physical dependence, causation etc. ) plays in science. We cannot adequately understand these from a purely spectator viewpoint. Although historically pragmatists have often tried to understand laws and causal claims as “inference tickets”, a better strategy for pragmatists is instead to connect modal notions to concepts like manipulation and planning.
7) Historically, many pragmatists have been skeptical about (or hostile to) “representation” as a useful concept for understanding how language and other sorts of activities such as scientific theorizing and modeling work, at least when representation is understood, as it often is, in terms of notions like mirroring, picturing, correspondence, isomorphism and the like. I believe that a pragmatic philosophy of science should adopt this skepticism: it is dubious that science has a goal anything like the development of models and representations that mirror, or are “isomorphic” to systems occurring in nature. Moreover, even if this is one goal of science, other goals, such as the construction of explanations, are often in tension with it. What we need is a way of thinking about theories and models that does justice to the idea that they convey information about nature but that at least often they do not accomplish this by anything like direct picturing or mirroring. Bringing the subject (the scientist) who uses the theory or model back into the picture provides an alternative to thinking in terms of mirror and isomorphism.
8) Mirroring or picturing expectations about how language and theorizing work are bound up with the idea that to understand causal and modal notions we need to produce stories about “grounding” or “truth” conditions for these notions of some metaphysically thick sort. An alternative approach, more congenial to a pragmatist philosophy of science, focuses instead on how we use (reason with, infer to, etc.) these notions.

Sandra Mitchell

Perspectivism, Pluralism and Pragmatism: Lessons from Protein Science
Model pluralism is rampant in contemporary science, especially in attempts to predict, explain and intervene on complex systems. Some have argued that this is a symptom of the immaturity of science, or of our cognitive limitations. I will argue that there are normative grounds for pluralism, structured by the partial, perspectival, and interactive character of representational models. I will apply this analysis to contemporary scientific models of protein structure and describe novel forms of model integration that are entailed.

Huw Price

'Here' is the tip of the iceberg: Pragmatism about indexicals and causality.
Coming soon.

Holly Andersen

What happens when we keep the door open on the Metaphysics Room? A pragmatic philosophy of science take on Sider's Writing the Book of the World.


Holly Andersen (Simon Fraser University) |
Organizer in Oslo, Olav Gjelsvik |