This review appeared in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, vol 33 (Fall 1994), pp. 776-779.
Beyond Experience: Metaphysical Theories and Philosophical Constraints
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991, xiii + 449 pp., $19.95 paper, $50.00 cloth
This is a book about metaphysics. It is also a book about philosophy of science. Finally, it is a book about personal philosophy.
In what sense is this a book about metaphysics? Leaving aside Andronicus, an early Rhodes scholar whose "metaphysics" may have concerned nothing beyond library shelving, the literal meaning of the term has customarily denoted a discipline going not only beyond physics, but beyond all of science, providing insights in some non-experimental manner. Would Swartz accept that? Well, yes, no and maybe.
Yes, in the sense that because he identifies science with empirical problem-solving, "beyond experience" just means "beyond science." No, in the sense of the post-Kantian transcendental insights bearing "news from nowhere." Maybe, in the sense of Kant's negative transcendentals. For Swartz, metaphysics helps science get its act together, as well as working out consistent points of view that are rational and, therefore, both logical systems and sustainable candidates for one's own personal philosophy.
The problem of getting rationality and empiricism together, avoiding vacuity in the former and blindness in the latter (while remaining non-Kantian) is accomplished by finding virtue in the common underdeterminism of science and metaphysics. Because science, and indeed all theorizing, is underdetermined by the evidence it has to offer, "metaphysical components are essential to any scientific theory" (p. 41). And because metaphysics is "even more underdetermined" than science, it must ride "piggyback" on scientific theories (p. 97). Shared inadequacy has turned into virtue. Is this magic, or what?
This is a book about philosophy of science because there is a symbiotic relation between science and metaphysics. His statement of the symbiosis: "No science is ever totally free of philosophical components, and little if any philosophy ever springs out of the resources of pure reason uninformed by any empirical data whatsoever" (p. 91). On the one hand metaphysics cannot be done effectively without "cognizance of the results of experimental research." On the other hand: "Bare empirical science is inadequate to provide a human context, a sophisticated understanding, of the implications and relevance of [the] flood and diversity of information" which has turned up in the sciences (p. 91). Non-Euclidean geometries, relativity in space and time, i.e. relativity physics, evolutionary theory, nuclear power, artificial intelligence, split-brain phenomena, for example, "positively demand philosophical examination" (p. 91).
The philosophical examination of science is philosophy of science headed toward metaphysics. "The techniques of empirical research," he tells us, "do not provide the scientist with the conceptual tools needed to synthesize a satisfactory, comprehensive world-view out of these disparate pieces." Metaphysics makes larger wholes of the empirically grounded pieces of science, rendering them more precise, while turning up and resolving their conceptual puzzles. An example of this is the present status of identity theory. It is at present a metaphysical theory "which is only minimally testable, [but which] may well grow steadily more testable as it becomes slowly, over many decades, better articulated." This will involve tens of thousands of pieces of data along with "a penumbra of metaphysical assumptions" (pp. 326-27). These are bits of science growing into larger pieces with the help of philosophy. The philosophers at work on the problem differ in orientation. Some have mastered the relevant scientific (in this case psychological and physiological) material, and work closely with the sciences. Others centre on metaphysical analyses arising in the history of philosophy that are still discussed in philosophy journals. The metaphysicians work toward science. The scientists and philosophers of science work toward metaphysics. The scientists add their own (inferior) form of metaphysical glue while producing their tens of thousands of pieces of material, and the metaphysicians refine the philosophy of the scientists, welding the material into larger pieces than the scientists could manage by themselves. The point is surely controversial. A physicist once told me that the best philosopher of science is a physicist, fallen behind in research, who turns to comment broadly on the nature of science. He was saying that a physicist who knows no philosophy is a better philosopher of science than a philosopher who knows a great deal of physics. Many scientists, like my physicist, are cool to the role of philosopher as helper.
It was surprising to find our author stating the goal of this philosophico-scientific effort as the synthesis of "a satisfactory, comprehensive world-view," since he rejects that style of philosophizing for himself. "The probability of error increases with the magnitude of the task," and the "less risky" focus on specific problems is "quite difficult enough." For this reason he is "temperamentally disinclined" to go for "grand system-building" and prefers, like Strawson, to lay bare the "inner logic" of the problems that interest him (pp. 22 and 23). I take it that he grants the remote possibility of someone fusing all the pieces into a single, comprehensive world view, while emphasizing its extreme difficulty.
The problems of interest to Swartz (with his resolutions) are space and time (accepting a neo-Leibnizian theory), properties (a reluctant Realism), individuation ("physical object," not "space," is the primitive notion), identity-through-time (a practical concept that cannot be put into a "compact formula") and persons ("memory and personality" constitute the essential core but this is even more complex than identity-through-time). Chapters are devoted to each of these topics in the second half of the book.
Notice the significant, but incomplete, overlap between these problems and those arising from science that demand philosophical examination. The two lists suggest both separation and juncture between metaphysics and philosophy of science. He furthermore tells us that the answers to questions concerning intelligence, evil and free will "reside in proposing, debating, and choosing among alternative metaphysical theories" (p. 250). Questions about intelligence are in both of the earlier lists; evil and free will are not. These two, at least, would seem to come from fundamental human problems related to the possibility of self-knowledge, i.e., they are questions of personal philosophy. The list would go on to include all of the topics in problem-oriented introductions to philosophy, and more.
In what sense, then, is this a book about personal philosophy? We have three overlapping lists of problems, one from science, one from metaphysics, and a third from personal philosophy. Much of what Swartz says supports the view that metaphysics stands between science and personal philosophy, helping out on both sides. Metaphysics and personal philosophy interrelate because what can be said technically can be put into ordinary language. For this reason the great philosophers of the past were able to address a wide literate public, and he too is going to "try to make the material accessible and comprehensible to a wide audience" (p. 4). Once he pauses in mid-argument to remark in a footnote: "The principle has been stated casually. A more precise formulation-intended for technically trained readers-is:.. [etc.]. " (p. 253, n. 13). His confidence in the parallel run of casual and technical expression wavers, at times, between belief and hope: "it is possible-if one makes the effort and has the interest-to write philosophy both for one's professional colleagues and for the interested lay reader. At least I hope it is still possible. Of course I may be wrong. Philosophy may have become so specialized.., that it is no longer possible.... I hope this is not so" (p. 4). His book is testimony to the fact that it is not.
But perhaps he would not even welcome the third list. Somewhat late in the book he gives what I take to be his canonical position (I abstract from his specific subject matter to make a general point): "If you are convinced that there is some important metaphysical distinction between... [x and y] you may well find yourself attracted to the theory of [a] and may try to so restrict the class of [b] in order to allow for [c]. If your metaphysical instincts lie on the other side, you may well want to allow [for something else]. The point is that the answer to the question has no ready answer. It depends on the metaphysical views one has of the world and on one's abilities to preserve those views in theories which are logically sound" (p. 254).
These "metaphysical instincts" are elsewhere called "totally different prephilosophical beliefs" (p. 372) or "prephilosophical intuitions," discovered at the base of philosophical or metaphysical disagreements (p. 389). Perhaps he finds only prephilosophical intuitions, metaphysical analyses and (philosophy of) science. But, then, what is the goal of all this work? He has ruled out "satisfactory, comprehensive world-views." As for his own problem-centred work, he says he is certain of "almost nothing" he has written in the book, and that "we can prove almost nothing of what we believe, say, or write." That fact does not dull his enthusiasm for philosophy, because: "Certainty has given way to what I regard as a more mature understanding of human theorizing" (p. 39). What is this more mature understanding? Surely not simply that "the debate continues" (p. 273). And surely not that metaphysical problems like identity theory may be working their way into science.
If "every book in philosophy is... a personal statement by its author" (p. 6) it would seem natural to say that all of the professional hullabaloo has as its end the provision of source material for personal philosophical decision, i.e., a clarification of the options for personal philosophy. That not only returns us to the third list but makes the working out of personal philosophies the achievable end of both metaphysics and science. It also makes philosophy pre-eminently a teaching discipline. If this is not at least part of the content of Swartz's mature understanding, I think it should be.
Two further points: first, the author devotes two chapters to "putting concepts under stress" (pp. 90-144) to determine their scope, i.e., the extent to which one would want to use them in counter-factual cases. That is what he takes the talk of possible worlds to be about. Since everyone loves a story, his casting so much of what he discusses into "possible world stories" makes it plausible that the book may well appeal, as he hopes it will, simultaneously to beginning students, the literate public and professional philosophers. Second, he uses a great many "-ism" words as when, for example, he calls himself a "Reluctant Realist" (p. 271). It might be argued that non-vacuous discourse in philosophy requires the avoidance of such words. If they are essential to doing metaphysics, it might follow that metaphysics is itself vacuous. Of course, if each "-ism" word represents a logical possibility, which it often does not, than [sic] an appropriate panoply would exhaust the field of possibilities for a given problem. In that case they would be pertinent to rationality. But they do not always (and I am not sure that they ever) do that. In fact, the logical closure they provide often creates analogies of indefinite extent. Swartz's "more mature understanding of human theorizing" should perhaps include something on this problem.
WILLIAM L. REESE
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