Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 16

R.I.P. descriptive metaphysics? Looks like it. 'Accounting' for all there is, describing our 'conceptual scheme', is no longer enough. We want explanation. But there's just a little problem:
I have prescribed to myself the maxim, that in this kind of investigation it is in no wise permissible to hold opinions. Everything, therefore, which bears any manner of resemblance to an hypothesis is to be treated as contraband; it is not to be put up for sale even at the lowest price, but forthwith confiscated, immediately upon detection.
Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason
On Follydiddledah! I wickedly juxtaposed this quote with a photograph of Lisa Randall, leading American theoretical physicist and string theorist. No string theorists (or feminists) complained. Kant — who idolized Isaac Newton — knew that his readers would instantly recognize this allusion to Newton's famous hypotheses no fingo ('I entertain no hypotheses'). In theoretical physics, the danger is that if we allow our theorizing to stray too far away from the possibility of empirical confirmation — however elegant and beautiful the resulting theory — we are merely playing a mathematical game, not discovering truths about reality. (It's a possible criticism of Randall, and not only her, but I'm not really qualified to judge.)

Then what about metaphysics, which apparently has no empirical content? Isn't the danger even greater? That's what I have always thought. Here's Kant's argument: 'If I allow myself the liberty of putting forward a hypothesis, then you are justified in putting forward the contrary hypothesis' (or words to that effect).

But if that's a valid argument, why are the likes of Randall not impressed? If I've got a theory, and you've got a theory and my theory is much more beautiful than yours (and other things are equal) isn't that a sufficient response to Kant? And isn't that what we're really looking for in metaphysics: a beautiful theory?

— Fancy a turn at speculative philosophy? (or Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game?)