Book Club: Scientific Metaphysics, 3, Scientific vs speculative ontology

Philosophy as a Way of Life
8 min readSep 21, 2021
[image: Unicorn, by Bettina Rateitzak, 1962, Wikimedia]

What exists, and how do we know it? The first is the fundamental question of ontology, a major branch of metaphysics. The second question is epistemological, but it is obviously crucial for the first one: without good epistemic reasons any ontological claim becomes as arbitrary as those of religion. According to Paul Humphreys, the author of the third chapter of Scientific Metaphysics, there are two contrasting ways to carry out ontological inquiries: a scientific and a speculative one. The first is characteristic of philosophy of science, the second of analytic metaphysics. The second, he contends, should be abandoned entirely.

[The first essay in this series can be found here; the second one here.]

Humphreys reminds us that criticism of analytic metaphysics has a long history in philosophy. The logical positivists, famously, wanted to get rid of the field altogether, suggesting that metaphysical statements, being non verifiable, are literally meaningless. They failed, because it turns out that some non verifiable statements are perfectly meaningful. For instance: unicorns have guts. There is no way to verify such statement since unicorns don’t exist. But you understand perfectly well what I meant by writing that sentence.

As a result of the failure of logical positivism, metaphysics came back with a vengeance throughout the 20th century. It was then the turn of philosophers of science to raise objections against analytic metaphysics and the sort of conceptual analysis on which it is based. These objections stem from a general sympathy that philosophers of science (including yours truly) have for both empiricism and naturalism. As Humphreys puts it:

“Although the tension between the philosophy of science and analytic metaphysics is prima facie about what exists, that is proxy for a deep difference about what counts as an appropriate philosophical method. This means that the epistemology of ontological claims will play a central role in the discussion.” (p. 53)

His chapter in Scientific Metaphysics hinges on four objections he raises against analytic metaphysics: its widespread factual falsity, its unwarranted appeal to intuitions, its sloppy use of conceptual analysis, and its assumption of scale…

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at