Plato’s mistake

by Massimo Pigliucci

What is your take on metaphysics? Mine is not particularly positive. At least, I am deeply suspicious, and largely reject, the whole approach to the field known as “analytic” metaphysics, which has been dominant since the beginning of the 20th century. (I am increasingly skeptical of the value of all analytic philosophy, but that’s a story for another time. And no, I’m no friend of the continental tradition either!)

My favorite whipping boy is a leading analytic metaphysician, David Chalmers, who initially became famous for his notions about consciousness and philosophical zombies, and has more recently embraced equally problematic notions like panpsychism. Chalmers and his colleagues proposed their “theories” on the basis of their intuitions and of what they find “conceivable,” regardless of whether there is any empirical evidence for their speculation. Indeed, they tend to be contemptuous of empirical evidence, dismissing it as the result of a “reductionist” approach to understanding things. … (continue at Substack)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

21 thoughts on “Plato’s mistake

    1. Nope, he’s not an analytic read: The example is ironic in two respects. First, Aristotelian-Scholastic metaphysicians would agree that conceivability doesn’t have the significance for metaphysical inquiry that many contemporary analytic metaphysicians suppose it to have.


    2. Bob, would you like to make a point, rather than referring to that old article? I think I explained why I think Ladyman and Ross’s approach is sound. If one disagrees, that’s fine. But what’s your take?


  1. I don’t think informed metaphysics empirically has changed since Kant. Secondly, you assume naturalism as a metaphysics basis which is circular as that already assumes the first philosophy.


    1. If you don’t think things had changed since Kant you may need to read a bit more widely.

      As for assuming naturalism, it’s by far the hypothesis most congruent with the available evidence. But I’m sure you’ll disagree.


  2. I didn’t state philosophy I stated how empirical data informs metaphysics. And by available if you mean the natural sciences, that’s again circular as they assume a priori a naturalist metaphysics which was my point. You need to show how naturalist metaphysics is better without that. That’s just stating my car is the best form of transportation because it’s so good in its domain. Also, how do you define naturalism most scholars think moral realism is incompatible with it which seems to cause tensions for your own ethical views from my knowledge.


    1. I’m not a moral realist. I’m a moral naturalist. Which is not the same thing.

      I don’t need to “prove” anything. I simply need to make an argument that if we take the world to be natural and science to inform us about it, things work out pretty darn well. Ladyman and Ross and several others have done this, nicely.

      What’s your non-naturalistic position about metaphysics, and how do you defend it?


  3. I’m not a non-naturalistic but a plurastic. I just look at the history of metaphysics. What we see is good metaphysics is rooted in the history of the field and allows for mutiple schools of thought. This notion in analytic philosophy of being not historically informed or in Ladyman of stating that’s the only good form of metaphysics is just wrong. Sure one of the schools of thought we should allow is naturalism but that’s only good. I mean show me the histortical record that states one school of thought is the best way forward.


    1. That’s a very strange way to approach metaphysics. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that if someone is into supernaturalism they’ll tell you that’s incompatible with naturalism. Because it is. Metaphysical pluralism makes no sense.


  4. I never stated they had to be compatible, Massimo. I stated that we allow for multiple schools of thought and merge them if they are compatible. Sometimes there not just like ethical systems. If there are not mergeable then that’s fine as well. If you would prefer to Eclecticism as another term for it that’s fine as well.


    1. Ethics is different from metaphysics. Ethics is about how to get humans to live and thrive together. Easy to see that there are multiple ways to do that.

      Not so with metaphysics: either the world is regulated by natural laws or it isn’t. There is no eclecticism.

      It would be like saying that we can have an eclectic system incorporating both science and magic. Nope.


    2. See again that’s not my view in that of saying the natural world has natural laws or is regulated by them. Stop putting words in my mouth. My point was we don’t have to assume one metaphysical system has all the answers.

      And again, I didn’t state there are no laws of nature nor is the natural world governed by them. I stated that we don’t have to assume one metaphysical system has all the answers. Not that there are no laws of nature or that stating that assumes naturalism.

      What I’m stating is why assume one system has all the answers right? Not, that one has some answers or that you have to decide like the above. Real eclecticism is not just about multiple systems but also figuring out where the issues are between systems like the above and decide which is right. So to your point about deciding whether you are a realist or anti-realist about laws or a Humean or non-Humean? However, that also needs to be compatible with all your other combined beliefs of the other systems.

      So for example if I decide that I have a Humean about laws which I’m saying I am that needs to be compatible with whatever other views from other systems I have about say causation.

      Also please stop putting words in my mouth it’s getting annoying.


    3. I’m sorry you are annoyed, but I am not putting anything in your mouth, at all. I’m simply presenting possible scenarios that I think are incompatible with an eclectic view of metaphysics.

      Again: one cannot be both a naturalist and a supernaturalist, for instance. The two are mutually exclusive. So you have to pick, whether you like it or not.

      As for realism about the laws of nature, frankly that’s precisely the sort of question that lives me entirely cold. As Ladyman & co. would say: no empirical evidence speaks to the question, so it’s an irrelevant waste of time to indulge it. Or, as Dennett would say, it’s schemes.


  5. 1. Eclectic Views don’t mean deciding between two incompatible options. It seems making a compatible view out of different views/schools of thoughts. Sometimes that requires deciding between two different views.
    2. So if there is no empirical evidence it’s a bad question. Doesn’t that mean parts of mathematics, aesthetics,ethics and even philosophy of language are also a waste of time. It seems if your being consistent you need to apply it to all fields that do or have things like this not just metaphysics. What makes those fields or those parts equally not a waste of time?


    1. What makes metaphysics different from those fields is that it pretends to make statements about the real world, not logical claims as in the case of math and logic.

      As for aesthetics and language, if they are not informed by empirical evidence, yes, they are just as useless.


  6. What about applied mathematics as in the case of physics? Now as informed do you mean we take data from certain things to inform it or do you mean that only empirical data is all we need? If you mean the first then how is that really different than the standard since Kant of metaphysics is empirically informed? If that’s what we need how is that different than empiricism or logical positivism?

    Secondly, if you’re talking about Ladyman’s crisis of intuitions in metaphysics, then he clearly states that he’s arguing against analytic philosophy. How do you know that applies to all metaphysics? I mean if I stated all Ford cars are bad therefore all cars are bad that’s a hasty generalization. Your task is you need to show Ladyman’s crisis applies to all forms of metaphysics. He even states that’s the school he’s going after in the preface:
    One of its main contentions is that contemporary
    analytic metaphysics, a professional activity engaged in by some extremely
    intelligent and morally serious people, fails to qualify as part of the enlightened
    pursuit of objective truth, and should be discontinued

    You need to show why his crises apply to similar things in Scholastic or Kantian metaphysics or any other non-analytic metaphysics. His own preface states that’s the school he’s attacking.


    1. Bob, yes, the target is analytical metaphysics, as in Ladyman & Ross. But I (and, I think, they) have an expansive view of what that means. It includes Kant. And it includes the Scholastics. Because neither is doing something fundamentally different from modern analytic metaphysicians.

      It’s *not*, however, an attack on metaphysics in general, since an alternative — scientific metaphysics — is proposed.

      As for the need for evidence, no the claim is not that empirical facts settle everything. I don’t think so, and neither do Ladyman and Ross. If that were the case, then metaphysics would be gone and replaced by science.

      The claim, rather, is that every time metaphysical claims wander too far from empirical evidence, i.e., every time once metaphysics gets decoupled from one’s epistemology, we get into garbage territory. Chalmers’ entire philosophy of mind, for instance, from p-zombies to his recent infatuation with panpsychism.


  7. They don’t mention that in the book only the target is contemporary analytic metaphysics. You need to show how that extends to other philosophical schools outside of analytical, Here is a quote from Feser to prove your point:
    Thus, when Ladyman and Ross — with, it seems, Pigliucci’s approbation — describe contemporary “conceptual analysis” and “intuition”-based metaphysics as “neo-Scholastic,” they demonstrate thereby only their own utter ignorance of (or, worse, perhaps indifference to) what Scholastics themselves actually believe. For from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view, contemporary “conceptual analysis” and “intuition”-based metaphysics is essentially an anemic successor to early modern rationalist metaphysics — a metaphysics which Scholastics would reject, and which defined itself in opposition to the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition.
    You can’t just generalize all the schools without looking at them for similarities to Ladyman’s crisis. I mean that’s again still a hasty generalization, you need to point to actual quotes by metaphysicians in that school who run into similar issues as analytic metaphysics. Please show me actual quotes from a school rather than assuming here.


    1. Bob, I’m not sure it is going to be productive for us to continue this exchange, since it’s obvious that neither will convince the other, and that often we talk past each other.

      I don’t need to reject Scholasticism because it has been dead since the time of Hume. So I prefer to focus on contemporary examples of what Ladyman and Ross, correctly, in my view, call Neo-Scholasticism. Such as the stuff by Chalmers that I referred to previously.

      As for who is ignorant of what, I simply don’t see the profound scholarship in Feser that you seem to perceive. Indeed, profound scholarship in Scholasticism, at this point, sounds to me like profound scholarship on astrology. An oxymoron.


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