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Metaphysics of science: levels, individuals, dispositions in the light of present day science – Metascience

Metaphysics of science : levels, individuals, dispositions in the light of présent-day science

The aim of the Metascience project is to make a significant contribution to the metaphysics of science on the basis of the detailed analysis of key concepts in current experimental sciences, above all physics, biology and psychology. We understand “metaphysics of science” as the field of research whose objective is the analysis of the fundamental concepts structuring scientific research – e.g., those of individual, cause, or disposition.

Revisionist metaphysics reveals the conceptual structure underlying science, not common sense

Our aim is to uncover the conceptual structure that underlies scientific theories and practices. To the extent that science often goes against common sense, to choose as our main criterion of adequacy agreement with science, not common sense, makes our approach belong to Strawson’s category of “revisionist metaphysics”. Hence, if, for example, the concept of individual at work in biology includes within an individual organism all the organisms that live in symbiosis with it whereas common sense excludes them, we will ignore the latter and take seriously the former. More generally, our project aims at analyzing scientific concepts at work in science (even if they come into conflict with commonsense ontology).

The aim of Axis 1, on levels of reality, is to investigate different ways of articulating levels in physics and biology. We will assess concepts of emergence and their relative validity within specific sciences as well as their interest for making sense of relationships across sciences. Then, we will analyze the concept of realisation, its relationships to causation and explanation, and their role in the scientific picture of the world. Axis 2, on individual objects in physics and biology, will establish an interface with field scientists. Together with physicists and biologists, we will explore the conception they have of the notions of «object« and «individual«: in evolutionary biology, in ecology, and in physiology, especially immunology and developmental biology. Axis 2 aims at the elaboration of a unified, as coherent as possible, scientific image. The most important aspect, which has been almost completely neglected by philosophers so far, is the determination of convergences, overlaps and conflicts between the different metaphysical perspectives elaborated on the basis of different experimental sciences. Axis 3, on dispositions in physics and psychology, will analyze the ontology of perception in the light of the dispositional description of both perceivable sensory qualities (such as colors) and perceptual capacities, such as capacities of discrimination. We will situate so-called “qualia” of perception with respect to psychological space of representation (subjective) and discriminable aspects of perceivable sensory qualities (objective). We will compare dispositional notions in psychology and physics. Does the difficulty of analyzing dispositions in terms of categorical states and observable manifestations have the same reasons in both sciences? Examples: iconic memory in cognitive psychology and specific heats in physics.

The project aims at producing several research articles, edited volumes and monographs on each axis. In Axis 1, we plan to edit a set of papers about compositionality and emergence gathering results of the first workshops in axis 1, insisting on the comparisons between physics, biology and neuroscience.
In Axis 2, we will edit a volume on Individuals in Biology and Physics. Furthermore, a collective paper focused on the specificities of individuation in biology and physics will be submitted to a philosophy of science journal.
In Axis 3, we plan to edit a volume named Comparing Dispositions which will focus on the comparison of dispositions in different sciences.
Part of our production will bear on more than one axis: for instance, we plan to publish a volume on Dispositions, mechanisms and compositionality, which will gather results of research done in Axes 1 and 3.
We also plan the elaboration of a Companion or Handbook to Metaphysics of Science, which will be a reference for future research on the topic. We intend to invite, among others, the researchers that will have been taken part to our activities (workshops, conference, seminars) to collaborate to this Companion.
Finally, we will develop a comprehensive bibliography on metascience on the internet. Bibliographies (with links to available papers) already exist on other topics and are very popular among students and professionals. As an example of type of website we will create, let us mention David Chalmers’ website on philosophy of mind (http://consc.net/people.html)

Metascience aims at renewing the field of metaphysics of science by a number of significant features.
(1) Rather than resorting to a priori conceptual analysis, Metascience looks at what real sciences posit as metaphysical entities or metaphysical relations. We are not against conceptual analysis, but we will apply it to concepts actually used in particular sciences, and not to abstract common sense concepts.
(2) Metascience makes no philosophical presupposition about what is to be found. Observing real sciences in action might reveal a complexity that has been masked by a priori philosophical presuppositions.
(3) Metascience is comparative in spirit. Where most metaphysical projects focus on one scientific discipline (most often physics), we will look at different scientific disciplines (namely physics, biology, psychology) and we will aim to find out whether certain conclusions about one field can be generalized to other fields, or whether certain stances or attitudes come into conflict (and, if so, how conflicts are or aren’t resolved).
(4) Metascience focuses on areas of “overlap”, where several sciences are studying what appear to be the same objects. When different sciences offer distinct (and sometimes conflicting) ontological descriptions of objects even though these objects seem to be the “same”, we believe that metascience will help to disentangle these complex situations;
(5) Metascience does not limit itself to one kind of entities (genes, for instance) or relationships (reduction), but looks at many different kinds of entities and relationships. In doing so, our hope is that certain important but underappreciated patterns might emerge;
(6) though our main focus will be the “scientific image” generated by different sciences , we will also be interested in the relationships between that image and what could be called the “manifest” or the “common sense” image of the world.

see entry « Results »

The aim of the Metascience project is to make a significant contribution to the metaphysics of science on the basis of the detailed analysis of key concepts in current experimental sciences, above all physics, biology and psychology. We understand “metaphysics of science” as the field of research whose objective is the analysis of the fundamental concepts structuring scientific research – e.g., those of individual, cause, or disposition.
Our strategy is best understood in contrast with the dominant perspective in today’s metaphysics. Indeed, most research presently done within this field proceeds by pure conceptual analysis. This strategy of philosophical research is sometimes explicitly stated and defended. It corresponds to what Strawson (1959) has called “descriptive metaphysics,” which aims at making explicit the conceptual structure underlying common sense. The method appropriate for this aim is the conceptual analysis of ordinary language statements and the intuitions they express. This approach structures, e.g., a large part of the research on causation. Most of the debates on the various attempts to analyze the concept of causation are framed by the search for so-called “counter-examples”: philosophical accounts of causation are evaluated by comparing the judgment they yield in various situations to the intuitive judgment on that situation. If the theory yields a result that contradicts naive intuition, the intuitive judgment is considered to be a counter-example to the theory. To the extent that common sense ignores scientific knowledge, science is irrelevant to the task of descriptive metaphysics.
This project develops a completely different type of metaphysical enquiry. Our main interest does not lie in the analysis of the conceptual structure underlying common sense. Instead, our aim is to uncover the conceptual structure that underlies scientific theories and practice. To the extent that science often goes against common sense, to choose as our main criterion of adequacy agreement with science, not common sense, makes our approach belong to Strawson’s category of “revisionist metaphysics.” Indeed, our suggestion is that experimental sciences can offer an “image of the world,” which may well conflict with the layman’s image of the world, based mainly on our perceptions and intuitions. To take just one example, if the concept of the individual at work in biology includes within an individual organism all the microorganisms that live in symbiosis with it whereas common sense excludes them, we will ignore the latter and take seriously the former. More generally, our project aims at analyzing scientific concepts at work in science, even if they clash with commonsense ontology. When clashes do occur, our objective will be to spell out how and why.
What is most distinctive of this project is our multidisciplinary approach to experimental sciences: our aim is to analyze various metaphysical key concepts by evaluating their role in structuring and accounting for scientific activities in more than one discipline. With some rare exceptions, almost all research in the metaphysics of science takes into consideration only one science, most usually physics. In contrast, we believe that comparing the roles a concept plays in different sciences may reveal its basic structure and features more reliably than an analysis that remains limited to a single discipline.
The Metascience project is structured around three axes. Our strategy consists in analyzing the role played by three key notions in today’s experimental sciences: 1) levels of reality, 2) objects or individuals, and 3) dispositions. On the basis of this analysis, our aim is to draw conclusions on the structure of reality according to its scientific representation, on possible conflicts between the scientific representation of the world and the commonsense worldview, as well as on the makeup of our conceptual system.

Project coordinator

Monsieur Maximilian KISTLER (INSTITUT D'HISTOIRE ET DE PHILOSOPHIE DES SCIENCES ET DES TECHNIQUES (IHPST)) – mkistler@univ-paris1.fr

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.

Partner

IHPST - UMR8590 INSTITUT D'HISTOIRE ET DE PHILOSOPHIE DES SCIENCES ET DES TECHNIQUES (IHPST)

Help of the ANR 200,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2012 - 36 Months

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