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«1. Introduction Try Googling ‘applied metaphysics’: you’ll be led to a motley collection of new age healers, self-help tracts, and sacred ...»

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Applied Metaphysics

Katherine Hawley May 2015

Accepted for publication; not yet copy-edited or cross-referenced to other chapters.

1. Introduction

Try Googling ‘applied metaphysics’: you’ll be led to a motley collection of new age healers,

self-help tracts, and sacred geometry. You can obtain a Certificate in Applied Metaphysics

by studying psychic growth, or learn about Historical Astrology versus Quantum Fractal

Scaling on an Applied Metaphysics Foundation Program. Now try searching for ‘applied metaphysics’ on PhilPapers, the main database for professional philosophy: just a handful of papers explicitly use the phrase. ‘Applied Metaphysics’ as such is not a recognised subdiscipline of philosophy.

Nevertheless, there is all sorts of fascinating work going on – inside and outside of university philosophy departments – which could be labelled ‘applied metaphysics’ in a truly philosophical sense. It is easy to track down valuable insights, arguments and ideas; it is more difficult to understand whether such enterprises have anything interesting in common, and to understand the relationship between applied metaphysics and metaphysics in general.

But let’s begin by establishing what metaphysics is, and to do that, let’s begin with some examples of metaphysical questions: What is it for something to cause something else? Must every event have a cause? Is the future real? What about the past? Which elements of reality, if any, are independent of our thoughts about reality? What is it for one thing to be a part of another? When objects have some feature in common, is there entity which is literally shared between them? Is there more than one way to exist? How do things persist through time?

Metaphysical issues which lend themselves to application beyond philosophy are often (though not always) issues to do with categorising, classifying and organising the world.

Reality seems to be divided into things, and those things seem to be divided up into different categories: trees, laptops, clouds, Scots, parties, oil price shocks, and so on. We may wonder to what extent reality itself dictates how it should be divided and categorised, and to what extent these distinctions reflect human interests, whether these are determined socially, psychologically, biologically, or all three. Which distinctions are objective, and which are conventional?

What is distinctive about metaphysics? Metaphysical questions concern the nature of reality at a very general or


level. Metaphysicians ask whether the past is real, not whether some specific historical event really occurred. They ask what it is for one thing to be part of another, not whether this specific piece of plastic is part of my kids’ Star Wars Lego set. And they ask how things persist in general, not how those geraniums managed to survive the winter. But scientists, of course, also ask questions at a very general level: how did the universe begin? are matter and energy equivalent? is space infinitely divisible? It’s not always clear where – or even whether – to draw the boundary between metaphysical questions and scientific questions. The very idea of such a boundary is relatively new, in historical terms, and its purported location has shifted over time. Moreover, it’s not even clear whether the boundary between metaphysics and science is best thought of as a boundary between different types of question, as opposed to different methodologies for example. So ‘metaphysics’ is something of a fuzzy category. (The opening section of ‘Metaphysics’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a useful next step.) As if intended to confuse beginners, the term ‘ontology’ is sometimes used interchangeably with the term ‘metaphysics’. Typically, there is an implied contrast between ontological/metaphysical questions on the one hand, and epistemological questions on the other: ontology, or metaphysics, is the investigation of what the world is like, whilst epistemology is the investigation of how we come to know about the world.

But sometimes ontology is thought of as a special sub-division of metaphysics, a sub-division which investigates existence, or what exists. (Relatedly, an ontology is a list, or theory of what exists: if something is in my ontology, it is something I believe to exist.) In this sense of ‘ontology’, not all of metaphysics counts as ontology. For example, questions about what it is for one thing to be part of another do not seem to be ontological questions: they are not questions of what exists, but questions about relationships between existing things.

Nevertheless, when you think about a metaphysical issue, you often find an ontological issue of existence lurking nearby. When we ask what it is for one thing to be part of another, we may easily find ourselves asking what kind of objects have parts, and thus what kinds of parts exist. (The opening sections of another Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article, on ‘Logic and Existence’ are helpful here.) There is a deep philosophical problem here, about whether we can or should distinguish metaphysical questions about existence (‘ontological’ questions) from other types of metaphysical questions. There is also a practical problem of trying to understand whether people who write or talk about ‘ontology’ are thinking of metaphysics in general, or of a special sub-division of metaphysics which concerns existence. Nevertheless we can get a good start at appreciating the possibilities of applied metaphysics without letting these worries detain us too long.

2. Applying metaphysics within philosophy Applied philosophy usually reaches beyond philosophy, and we’ll see below that applied metaphysics does this too. But, in addition, metaphysics is applied within philosophy, to questions and topics which are unequivocally philosophical, yet do not normally feature in a standard metaphysics course or textbook.

These include topics in applied ethics. For example, debates around the permissibility of abortion, or of reproductive technologies, may draw upon metaphysical ideas about personal identity and the self. At the other end of life, practical discussions about death and killing may also draw upon metaphysical debates about the nature of death, and the possibility of posthumous harm.

Metaphysical issues also arise in areas of philosophy not usually thought of as ‘applied’. For example, philosophers ask whether there are such things as moral facts, and if so what the basis for such facts are: for example, are they mind-dependent in some way, dependent upon more mundane physical facts, or features of reality in their own right? Such debates fit within meta-ethics in the standard taxonomy of philosophical specialisms, but they are informed by metaphysical discussions of facts, fundamentality, objectivity and the like.

A branch of philosophical aesthetics investigates the ontology of art. That is, what sort of entities are musical works, novels, or photographs, for example? What is the relationship between Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, and the millions of physical printed copies of that novel currently located in many countries worldwide? Is How Soon Is Now? an abstract object which was discovered amongst the multitudes of pre-existing but physically unrealised pieces of music, or did Morrissey and Marr literally create this piece of music in 1984, bringing it into existence for the first time?

Several significant issues in the philosophy of religion are essentially metaphysical issues.

There’s the great ontological question of whether God exists, of course. And philosophers of religion have drawn extensively upon metaphysical discussions of the nature of time in attempting to reconcile God’s eternity or timelessness with the way in which, according to many traditions, God intervenes in human affairs. Enduring mysteries, such as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, or the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist, have prompted centuries of thought about the nature of identity, change and substance; for a very long time, and in some circles today, religious concerns have provided the key motive for doing metaphysics, rather than being an afterthought or mere ‘application’ of metaphysical debate.

Likewise, many issues in the philosophy of science can be considered metaphysical; debates about causation, laws of nature, natural kinds, and chance fall into this category. Lots of philosophers of science, however, would resist the ‘applied metaphysics’ designation, if it is taken to imply some kind of priority for metaphysics. They would insist that it is science, and philosophy of science, which should provide the prompts and constraints for metaphysics: our metaphysics should follow where science leads. (In some ways, this is analogous to the view of religious commitment and metaphysics described in the preceding paragraph.) So, for example, as we learn from science that the world may be fundamentally indeterministic, metaphysicians must develop accounts of causation which do not presuppose determinism.

It doesn’t much matter how we divide up philosophy into sub-areas, where exactly we draw a line between ‘core’ metaphysics and metaphysical debate which arises in connection with ethics, art, religion, or science. But we should bear in mind that different people may take different views about what comes first, and about what role general metaphysics can play in helping address these somewhat more specific questions. One view is that ‘core’ metaphysics should proceed on its own terms, attempting to discover deep truths about reality, which can then be applied to more specific cases regarding ethics, etc. A more cautious view would see metaphysicians as generating a range of conceptual tools, connections and ideas, which can act as a toolbox or set of resources from which other philosophers can choose what works best for them. Thus metaphysicians’ discussions of abstract objects, for example, can inform debates about the ontology of artworks, debates about the nature of numbers, and debates about the existence of God, perhaps in different ways, but without needing to reinvent the wheel each time. (Steven French and Kerry McKenzie (2012) develop this ‘toolbox’ idea of the relationship between metaphysics and philosophy of science.) So metaphysics can influence other areas of philosophy even if it does not offer definitive verdicts about the ultimate structure of reality. (And a good job too, since whenever a metaphysician offers a definitive view about the ultimate structure of reality, you will find another metaphysician offering an entirely different definitive view.) This brief survey of metaphysics applied within philosophy gives us a starting point for considering some ways in which metaphysics can be applied beyond philosophy. In what follows, I will discuss three case studies in applied metaphysics, before returning to more general reflections at the end of the chapter.

3. Case Study I: Applied Ontology You’ll have seen the ads, if you don’t own an iPhone yourself: users can interact with their devices via Siri, the voice-activated ‘personal assistant’. Siri’s functioning depends on applied ontology, indeed a version specific to Apple, known as ‘active ontology’. Tech commentators who have read the many patents lodged by Apple expect the company to develop and expand this system over the coming years. When you find yourself asking the refrigerator what your dinner options are, or your bathroom cabinet recognises your reflection and reminds you to take your medication, you’ll be relying on applied ontology.

Applied ontology is a young field. The first international workshop was held in 1993, and Applied Ontology – the journal of the International Association for Ontology and its Applications – published its first issue in 2005. On the very first page, the editors-in-chief


Ontology is no longer perceived as an arcane branch of metaphysics, the province only of philosophers; the study of ontology now fits squarely into the study of modern computer science and informatics…Linguists and philosophers now work hand-inhand with traditional computer scientists to build complex information systems with explicit, examinable conceptual models of the environments in which they are intended to operate, of the organizations in which they will be used, and of the data and knowledge that they will process. (Guarino and Musen 2005: 1) Many computer systems involve the storage and manipulation of large quantities of data.

Any such system must incorporate standardised formats for such information. For example, a database of restaurants needs categories for type of cuisine, opening hours, location, and price range. But even for this simple example, decisions need to be made. Is ‘pizza’ a category of restaurant in its own right, or is it a sub-category of ‘Italian’? How many categories of Chinese restaurants are there? Does a restaurant specialising in ‘fusion’ cooking belong in the same category as a restaurant which serves dishes from different cuisines? When it comes to price range, should we list the cheapest meal available at the restaurant, the average, or the typical price? Is it the price for a main dish (US entrée) or for a three-course meal with a glass of house wine? Or maybe a beer? How many price categories do we need? The system designers must consider the needs and interests of likely database users. And they must also consider interactions between this database and other systems: it might make sense to use the same categories as TripAdvisor, for example, in order to synchronise with customer reviews on that site.

In other words, the designers need to adopt or develop an ontology of restaurants: a system of categories which applies to this domain, and which can be used to organise, query, and articulate information about it. Ontologies are used to help represent scientific knowledge, especially in areas where categorisation is key, and data is big; the biomedical sciences

feature heavily. A real example of applied ontology is the Gene Ontology:

The Gene Ontology (GO) project is a collaborative effort to address the need for consistent descriptions of gene products in different databases. The GO collaborators are developing three structured, controlled vocabularies (ontologies) that describe gene products in terms of their associated biological processes, cellular components and molecular functions in a species-independent manner.

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