Via Finnegans Wake, I found a link back to a really well written obituary of David Lewis by Jane O’Grady. I remember at the time that the American obituaries about Lewis mentioned modal realism and very little but modal realism. And while of course modal realism gets a run here, it’s a very good systematic account of what’s valuable in Lewis’s philosophy. (As well as mentioning many of the reasons so many people were so fond of Lewis in person.) Anyway, the reason I’m linking to it here is to note the start of the final paragraph.

Lewis restored philosophical respectability to systematic metaphysics. Like Hume, he tried to reconcile a scientific conception of the world with how it actually appears to us.

I’m not entirely sure this is the most perspicuous way to describe Hume, but as a claim about Lewis it seems just right. I bring this up mainly to be self-deprecating. I think focussing on this reconciliation project is the right way to read Lewis, but I don’t think in saying that I’m being particularly groundbreaking. Still, I’m not sure it’s been said in the unpopular press quite so clearly before, so perhaps there’s some value in me continuing to say it.

15 Replies to “Obituaries”

  1. Given Lewis’s complete lack of interest in quantum mechanics, it strikes me as odd to suggest that he was particularly interested in the “scientific conception of the world,” or its potential conflicts with common sense.

  2. I don’t really see Lewis this way either. I would have thought that someone who was interested in the “scientific conception of the world” and who was writing a paper called “Psychophysical Identifications” would pay a little bit of attention to actual cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology. But Lewis’ treatment doesn’t even do this. In general, his supposed attempt to reconcile science and commonsense sounds to me more like a slogan than a research program he was very serious about. Anyone who is serious about such a project would spend a hell of a lot more time on the fine grains of scientific theories.

  3. There are very different types of philosophical work that can be said to aim “to reconcile a scientific conception of the world with how it actually appears to us.” I suppose some such work may involve very fine-grained & advanced accounts of the relevant science. But since much of the need for reconciliation becomes apparent from even some of the more basic aspects of science, there is also room for very important attempts at such reconciliation that don’t involve all the details of the science. & such work can be extremely serious & very valuable.

  4. Keith DeRose’s comment makes sense so long as Lewis’s commitments were internal to, and consistent with, the “scientific conception of the world.” Insofar as Lewis’s commitments (e.g. locality) were not consistent with this conception, then there really is a problem.

  5. Where did “Liz’s Husband” get the idea that Lewis had “a complete lack of interest in quantum mechanics”?

  6. I’m with Fritz here. Someone who had a complete lack of interest in QM wouldn’t have written a paper (“How Many Lives Has Schrodinger’s Cat?”) on a philosophical issue arising out of QM.

    I also think the locality issue is a bit of a red herring. True, Lewis was interested in working out the consequences and plausibility of a theory according to which local properties played a crucial role. And it’s true that QM doesn’t look like it’s a local theory. But given Lewis’s motivation, it isn’t clear this matters. The kinds of anti-Humean non-locality Lewis was arguing against are not the kinds of non-locality we find in QM.

    On a similar note, it would be a mistake to say that Lewis, or anyone else who spends time defending free will compatibilism, isn’t paying attention to indeterminism in QM. Since the kind of indeterminism in QM isn’t the kind of indeterminism that will save free will if compatibilism is false, working out whether compatibilism is true or false is philosophically relevant. I think the same is true of Lewis’s attention to locality. QM no more helps anti-Humeans who believe in primitive causation than it helps anti-Humeans who believe in libertarian free will.

  7. The “complete lack of interest” comment comes from, e.g., the discussion on page xi of the preface to “Philosophical Papers,” vol. 2. I am not alone in the opinion that Lewis didn’t take modern physics very seriously.

    Brian’s assertion about Lewisian locality being compatibile with QM-nonlocality doesn’t square with the comments on page xi of the preface to “Philosophical Papers,” but let’s put that to the side.

    The deeper point is that Lewis’s metaphysical commitments—Lewisian locality, Lewisian compatibilism, etc.—shouldn’t be described as intrinsic to the “scientific worldview.” Perhaps they are compatible with modern science, perhaps not. But they are not the only available metaphysical options, and the practice of science by no means depends on adopting them.

  8. Lewis in that old introduction said that (roughly) he wasn’t ready to read metaphysics directly off of the then popular readings of quantum mechanics. Seems like the right attitude to me – then and now.

  9. I agree with Fritz, this seems like the right view. And it is also one held by philosophers who everyone agrees take physics very seriously – such as Larry Sklar – see his comments about the analogue computer science’s GIGO (Garbage-In, Garbage-Out) principle. Sklar calls the idea of trying to simply read off the metpahysical consequences from the physics the MIMO principle (Metaphsics-In, Metaphysics-Out) – the idea being that metaphysical assumptions are often already in a “standard” interpretation of a physical theory, and so in many cases one might have the illusion that one is simply “reading off” the metaphysics but in reality they’re being snuck into the interpretation of the theory. See his book, Philosophy of Physics.

  10. The passage says nothing whatsoever about “popular readings” of quantum mechanics, or about “reading metaphysics directly off” of quantum mechanics. The passage acknowledges that the lesson of Bell’s theorem might be that Humean supervenience is false. There’s simply nothing here about “popular readings” or “reading directly off.” Instead, there’s an explicit statement that one of Lewis’s central theses might well be inconsistent with modern physics.

    Furthermore Lewis says that he doesn’t uphold the “truth of Humean supervenience” but rather the “tenability” of it. As far as I’m concerned, this directly contradicts the claim that got this whole discussion started. If Lewis really was interested in conflicts between “the scientific conception of the world” and the way the world appears to us, then he would need to care about the truth — rather than the tenability — of Human supervenience. If Humean supervenience is false, then it is not part of the scientific conception of the world, and its tenability is simply not an issue.

    BTW, I’m switching my name because Liz has asked that she not be associated with the outre views of her nonphilosopher husband.

  11. Well, here’s Lewis on p.xi of the introduction to his philosophical papers volume 2 (the old ones). This is the passage I was recalling though I didn’t have it in front of me when I wrote the gloss you complain about:

    “But I am not ready to take lessons in ontology from quantum physics as it is now. First I must see how it looks when it is purified of instrumentalist frivolity and dares to say something not just about pointer readings but about the constitution of the world; and when it is purified of doublethinking deviant logic — and, most of all, when it is purified of supernatural tales about the power of the observant mind to make things jump. If, after all that, it still teaches locality, I shall submit willingly to the best of authority.”

    My gloss was not a quotation of Lewis, so pointing out that there’s no quote containing the words “popular readings”… etc… doesn’t seem so relevant. Beyond that, returning to the passage leads me to stand by my informal gloss on it. Lewis seems to be saying that he’s willing to take instruction in metaphysics from physics only if the physics is distinguished from various things that some might say about physics. He’s not willing draw metaphysical conclusions from various interpretations of it (involving for example, deviant logic) nor is he willing to take metaphysical instruction from a reading of the physics (e.g., a purely instrumentalist reading that some might like) that by design does not speak to metaphysical issues). It’s true he didn’t use the phrase “popular readings” (but again, I didn’t try to quote him from memory…) but surely many of us recall the popularizations prominent at the time talking about, for example, required revisions in logic and/or magical powers of observers and/or a whole host of other things one might plausibly gloss as “popular readings”.

    But ok, others can read the Lewis page and decide for themselves.

  12. Funnily enough, I think that those lines from the introduction support the reconciliation interpretation. I think it all turns on how you read the Lewisian thesis. Consider the following two theses:

    (1) Localism is true.
    (2) There is no philosophical argument against localism.

    Dmitri argues that Lewis doesn’t care about science because his central thesis is inconsistent with science. But that assumes his central thesis is (1). I think his central thesis is (2), as he says in the introduction.

    Now (2) obviously isn’t inconsistent with anything in science. The question is why would anyone who takes science seriously bother arguing for (2)? Well, that suggests a prior question, why would anyone argue for (2)? I think the answer starts by nothing that (3) is true, or at least plausible.

    (3) If there is no philosophical argument against localism, then there is no philosophical argument for expanding the ontology presented to us by science, whatever that ontology should turn out to be.

    If (2) and (3) are true, then there is no philosophical argument that “one or another commonplace feature of the world” cannot find a place in the scientific ontology. And that’s an important step towards reconciling science and commonsense, which is what I think Lewis was trying to do.

    Obviously there’s a lot to be said about (3), but this comment has gone on too long already! The big point is that if Lewis’s central doctrine is (2) not (1), then it can be used in a reconciliation project.

    On Fritz’s point, I agree that Lewis didn’t want to read ontology off QM circa 1986. I’m not so sure he didn’t develop a more positive attitude towards QM over later years – he did after all bother to write a paper on QM at the end which he wouldn’t have done 15 years prior. And given the work that philosophers (and physicists) have done to get the instrumentalism out of QM, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable attitude to take.

  13. Like Keith DeRose, I don’t see that not giving special attention to the details of current scientific theories means one is not in the business of trying to solve the placement problem (what Brian calls the location problem in his post). It’s fair to say that McDowell’s ‘Mind and World’ doesn’t pay much (if any) attention to the fine details of contemporary science, but it’s explicitly concerned with the placement problem (as even the title suggests). As DeRose points out, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason to expect all – or even the best – work on these issues to proceed in that manner.

  14. For a devestating (or, if you wish, lovely) illustration of how McDowell’s ignorance of contemporary science gets him into trouble, see Howard Stein’s “The Enterprise of Understanding and the Enterprise of Knowledge,” Synthese, May 2004, 135 – 176 (Essays in honor of Isaac Levi). Note that one of Stein’s targets — McDowell’s intuitions about secondary qualities — is widely shared in the philosophic community. Stein is (as Brian Leiter likes to say) a distinguished philosopher of physics, Emeritus at The University of Chicago.
    But to return to the thread, I think much of mainstream metaphysics (of the sort inspired by Lewis, although Quine is probably the culprit, and now considered ‘core’ again) is rather a bit too comfortable in the arm-chair. I suspect it would be good for philosophy if more metaphysicians would spend more time learning about the details of science to appreciate the constraints on some of their intuitions and it would be good for philosophy of science (and perhaps science) if philosophers critically analyzed (and not merely attempted to clarify) the often tacit metaphysical assumptions in the varioues sciences.

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