Pluralism and Metaphysical Disorder

Banin D. Sukmono

Director and Head of Metaphysics and Science
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A review of John Dupré’s The Disorder of Things (1993)

Metaphysics-minded philosophers might ask John Dupré project in his 1993’s book, even from the title alone, with a question of the possibility of metaphysical disorders. This response is natural since many philosophers seemingly have concurred that, although our current theories are still messy, that mess is merely epistemological and never metaphysical. Our intuition has been pretty obvious that the world works in ordained structure and classification. The collection of microscopic things composes a more macroscopic reality, and things in this world are structured naturally, such that capable of classified in proportion to represent the real division of reality. The only issue for which the ultimate evidence has not been found yet is the currently limited computation and theoretical maturity. If a superpower computer competent of listing all factors work in a model has been established, and a mature representative taxonomy has been proposed, this challenge is believed to be passed. Surely, many philosophers question whether that possibility is practically possible; nevertheless, their metaphysical fidelity on the real order of structure and classification is beyond question.

John Dupré, by contrast, rejects this. For him, the crux is not merely practical. The reason the evidence has not been found is not only epistemological but also metaphysical that the world is not as monist as reductionist and essentialist think. To that end, Dupré’s demonstrates that

  1. There are numerous incomparable theories in classifying kinds (against essentialists)
  2. There is no conclusive evidence of supervenience (against reductionists)

Let’s start with the first claim. This is about whether a natural kind exists and requires a real essence. A kind is a collection of things that has sameness, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristoteles that can account for the kind of philosopher. However, while it is easy to group some entities into one kind arbitrarily, it is somewhat controversial to name it as natural, or not related to any value but the order of nature itself. Some philosophers argue that essence is needed to establish a kind. John Locke and Hilary Putnam are the epitomai. Locke and Putnam distinguish two types of essences, the linguistic one (Locke: nominal essence; Putnam: stereotype) and the microscopic one (Locke: real essence; Putnam: extension). For them, the former is temporary, artificial, and established by convention, but the latter is stable, natural, and only understood by investigating the composition of the members. The canonical example is, of course, water. Water is a kind because, whether it is from the artic or pacific sea, its essence is always H20 (Putnam, 1973).  

If there exists a real essence of each kind, it means there is one natural way to classify a kind, namely through its essence, and thus, the world can be perceived order. The rub is that, in practice, as Dupré argues, there are many ways of kinding entities naturally (Kendig, 2016), and not only does each way has its strength but also limitations. For example, from his observation of biology, in terms of species, there are several ways to arrange species with their distinctive basis, ranging from biological species concept (BSC) that focuses on the reproductive link and isolative reproduction in defining species, phylogenetic species concept (PSC) that define species with a common ancestor, to cohesion species concept (CSC) that regards species as inclusive groups. That said, each arrangement is at some point stuck to provide a clear and distinct explanation of anomalies: BSC with the asexual organism, hybridization, and boundaries, PSC with the criteria of determining and separating ancestor, and CSC with the exact level of species (Dupré, 1999).

Another example is common sense and general scientific taxonomy, which has many divergent but perceptible basis of kinds (Dupré, 1993, p. 27). For instance, whereas, for scientific taxonomy, lilies can also mean garlic because they fall into the same kind, common sense distinguishes them. Furthermore, whereas hare and rabbit are well separated by common sense, especially by farmer and hunter, this distinction is meaningless for taxonomic reality since those two are Lepus, so too are some big butterflies, moths, and skippers. While they are well differentiated by common sense, Macrolepidoptera is their biological name. 

These observations, for Dupré, are strong evidence for the pluralism of natural kinds. That is, there are many legitimate ways of classifying things in the world, and by abandoning one form of kinding, some members identified in other approaches will be left out. The only way to deal with this is by sticking to the purpose of the inquiry. For example, the best way to deal with asexual and hybridization, instead of BSC is PSC. However, Dupré’s example from biology is prone to a question regarding the position of biology before other sciences. While this pluralism might be right in biology, as the real consequence of continuous gradation and frequent discontinuities of evolution, it seems not the case for chemistry and physics. Their kinds seemingly have definite boundaries. Two answers can be given. First, even in chemistry and physics, a similar controversy, how to define kinds, exist. For example, although water looks solid as a kind, it is not universally H20, and therefore different approaches are essential (Bird & Tobin, 2018). Secondly, because of the vast array of empirical possibilities regarding kinds or homogenous membership, a complete a priori answer cannot be given, meaning that the seemingly solid boundary of kinds has no real meaning except by looking at the real practice of the sciences themselves, and this goes back to the first reason (Dupré, 1993, p. 84).

That answer leads us to the second claim: inconclusiveness of supervenience. The proponent of reductionist might say that while it might be true that there are many ways of describing kinds or horizontal disorder, it does not mean that the disorder applies to the vertical structure, e.g., the relation between micro and macrostructure. If so, the chance that the disorder is only epistemological is still there. If we can reduce the explanation of a more macroscopic reality to a more microscopic one, the latter can be the candidate of single universal order. This view, therefore, assumes that supervenience and causal completeness hold. The problem is, for Dupré, despite purporting to be complex and empirical, these assumptions are oversimplification and baseless.

Consider the supervenience thesis as an example; this point assumes that the world is compositionally and hierarchically structured from micro to macroscopic things. However, while it might be effortless to check the hierarchy of composition between microparticle and particle, the relationship among entities from that to molecule, cell, organ, and organism, not to mention psychology, ecology, and society, is complicated and even not straightforward. Take elephant; instead of structured like a tree, where the relationship among levels are clear; it is more like a net, where elements that makes this organism is not always its direct lower level, which is organs, but also fluid (blood), molecule (hormone), and almost atom (ion) (Dupré, 1993, p. 102). This is also the case for ecology. The environment is composed of different levels, ranging from multicellular organisms, single cells, to molecules. The case from ecology also indicatively show the complexity of a more comprehensive environment like society and economy. If the direct relationship between level does not hold, why would trust in a well-distinctive hierarchy.

Strict faith to strict supervenience also tends to shut the fact that object is a result of abstraction. The reductionist understanding of an object is an abstraction of objects in terms of composition and capability. However, objects can also be seen in terms of its relations with other things, or what the objects do. Therefore, although two points of view may talk about the same individual, their type of abstraction about the object might be different. For example, in ecology, which is non-compositional, a lynx is described by referring to its prey variations, the complexity of path taken, and reaction to other organisms, and this explanation cannot be replaced by a fully compositional point of view which merely talk about the structure of lynx’s teeth, organs, and genes, which only provide what the lynx capable of doing (Dupré, 1993, p. 116). This example does not only show that relational properties cannot be reduced to intrinsic ones but also the impossibility to differentiate sharply those two because of their overlapping roles in explanation (Dupré, 1996). For Dupré, this is a very potent argument for which, as long as the supercomputer of Laplace God is compositional, a single ordained structure cannot be expected. 

After this argument, for Dupré, what remains from the proponent of order is causal completeness of lower level as the basic assumption of supervenience. This thesis believes that its microscopic basis causes all macroscopic causality. Dupré rejects this thesis due to its tenability. First, causal completeness may only be realized in a very closed system of an experiment. Thus, the complete covering causal completeness is not an empirical thesis. There is no thorough empirical evidence of that completeness. Secondly, although casual completeness assumed, to some extent, determinism, whether it is total deterministic or probabilistic, deterministic reasoning of regularity discovered by science does not imply this completeness. Even though some abstract models can reveal many regularities, it does not mean that it is from one tendency of completeness. (Dupré, 1996).

Consider Basketball statistic as an example; although we can say that Lebron James has the capability of making 24.4 points per game, it does not say anything about its reliance on one causal completeness because each game relies on the different causal conditions, e.g., on the match versus Clippers, Lebron James should make the defense more, or on the match versus Buck, he got a financial problem. Specific regularity, therefore, never occur except as a historical narrative. In the specific event, there is no such pattern. If the causal completeness of lower-level structure is not assumed, proven, nor significantly useful in scientific investigation, why insist on it is invariably the case that the cause always comes from the microscopic reality. 

With the premises mentioned, it is fair then to say that the world may be in disorder. The fact that the arrangement is intricate is that the world itself is horizontally and vertically disorder. Dupré suspects that hierarchal and well-arranged assumption is forced for aesthetical reasons from the perspective of the regularity of macrophysics. This metaphysical messiness, therefore, needs a special epistemology different from the unification of science. The latter assumes that the world is in order and therefore reject the possibility of different reasonable and perceptible ways of understanding the world, limiting itself in one interest. By contrast, Dupré proposes the disunity of science to reach unification of epistemology of our messy world by seeing differences in scientific approaches and non or less scientific as family resemblance concepts that carry their virtues. The previous explanation shows well how differences in aim and interest of inquiries differentiate the result expected. With this in mind, embracing those are preferable to net the vast possibility of the investigation about the world without falling to “anything goes” even without specific virtues (Dupré, 1993, p. 243).

Dupré’s account of metaphysical disorder and scientific unity is not without problems; Three usual issues haunt this account, namely demarcation, anti-realism, and possible success of the integrationist project. The first problem is nicely voiced by Spencer (Spencer, 2016). In Dupré’s account, demarcation about good and bad science is barely considered. It will make the kinding conducted by, for example, baraminology unproblematic. Also, Dupré’s account leaves us undirected to perceive, for example, intriguing but flawed kinding of hereditarianism. Dupré’s, therefore, reliance on virtues in epistemology cannot fully assist him in not falling to “anything goes” thesis as long as he does not accept some sort of unproblematic ranking.

The second problem is Dupré’s realism, despite his pluralism. Partly, this attitude is criticized by Ereshefsky (Ereshefsky, 1998). For him, Dupré uses plurality in species to found his disunity of science. However, even Darwin itself doubts whether “species” itself exists. Although Ereshefsky does not proceed further the question to the disunity of science, it is plausible to extend this argument to other nexus of classification, ranging from genus to something higher or something lower. The question is how if the anti-realism only happens in higher than chemical or physical kinds. Dupré might answer it by leaving it to the vast possibility of the empirical enterprise. Still, by not fleshing out the argument why species is real, the basis of Dupré’s theoretical extension to other fields is baseless.

This leads us to the third problem, which is how if the mature theory of integrating species classification found. This effort, despite preliminary, has been confidently developed by, e.g., Boyd (Boyd, 1999) and Wilson (Wilson, 1999) with the concept of homeostasis property cluster (HPC) or Devitt (Devitt, 2008) with his partly genetic approach. The projected consequences will be more pernicious than Ereshefsky’s anti-realism as it might prove that there is one way of integrating diverse species due to evolution’s effect. Dupré’s answer is strong, but by relying much on what happens in current scientific discovery and understanding, his empiricism does not bar this possibility outright in principle.

Despite its different motive of criticizing Dupré, it seems clear that the three approaches above doubt the impossibility of metaphysical order. Dupré’s account is strong, but it does not rule all possibilities. Therefore, it can be said that, as Cartwright’s dappled world (Cartwright, 1999), the metaphysical proposal of Dupré is a sort of abduction of current scientific practice. Although the integrationist has not found the evidence, which may have never been found, the possibility is still there to think that the world is ordered. This is why Dupré insisted that this metaphysical vision is superior in terms of practice and, probably, ideological. By thinking that the world is in disorder, scientists can embrace the idea that their values play a significant part in determining not only the framework but also the content of inquiry. Also, the various explanation of describing different roles backs up the idea that the investigation of the world should not merely be mathematical and microscopical. Dupré believes that many creative ways of looking at the world can benefit the development of science itself. Although no one will know what will happen in the future of the unificationist project, this project of epistemic unification looks a very appealing paradigm for seeing the diversity and anomalies in practice. It will be such a loss if some immature approaches are excluded before its full potential is released or some approaches become less funded and trusted in policymaking just because it does not satisfy the traditional standard of science.


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