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Does Physics Answer Metaphysical Questions?1


According to logical positivism, so the story goes, metaphysical questions are meaningless, since they do not admit of empirical confirmation or refutation. However, the logical positivists did not in fact reject as meaningless all questions about for example, the structure of space and time. Rather, key figures such as Reichenbach and Schlick believed that scientific theories often presupposed a conceptual framework that was not itself empirically testable, but which was required for the theory as a whole to be empirically testable. For example, the theory of Special Relativity relies upon the simultaneity convention introduced by Einstein that assumes that the one-way speed of light is the same in all directions of space. Hence, the logical positivists accepted an a priori component to physical theories. However, they denied that this a priori component is necessarily true. Whereas for Kant, metaphysics is the a priori science of the necessary structure of rational thought about reality (rather than about things in themselves), the logical positivists were forced by the history of science to accept that the a priori structure of theories could change. Hence, they defended a notion of what Michael Friedman (1999) calls the ‘relativised’ or the ‘constitutive’ a priori. Carnap and Reichenbach held that such an a priori framework was conventional, whereas Schlick seems to have been more of a realist and held that the overall relative simplicity of different theories could count as evidence for their truth, notwithstanding the fact that some parts of them are not directly testable. All this is part of the story of how the verification principle came to be abandoned, and how logical positivism transmuted into logical empiricism.

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*Bristol University

This text is more or less that of a talk of the same title given to the Royal Institute of Philosophy on 10th February 2006. The relationship between science and metaphysics is discussed in more detail in Ladyman and Ross (2007).

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements
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