Six degrees of speculation : metaphysics in empirical contexts

In Bradley John Monton (ed.), Images of Empiricism: Essays on Science and Stances, with a Reply From Bas C. Van Fraassen. Oxford University Press (2007)
Metaphysical inquiry often exemplifies characteristics that do not meet with approval in the estimations of empiricists. Most distasteful to them, it seems, is a perceived distance between many of the speculations of metaphysics − about things such as causation, laws of nature, and unobservable stuff more generally − and the sorts of investigations they take to constitute proper empirical inquiry. Like any over-arching movement in the history of philosophy, empiricism has recognized different interlocutors at different times, but it appears that all share a fascination for this kind of speculation. In relatively recent times, the influence of logical positivism encouraged a neglect of metaphysical issues in discussions of general philosophy of science that lasted well past the demise of positivism itself. Metaphysical disputes surfaced nonetheless, of course, both there and in the philosophy of particular sciences: space and time, evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, and so on. Among post-positivist philosophers of science, no one has done more to reformulate the challenge of empiricism to metaphysical speculation than Bas van Fraassen. My goal here is to suggest that one may accept the many gifts of his reformulation of empiricism, and yet find value in the metaphysical investigations he asks us to sacrifice in return. At first glance, the prospects for having so much cake and eating it must seem dim. Those who would offer strict constraints regarding knowledge based on experience are lined up against those who are at least partly at home in the armchairs of reason. Is there not an unbridgeable chasm, here? Perhaps there is, but things are not as simple as my caricature would suggest. For one thing, it is not entirely clear what the relevant contrasts are here between what I have labelled ‘metaphysics’ and ‘empiricism’. It is not clear, for example, what it means for some philosophical speculation to take place ‘at a distance’ from empirical inquiry..
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