Nominalism as “Mechanical Philosophy”

In resisting overly mechanistic world-views, the idea of a mechanical philosophy is a scary thought. But it got my attention, as Stuart Glennan intended in the title of his “The New Mechanical Philosophy” reviewed by Carl Craver in the BJPS Review of Books. Hat tip to retweet by Judy Stout.

Based on reading the review only, I’ve not seen the book yet, it seems largely to focus on nominalism. Like many technical terms in philosophy, nominalism doesn’t sound very exciting in the real world, but the key thing is what it says about causation. Now that secured my attention:

definition of nominalism says nothing about causation directly, indeed it is very dry and opaque in terms of any real world significance:

In metaphysics, nominalism is a philosophical view which denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, but affirms the existence of general or abstract terms and predicates.

It makes a distinction about the kinds of things that can be involved in different kinds of causal relations. Now that’s interesting.

To deny conceptual (universal and abstract) objects, that they don’t exist in your real world ontology, is almost tautological. In fact the conceptual and real, and the relations between them, are part of a more comprehensive ontology. The world we inhabit has both real and conceptual elements.

However philosophers – and physicists as natural philosophers – analyse their world-views into an ontology of what exists, they are ontologically committed, as Rebecca Goldstein has put it. The conceptual rubber of their fundamental physics or metaphysics  must hit real road before the job’s jone. The ivory tower cannot be a permanent refuge.

But it is an issue that whilst involved in theoretical discourse, the ontological commitment, of which objects are in fact real and which are merely conceptual, can get obscured. (Worse still, when working with those same objects in a real world context, we are even less likely to notice the significance at all.)

They key point is that real things in the real world are physical individuals and arrangements of individuals, named for their identity. The conceptual objects are simply named as being significant in the comprehensive ontology of our world-view, but not existing with individual identity in the real (physical) world. Hence nominalism – significant things are named even if they do not exist in a real physical sense. Real even though not physical?

Hence the caveat to both physicists and philosophers. There are several corollaries:

The simplest one is the empiricism alluded to already, that rubber must eventually hit the road. You have to ask yourself why we need to have such conceptual ontologies at all when we all probably prefer to deal with the real world? The conceptual must meet the physical at some point. Real world evidence is the test of any model. But there is a deeper issue here:

The concepts we give names to in our ontology may not exist in the real physical world, but we really do use their names and symbols in language – natural and logical – in predicates describing relationships between them. Many using causal language, even where conceptual objects are involved. One reason where we might find ourselves using sorta / kinda / more like qualifiers (after Dennett), when we realise we really do mean causation, but clearly a strange kind of causation. The review also uses the loose expression “hang together” for the job of the ontology (as I’ve heard Massimo Pigliucci too recently) rather some more structurally definitive language. Important to note that these are not just about “ways of talking” it’s about saying anything about anything using our world-view. [Paging … Herr Wittgenstein.]

The most obvious place a simplistic physical causation seems disconnected from any conceptual kind is in the ubiquitous mind-body problem. How does an idea cause physical reality? Rather than deny it, we need to notice that causation crosses real and conceptual levels. Causation really is much weirder than a greedy-reductionist view of objective determinism. The because and therefore of argumentation is more than simply physical causation.

When it comes to “how?” because is more than cause as we know it.

Enough about me, the review itself says a lot more:

Craver agrees Glennan’s title is “audacious”. But it becomes clear the mechanical of the title is alluding to the “explosion of interest” in mechanism (ie causation) beyond the scientifically physical. That is so good to hear.

In fact the references – those in the review only – indicate further reasons to take an interest in Glennan’s latest book:

Glennan, S. [1996]: ‘Mechanisms and the Nature of Causation’,
Erkenntnis, 44, pp. 49–71

1996! The nature of causation. And there’s more:

Bechtel, W. and Abrahamsen, A. [2013]: ‘Roles of Diagrams in Computational Modeling of Mechanisms’, in M. Knauff (ed.), Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society, pp. 1839–44.

Bogen, J. [2005]: ‘Regularities and Causality; Generalizations and Causal Explanations’, in C. F. Craver and L. Darden (eds), In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 397–420.

Craver, C. [2007]: Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the Mosaic Unity of Neuroscience, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Craver, C. F. and Tabery, J. [2017]: ‘Mechanisms in Science’, in E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Craver, C. F. and Darden, L. [2013]: In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Darden, L. [2006]: Reasoning in Biological Discoveries: Mechanism, Interfield Relations, and Anomaly Resolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giere, R. [2004]: ‘How Models Are Used to Represent Reality’, Philosophy of Science, 71, pp. 742–52.

Woodward, J. [2003]: Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Computation, CogSci, Modelling … and questioning  scientific causal reasoning in life-sciences. Pretty much my own agenda. All human life is here. Fascinating.

There is a reality more fundamental than physics.



Fascinating  because of my current evolutionary-psychology agenda in human knowledge modelling and decision-making generally, in a world where “scientistic” types casually dismiss the reality of the decisions of human minds altogether, whilst stumbling unwittingly towards artificially automating them.

All the more fascinating to me not least because the computer-systems & business-modelling route that brought me into this space from physical engineering focussed very much on the difficulties of getting to grips with relationships crossing the levels between the conceptual (classes) and physical (individuals) – not to mention meta-relationships between the layers of conceptual (classes of class). Something which our clever modellers got pretty much right in the many dimensions of the core ontology of our “high-quality generic entity model”. However, after 30-years of evolution from STEP/EPISTLE through ISO15926 to the Semantic Web it’s still proving pretty much impenetrable to those working with reference data in the real business of engineering. Is it any wonder?


[Post Note: Missed this earlier tweet from Anita Leirfall …

…. another good article, by Glennan himself.]

Also published on Medium.

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