Against Brute Fundamentalism

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McKenzie, Kerry
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In metaphysics, the fundamental is standardly equated with that which has no explana- tion – with that which is, in other words, ‘brute’. But this doctrine of brutalism is in tension with physicists’ ambitions to not only describe but also explain why the fundamental is as it is. The tension would ease were science taken to be incapable of furnishing the sort of explanations that brutalism is concerned with, given that these are understood to be dis- tinctively ‘metaphysical’ in character. But to assume this is to assume a sharp demarcation between physics and metaphysics that surely cannot be taken for granted. This paper sets out to examine the standing of brutalism from the perspective of contem- porary fundamental physics, together with theories of explanation drawn from philosophy of science and metaphysics. Focusing on what fundamental kinds the world instantiates and how physicists go about determining them, I argue that a partial explanation, in Hempel’s sense, may be given of this fundamental feature. Moreover, since this partial explanation issues, at least in part, from stipulations as to the essential nature of the kinds involved, I claim that it has as much right to be regarded as a metaphysical explanation as do grounding explanations. As such, my conclusion will be that the doctrine of brutalism can no longer be regarded as tenable: at least modulo certain plausible essentialist assumptions, it is no longer the case that no explanation can be given of the fundamental.