The Desert Metaphysical Landscape of Quine

Continuing the discussion from Dump the Metaphysics — How About Methodological Regularism?:

From the link:

Response to being quoted William Shakespeare’s statement from Hamlet : “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” As quoted in ‪When God is Gone Everything Is Holy: The Making Of A Religious Naturalist‬ (2008) by ‪Chet Raymo‬

Can someone tell me what the Desert Metaphysical Landscape is? @Philosurfer

The link is to a bunch of quotes from Quine. Here is the one I was referencing in particular:

Wyman’s overpopulated universe is in many ways unlovely. It offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes.

  • “On What There Is”, p. 4. a humorous comment on the idea “unactualized possible”.

The essay, “On What There Is,” contains Quine’s attack on modality. The gist being that one can multiple unactualized possible beings to absurdity under the tenets of modal logic. Quine was an unabashed naturalist who thought metaphysics allows anything and everything to be the case. His aesthetic sense in metaphysics was for parsimony, opting for an epistemological first philosophy in later works.

1 Like

So you like Quine or dislike him?

I admit that this paragraph is too terse and jargoned for me to fully parse. Can you expand please?

HA-HA, Quine IS terse and jargoned!

The basic gist is that Quine argued against the value of metaphysics as anything can be proven metaphysically. Metaphysics allows for infinite possibilities which, he thinks, works against its usefulness. He is a naturalist and a pragmatist. However, he realized, as is being pointed out at PeacefulScience, that you can’t get rid of metaphysics. One needs a certain framework, but his framework was more indicative of a desert than a rain forest. He was a minimalist in terms of metaphysical requirements, only committing to that which is necessary to get work done. But these commitments where always, even if seemingly necessary to get work done, underdetermined by the data/arguments and thus more akin to aesthetic judgements.

I like what Quine has to say about metaphysics, and he points one toward a naturalized view (i.e., scientific view) of philosophy. He, of course, has been criticized in the philosophical world as metaphysics has made a comeback. However, for philosophers with a naturalistic bent, he is the locus classicus.


In this short video, Putnam describes and critiques Quine’s view.

Quine himself, in an interview by McGee, describes his ontology in a YT video, especially starting at 34:00 mark:

My summary:

  1. Quine thought our ontology should be based on entities required by our best science.

  2. He did not believe there was such a thing as meaning.

  3. To avoid meaning/intensionality, he thought scientific theories must be formulated in first-order predicate logic, since it is extensional. Very roughly, extensional means all concepts are defined by listing the entities they refer to.

  4. The ontology implied by the predicate logic formulations of scientific theories is determined by inspecting the formulas to determine the variables quantified over.

  5. He believed numbers, and in particular sets, were required by science, and therefore he included sets in his ontology even though he was a physicalist and sets are abstract objects. McGee asks him about this apparent contradiction in the interview, and you can see him hesitate as he struggles to address the issue (although of course I’m sure he considered the issue many times before).

  6. Quine preferred a desert landscape in the sense that he only accepted sets and the ontology of physics, and not including other sciences. He thought the entities in other sciences were unneeded; they could be built up as sets of objects from physics.

SEP summarizes his ontology as follows:


The “rainforest realism” that @Philosurfer refers to is the name Ladyman and Ross adopted for their ontology. You can find a nice summary and critique of their book here.

My summary:

  1. Like Quine, L&R think our ontology must be based on science.

  2. However, they think all sciences have a claim on their own ontology; there is an ontology implied by each.

  3. L&R propose “ontic structural realism”. Essentially, they believe that scientific realism is best served with an ontology of structures (ie relations), not objects.

  4. To describe such structures, they formalize ideas first suggested by Dennett in his paper “Real Patterns”. As described in the above link, a real pattern entails “the compression of a larger data set, a compression that allows for the tracking and projectibility of the pattern.”

  5. Each science discovers its own set of projectable patterns. Roughly projectable means useful in varying contexts.

  6. L&R recognize that relying on compressibility seems to require a compressing agent, which detracts from their claim of realism. The linked paper summarizes their response to the criticism.


Very nice, thanks for the video links. I have yet to explore Putnam’s thought in any detail, but I’ve been impressed with his thinking when people talk about him.

Also, it is for reasons of Quinean ontology that people do not understand how I, as a Christian, can be OKAY with Quine. A Christian ontology seems to require more than a desert… unless one understands the gravity of God becoming man, being part of the set of physical objects, yet pointing to a set of objects larger than the physical world can one find the philosophical value in Christianity. However, this approach to metaphysics will leave a lot to be desired in “closing the loop” so to speak regarding our understanding of the world.


Putnam is a deep, rewarding philosopher who was a naturalist but also completely rejected scientism, and in fact embraced the practices of Judaism at as an adult.

But the challenge in studying him is that he kept changing his mind! However, not about some core ideas like a form of scientific realism, his externalism about meaning, and his rejection of the fact/value dichotomy.

He died recently and there are many online tributes to his life and beliefs from fellow philosophers which give brief but usefuls summaries of his many contributions.


It appears our IT-Professional is a closet philosopher. Interesting. Reminds me of @structureoftruth’s proclivity for physics. Glad to have you here @BruceS.


That’s one of the things that I liked about Putnam. He was willing to admit to mistakes.