As was said of the Sokal hoax, there is simply no way to do justice to the cringe-inducing nature of this text without quoting it in its entirety. But, in a nutshell, Basic Structures of Reality is an impressively inept contribution to philosophy of physics, and one exemplifying everything that can possibly go wrong with metaphysics: it is mind-numbingly repetitive, toe-curlingly pretentious, and amateurish in the extreme regarding the incorporation of physical fact. With work this grim, the only interesting questions one can raise concern not the content directly but the conditions that made it possible; and in this connection, one might be tempted to present the book as further evidence of the lack of engagement of metaphysicians with real science — something that has lately been subject to lively discussion (and I myself have slung some of the mud). But I would insist that to use this work to make a general point about the discipline would in fact be entirely unfair. For one thing, while contemporary metaphysicians are often tokenistic in their treatments, I think most would appreciate that looking at the pictures in a book is of limited value qua research into unobservable entities, even if it is the auspicious ‘1700-page textbook University Physics’ (p. 129) that informs McGinn’s critique. Furthermore, McGinn has scant interest in getting to grips not only with the relevant science, but also the work of fellow philosophers wrestling with questions similar to those he himself is concerned with. Despite defending dispositional essentialism, for example, there is no mention of Mumford, Ellis, or Bird; he cites nothing by Maudlin, or Albert, or pretty much any of the philosophers that naturalistically inclined metaphysicians rely upon for philosophy of physics input, with the result that his philosophical argumentation is strewn with undergraduate-level errors. Similarly, while given the title one would expect some meaningful engagement with the field of structural realism (something, I add, that he fundamentally misrepresents, as aficionados can confirm on page 10), instead we find a single reference to a contemporary work in that area — namely, ‘Mark Lange’s article ‘‘Structural Realism’’ in the online Stanford Encyclopedia’ (p. 5). Since Marc (that’s ‘Marc’) Lange is not a structural realist, and it was in fact James Ladyman who wrote said Stanford article, one can only assume it is the latter’s piece that McGinn has in mind here. (One also cannot help but assume, of course, that he never actually bothered to read it.)
For all the epistemic faux-modesty that this book purports to defend, the image that persists while grinding through its pages is of an individual ludicrously fancying themselves as uniquely positioned to solve the big questions for us, from scratch and unassisted, as if none of the rest of us working in the field have had anything worth a damn to contribute. It will however be clear by now that I take the reality to be substantially different. For me, then, the one pertinent question this work raises is why all of this went unrecognized: this book, after all, issues not from one of the many spurious publishing houses currently trolling graduate students, but Oxford University Press — a press whose stated aim is to ‘publish works that further Oxford University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education’. So why did they publish this? I can hazard no explanation other than that Colin McGinn is a ‘big name’; and if that is sufficient for getting work this farcical in print with OUP, then shame on our field as a whole. As such, McGinn’s foray into philosophy of physics may in the end provoke a worthwhile discussion, though sadly one focused on concerns rather different from those he himself had in mind.
(Thanks to Wayne Myrvold for the initial pointer, and several other readers who also kindly sent it along.) I invite discussion of the issue Dr. McKenzie raises at the end, but signed comments only: full name and valid e-mail address. (Anyone who has read Professor McGinn's book and wants to take issue with the substantive criticisms is also welcome to do so.)
ADDENDUM: For those new to the blog, this series of wicked book reviews began with Colin McGinn's savaging (correctly, as far as I can tell) of a book by Ted Honderich.