Metaphysically speaking

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has an interesting article over at Rationally Speaking. Entitled Ah, metaphysics! it criticises attempts to revive metaphysics in philosophy.phil-fieldtrip

I too am sceptical at the way “metaphysics” is used. While I can appreciate the concept of understanding underlying principles the word is often used to justify “supernatural” ideas. Or to justify positions without recourse to empirical testing. Even to argue that “metaphysical” knowledge is somehow “better” or more reliable than scientific knowledge.

Pigliucci’s article says in part:

” Metaphysics these days has a bad reputation even among philosophers, so I was aware of its “fall,” but I was rather curious about the possibility of a “revival.” I came out of the lecture without much conviction that the 21st century is going to see anything like a resurrection of metaphysics.

Metaphysics, of course, is that classical branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental nature of the world.  . . . It is an honorable tradition, of course, but it has ceded most of its terrain to fundamental physics. These days those philosophers who have something to say about such issues are likely to be philosophers of science or mathematics working in fields such as quantum mechanics or string theory. Saying that “water is the principle of all things,” as Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BC–ca. 546 BC) used to do, just doesn’t cut it anymore.

“After Aristotle, for a long time metaphysics was taken over by theological considerations, from the Scholastics to Hegel, and it became increasingly esoteric, self-contained, and at every iteration, inching closer and closer to complete absurdity. The Monadology (1714) by Gottfried Leibniz was one of the last pre-physics attempts to account for fundamental aspects of reality by simply thinking about it, but again to say that monads are a basic unit of perceptual reality is to assert something rather obscure without a shred of evidence, and moreover something that has been superseded by much clearer and more evidence-based accounts provided by modern science. And let us not even get started with all the metaphysical fluff about the existence of god, of course (if someone mention’s the ontological argument I will reach for my metaphorical gun!).”

“It was within this context that the 20th century saw the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) critique of metaphysics by the logical positivists, whose position was that metaphysical concepts — in philosophical parlance — have no referent. In lay terms, metaphysicians talk literally about nothing, and therefore do not and cannot make any sense. These days it isn’t polite in philosophical circles to show much sympathy for the neopositivists, but I must admit that as far as certain kinds of metaphysics are concerned, it seems to me that they got it largely right.”

. . . .

Limitations of philosophy

” (classical, Aristotelian) metaphysics has run its course, it has achieved what it could achieve, and has now receded into the background and left the initiative to physics? “

. . .

“But as for a satisfactory description and explanation of our basic beliefs about the world, it seems to me that they are much more likely to come from, respectively, the cognitive sciences and evolutionary biology than philosophy. Moreover, as someone pointed out in the Q&A following the lecture, we know now (thanks to fundamental physics) that a lot of our folk metaphysics is, in fact, wrong, which is not surprising considering that we have evolved as macroscopic animals needing to be equipped with ways to handle those aspects of the world pertinent to our survival and reproduction — aspects that don’t include an understanding of quantum mechanics or string theory.”

“What, then, is metaphysics good for? Other than its (invaluable, I think) historical contribution to human thought, there are two things that modern metaphysics can do for us: on the one hand, aspects of it can serve as good models for a fruitful relationship between philosophy and science (think of attempts at understanding the nature of time and space, for instance); on the other hand, it is a constant reminder that even science can get started only on premises that cannot be justified empirically within science itself (think of causality, or reality).”


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3 responses to “Metaphysically speaking

  1. You can’t exclude the possibility that the entire observable universe is just a simulation being run in some machine with 10^80 (or whatever) storage space, or perhaps less than that and sufficiently convincing faking. To science (and atheist-rooted religions such as Buddhism), whether or not this is the case is something of an irrelevant question.

    So an example of a useful metaphysical question would be something like, “given the world might be a simulation, how might that alter the way we behave?”

    It’s not fair to call such an argument ontological; it builds underneath the standard model of the universe gracefully (of an autonomy progressing through time subject to physical laws which everything happens in), uses advanced concepts (ie simulations), but does not require specifics. So, like Mathematics, you end up with a result that you didn’t have to make any experiments to come up with. Depending on where you stake your values, this may or may not be a result of greater significance to you than detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the universe.

    I will give you though that many people who venture into such realms don’t have a good grasp of fundamental physics, and so tend to make some gaffes and statements which are outwardly silly.

    A couple of authors who don’t are Ken Wilber – if you want a serious take on the matter – though I think that science fiction often adequately covers the same ground. Eg, Foundation’s Fear by Gregory Benford – an actual physicist 🙂 – touches on the metaphysical quite a bit.


  2. @Sam. Isn’t this just another unfalsifiable creation story with no supporting evidence. The god(s) (simulators) create our universe in their amazing computers . This speaks to the same urge to see agency or patterns everywhere. I fail to see what is so profound about this scenario.

    There are many possible things that are difficult or impossible to completely rule out. I don’t see why we need to get all metaphysical about this. This supports the position that we can’t have 100% certainty about anything, but I don’t see anything metaphysical about that. What we are left with is to follow the evidence and try and establish the probabilities of different propositions, not ignore the evidence in favour of invented scenarios.

    The above can or course be a lot of fun in a book, or down the pub, but as for establishing the true meaning of things, personally, I can’t really see it.


  3. ” Or to justify positions without recourse to empirical testing.”

    Of course, some metaphysical ideas, which are important, are not amenable to empirical testing; issues to do with the concept of modality (necessary conditions), for example, can’t be tested empirically but they can be tested via thought experiments (such as a counterfactual analysis). Empiricism is all well and good for many things, but it isn’t the one, true, arbiter of what makes a good theory; it is just one part of a far more complex story.


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