Monday, July 19, 2004

Mixed Metaphysics

I really enjoyed the metaphysics course I took last semester, though it often struck me as a deeply mistaken enterprise. We would take some concept central to our common-sense understanding of the world (such as 'properties'/universals), and then treat it as though it really existed. This seems to ignore the central lesson of modern science (particularly 20th century physics): that our intuition or "common sense" is a very unreliable indicator of the actual nature of reality. See also this post by John Wilkins on the foolishness of philosophers who understand biological species' as metaphysical 'kinds'.

Our metaphysics course stood squarely in the Aristotelian tradition of examining the nature of reality, or "being qua being". An alternative approach was mentioned, however. As I understand it, the Kantian tradition instead limits itself to examining mental constructs, or the conceptual schema which underlies our understanding of the world.

Based (perhaps loosely) upon those two opposing traditions, I find myself thinking that there are two 'ideal' ways of approaching metaphysics. Both should be scientifically informed, but in different ways: the one by physics, the other, psychology.

  • My first ideal is modelled on the Aristotelian tradition of pursuing the fundamental nature of reality. This approach absolutely must be based upon physics if it is to have any hope of success. What it should do, I think, is take our best scientific theories (general relativity, quantum mechanics, perhaps soon String Theory), and provide us with the bare minimum of metaphysical constructs required to support the scientific theory. Baroque two-worlds ontologies, or unscientific treatments of space and time, would have no place here. What we need instead, is a presentation of the metaphysics underlying scientific materialism/physicalism. (Please let me know of anyone who has undertaken such a project - I'm sure it must have been done, but I haven't heard of it yet!)

  • My second ideal is essentially tied to cognitive science. It is the attempt to understand the human mind, and how we categorise/analyse reality. "Folk metaphysics", in other words. This approach would take our common-sense concepts of properties, truth, time, etc, and try to spin them together into a coherent, conceptually simple, system of understanding.

  • The 'folk metaphysician' would make no claims about the nature of reality. Instead, he would help us to understand ourselves. Furthermore, he would play a crucial role in the development of Artificial Intelligence. For without some coherent conceptual schema for analysing the flood of data provided by its input sensors, an AI would have little hope of understanding the world around him. In this way, metaphysics - seemingly one of the most abstract branches of philosophy - would in fact serve an important practical purpose.

    The problem with the metaphysics we studied, is that it mixed these two ideals. It was based on the common-sense, rather than scientific, structures. Yet it still made claims to objectivity, to representing the fundamental nature of reality. I found that mix to be rather implausible. It would be better, I believe, to pick one of the two 'ideals' outlined above, and stick to that. You can have reality, or common sense, but not both.

    1 comment:

    1. [Copied from old comments thread]

      The main problem I see here is that you are treating physics as if it is rather unproblematically un-metaphysically loaded, which is far from right. Physicists make all kinds of metaphysical presuppositions when they do the work they do. Why would you assume that physics is a reliable indicator of reality (as opposed to 'pure metaphysics' apart from sense-data)? You can only do so if you make all kind of metaphysical assumptions, as to the reliability of induction, the reality of causation, the persistence of particles, all kinds of verifiability postulates, roles of observers, empirical postulates, and so on.

      To assume that physics is in some kind of privileged position is to assume that a whole host of problematic philosophical theses have been settled. Not so. But, you are right that philosophers make mistakes when they go against settled physical data. But this is not (merely) because the science says so, but because the data are bolstered by philosophical theorizing about the nature of reality which go against certain philosophical theories about the nature of agents, abstract properties, and so on. In any case, you can't really abandon metaphysics and just do science, since to do science and attempt to get a broad explanatory model is necessarily to do some metaphysics, since raw sense data always underdetermine what the true metaphysical picture of the world is....
      marksteen | Email | Homepage | 22nd Jul 04 - 4:56 pm | #


      To be fair, I never suggested that we should "abandon metaphysics and just do science". I was merely insisting that metaphysics should be scientifically informed.

      I plan to elaborate on a few specific examples of this sometime soon.

      As you note, physics relies upon numerous "metaphysical presuppositions". It is precisely the identification of those metaphysical foundations that I considered to be an "ideal" philosophical project.

      You are right that I'm assuming physics to be our most reliable indicator of reality. I consider that to be a reasonable assumption, though. What rivals does it have?
      Richard | Email | Homepage | 22nd Jul 04 - 8:04 pm | #


      Good reply. Physics does not so much have rivals as there are rival views of what physics says, should say, and so on. Is physics compatible with Berkeleyan idealism? A operationalist might say so. Anyways, after the reply, it seems pretty clear that we agree on most things. One particular example that bothers me is when philosophers bring up problems such as self-deception or other problems for rationality, which only get off the ground if you assume that an 'agent' is a unified simple entity, or subject of experience, when the fact is that the mind is modular, much as Dennett says.
      marksteen | Email | Homepage | 23rd Jul 04 - 4:25 am | #


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