Sunday, June 18, 2006

Metaphysical Mayhem

Is metaphysics at all relevant to living? Here we may distinguish theoretical and practical relevance. The first concerns whether metaphysical conclusions can have any implications for ethics, agency, or otherwise affect the way we think about ourselves (and what we care about). In other words, the question of whether metaphysical inquiry takes hostages.* It is a further question whether those theoretical implications have any practical effect on how we live our lives. I'm rather more skeptical of that. But I invite readers to suggest what (if any) metaphysical debates they take to be more broadly "relevant" in either of these two senses.
* = Hence the "mayhem" in this post's title. I think there's a conference which goes by the same name. I should clarify that this post has nothing to do with that.

I do think that some metaphysics has theoretical relevance to living. I've previously written about how I think modal realism would render ethics and choice meaningless. I've also worried about "narrow fatalism" and the lack of an open future. Although I think eternalism is probably true (since I can't make sense of its negation), this must deflate our self-conception as libertarian free agents. Yet libertarian free will seems necessary for the sort of strong moral responsibility required for retributive punishment. If a person is not the ultimate source of his evildoing, then vicious character is merely a mental illness which needs to be cured, not punished (unless perhaps for utilitarian reasons, e.g. deterrence). This conflicts with the common-sense view that bad people deserve to suffer.

I guess I'm more concerned about the implications for my own agency, though. If we see through the illusion of endurance, this makes matters even worse. I won't even really exist in the future! Someone might, who's very much like me, but not the entity ("myself") who exists wholly in this moment. *sigh* It can all be a bit unsettling.

Not that any of that has any practical influence on me. I'm not too sure what to make of this disconnect. Am I simply irrational? Or do I not really believe the problematic theoretical views, at least not with sufficient certainty? Or are they actually irrelevant to the kind of life I want to live? I'm inclined towards the latter, though that may be wishful thinking. No, it seems justified, fatalism and the like don't seem to give me any positive reason to live any differently from how I am. Which raises the question: what would?

The only obvious candidates I can think of are metaphysical views which extend our lives further than we would otherwise expect, say through an afterlife. If I could only get into Heaven by bribing the Catholic Church, I'd be more inclined to do just that. Or if I could believe my favourite theology, I might do a better job with the Plutonium Rule. (I think it'd be an appealing and rewarding way to live in any case. But easier said than done.)

Any other suggestions? (Bonus points to anyone who can find importance in the universals debate, heh.)



  1. At least two examples leap to mind of the practical relevance of metaphysics. For instance, one way to read Derek Parfit's work on personal identity and survival, in Reasons and Persons and elsewhere, is as a sustained argument that metaphysical debates have practical consequences with respect to how we view ourselves, as well as more specific ethical and policy issues. Maybe Parfit went wrong, but he seems to have convinced more than a few philosophers.

    For another instance, theological arguments for the existence of God generally depend upon premises which require metaphysical principles for defense (or, if you are so inclined, rebuttal). And presumably, whether or not God exists might to matter to how you view yourself and conduct your life.

    In general, I'm not sure why I hear so often that metaphysics has little or no theoretical or practical relevance. Examples to the contrary seem very easy to come by. (Maybe the problem is supposed to be that metaphysics is "overdetermined" or explanatorily redundant in the sense that any fact or theory that has or can be discovered or developed through metaphyical inquiry, has or can be discovered or developed with some other method of inquiry. But why believe that? And even if this were true, why would it deprive metaphysics of its theoretical or practical worth?)

  2. Since metaphysics of some form or another are implicit in just about all human knowledge, it can hardly be completely irrelevant to have them spelled out, if only to show how arbitrary many of them are. Metaphysical beliefs have tended to stand in the way of scientific progress, but only to be replaced with new metaphysical beliefs. They form the core of knowledge, the 'positive heuristic' if you like. For example it was a metaphysical belief of the ancient greeks that heavenly bodies travelled in circles, and Ptolemaic astronomy put circles within circles everywhere. When this was finally dropped it was no great loss, leading to simpler systems with more explanatory power and higher accuracy. But without Ptolemy's metaphysics perhaps they wouldn't have even got that far. It was the maths that they had at the time.

    I doubt that anything particularly useful was contributed by actual philosophers in the sciences though. Arguing about the perfectness of a model of the real world is kind of irrelevant compared to actually checking out how it works by observation. But the scientists themselves may have gained some insights into their thought processes from looking at philosophical arguments about the subject.

    And I think metaphysics seems to be particularly important in ethics, an area in which there is no 'physical world' to test against. The truth of any statement is usually disputable. But it may be highly elucidatory to look back to the metaphysical assumptions implicit in some ethical systems. The arbitraryness of them can be shown in high relief there, sometimes more easily than it can be by appealing to intuitions which can happily clash. I remember one of the few successes I ever had in a philosophical argument was to show someone who had fairly strong views about the lack of rights of animals how arbitrary their position was. They thought it was based on pure reason, and found it rested entirely on some pure metaphysical assertions.

    All that said, I think 'pure metaphysics' is a highly dubious area, one which extremely rapidly can become divorced from reality and meaning. This means that really useful metaphysics is mostly produced by scientists, and philosophers, as Richard Feynmann once noted, are "idiots standing on the outside looking in and making stupid comments". It embittered me when I first read it, but I've come to see where he's coming from in my own scientific endeavours.


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