Engineering my mind a little every day.
Is metaphysics useful for anything?
Is metaphysics useful for anything?

Is metaphysics useful for anything?

It seems to me that modern, practical, in-use-by-real-people metaphysics is basically some ratio of what science tells us is factual plus whatever brand of supernatural beliefs a person happens to hold. We mix and match as we learn, experience and move through life and we build a coherent story that is both personal and heavily influenced by our relationships, social interactions and cultural myths. If metaphysics is just that, then the good news is it may be good enough to provide a basis for discussing most things that matter to humans. I know, there’s a lot packed in there. So let’s unpack it.

Definitions are good so let’s start with this: in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Robert Pirsig says:

Metaphysics is what Aristotle called the First Philosophy. It’s a collection of the most general statements of a hierarchical structure of thought. On one of his [speaking of himself] slips he had copied a definition of it as ‘that part of philosophy which deals with the nature and structure of reality.’ It asks such questions as, ‘Are the objects we perceive real or illusory? Does the external world exist apart from our consciousness of it? Is reality ultimately reducible to a single underlying substance? If so, is it essentially spiritual or material? Is the universe intelligible and orderly or incomprehensible and chaotic?’

I like this definition a lot – metaphysics is “that part of philosophy which deals with the nature and structure of reality.” It is quite satisfying that we have a word to deal with the nature and structure of reality. But before we get to that, let’s back up one step further and ask: why is it important for anyone to understand what they truly believe about anything? Metaphysics, science, capitalism, evolution, God, abortion, environmentalism, free-trade, sex, socialism, racism, honesty, politics – among these and a whole lot of other subjects, how many people have taken the time to approach these topics with an open mind, do research and develop a well-grounded, personal opinion? Not what someone told them was “right” or what they’ve been handed by default from any number of the influencers we all have in our lives (parents, teachers, friends, etc.). I mean, you don’t have to figure these things out for yourself. There are plenty of opinions to latch onto. And there’s a significant barrier to figuring it out on your own: it’s hard and it takes work! And I’m convinced a whole lot of people wander through their lives without ever fully understanding some of the most important things in life. Some with good reason (struggling for survival would leave little opportunity for self-realization I’d imagine) and some with very poor reasons (playing video games 30 hours a week). And all sorts of reasons in between e.g. mundanely, we can’t all be experts on everything. But why bother at all with any of it? Why make the effort?

Because I believe those that do make the effort, that try to address the really hard questions in life ultimately live happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives. Healthy minds require an understanding of underlying beliefs and principals because core beliefs and principals provide stability and structure for everything else. All of the important questions are answered on the basis of our beliefs. One such foundational belief is what you believe about the nature and structure of reality i.e. metaphysics!

Metaphysics is interesting and important not because we can necessarily learn anything useful from studying the history and academic mind-space it occupies but because simply discussing it can establish a baseline for assumptions as to the fundamental nature of the world around us. In the process of establishing that baseline, beliefs about the supernatural and the physical world will be surfaced which adds tremendous value to the shared mental model that enables deep, meaningful discussions. Basically, talking about Metaphysics (in its many forms and facets) says, “Let’s trust and enlighten each other a bit, simplify a great deal and agree on some things for the basis of further conversation.” This is a critical element of fundamental investigations.

Science and Supernatural

Let’s go back to Mr. Pirsig. Again in Lila he claims that metaphysics has “two kinds of opponents.” I will suggest that perhaps it is intriguing to simply look at it as two broad schools of thought on metaphysics. And I love Pirsig’s categorization and characterization here so I’m going to lay it out as he does, with commentary. Two kinds…

The first are the philosophers of science, most particularly the group known as the logical positivists, who say that only the natural sciences can legitimately investigate the nature of reality, and that metaphysics is simply a collection of unprovable assertions that are unnecessary to the scientific observation of reality. For a true understanding of reality, metaphysics is too “mystical.”

This resonates strongly in modern culture – science is god and nothing is real or actionable except that which is informed by science. I find it interesting that for those in this mindset Pirsig’s last statement is probably not general or strong enough. Many would restate that science is the only way to understand reality. Full stop. Putting that extreme aside, the idea that the nature and structure of reality is what science tells us is certainly common in many cultures today and we “get it.” It’s also comforting and easy. Things are either understood by science or they are not and we have scientists – the priests of the religion, to tell us what is “right.” The rest are “unprovable assertions” that are unnecessary and at times, downright antagonistic to the practitioners “serious” intellectual pursuits.

Pirsig continues:

The second group of opponents are the mystics… They share a common belief that the fundamental nature of reality is outside language; that language splits things up into parts while the true nature of reality is undivided…

Historically mystics have claimed that for a true understanding of reality metaphysics is too ‘scientific.’ Metaphysics is not reality. Metaphysics is names about reality. Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a thirty-thousand-page menu and no food.

While I quoted Pirsig to set this up, I want to be clear that he would not agree with my next extrapolation. It is just mine. But I think it is helpful to see the mystics as the opposite extreme from the logical positivist. With regard to metaphysics, if rationality and logic (science) is on one end of a spectrum, then supernatural and spiritual beliefs would seem to be on the other. And this is where the mystic camp lives.

So this is where I diverge from Pirsig and wander off into territory explored by many others over time but then stated in my own words: metaphysics is only useful for understanding peoples perspectives which will always be a blend of rationality and logic (science) and mysticism (beliefs). And the reason for understanding peoples perspectives should be clear – so we can cooperate together for the good of all.

If we move from there, we can quickly see that the complexity is that there are many beliefs. But even “fact” (what is rational and logical) can often be a tricky thing to pin down. The dictionary definitions are simple and yet any non-trivial or controversial topic will quickly reveal differences of opinion on what are facts and what are beliefs. This problem is compounded when exploring topics that cross cultural and time boundaries. Most everyone is aware that it was considered fact that the earth was flat for a long time, that the earth was the center of the universe, that bloodletting was a good idea… the list goes on. History is full of such examples of wide-spread belief in “facts” that turned out to be untrue (medical history in particular is often held up as the prime example of how wrong humans can be about things we just don’t understand very well but in the moment, we assert how right we are). It is interesting to note that given that humans have made these types of mistakes of “fact” throughout the entirety of human history means that it is almost a certainty that we are making similar mistakes right now.

This would seem to defeat the whole purpose of using the words “fact” and “truth” at all. There are whole branches of philosophy that deal with these issues – epistemology and relativism are a couple. Without diving down those rabbit trails, I firmly believe that when having a conversation about any deep, fundamental, personal or controversial topic, a pragmatic approach has to be taken. Having a discussion where one of us can ask “Well, do we really exist?” means literally everything is relative to someone’s mind and reality can be shaped by any individual. This line of thinking can be fun to play with and of course, someone is free to hold it as a basic belief, but that means we have nothing meaningful to talk about. If you hold similar ideas dearly, I would suggest an experiment – sit on a hot stove with no pants. What you’ll quickly realize is that even if everything is relative, the hot stove, relatively, hurts a lot. The logical extrapolation of this experiment is that even if humanity’s current reality isn’t “real”, it is the only reality we have and thus, it seems to make a lot of sense to play by its rules. At least until the skeptics uncover the alternate reality where sitting on a hot stove with no pants produces joy.

If you do not hold that literally everything is relative (as most people do not), then we must have some basis for having a meaningful conversation about anything. I would assert that the basis starts with reality – it is in fact as we perceive it for all practical purposes. And facts can be ascertained from that reality, which is what science attempts to do on a regular basis. And they are successful sometimes!

Now, there is a trap in this pragmatic approach – even if everyone agrees, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is right. We can all believe something that is not true. As noted previously, human history has proved this to be true. Which means our pragmatic definition has some holes in it. And therein lies the problem. Agreeing on what is right and what is true–what is fact–is very difficult beyond even the most basic things. Here’s the solution: humble yourself. Recognize the limitations of humanity and understand that we mostly hold beliefs. Belief is much easier to work with: “An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.” We accept things… pick basically any controversial topic throughout history and what you will generally find is that people on both sides are accepting things as true. They do not have facts. If they did, there would be no controversy.

No one has ever stood in front of a tree and argued about whether or not the tree was there. At least not for very long – it’s just not that interesting. It is there (pragmatically speaking). But the extent of anthropogenic global warming? It would be simple to amass dozens of “facts” that will assert any number of contradictory positions. Most are not completely (or even substantially I would argue) supported by facts (as of 2018). They are all supported by beliefs – things that groups of people (including the almighty, gods-of-modern-fact: scientists) accept as truth and facts. What drives the controversy is beliefs, which we all hold.

It should be noted that pragmatism is a complicated topic in philosophy and can have interesting consequences if taken to logical extents in all arenas. Simply agreeing on definitions of belief and fact, even with the preceding context, doesn’t cover all of our bases philosophically. For example, many things actually are relative and a “truth” from one perspective may be false from another. There’s a famous example of this from the philosopher William James where he recounts an incident on a camping trip with a group of friends. They concocted a scenario where a man was chasing a squirrel around a tree to which it was clinging. The squirrel was instinctively clinging to the opposite side of the tree from the man and as the man circled the tree to see the squirrel, the squirrel moved as well on the opposite side. They circle around like this several times and the man is never able to catch a glimpse of the squirrel on the opposite side of the tree. Now, the question is, did the man go around the squirrel? From the squirrel’s perspective (and by popular definition) it is a fact that the man did not. But the man certainly went around the tree so how could he have not gone around the squirrel? This is a fun philosophical question that you can take in many directions but my answer is simple: the answer is relative to the context of the things being spoken of. From the squirrel’s point of view, we can say for a fact that the man was never behind the squirrel and so the man did not go around him. From the man’s point of view, it is a fact that he was on the north, east, west and south sides of the squirrels position so in fact he went around the squirrel, the squirrel just maintained his orientation in the process. Both the squirrel and the man went around the tree from all perspectives. I point this out only to say, be very careful about claiming things are fact before examining whether they are only facts from a certain perspective or in a certain context. It is an easy mistake people make to examine neither and thus make mistakes in logic.

I’m in grave danger of over simplifying a couple thousand years of philosophy and acknowledge that we are taking the simplified, pragmatic, “Pragmatists” approach. But that’s ok because what I want is a meaningful understanding of metaphysics – one that helps me understand people more. Understanding belief as, “to accept as truth” – it cannot (or has not to date) been proven incontrovertibly and “fact” (or derivations thereof) as, “a thing that is indisputably the case as far as society at large is concerned today” can provide a solid foundation for meaningful conversation. Further, realizing that every person on earth holds some balance of these two things as their understanding of the nature and structure of reality, gets us too a place where we are looking in the same direction with the same model. There is an absolute truth out there – humans just can’t know what it is. But we can believe it.

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