A topic that has been heavily discussed between Mike D, over at The Aunicornist, and I is the validity of utilizing metaphysics as an inquiry into reality. Mike believes that metaphysics is a useless endeavor which centers itself on superfluous concepts that are not necessary, and not even accurate, for describing reality. In my eyes Mike presents some of the best arguments against the use of metaphysics, though I do believe his arguments fall short in the end. Nevertheless, Mike has just posted a new article entitled The death of metaphysics, and I therefore felt obligated to continue this dialogue, which is centered on such a crucial topic, and point out the errors I believe Mike has made.
I will begin where Mike seems to make some strange statements regarding his adherence to model-dependent realism:
[Model-dependent realism] essentially says that we do not have unfettered access to ‘absolute truth’ or complete knowledge of what is literally real. All we can do, then, is construct models with varying degrees of predictive reliability. Fussing over what is real is meaningless[.]
First, let it be made clear that model-dependent realism is itself a metaphysical position. That is, by claiming that we don’t have unfettered access to absolute truth Mike is claiming something about the nature of reality. So, Mike is utilizing metaphysics…to debunk metaphysics. Good luck with that.
Second, I doubt any metaphysician has ever claimed that we can have complete knowledge of reality; we are not omniscient, indeed. But, this doesn’t mean that we cannot predicate things of reality with certainty—in fact, the laws of logic dictate that we must, on pain of contradiction. So surely we can know things of reality, and therefore we can say some things are literally real. It is literally real that reality exists (this is true even if Cartesian doubt is valid), that I exist, or that I am experiencing certain cognitive datum. Now, these might seem trivial propositions at best, but that’s not the point. They are only trivial because they are axiomatic and self-justifying. Yet, it is these very types of propositions that we can be absolutely certain conform to reality, and therefore the claim that we cannot know things absolutely true about reality is false.
Mike continues on his vindication of model-dependent realism:
Often, what we think is real turns out to be something else. Predictions often do not hold true; we’re subject to false memories and cognitive biases; and our own cognitive models of reality often fail us. This demonstrates that we do not have access to Absolute Truth, or complete knowledge of what is literally real.
Mike’s argument here seems to lead to a completely different conclusion. If we’re subject to invalid models of reality, then the only way we could know this is if we can tell valid models of reality from invalid ones. For example, the only way we can tell when something is an optical illusion is if we know what that thing actually looks like. Similarly, to differentiate true models from false models can only happen if we can indeed arrive truth. Mike’s attempt to run away from (what he calls) “Absolute Truth” only pulls the rug out from underneath him.
Moreover, remember that Mike here is still predicating this epistemological framework of reality. That is, he is saying that it is true that model-dependent realism is a correct epistemological description of reality. Notice the problem?
Mike then articulates what he believes to be a key problem with metaphysical inquiry:
The problem with this type of thought is that the very semantic framework that is used to construct metaphysical propositions and derive their conclusions are fully dependent on both our physical embodiment and our empirical experience.
This statement puzzles me, because a majority of metaphysical inquiry deals with contingent a posteriori inquiry; that is, ontological truths which can only be predicated of our observed universe. Open any metaphysics textbook and you’ll see that the breadth of topics covered are topics that are only relevant to our observable reality. So, why is Mike getting all worked up by the fact that metaphysics abstracts concepts from the observed and uses them to describe the very same observable reality? The answer is that Mike only gets worked up when these metaphysical inquiries are labeled as “necessary” and are projected beyond the limits of our experience:
[I]t is meaningless to use words that describe spatiotemporal relationships without the context of spatiotemporality[…] This demonstrates that these sorts of metaphysical propositions are nonsensical.
First, it is not nonsensical. In fact, physicists do this all the time. Physicists, in order to best make sense of certain states of the universe, invoke such spatiotemporal language even where such language is out of context. They constantly talk about what it would be like inside a black hole, or what characterizes a singularity, or the weirdness of the quantum world, even though the language employed doesn’t exactly get it right. But, does anyone claim that what these physicists are saying is therefore nonsensical and meaningless?
Second, and more importantly, most concepts utilized by metaphysicians that are seen as necessary--and therefore must apply anywhere and everywhere--are concepts that do not only have their context in spatiotemporality. Take the crucial concept of identity. Was this concept abstracted from experience? You betcha. But, can it only be predicated of things measurable in space-time? Not at all. Identity is, and must be, predicated of propositions, concepts, meanings, and mathematical concepts, all of which are not spatiotemporal.
Moreover, what’s important is not just that concepts like identity can be applied anywhere—whether to things in space-time or not—but that they must be applied everywhere on pain of contradiction. That is to say, if one were to attempt to deny (anywhere) a necessary existent like identity, they would defeat themselves logically. A perfect example of this is the first law of logic. Try to deny such a law and you’ll find yourself entangled in self-refutation. And this means that such a proposition cannot fail to be predicated anywhere--for the same thing would happen. Thus stated, we see that metaphysics can, and must, reach beyond the bounds of our experience.
We can thus avoid the confusion of these metaphysical propositions simply by pointing out that there is no reason to think that the words used to construct such propositions are meaningful outside of the empirical context from which their meaning is abstracted in the first place.
On the contrary, we have seen that metaphysical concepts and propositions need not be projected “outside” the universe in order for them to be projected of things (e.g. mathematical concepts and propositions) outside of the empirical. And with that in hand we have warrant for applying such metaphysics outside the bounds of our immediate experience.
We inferred a number of things here: 1) One’s own attempt to bury metaphysics necessitated the use of metaphysics, thereby rendering such a position self-defeating; 2) Mike seems to not understand that the type of metaphysics that he disdains so much does not even constitute the majority of metaphysical focal points, which means that his campaign against metaphysics is misdirected; and 3) metaphysics can and must, contrary to Mike, be projected to realms beyond our observable experience.
So, the death of metaphysics? I think not. In the words of the late E.J. Lowe: [Metaphysics] is one in which no rational being can avoid engaging in at least some of the time. We are all metaphysicians whether we like it or not.