Do we need metaphysics anymore?
Posted September 10, 2009
The other day I went to a talk about the fall and revival of metaphysics, given by Sebastian Kolodziejczyk at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 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. Or is it? That was what Kolodziejczyk called “the Aristotelian model,” where philosophers who engage in metaphysics ask questions about the nature of space, time, causality and so on. 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reality is to assert something rather obscure without a shred of evidence, and moreover something that has been superseded by much clearer and more evidence-based accounts provided by modern science.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.
How, then, do we save metaphysics? Well, how about by simply redefining it? One of Kolodziejczyk’s major points was that there are other, radically different, ways of conceiving of what metaphysics is. For instance, for philosophers like Wittgenstein and Derrida (!!) metaphysics is an exploration of concepts, while for people like Heidegger (again, !!) it is about our experience.
There are two problems with this approach: first, it is not at all clear what these new ways of understanding metaphysics have to do with, well, metaphysics! Wouldn’t it then be more honest to say that (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? Secondly, exploring the meaning and structure of concepts smells a lot like philosophy of language, if not like linguistics itself, and investigating phenomenological experience quickly leads to psychology and cognitive science. Where’s the metaphysics?
If philosophers insist in saying things like “persistence is the only unchangeable reality” (quoted in the handout from Kolodziejczyk’s lecture) one is perfectly within their rights to ask what the devil does “persistence” mean in this context, and what exactly is the meaning of saying that it is the only unchangeable reality? This is the sort of fluff that gives all of philosophy a bad name, but that ought to be confined to only a sub-group of misguided philosophers who mistake obscurity for profundity.
We finally come to Kolodziejczyk’s own proposal, which was better — in my opinion — than Heidegger’s (then again, almost anything is), and yet somehow not exactly the harbinger of a new revolution in metaphysics. Kolodziejczyk’s idea is that metaphysics is the “analysis, description, and explanation” of what he calls “basic metaphysical beliefs.” Such as? His examples include “things surrounding us exist,” “things we are talking about are distinct in space and time,” “[things] are similar in many ways,” and so on.
Well, maybe there is some analysis to be done of such simple concepts, though it is hard to imagine that a very thick book will ever be written about these matters. 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). But please, no more nonsense about unchangeable persistence.