Metaphysical Bloviation?

Over at talkingphilosophy blog Jeff Mason has an elegant essay on metaphysics that takes the Kantian view that the physical sciences are the source of all knowledge and everything else is mere speculation. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination, the most extravagant metaphysical conceit of them all. The genre really should be called metametaphysics as it installs itself as the last arbiter on truth and preemptively disqualifies, tout court, anything that could offer an alternative to its dogmatically positivistic understanding of reality.

Good scholarship, good philosophy, common sense requires that each claim to structure reality, and there are many, including the positivistic and various religious traditions be examined on its own merits to make sure it does what it says on the tin. It is unlikely that only one perspective is coherent and useful—we should expect to find more than one, but it is truly pointless to expect to be able to assess one of these philosophies using the framework of another and find anything useful. That will just lead to the predictable conclusion that the best way of seeking the kind of knowledge that system A is intended to deliver is to use system A.

It is my experience that the positivists are so locked into their way of understanding reality that they, quite literally, can’t comprehend any other way of thinking, or often conceive it is possible that any other way could provide access to knowledge (that couldn’t be acquired more directly with their system). Such is the narrow world of the fundamentalist.

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3 responses to “Metaphysical Bloviation?

  1. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination …

    I think you are freighting Mr. Mason’s essay beyond what it was meant to carry. Easy to do, perhaps, because I think this essay (as with most philosophy), once stripped of philosophical conceit, condenses to very simple concept, and correspondingly few words.

    The concept being: we possess knowledge about something only to the extent we can assign a truth value to mutually exclusive statements.

    It is on this rock that all metaphysics founders.

    The metaphysical claims of all religions are a perfect example: Christianity and Islam cannot simultaneously be true, and there is no way (absent material means) to ascertain which is more true, or less false.

    Consequently, no matter their respective adherents to the contrary, except with respect to material claims, neither religion possesses any knowledge whatsoever.

    In contrast, where rational inquiry permits adjudicating between competing claims, knowledge exists.

    Yes, rational inquiry depends upon a small set of axiomatic assumptions: there is an objective reality; it is based upon physical laws that are continuous through space and time; our perception of reality, while incomplete, is must ascertain that objective reality with some fidelity, or we could not exist.

    Of course those spare assumptions, in addition to being wholly unprovable, are circular.

    Fine. But using them as a basis, rational inquiry allows making statements whose truth values are discernible.

    No grandiose claims there. Only the assertion that if you can’t assign truth value to mutually exclusive statements, you know nothing.

  2. I’ll second what Skipper said.

    By your definition anyone who settles on one worldview as the best description of the true nature of things is a fundamentalist. But that is what people naturally do. The mind will create a worldview based on what it sees, feels and intuits. The really tricky thing is what you seem to be advocating: holding multiple worldviews in some kind of suspended state of balance, and cycling through them for some unstated purpose .
    But the mind doesn’t like unsettled business. It may change itself based on new experiences, but it rarely allows itself the luxury of believing in multiple ways of representing the truth simultaneously.

    I think you can measure the competing worldviews of empirical science and metaphysical philosophy by their respective track records. I can’t think of a single piece of useful knowledge that has been verified by the metaphysical method. I can think of a lot of discredited theories, such as the geocentric universe and the perfect smoothness of the celestial orbs, or the perfect curcularity of their orbits, that were produced by Platonic thinking. But the calalogue of knowledge bequeathed to humanity by empirical science is immense, and growing exponentially.

  3. But the calalogue of knowledge bequeathed to humanity by empirical science …

    I prefer the term “rational inquiry” to “science”.

    The methods underlying the two are identical; the difference is that science is what scientists do. In contrast, everyone does, at least on occasion, rational inquiry.

    Last week, while at a gas station, a distressed mom with a minivan full of kids pulled to a stop in the forecourt, trailing a horrific screech that stopped only when the vehicle did.

    Being (a) a guy, and (b) with a fair number of Boy Scouts, I felt compelled to come to her aid.

    I had several theories based upon the immediate evidence: bad wheel bearing, brake pad worn to the backing plate, or something stuck between the pad and the brake disc.

    Jacking up the minivan and pulling the left rear wheel revealed a pebble as the root of this particular evil.

    As a consequence of rational inquiry, I was able to assign a truth value to competing statements that could not simultaneously be true: I, and she, came into possession of knowledge.

    With metaphysics, that never happens.

    … is immense and growing exponentially

    Here is the most graphic difference between rational inquiry and metaphysics of any stripe.

    Rational inquiry means we know more. But the more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

    In contrast, metaphysics of all stripes, and most particularly the religious kind, presumes truth on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever, thereby failing to know what is unknown.

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