Metaphysical Bloviation (II)

The Ducks have challenged me on my pleas for metaphysical tolerance and Hey Skipper has posted some reflections on an Economist article, When Religions Talk, asserting “By definition, religions assert mutually exclusive metaphysical claims”.

Robert Duquette strikes close to the heart of the issue in his comment on my article:

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.

It is not at all that anyone who settles on one worldview as the best description of the nature of things is a fundamentalist, but some who insists that their preference is the one that everyone must adopt. It is the projection of what is by essence a point of view into an objective truth that I regard as fundamentalism. So I settle on a Buddhist worldview, and I have yet to discover anything about it that is contradicts science , understood instrumentally—the predictions that science makes (my understanding of Richard Feynman’s understanding of science). Both approaches to reality are essentially grounded in empiricism (see, for example, The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama).

However, they both deliver complementary kinds of knowledge. Science addresses physical causation, the kind of knowledge that will allow you to discover that an excess pebble component of your transmission is responsible for a new and horrible screeching noise coming emanating from your minivan (see Hey Skipper’s comment). The mistake is to believe that this kind of knowledge is all there is. Again Hey Skipper says:

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.

But the problem is that the content of Hey Skipper’s comments and articles—telling us what knowledge is useful and what is not—is not knowledge of this kind. The idea that the only meaningful knowledge is essentially scientific in nature is that of the logical positivists and the problem is that logical positivist credo is not meaningful according to its own system. This may seem like a smart-ass objection but it strikes at the heart of the issue: if you really believe it then you have no business espousing any such negative philosophy. It is not as if this stuff hasn’t been tried—logical positivism was tremendously influential from the 1930s on but no serious contemporary philosopher, as far as I am aware, thinks this school yields much in the way of useful insights; it is intersting that although it builds on Wittgenstein’s early philosophy, it built on a misunderstanding of it considered in the light of his later philosophy.

This is not to say that scientific knowledge isn’t useful. In fact it is saying nothing at all about scientific knowledge. What I am saying is that the insistence that all knowledge beyond scientific knowledge is meaningless is the modern dogma, a form of fundamentalism, for it is a metaphysics (if you have been following me) that negates all other world views that don’t happen to coincide with it.

What is Metaphysics?

As Duquette says, the mind doesn’t like unsettled business. I am not saying that people should somehow cram in all of these competing methods and then somehow switch between them. I pick one (two in my case: Buddhism and science), and that is my point of view. It is a contingent view of reality, a method for exploring reality (including the scientific method). The proof of the method comes in the trying it out: is it useful? Does it make your experience less confusing and more predictable? If it does then it is useful.

This is at bottom the reason that the scientific method is so attractive—that it works, that it provides something we can eat (literally), and that at bottom is what will justify all other methods of approaching reality.

This is why I think it is an appalling mistake, and a terrible philosophical error, to look at the various religious systems and conclude that they are contradictory and anyway meaningless! How can two meaningless systems contradict each other? These systems offer a narrative that contradicts the standard scientific narrative for sure, but I see no reason at all to give that narrative a priority (except when pursuing science in current institutional contexts—i.e., the narrative is cultural) or you find it appealing and useful in other contexts (in which case, fair enough, but as it happens, I don’t).

So I stick with my system but I appreciate that it is my system but that others will have their own systems, that suit their own dispositions, histories, personalities, etc. This appreciation of the relativeness of our different systems can be appreciated philosophically by the kinds of arguments I have been making, or by a simple humility. Actually I think the humility is essential as without it no argumentation in the world will ever get one to see that your own system is one contingent on your own point of view that may make no sense at all to others.

This is not to say that I take an entirely ambiguous view of other systems, that I see Scientology and Christianity as worthy of the same respect. The first thing I will do is to pay no heed at all to the general preconceptions about such systems: they are much worse than useless. Firstly there will be many relatively transient cultural and political factors that really have little to do with the tradition (assuming it is a proper tradition with a coherent philosophy, or schools of coherent philosophies). Secondly, about 85% of all endeavour is pretty worthless from a philosophical point of view. This is generalising, but the great bulk of practitioners of anything are cook-book practitioners, doing stuff because it seems to work without any real intellectual grasp or mastery of the field. So you never expect to find a coherent account of anything without searching out people that are accomplished. How do you find those? The answer is fairly easy: people will collectively sense out the people that know what they are about. Go for the people with the reputations.

Finally it is a matter of examining what they are saying. First there is logical consistency; if there is evidence of disciplined thinking then this is a good sign. Secondly does their system make operational sense; in religious terms this generally means does the religion promote good ethics. This can be a very difficult indeed to determine. From Hey Skipper’s article:

Of the three Abrahamic faiths, none of which look particularly good in this regard, Islam is the most virulent when it comes to non-, or other-, believers. One can start with the admonition to kill all Jews wherever they might be found, and march from there with a goodly distance remaining before exhausting all Islam’s faith offending contents.

This is a very common claim, but no investigation of mine has confirmed this, and it doesn’t take very long thinking about Islam, what Islamic scholars and scholars of comparative religion say, its historical development from the early days up to the way it is practiced today (such as, for example, the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran has Jewish representatives in its parliament), to realise that it would be very difficult indeed to come to even a superficially-coherent understanding of Islam that incorporated this understanding.

If your faith system is essentially a negative one, that everything outside science is just baloney then this point of view makes complete sense. Only a negative belief could justify this in my view, a belief that Islam is wicked. For myself, I prefer to keep a more open mind, that others may find their religion useful, and that properly understood, it may indeed turn out to be useful. I do all of this while remaining within my preferred metaphysics, those sets of beliefs that provide me with a method for deriving instrumental knowledge of the world.


3 responses to “Metaphysical Bloviation (II)

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  2. Mr. Dornan:

    But the problem is that the content of Hey Skipper’s comments and articles—telling us what knowledge is useful and what is not …

    I’m pretty certain I said nothing about which what knowledge is useful, and what isn’t.

    Rather, I made the assertion that to the extent one is unable to assign a truth value to competing claims, knowledge simply does not exist.

    To take this into the realm of science, there are (at least) several mutually exclusive cosmological theories (just one universe, multiverse, etc). At the moment, it is impossible to assign a truth value to any of them.

    Consequently, regarding cosmology there is no knowledge.

    This is why I think it is an appalling mistake, and a terrible philosophical error, to look at the various religious systems and conclude that they are contradictory and anyway meaningless! How can two meaningless systems contradict each other?

    You have confused me, because you imposed upon me a category error I did not make.

    Far from being an appalling mistake, it is an easily verifiable observation that religious claims are, by definition, mutually contradictory, and often self-contradictory, as well. (Indeed, most, if not all, unique metaphysical claims are mutually contradictory.)

    It would be more accurate, then, to assert that failing to note these contradictions is an appalling intellectual mistake akin to burying one’s head in the sand.

    The category mistake comes in using the rife contradictions as a premise for stating religions are meaningless. That does not wash: that a metaphysics contains no knowledge is easy to demonstrate, unless one is willing to drain the concept of all meaning.

    However, it is equally clear that knowledge-free narratives may indeed have a great deal of meaning, to both their adherents and victims.

    I believe there is a very sound reason to give priority to narratives deriving from rational inquiry, and it isn’t because rational inquiry provides useful knowledge. Rather, it is for precisely the opposite reason: the more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

    In contrast, metaphysics, particularly of the religious kind, uses a complete lack of knowledge as the basis for complete certainty. Humanity would be shot of a great deal of unnecessary suffering if religious certainty was to be replaced by a healthy dose of “dunno”.

    This is not to say that I take an entirely ambiguous view of other systems, that I see Scientology and Christianity as worthy of the same respect.

    If you answer the question “why not?” I bet you will immediately contradict your argument. I have no doubt you will find good, defendable, reasons for preferring one over the other.

    However, all those reasons will be materialistic. In other words, you will have relied upon rational inquiry to settle a metaphysical question.

    [“Kill all Jews”] is a very common claim, but no investigation of mine has confirmed this, and it doesn’t take very long thinking about Islam …

    My statement was wrong. I thought I remembered a quote from the Quran to that effect. However, after brief research, I could not find it.

    Instead, I found this:

    Kill disbelievers wherever you find them. If they attack you, then kill them. Such is the reward of disbelievers. (But if they desist in their unbelief, then don’t kill them.) 2:191-2

    War is ordained by Allah, and all Muslims must be willing to fight, whether they like it or not. 2:216

    So, yes, I was wrong. But only trivially so.

    Islam’s foundationas, the Quran and the Haddith often make for horrific reading. As, to be fair, does The Bible.

    Keeping an open mind is all well and good; however, a favorable conclusion is both materially based, and dependent upon the extent Muslims become, like Christians have been since the Enlightenment, willing to implicitly disregard the morally offensive portions of their revelatory texts.

  3. I’m unclear on your use of the term “instrumental knowledge”. If you mean usable or practical knowledge, then I agree that all such knowledge cannot be gleaned from strictly scientific processes, but I wouldn’t say that the gap is best filled by metaphysics. We get confused when we think of religion and metaphysics as the same thing. A lot of what we call religious wisdom is experiental and not metaphysical. Religious traditions combine learned worldly wisdom and metaphysical speculation. Usually the religious believer sees the former as being founded upon the latter, and underivable by strictly experiential means. This, I believe, is nonsense, but that’s just me.

    This metaphysics as foundation notion is exemplified by the conservative work by Richard Weaver, “Ideas have Cosnequences”. Most people would agree with the notion embodied in the title, that our thoughts cause our actions. I think it is largely the other way around; consequences have ideas. Attitudes and behaviours are largely innate and learned through imitation from our parents and peers. Ideas which explain our attitudes are derivative of them. We seek abstract explanations for viewpoints already formed.

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