A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Defending Metaphysics, Part 1

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on October 19, 2006

Eric of Splintered Mind, in his post Metaphysics, What? raised the issue of what metaphysics is, and its role in well… lives of certain people. Inspired by it, I will  write a series of posts, in which I will use small parts of the post to try to point to, what I take, are misconceptions about metaphysics. It won’t be exactly a reply to Eric’s post, but more of an different view.

The first can be connected to what Eric puts in this way (which he argues is “mystical view”):

“Metaphysics is the discovery, by a priori armchair reflection without depending upon anything empirical, of necessary truths of the universe… How do we learn about the outside universe (not just our minds), without looking at it?”

There are two things I want to say about this:

1. If the “universe” refers there to this particular (is there any other?) universe as a whole (as some sort of rigid designator) or to all the particular facts in it (Wittg. 1.1 ‘The world is the totality of facts’ idea), and “learning about the universe” refers to learning facts about it then… the easy reply is “We don’t”. But, that is surely what metaphysics is not about! Metaphysics is not about particularities and facts of the universe, it is about universals and their relations. Or maybe it is about particularities but just as much as they fall under universals. More on this later.

2.One can connect that question also to concepts used in metaphysics. Can we have concepts before looking at the world (having experience)? Proponent of metaphysical (or any a priori) thought doesn’t need to say that we have the “proper” notions to think metaphysics before we “look at the universe”. So, again the answer would be “We don’t”. Metaphysicist can freely accept that the concepts are learned from experience. What is required for a priori thought is that what is learned from concrete experience are universal notions. Or so to say,the requirement is that notion which is learned from particular experience, is not dependent on that particular experience. That notion is then separate and can be appropriate for a priori thought. While this might seem problematic, it is really simple… one can give several examples of ostensible teachings, where this happens:

a)The teacher teaches the numbers “one” and “two” to a student. She shows him a series of examples. She shows either one pencil, or two pencils. And she says “one” when she shows one pencil, and says “two” when she shows two pencils. The student figures out what is that about the examples that the teacher is pointing to. When he had figured it out, he is ready to join the linguistic community of users of the words “one” and “two”. But wait! If the concepts of “one” and “two” are based on examples with pencils, will he not use them just when he is shown pencils? Well.. would you be able to say how many sirens are in front of you if you see them? Of course you will be, even you have never seen sirens in your life before! Same with that student. Once he figured out what distinction the teacher was pointing using the examples, he can as well forget the examples. He might have been taught using different examples. Doesn’t matter. What example do you think when you think of numbers one and two? I’m not thinking of examples. I don’t imagine neither pencils, nor points, nor anything. (Why would someone imagine points anyway? Has anyone learned what one and two is based on examples with points?). So, while the concepts are learned from experience, they transcend examples, they transcend concrete.

b)If you think there is something magical about the notions of numbers, think about notion of “color”. Have you ever seen all the colors, all the particular shades? Do you not know what color is until you have seen them all? Do students first learn that green is color, and then again that blue is color, and then again when they see pink, do we need to tell them again that PINK is also color? Of course not! (Lot of exclamation marks, I know. I can’t help it.). Students ask “What is that color?” for the colors they never have learned. But how is that possible if the concept of color doesn’t transcend the particular colors?

I guess those two examples are enough to give a general idea, of how the particulars and universals are connected.
The main point is that while experience of the world is necessary for learning concepts, those concepts transcend particular contingent experiences.


To be continued…

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9 Responses to “Defending Metaphysics, Part 1”

  1. Peter said

    I think Eric’s point wasn’t that we can’t form concepts that we are able to deploy in new situations, which we obviously can, but that thinking about those concepts doesn’t necessarily tell us anything interesting about the world, except, possibly, information about how we conceptualize the world.

  2. Hi Peter,

    You are right that I’m not addressing that point. Well, not directly at least, and not in this post.
    What I’m trying is to give a little different frame to the issue, so that some things which are not mentioned in the Eric’s post and which I consider important are clearly layed out.

  3. Peter said

    I guess the point I was making is that the ability of concepts to be extended into new situations isn’t considered particularly interesting by many. For example, it doesn’t show that somethiing corresponding to the universal exists, since the fact that people extend concepts in similiar ways to new situations can be explained by assuming that we are hard-wired to extend concepts from examples in basically the same way (and of course there are some people who don’t extend concepts in the same way, at least intially, and need to be corrected). And of course there is the additional fact that some of our concepts, as we find them, are contradictory (e.g. identity over time).

  4. Peter,

    I wrote another post about the universals are in the mind account. Though not in fact general critique of that position, it covers one theory of it, so you might want to check it out here.
    What I want to add here, in order not to be misunderstood, is that metaphysics can’t do away with the thinking, it is thinking activity, whatever is grasped is grasped by the mind. So, I’m not defending metaphysics as account of the world as “de-minded”, as account of some noumena – unthought. That would be of course impossibility, and contradiction in itself. However that is different position then the position of ontological separation of mind and world, and placing the universals in the mind alone. The later seems to be to me a kind of metaphysical theory which denies metaphysics.

  5. Peter said

    I think you are missing the a bit of the point. The point is that philosophy, in general, is supposed to deal with stuff out there, objectively, in the world. (minds, matter, time, causation, meaning, knowledge, ect). Admittedly many of these things are connected with the mind, but we want to study them objectively, not as objects of thought, but as objects in the world. Thus much of metaphysics is simply useless to our philosophical endeavors, in general, because we can’t draw legitimate conclusions about what really exists in the world from the structure of experience.

  6. Peter,

    What do you mean by we want to study them objectively and not as objects of thought?
    For sure you won’t require from philosophy, nor from science, to study something without thinking about it?

  7. Peter said

    No, but we want to study them as they eixst in the world, not as they exist to us, and universals are a property of existing to us, since as you said they cant be seperated from thinking. We want to investigate the objects as independant from us and from thinkers in general without imposing our conceptualizations upon them. It is true that we conceptualize space as Euclidean, but it is not true that space is Euclidean.

  8. Peter,

    1. I’m not against “studying things as they exist in the world”, but I’m pointing that the study itself is again intentional relation. Relation that can’t be reduced neither to the subject that studies, nor to the object that is studied. And in general as long as we want to think of something, or learn something or comprehend something and so on, there is no way out of this intentional relation.
    That this relation is irreducible is hinted by modern physics itself. Observers have very special place in both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Of course this is not philosophical argument, but might be taken just as a hint.

    2.The relation between the ‘naive’ space and the space of physics is not very clear.
    I guess you would agree that the thing which we think of, is the same thing that we want to study (be it existing in the world or not).
    So if we want to study the space, we are studying the space that we think of.
    But if the space that we think of (or space-for-us) is necessarily Euclidean how can I think that “it can be true that space is not Euclidean”? (notice that space there appears as thought about, hence necessarily Euclidean as assumed) That would require from me to accept a contradiction.
    Either we should accept that our notion of space is not necessarily Euclidean, and that is our ‘naive’ metaphysics which is to blame, or that the space that we think of (and which is Euclidean) is not the same thing with that something which we can name e.g. theoretical-space, which is Reimannian.
    Also, talking about Special and General Relativity, from my amateurish reading of popular literature on them, it seems that big parts of them is a priori thinking, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that those theories are in part very good metaphysics, if physicists didn’t use the word in derogatory sense when talking about theories.

  9. Peter said

    1. True, but we wish to bracket the observer, which means ignoring metaphysics so it doesn’t contaminate our study of the world.

    2. The the object of thought, the sense, is not what we want to study. We want to study the reference, the thing in the world. The thing we thing of as space we think of as Euclidean. We also think of length as constant under translation in that space. Unfortunately you can’t have both in this world. But this isn’t a problem, since we aren’t doing metaphysics, we are free to reject parts of our conception of space as simply wrong and not reflecting the real world (given evidence). My argument is that philosophers would like to study thinks like language, mind, knowledge, ect like scientists study space, as things in the world. Which means that even though our concepts may prompt an investigation they aren’t really relevant to the results. Thus doing metaphysics is in someways useless, because metaphysical a priori conclusions are not what we are looking for, when we study objects in the world want a posteriori conclusions based on evidence, conclusions that may contrdict our metaphysical conclusions. So why do metaphysics when it can be a) wrong/misleading b) can’t help us improve they way we conceptualize the world, to make it align more closely with reality (excepting of course the pointing out of contradictions).

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