Friday, May 27, 2011

Disjunctive Metaphysics

I'm inclined to think that we don't know very well what the fundamental structure of the world is. (I am, I sometimes think, like a flea on a dog's back, watching a hair grow and saying "ah, that's how the world works!") Supposing evolutionary theory is true, there would seem to be little pressure to get fundamental metaphysics right. If mainstream cosmology is correct, we've only seen a small portion of time and space in one of possibly many universes. And thoughtful people have disagreed radically about the nature of the world, even given the similar evidence base of our one small vantage point. Some say that the world is wholly material, some that the world has material and immaterial aspects, others that only minds and their contents exist and there are no material things at all. Plato thought there was a world of perfect forms behind the imperfect world we see. Panpsychists think that ordinary objects have mental lives. David Lewis believed in the real existence of alternative possible worlds. Theists typically believe in an afterlife, which must either transpire somewhere or somehow be realized without transpiring anywhere.

Historically, philosophers have exhibited high confidence in various metaphysical views of this sort -- without, as far as I see, much epistemic warrant. Probably, people who lack unwarranted metaphysical self-confidence generally drop out of philosophy -- or at least avoid metaphysics or occupy the small niche of the skeptic. So metaphysics, at least metaphysics of the grand sweeping sort, tends to be written by people who lack a fully realistic assessment of their (and all of our) epistemic shortcomings in this domain.

Furthermore, it's almost inevitable that a number of highly unintuitive things are true about the fundamental structure of the world. Materialism, for example, is fairly unintuitive (even if contemporary philosophical materialists find themselves able eventually to jettison their anti-materialist intuitions). But so is idealism. And so are the various forms of dualism, when their consequences are explicitly displayed (David Chalmers' 1996 book brings this fact out nicely, I think). And intuitions about the infinite, about space and time, about possibility and the openness of the future, etc., often conflict, both within and between people. It seems unlikely, then, that we have a fully coherent set of metaphysical intuitions. If so, to the extent philosophical methodology relies on metaphysical intuitions, it builds from an inconsistent groundwork, and strange results follow.

BUT: Even if my pessimism is justified, I don't counsel abandoning metaphysical speculation. Rather, I advise that we give it a different role in our philosophical cognition. Rather than trying to settle on the one correct metaphysical picture, we should develop arms of a disjunction. We can improve our sense of what the metaphysical possibilities are. We can sophisticate our understanding of those possibilities and discover new possibilities we hadn't considered. We can reflect on the consequences of the different possibilities. Maybe -- although we should resist pushing too hard on this -- we can cultivate a sense of which possibilities seem relatively more likely and which seem relatively more far-fetched. Disjunctive metaphysics would mostly be an opening of the mind to the numerous (and perhaps at first wacky-seeming) possibilities, rather than a narrowing of the mind upon one.

[Update, June 3: In that last paragraph I mean epistemic possibilities, of course, about what metaphysics is correct, not different ways the world might possibly be given the one right metaphysics.]


J.Vlasits said...

I think that your idea of a "disjunctive metaphysics" is not that far from how Plato and the Pyrrhonian skeptics really thought about fundamentals. Most contemporary interpretations of Plato's dialogues, for example, often claim that Plato did not fully endorse the theory of Forms in either his earliest or latest writings, it was merely a possibility that he took very seriously as a way to think about certain metaphysical/epistemological intuitions. Similarly, Sextus Empiricus's method of opposing appearances and thoughts involves multiplying epistemic possibilities without deciding on one.

However, as someone who is very drawn to this way of doing metaphysics, there seem to be some unacceptable consequences. There seems to be times when a lot could hang on the correct metaphysical theory. Do you think that nothing there makes enough of a difference to anyone's life that choosing the right one would make a difference?

David Sanford said...

The view that metaphysics tries to discover the fundamental structure of the world is in fashion, a fashion one need not follow. Reflect on what Ryle says he learned from the Tractatus: metaphysics does not ask ordinary questions about special, metaphysical objects and events; it asks special, metaphysical questions about ordinary objects and events.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, J. & David!

J: It's hard to know how to fit together the skeptical-seeming Socrates and the not-so-skeptical-seeming Socrates of the Platonic dialogues. You might be right. I agree about Sextus, except insofar as I think he might be subject to the criticism implicit in your second paragraph.

In your second paragraph: I believe that choosing right might make a huge difference. If solipsism is true, the best course of action might be very different than if it's not true. If biological chauvinism is true of consciousness, instead of functionalism, then we had better not upload our minds to computers. If there is an afterlife, that likely has consequences. So I agree that much hangs on the correct metaphysical theory! Thus, our epistemic situation is unfortunate. So I'm not sure Sextus's ataraxia is the proper response.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David: I am ambivalent about the use of the term "metaphysics" in this post. There is a narrower use of "metaphysics" (or a more presupposition-loaded sense) on which I doubt that there are metaphysical truths at all. But in the broad sense of the term intended in this post, I believe that these questions are substantive and important. If Ryle disagrees, I think it's he and not we who is the outlier in philosophical history.

MIke said...

As Wittgenstein put it, "At the core of all well-founded belief, lies belief that is unfounded."

CHeno said...

I was relying on you to provide keen insight into philosophical topics Erik, and not some banal bandwagon hopping. Contemporary metaphysicians should, and for the most part do, treat metaphysical theories as only one way in which the world is. The act of deconstructing, hypothesizing, and 'fitting' the theoretical model to the actual world, is a means of stretching modes of thought and reasoning.

I have a hard time believing that you would say of a mathematician posing questions on the nature of the ordinal number system, or whether a certain axiom should be included in ZMF set theory, that he is doing nothing more than an inane and frivolous investigation into nonsense. Metaphysics has a real (at least as real as metaphysics can get) use in hypothesizing abstract properties of mathematics for instance. I cannot continue but I'm sure you get the gist of my rationale. Something as abstract and theoretical as mathematics requires a just-as-obscure methodology into its nature.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ CHeno: It doesn't ring true to me that contemporary metaphysicians treat their own metaphysical views as only one way the world might be -- though you're probably right that it is inaccurate of me to suggest that contemporary metaphysics involves a narrowing of the mind. I need to find a better way of contrasting what I think of as disjunctive metaphysics from the process of trying to figure out which element of the disjunction is true.

I am sympathetic with what you say about math. I am struggling a bit in seeing my way through the epistemology of math, and I think there are analogies there that can be carried over into philosophy.

CHeno said...

Eric, I wanted to add: trying to undermine the validity of metaphysics is similar to attenuating epistemological claims in the case of Richard Rorty's relativism. Basically, he says that our knowledge is just socially constructed, et cetera, et cetera.