Monday, September 19, 2011

Why Metaphysics Is Always Bizarre

Bizarre views are a hazard endemic to metaphysics. The metaphysician starts, seemingly, with some highly plausible initial commitments or commonsense intuitions -- that there is a prime number between 2 and 5, that I could have had eggs for breakfast, that squeezing the clay statue would destroy the statue but not the lump of clay -- thinks long and hard about what they imply, and then ends up positing a realm of abstract Platonic entities, or the real existence of an infinite number of possible worlds, or a huge population of spatiotemporally coincident things on her mantelpiece. I believe there is not a single detailed exploration of fundamental issues of metaphysics that does not, by the end, entangle its author in seeming absurdities (sometimes advertised as "surprising conclusions"). Rejection of these absurdities then becomes the commonsense starting point of a new round of metaphysics, by other philosophers, which in turn generates a complementary bestiary of metaphysical strangeness. Thus are philosophers happily employed.

I see three possible explanations of why philosophical metaphysics is never thoroughly commonsensical.

One is that a thoroughly commonsensical metaphysics wouldn't sell. It would be too boring. A famous philosopher can't say only obvious things. The problem with this explanation is that there should be at least a small market for a thoroughly commonsensical philosophy. Common sense might not be quite as fun as Nietzsche's eternal recurrence or Leibniz's windowless monads or Hegel's world spirit, but a commonsensical metaphysics ought to serve at least as a foil; it oughtn't be so downmarket as to be entirely invisible. In the 18th century, Thomas Reid helped found the Scottish school of "common sense" philosophy, and today he is the best known representative of that school -- so one might naturally wonder if Reid's metaphysics is thoroughly commonsensical. It's not. See, for example, his thoughts on the immaterial souls of vegetables. Nor is G.E. Moore's, when he develops his positive views in detail, despite his famous "Defence of Common Sense". See, for example, his treatment of sense data.

Another possible explanation is that metaphysics is incredibly hard. There is a thoroughly commonsensical metaphysics out there to be had; we simply haven't pieced it together yet. Maybe someday someone will finally bring it all together, top to bottom, with no serious violence to common sense at any point in the system. I fear this is wishful thinking against the evidence. (In a future post I hope to argue the point in more detail for the metaphysics of mind.)

A third explanation of the bizarreness of metaphysics is this: Common sense is incoherent in matters of metaphysics. Detailed examination of the consequences of our commonsense opinions inevitably leads to contradictions. To develop a coherent metaphysics in detail thus necessarily involves rejecting some aspects of common sense. Although ordinary common sense serves us fairly well in negotiating our everyday social and physical environments, it has not proven a reliable guide in cosmology or microphysics or neuroscience or evolutionary biology or probability theory or structural engineering or medicine or macroeconomics or topology. If metaphysics more closely resembles items in the second class than in the first, as it seems to, we might justifiably be suspicious of the dependability of common sense as a guide to metaphysics. Undependability does not imply incoherence, but it does seem a natural next step in this particular case, especially since it would generate a tidy explanation of the historical fact that detailed metaphysical systems are never thoroughly commonsensical.

Thus, I am endorsing the incoherence of common sense in matters metaphysical as an empirical hypothesis, justified as the best explanation of an empirically observed pattern in the history of philosophy.

59 comments:

Brandon N. Towl said...

I think I agree with option three-- though I also think that option one is part of it.

Here's a question for you, though. One might think that the two ways to measure and evaluate metaphysical theories are 1) internal coherence/consistency and 2)accord with common sense. But, if common sense itself is inconsistent and/or wrong, perhaps (2) is not the right thing to look for. But (1) is way too cheap-- there are plenty of plain crazy theories that have (1). So what else do we use to evaluate and sort metaphysical theories? Accord with science? Maximal expressive power? Maximum precision? Something else?


Or do we just stop betting on the horses, so to speak?

richard Marshall said...

Brandon
why not just have a deflationary view of truth and just have the crazy true one?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Brandon and Richard: Nicely posed question. I see three outcomes: (a.) Reduction to an empirical issue (e.g., issues about the mechanisms of self-knowledge); (b.) Pragmatism, where by pragmatism I mean that one makes a value-guided choice about what metaphysical structure to impose on things, as a kind of rigorizing of language, given the empirical facts (e.g., how is it best to conceptualize "belief"); or (c.) Pessimism that we can ever know at least given current resources (e.g., about what sort of hypothetical beings would and would not have a stream of conscious experience). All three options are compatible with deflationism about truth, I think. They are also all compatible at least in principle with "crazyism" (see my previous post on that term), though (c)-type cases are where crazyism strikes deepest, I think.

Maybe there's a (d), too, where the issue becomes purely formal, like mathematics.

sinistredestre said...

I like how you have created constrasting terms: metaphysics, scientific reasoning and common sense. The way I interpret what you say is that they are concerned not with different analysans, but have different kinds of desiderata about how to accomodate data into what is the canon of science/metaphysics/common sense.

Framing a question: what is the goal of science, metaphysics and common sense? I'm not sure I can give a comprehensive answer, but I think they have conflicting goals, or at least goals in tension with each other. At a prima facie:

Metaphysics; commensuration with common sense taken with some notion of logical consistency (how far can we go with pretheoretic ideas - or which are true and which are not)

Science: commensuration with experimentations and models with their evidences. Science is known to go against common sense in many issues, as it does philosophy. Many times they go along together as well (suggestive of some shared quality?)

Common sense: pretheoretic notions consistent with past life experience/general experiences? (not quite sure how to frame this one)

I see potential for a provoking analysis here.

Tristan Haze said...

Here's an unfashionable thought. Not sure if I think it's true:

Common sense only appears to be committed to an incoherent metaphysics. The appearance arises when we take linguistic forms out of the (different) contexts which give them life and throw them together. This can be thought of as causing two interrelated problems: (i) ("formal") equivocation through mixing of language strata and (ii) loss of meaning.

Jackson Davis said...

What is needed is a metaphysics that takes into account both common sense and science, as well as the history of metaphysics itself. Such a metaphysics has been developed by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. See his Some Lessons in Metaphysics (Norton, 1969) as a starting point.

By the way, the Comments section would be easier to read if the "Leave your comment box was located either at the top or after the posted comments, allowing for wider lines. Thank you.

Kurt M. Boughan said...

So the history of philosophy is essentially a history of error?

What makes you think that your present criteria of what constitutes the integrity or coherence of a set of philosophical doctrines are the final, truly correct ones? Do you think that your criteria stand outside the historical process, in a privileged space that transcends culture and language?

Are you prepared to say explicitly what I'm reading your post to imply, namely:

All learned culture -- past and present -- that does not conform to Eric Schwitzgebel's particular version of twenty-first-century, white middle-class university-trained west-coast secular American rationality, are basically, well... crazy. Or, to be (slightly) more charitable, *objectively inferior*.

Have I got the implications of your hypothesis for understanding culture wrong?

Jackson Davis said...

Yes, the history of philosophy is filled with errors. So is science. So is common sense. This does not mean that there is no resulting truth. By the way, philosophy began with an error. It started with the Parminedean search for the one unchanging "Being," that has been sought by both philosophers and scientists as well. The scientists have discovered that all physical phenomena involve change, radom at the quatum level, evolutionary at the cosmic level. It's time for the Heraclitean worldview of "Change" to take hold. My favorite philosopher , José Ortega y Gasset, posits that the era of "Philosophy" is over and it is to be replaced by what he calls "Vital or Historical Reason," based on a dynamic "Living" instead of a static "Being." As for "Science" he sees it as a search for "a story that is true whenever it is told." But it's still just a story. See his What is Philosophy?, Man and Crisis, The Origin of Philosophy, and Historical Reason. It's all really quite "Bizarre"!

Anonymous said...

Boy, this thread sure went downhill quickly.

Jackson Davis said...

Speaking of "downhill," it can mean an exhilarating ride to a skier, or a treacherous fall to a hiker. It all depends on what we are trying to do. According to Ortega's "bizarre," but common-sense metaphysics, "my life," your life, the life of each individual human being, is the basic, fundamental or "radical" reality, in the sense that all other realities are "rooted" in it. And this reality, "my life," has a structure. "My life" consists of "I," "my self," the person that I am, and "my circumstances," which includes not only so-called "physical phenomena," but also so-called "mental phenomena," "social phenomenal," and even "spiritual phenomena," in short, anything that "occurs" to me. "My life" consists of "happenings" or "occurrences," "what I do and what happens to me." Now a hill, even a down slope on a hill, can be a facility or a difficulty for me depending on what I am trying to do or what "concerns" me. Now Ortega traced back original meaning of the Greek word "pragmata" to just that: "concerns, affairs, or matters". But Greek philosophers began using the word to mean "things," material objects having existence independent from me. And this word, "pragmata," was translated into Latin as "res" and the res-t is history. So in a few sentences, we have slid "downhill" from a common-place "occurrence" (a down-sloping hill), to a common-sense "concern" (skiing or hiking), and then to the history of metaphysics. Incoherent? Inconsistent? Not in accord with common sense? "How's 'things'?"

Jackson Davis said...

Speaking of "downhill," it can mean an exhilarating ride to a skier, or a treacherous fall to a hiker. It all depends on what our circumstance are and what we are trying to do. According to Ortega's "bizarre," but common-sense metaphysics, "my life," your life, the life of each individual human being, is the basic, fundamental or "radical" reality, in the sense that all other realities are "rooted" in it. And this reality, "my life," has a structure. "My life" consists of "I," "my self," the person that I am, and "my circumstances," which includes not only so-called "physical phenomena," but also so-called "mental phenomena," "social phenomena," and even "spiritual phenomena," in short, anything that "occurs" to me. "My life" consists of "happenings" or "occurrences," "what I do and what happens to me." Now a hill, even a down slope on a hill, can be a facility or a difficulty for me depending on what I am trying to do or what "concerns" me. Ortega traced back the original meaning of the Greek word "pragmata" to just that: "concerns, affairs, or matters". But Greek philosophers began using the word to mean "things," material objects having existence independent from me. And this word, "pragmata," was translated into Latin as "res" and the res-t is history. So in a few sentences, we have slid "downhill" from a common-place "occurrence" (a down-sloping hill), to a common-sense "concern" (skiing or hiking), to a "pragma-ric metaphysics of life, and then to the history of metaphysics itself. Incoherent? Inconsistent? Not in accord with common sense? Show me "How's 'things'?" or "What's 'happening'?" to you!

Jackson said...

Sorry about the duplication.

Anonymous said...

Jackson: by "downhill," I presume the poster meant that things took a turn for the worse. I'm not sure if Ortega y Gasset has anything interesting to add to this debate--he may or he may not. But what I do know is that if you want to make his contributions known, you've got to learn to explain him more clearly than you have. I have no idea what you're saying and I doubt I'm alone in that regard.

Jackson Davis said...

Of course, I knew what the poster meant by "downhill," and since I assumed he was referring to my previous posting, my posting was a reaction to it. I merely wanted to indicate that there might be a metaphysics that met the criteria of internal coherence and consistency, as well as according with common sense, as specified by Brandon Towles in the first comment of this thread, namely the metaphysics developed by the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). I know that Ortega's metaphysics is a challenge to some because he starts with the statement: "My life is the radical reality." By "my life" he means the individual human life in all its aspects. By "radical" he means that all other realities are "rooted" in it. To quote from his book, What is Philosophy, where he first enunciates this idea: "Every other thing, every other manner of being, I find within my own life, both as a detail of it and with reference to it. In it is all the rest, and all the rest is what it is with regard to that life. The most abstruse mathematical equation, the most abstract and solemn philosophic concept, the very Universe, even God himself, are things that I find in my life...." Of course, I also find "I," "my self" along with "all the rest," or what he calls "my circumstances," which includes all the phenomena that occur to "I," "me," the person that I am, within the "radical reality" that is "my life." Any problems so far?
For this more formal approach, you can consult my webpage, "Ortega y Gasset's Philosophy of Life" at , in progress.

Jackson Davis said...

That website for "Ortega y Gasset's Philosophy of Human Life" is http://www.webspawner.com/users/ortegainus/ortegaygassetsp2.html.

For some reason it didn't print out.

Benj Hellie said...

Jessica Wilson and I would give the following answer (for further elaboration, go here: http://individual.utoronto.ca/benj/nicut-hvd.pdf http://individual.utoronto.ca/jmwilson/NICUT_Wilson.ppt).

Academics answer questions. What distinguishes philosophy from other academic disciplines is that while they take an intrinsic interest in answering questions only about a specific subject-matter (molecules, the past doings of human societies, whatever the subject-matter of math is), we answer questions about /any/ subject-matter.

In answering a question, one makes certain presuppositions. The status of these presuppositions typically does not concern the subject-matter of the question. Accordingly, for the disciplinary researcher, their status is of no intrinsic interest. Not so for us.

In reasoning through the answer to a question, one needs to consider, and thus take seriously, a range of alternative answers. If the question concerns the status of presuppositions that are widely agreed-upon in some other discipline, some of these answers will violate widespread agreement elsewhere.

Moreover, in assessing these presuppositions, one needs to make further, deeper, presuppositions---ones which no one else has bothered to make explicit---and to do so with customary philosophical rigor, one needs to be explicit about these presuppositions.

Being explicit in ways no one else has been, and taking seriously prospects else simply assumes away, are two ways of considering prospects that might be regarded as 'bizarre' (a subjective and culturally-relative notion, it should be emphasized).

Anonymous said...

Here's a fourth explanation for why metaphysics is never thoroughly commonsensical: Sometimes common sense beliefs are false (this includes common sense beliefs about the nature of persons, material objects, etc.). Since common sense gets things wrong, our metaphysics shouldn't be thoroughly commonsensical.

I'd also appreciate a clarification of your thesis. You say:

"I am endorsing the incoherence of common sense in matters metaphysical as an empirical hypothesis..."

What is supposed to be incoherent here? I don't know what it would mean for common sense to be incoherent, nor do I think that the idea of appealing to common sense in matters metaphysics is incoherent. I'm guessing that you have something like the following in mind: metaphysics conflicts with common sense; metaphysics is strange or bizarre or incoherent, and therefore conflicts with common sense. I'd appreciate it if you'd be willing to clarify. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

But don't you think that modern analytic metaphysics has become a new form of scholasticism? What on earth gave people the idea that they could find out about the ultimate structure of reality without ever leaving their armchairs? It's true that physics is also "weird", but physicists have something that pushes back, so the game is completely different. Is this what it has come to? Rudolf and Hans must be turning in their graves.

Richard Marshall said...

Anonymous

Some of us are not so skeptical about armchair philosophy. We claim thought experiments differ from the experiments of scientists in degree rather than kind. Roy Sorensen, for example, defends this approach against charges that they are arbitrary whilst agreeing that sometimes they can lead us astray. But science experiments are not free from that hazard either.

Anonymous Metaphysican said...

It may well turn out that most of contemporary mainstream metaphysics is false or worse ("not even false"..), but if by my inquiring I have contributed to Rudolf C turning in his grave, at least I know that it wasn't ALL in vain..

Benj Hellie said...

Anon 7:38 -- You should read Lee Smolin's /The Trouble with Physics/: that'll disabuse you of the sense that physics requires 'pushback'

Anonymous said...

[anon 7:38 here] Benj -- Au contraire! without pushback it's metaphysics (by definition)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks!

Benj: That's a cool story, and I don't reject it as part of what philosophy does. There's a beneficial diversity, as you and Jessica say, in philosophers pushing against presuppositions. But shouldn't there also be room for a philosopher who says that all the presuppositions are right and shows how they can work into a coherent system? When philosophers like Reid, and GE Moore and PF Strawson have tried to do this, though, they haven't been able to pull it off. An appealing explanation, I think, is that the presuppositions don't all fit together into a coherent whole. I think this needn't conflict with most of your picture.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 06:07: If metaphysical truth were a strong constraint on philosophical theorizing, that explanation would work, I think. But since most metaphysicians must be wrong (since their systems contradict each other), the question remains why none find a way to a thoroughly commonsensical system.

On your second thought: My claim is that common sense is committed to a number of propositions, P1, P2, P3, etc., from which a logical contradiction can be derived. But more than that, it is not some little side thing like some abstruse paradox of set theory, but rather that that sort of incoherence infects core ideas of the metaphysics of common sense. Admittedly the last point is difficult to make formally precise.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 07:38: Yes, I have some sympathy for that, but I also see a role for metaphysics -- for example, what Benj alludes to, and also via pragmatically governed concept construction, and in conjunction with the empirical.

Chris Anderson said...

Armchair philosophy by Greeks produced intuitions considered correct by science thousands of years afterward, eg, the concept of the atom and conservation of matter/energy.

Some philosophers are so scared to being incorrect they can't even move.

There are insects and there are sword swingers. Philosophy has lost the epic instinct by being thrown into chains and told what to do, and how to do it.

Dragon slaying is "irrational"---it must be bad to operate this way. Remember to be extremely careful at all times when you think, and apologize in advance for any fire you might not have stamped out in your heart yet.

undergrad said...

What about the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition? In my undergrad class I'm currently muddling through Descartes' "Meditations" and I'm not finding it particularly "clear and distinct," if you pardon my humor. I've found Aristotle, however, to be a lot simpler and more lifelike- for example, two billiard balls striking each other do seem to have a causal relationship in everyday experience. Hume may cast doubt on this, but isn't he the one who is going out on a obtuse metaphysical or epistemological limb?

The same goes for Aquinas- It doesn't seem that radical to me to assert that being/existence undergirds what we observe to be real. What is reality if not existent entities?

undergrad said...

Chesterton talks about this in general in his book on Aquinas:

"So much is familiar; but what is not even now realised is that not only the practical politics, but the abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality: to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox: a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson. to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.
...
Against all this the philosophy of Saint Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of Saint Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God."

http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-thomas-aquinas-by-g-k-chesterton-06/

(This is a chapter of a longer book, "St. Thomas Aquinas," which I have not yet read)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Undergrad: Terrific quote from Chesterton!

Aristotle and Aquinas are interesting cases. I think it can be said confidently that the *jargon* of "prime matter", "substantial forms", etc., are not commonsensical. However, it might be argued that really they are just ways of formalizing common sense.

One reason to think not is to look at how people reacted to scholastic philosophy. To scholars such as Ockham and the early moderns, it seemed, orthodox scholastic ontology was a kind of bloated monstrosity, not at all in line with common sense.

Aristotle also explicitly states that his conclusions will run contrary to the prior opinions of ordinary people, in Book One of the Metaphysics. (I don't know if Aquinas says anything similar.)

Benj Hellie said...

Anon 7:38 -- I'm thinking that 'physics' by definition is what people in depts of physics do. If you read the Smolin book you will learn that things there have gone off the rails, pushback-wise -- call it metaphysics if you will but it is metaphysics being done by physicists under the name of physics.

Schwitz -- without specific examples of how you think Reid etc collapse into bizarreness it's hard to judge whether it is necessary that such efforts do so, of course.

I wonder also whether the notion of 'metaphysics' at issue is slightly underspecified. For example, I'm thinking of the project people like Terrence Parsons and Paul Pietroski engage in with regard to the 'logical form' of the verb phrase and its apparent ontological commitments counts as metaphysics. It is not so implausible that when Brutus stabbed Caesar in the back violently with a knife, that consisted in the occurrence of a stabbing of which Brutus was the agent and Caesar the patient, a knife was the instrument, Caesar's back was the 'target' or something, and it was violent. Is that metaphysics? If so then that is a case of non-bizarre metaphysics.

In other cases perhaps something Carnapian/Rylean/Investigations-y could be said by way of expanding on the second way of being bizarre. Perhaps sometimes in considering alternatives to a certain presupposition people make a mistake about its intended function: the sentence expressing it is not supposed to have any 'fact-stating' power but is rather endowed with some other purely 'expressive' function, like assisting in computation. If we ask /why did 2+3 have to = 5? -- Jack and Jackie could have had different kids, so why the necessary connection among these numbers?/ -- there we are assuming that the point of math discourse is fact-stating when it is in fact expressive.

That would be something we could regard as an empirical mistake, if we were motivated in theorizing by the sorts of bizarreness judgements that bother you. Other motivations would lead to other theories.

Steve Biggs said...

I largely accept the Benj/Jessica picture of metaphysics/philosophy. It's worth noting that this picture doesn't explicitly identify how metaphysicians do/should proceed (e.g. how they should assess presuppositions etc.). So, the initial respondent, Brandon Towl, might be left wondering whether we do/should assess presuppositions etc. on the basis of their bare coherence, fit with common sense, or ...

Here'a sketch of one take that fits naturally with the Benj/Jessica picture: Metaphysicians do/should rely on a sort of inference to the best explanation that subsumes various non-demonstrative inferential principles (e.g. of parsimony, explanatory comprehensiveness, etc. (This relates to Brandon Towl's wondering whether "accord with science" and "expressive power" might play a role.) I provide a preliminary motivation for this sort of "abduction-based epistemology for metaphysics" (specifically for modality) and try to show that/how it can support some metaphysical hypotheses over others here: http://www.stephenbiggs.com/papers/Abduction_and_Modality.pdf.

This method doesn't put common-sense at the center of metaphysics any more than it's at the center of science, regardless of whether a complete common-sense metaphysics would be boring/interesting, hard/easy, or possible/impossible.

Mark said...

Couldn't the whole post be re-written with "Epistemology" substituted for "Metaphysics," (or, ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of science, what have you), and the rest of the terms substituted so that the same case can be made for just about any field of philosophy?
It seems so to me. If not, why not?
But, in any case, I think this deserves more study. A huge grant should be given to be split amongst many, many metaphysicians about why we study such a bizarre subject matter. I offer to head up the institute.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Benj: Reid thought that physical events or entities had no causal power, which he admitted was contrary to the opinions of ordinary people. And he thought that vegetables have immaterial souls, which also seems contrary to common sense (though there might be a question here about whether it fit in with a commonsensical vitalism in his day). Moore gets weird about sense data. Strawson gets weird about mental-physical causation (in his 1983 book). Obviously, I can't do every case. If a metaphysical view is narrow enough in its scope (your stabbing case?) then one might avoid violations of common sense. Hence I phrase the claim in terms of "detailed exploration of fundamental issues". Perhaps that phrasing is a bit mushy and I should unpack it a bit, but my thought is that there would have to be specific commitments on a broad range of metaphysical theses that make contact with things that ordinary people have opinions about, such as the relation of the mind and the body, the types of entities that do and do not exist, and causation. I don't think one can go fully "expressive" on these matters as a way of saving common sense, since such a pervasive expressivism would itself be a violation of common sense.

That, at least, is my thought.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Steve: I wonder about how far abduction can take us in metaphysics. Maybe it can help somewhat, but I'm inclined to think that often we won't have good epistemic grounds for choosing decisively among some very different potential explanations. If common sense is flawed as an epistemic basis, then it makes sense not to be entirely in its thrall, but pulling away from common sense also deprives metaphysics of much of its epistemic traction, don't you think?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Mark: I'm certainly in favor of the grant! Regarding the extent to which these remarks can be generalized to other subfields of philosophy -- maybe they can. But metaphysics has always struck me as the most palpably bizarre of the subfields.

Steve Biggs said...

Thanks for the reply.

On how far abduction can take us ... Far enough. I doubt abduction ever delivers decisive epistemic grounds for choosing among competing theories. But I doubt any method delivers decisive epistemic grounds for any theory. Rather than aiming for a method that delivers so much, we should aim for something that delivers good grounds for ranking theories one way or another. I think abduction often does that in metaphysics, no less than in physics, chemistry, criminal investigations, medical diagnosis, etc. Of course, there may be disagreement about which theory abduction supports. But the same holds for physics etc. In neither domain does disagreement show that abduction gets no epistemic traction.

On pulling away ... I suspect that pulling away from commonsense deprives metaphysics of epistemic traction to exactly the degree that pulling away from commonsense deprives physics/chemistry etc. of epistemic traction. In all cases, although ceteris paribus it's good to respect commonsense, commonsense doesn't have the final say. I don't know just how much respect commonsense should get or exactly how it should figure into abduction--I suspect not much--but I see no obvious, compelling case for presupposing that commonsense gets more weight in metaphysics than in other domains, including physics, chemistry, criminal investigations, etc.

One might say, "Look at the way metaphysicians proceed versus the way that physicists proceed! Clearly the former give commonsense more weight!" But it's pretty rare these days that commonsense is taken (explicitly anyway) to decide an issue in metaphysics. More often, one considers various theories, adduces considerations for and against each, and then offers a judgment about which theory best fits the evidence. Sometimes commonsense may be used to "pushback" on a theory. But, even when this pushing is taken seriously, it is rarely treated as more than one among many relevant considerations, some involving commonsense, others not. At any rate, I suspect that metaphysicians should rely on abduction even if they presently put too much weight on commonsense.

Anonymous said...

To the things themselves = A return to common sense.

God is bizarre said...

If there can be a rational explanation for God, it seems that even a Cartesian philosopher has to go against the bizarre side of it. It should be interesting:
http://eternal-cartesian.blogspot.com/2009/08/heisenberg-and-god.html

Anonymous said...

I think Wittgenstein figured this one out a long time ago: "Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday." That is to say, what appear to be metaphysical problems are really linguistic problems; they exist (and persist) only because philosophers try to do things with language that language isn't capable of.

When, oh when, will philosophers finally take Wittgenstein to heart? My guess is never, because then they'd all be out of jobs.

Benj Hellie said...

Schwitz -- Moore was agonized about whether the 'sense-datum' (the direct object of perception) was inner or outer until his last published paper from 1957, where he came down on the side of 'inner'. The 'London dilemma' is the problem here: phenomenologically, the direct object of perception would seem to be outer; but considerations of illusion and the like seem to suggest it is inner. Here I note that considerations of illusion and the like really do not suggest this: Aristotle was a disjunctivist (read his stuff on dreams some time).

Mental/physical causation is problematic but I'm of the view that here there are plenty of difficult conceptual issues to be resolved: maybe the problem is just hard and we lack the technology (although my view is that once we deploy the right technology the problem displays itself as insoluble -- because of incoherence considerations somewhat different from yours).

I doubt that expressivism about causation is at odds with common sense. Students are pretty comfy with the idea that 'P because Q' means something like 'P and normally if Q then P' where the 'normally' and the 'if' express adventitious and subjective strategies for carving up the world.

Benj Hellie said...

Anon 2:02PM -- some philosophers do agree with this, others don't; others think there are no philosophical problems but that some problems philosophers worry about arise from language going on holiday.

Anyway "hoc Zenon dixit" and all.

Jackson Davis said...

Re: Inner vs. Outer
With regard to "sense-data", Ortega's metaphysics would hold that they are "outer" to "me", the sensing subject, but "inner" to "my life", which is the "radical reality" in the sense that all other realities occur or are "rooted" in it. "My life" includes both "I," the person that I am, and "my circumstance," which includes all the phenomena (including "sense-data") that are not "me", i.e., that are "outside" of me, but that occur to and coexist with "me," "inside" the "radical reality" that I experience as "my life". As to whether there is a "you" who lives within a "radical reality" that you also call "my life" along with a set of phenomena you also call "my circumstance," I can only speculate based on how "you" "occur" within "my life."
To me this was at first a "bizarre" metaphysics that, once I thought about it, made not-so-common sense.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 9/28 2:02: I will differ from Wittgenstein, I think, on how comfortable we should be with common sense and whether philosophers are developing its incoherent implications (as I think) or instead only taking words where they have no business going (as on a common reading of the language-on-holiday remark).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Benj: I agree, Moore's 1957 does resolve some of his waffling, in part by repudiating earlier views. I find it odd, still, that he says that when someone points to a penny and says "this is a penny" she is referring to two things rather than one, a sense datum and a penny. Also his 1957 is less metaphysically broad-ranging than his 1953, so he can dodge troubles by narrowness (cf. my reaction to your stabbing example), e.g., in his 1953 he contemplates the continued existence of unexperienced sense data whereas in his 1953 he doesn't really address the ontology of sense data.

The "it's difficult" response to the problem of mental-physical causation seems to me to have some merit. I suspect it's overly optimistic to suspect that we will solve it properly *and* do so in a way that fully respects common sense, but I can see how someone might disagree with me about this. It's a matter of judgment.

Expressivism about causation doesn't seem very commonsensical to me. But that's just confession I suppose! I'd have thought people were realists at root and that they would deny that certain "normal" constant conjunctions (night/day? tar-stained fingers/lung cancer?) are causal. But maybe a lot of work is being done by "normal" in your claim?

I feel a bit odd speculating about common sense in the armchair when clearly it's an empirical issue. But there you have it. That isn't to say that I think "common sense" is entirely straightforward to test.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jackson: I'll settle for not-so-common sense, if I can find it!

Anonymous said...

Pragmatism

[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate,” that there is no such thing as a distinction between an external world and a consciousness (between the perceived and the perceiver), there is only an undifferentiated package-deal labeled “experience,” and whatever one wishes to be true, is true, whatever one wishes to exist, does exist, provided it works or makes one feel better.

A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism—that knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of “competent investigators” who can “predict and control” reality—that whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist, and anyone who holds any firm convictions of his own is an arbitrary, mystic dogmatist, since reality is indeterminate and people determine its actual nature.

Ayn Rand's definition at this link:
http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/pragmatism.html

Anonymous said...

I don't think the claim that our common sense concepts might be incoherent is new, or even that the possibility frightens that many metaphysicians. What I think should be made explicit is that even those metaphysicians who proclaim not to care about whether common sense is incoherent--they still rely on common sense intuitions as evidence for a lot of their claims. And that reliance seems to presuppose coherence of common sense (unless they can locate which common sense claims are the true ones).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 9:19: Right. The claim that common sense is incoherent isn't new. For example, Kant seems to say something like it in the antinomies. And I agree that many, probably most, metaphysicians are okay with acknowledging that their views have aspects that conflict with common sense. And the methodological criticism that you advance is in the ballpark of what some recent foes of metaphysics say in the x-phi community.

What I haven't seen, though, is the empirical argument I've set forward here. It starts with an empirical universal claim: All observed metaphysical systems are bizarre. And it concludes with an inference to the best explanation of that claim, that common sense is incoherent.

The universal claim is somewhat bold, since it requires asserting that Aristotle is bizarre, Moore is bizarre, Strawson is bizarre, etc. I've been trying to look at all plausible candidate cases of broad-ranging metaphysicians who are able to thoroughly respect common sense. And I am making this strong universal claim on the basis of examining cases, not on a priori grounds like Kant's.

Now it could be that someone else has put forward my argument before, the argument from empirical observation of the universal bizarreness of metaphysics to abductive conclusion about common sense. If you or any other reader can think of a precedent, I'd appreciate a reference!

CrankyProfessor said...

I think it is a pretty simple statement that prime numbers are NOT common sense. How do they have any applicability to every day life other than a certain joy in numbers? An initial commitment? Maybe. But you're already in the math game when you are lying in bed figuring primes.

philosopher-animal said...

Crankyprofessor, if you've ever bought anything online (at least from anything like a reputable place), you've paid homage to prime numbers: they are used everywhere in cryptography these days.

As for the topic of the thread, when I did my tiny drops of work in metaphysics, I didn't regard common sense as a constraint at all. Why should one? One doesn't adopt the naive view(s) of stuffs in chemistry, the naive view of organisms in biology, etc. I basically regard science and metaphysics as continuous: the more general sciences are more metaphysics-y. Hypergeneral theories are the most metaphysical of all (like automata theory, one of my favourites), since they can even apply regardless of composition of the system.

As for why metaphysical systems turn out bizarre, it is not because they conflict with common sense (and yes, I think they usually do, even Strawson's _Individuals_). It is because there are no additional constraints - which are admittedly very hard to articulate, and of course time dependent. Descartes, for example, did not know about conservation laws in the way we do today; hence he can be forgiven for postulating psychoneural dualism. Dualists today have no such luxury, and in my view until they can show that the conservation laws are wrong (and win a nobel prize in physics along the way), they can stand refuted.

Anonymous said...

You made the right choice.

Sometimes common sense is just wrong.

For example you deride the notion of an infinity of different universes. Why? This actually jibes with what physics seems to be telling us, and the main point of resistance seems to be nothing more than "we weren't used to thinking of thing that way."

Richard Marshall said...

Eric

I guess there's a relationship between what counts as crazy/common sense and expertise, so that perhaps philosophers tolerate more crazyism than non-philosophers. If so then perhaps common sense is responsive to strereotypes about what we expect to be told by different groups. So maybe we might ask whether metaphysically bizarre claims when produced by metaphysicians as metaphysically bizarre find acceptance easier than the same views expressed by non-metaphysicians? Maybe a principle like 'If it aint crazy, she aint a metaphysician' is a common sense guide to metaphysics that then allows for common sense people to expect the crazyism? So there's a scale of common sense to crazyism that runs in inverse proportion to whether its a metaphysician or lay person putting forward the ideas. After all, look at the blog string here - the metaphysicians seem quite happy with apparently quite crazyist ideas which I doubt would be quite so easily swallowed if we were all economists, say. (No disrespect to economists meant here!)

Colin said...

Couldn't your argue the same thing about modern physics. That looking at its history of finding surprising conclusions that violate common sense is empiracle evidence that physics actually does violate common sense? And in the case of physics wouldn't that be an entirely uninteresting argument?

Ilya Farber said...

Nice question!

I'm certainly with you on the incoherence of common sense, though I think there are still a few steps that would need to be filled in to reach the conclusion that metaphysical systems must be necessarily *bizarre* (i.e. flagrant violations), rather than just modest revisions of common sense.

But more importantly, I think you may be selling option #1 short. Someone who proposes a new metaphysical system is asking a lot of us; at minimum, they’re asking us to take on board some new fundamental conceptual structure, and often in the absence of any compelling practical justification. The violation of common sense at least promises that, by adopting the new system, we may come to see the world in a new way and transcend some previously widespread limits or errors of thought. In a sense, it’s a way for the author to up the stakes, to command our attention by pointing out what a big difference it will make if they turn out to be right. If a new system can’t offer that, then it’s hard to see why readers would be motivated to put in the time and effort required to understand it.

(Plus, and relatedly, the counterintuitive claims then become a flashy badge of membership for new converts, and a lure for the intellectually curious …)

Richard Marshall said...

What Illya and Colin said reminds me of Nietzsche saying that the role of the philosopher is to create new concepts, which is also the priority of philosophers in the Deleuzian vein. It seems a neat example of how methodological naturalisism can include crazy bedfellows. As Leiter has been arguing for some time now, commonsense views of philosophy specialists about analytical and continental traditions look increasingly undefendable. So perhaps crazyism has important contributions for the sociology of philosophy on top of everything else.

Troy Camplin said...

Perhaps Nietzsche's eternal recurrence isn't all that crazy:

http://evolutionaryaesthetics.blogspot.com/2007/11/iii-chaos-theory-umwelts-eternal-return.html

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link, Troy!

Southgate said...

Empiristic or pragmatic approach do not sopouse to be unavoidably non-founded or incoherent to a methaphysicall view to the world. A contrary. They should serve to the metod of knowledge. The rational, scientific metod is the tool in that path. The major issue, I think,is the relation between mehaphysics and modern sciences.

Michelle Courtney DeFiore said...

It is expected right? new thought metaphysics will definitely be bizarre with all the possibilities that you can think off. If you will believe it, everything is possible. That's what most people say.