This post is the beginning of an attempt to briefly explain metaphysics from start to finish with the help of some volunteers to keep things on course. The challenge is that by the time it is complete the participants in the discussion should agree that when looked at in a certain way metaphysics is quite easy to solve and has a quite obvious solution. Whether it is the correct solution cannot be established in a blog post for this would require an empirical or experiential investigation, but it can be established by reason and analysis that it would work and that it is unique among metaphysical solutions in this respect.
The post will grow over time guided by comments received and should eventually become complete. As a framework for a wider discussion, and in order to make it very clear what is being said, a series of perhaps ten or so brief and clear philosophical statements will be presented and examined in turn. These statements will be presented as definite philosophical facts, true in all universes at all times, and not as matters of opinion. Once this list of statements is complete then metaphysics will have been solved and explained.
The approach will be to avoid the chaos into which metaphysics ineluctably descends when it begins by examining particular philosophical problems prior to gaining a clear overview of the field. To solve the details of the puzzle we must first be able to see the picture on the box. Metaphysics is the search for a general theory or ‘theory of everything’ and for this we must fly high above the landscape of knowledge looking down at the grand picture. The details are largely dealt with in the mainstream academic literature and need only be summarised here.
The goal is to show that metaphysics is, after all, really quite simple and surprisingly easy to solve, albeit that it may be extremely difficult to understand the solution, and to persuade you that the solution would be a metaphysical theory that has an almost complete explanatory reach and is simple, elegant, well-defined, systematic, comprehensible, unfalsifiable, irrefutable, well-developed, well-tested and well-known as the ‘perennial’ philosophy. By the end participants should be in a position to walk into a staff-room full of tenured philosophers and effortlessly hold their own against all comers.
There are four people involved directly in the project, this group having initially discussed it elsewhere. The content of each section must be understood and agreed by all four before we move on so that we are always moving forward together and not building on sand and leaving loose ends to which we will have to return. Kant tells us that metaphysicians are always having to retrace their steps and do not know why this is. Here we will not have to retrace our steps and by the end we will know exactly why this is.
If the original participants would like to begin their first comments by introducing themselves and saying a few words about their current views on metaphysics then this would serve as a useful entry-survey in order to later track changes in beliefs and attitudes, and it may also help the discussion if it is clear where we are each coming from, but don’t feel obliged. Feel free to play Devil’s advocate.
Each new section will be successively added to this post so that the ever-lengthening post and its associated comments will stay on this one page. At the end I may re-write the whole thing into an organised and readable dialogue and quote a lot of the comments, but for now we can only make it up as we go along.
I – An Initial Survey
Before getting going properly let us conduct a quick survey of what we know about metaphysics in order that we can all start on the same page.
A review of the literature of academic western metaphysics will reveal that it exhibits no sign of progress since Plato. This is a vital fact for any study of the subject and it should not be overlooked. It is often skipped over as an all-too-public embarrassment but a great deal can be learned from facing up to it and considering its ramifications.
One obvious question that arises would be that of what it is, exactly, that renders metaphysics so difficult that for over two millennia a host of our greatest minds have failed to make any sense of it. Let us not assume that we are great geniuses able to succeed by being more clever than them for this would surely be arrogance and hubris, but, rather, conclude that there is something that they are not noticing or have not considered, something important but well-hidden such that anyone could easily overlook it, and that we would need to be very careful right from the start of our study not to make the same mistake. We cannot follow their example because they failed. Clearly we would need to take a different approach, one that would allow us to succeed despite our modest intellects.
Here we might think of both the ‘hard’ problem in philosophy of mind and the problem of deciding the Riemann Hypothesis in mathematics. These problems can appear to be fabulously difficult and complex, but in both cases experts working on them often speculate that their solutions may turn out to be quite simple or naive and discovered outside of, respectively, philosophy of mind or mathematics.
I’m going to assume that everybody here has spent some time wrestling with a few metaphysical dilemmas and so has gone at least some way towards verifying the situation in which metaphysicians invariably find themselves.
If we were to make a list of metaphysical theories and conjectures it would take the form of two columns, where each theory in the first column would be paired with a counter-theory in the second to form something rather like a DNA double-helix. These pairs would include all the ‘isms’ such as Materialism–Idealism, Internalism-Externalism, Theism-Atheism, Freewill-Determinism, and then One-Many, Mind-Matter and so on, and also any other contrasted pairs of views, such as the view by which space-time is either a continuum or a series of points, the view by which the space-time world would be real or unreal and so forth.
The reason that this structure resembles DNA would be that the theories in each list are not just linked to their counter-theory but are also vertically within their list by logical implication. For a metaphysical theory we would need to organise the lists so that the sub-theories in each list are mutually consistent, do not contradict each other. Thus Materialism cannot be placed in the same list as Freewill. If Materialism is placed in the first list then the Freewill-Determinism pair would have to be switched around so that Freewill appears in the second list. A believer in freewill cannot be a materialist without suffering cognitive dissonance.
The list of paired metaphysical conjectures would be a long one. Luckily, we would not need to examine them all for a global solution. It is well-known that that none of them work. This is, after all, the reason why academic philosophy cannot make any progress. Anyone who pursues a metaphysical question with a little perseverance will end up facing an impossible choice between two demonstrably absurd theories. For some questions, for instance the ‘Something-Nothing’ problem of ontology and origins, this would be fairly easy even for a beginner to verify.
Except for the fact that this is a particular presentation of the issues and way of looking at them all this is well-known and quite easily established. But it is not always properly taken into account, and rarely is it made clear in introductions to the subject. The first of a few books I would recommend as background here is the English philosopher Francis Bradley’s 1895 metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality. In a wonderfully elegant manner he takes us through a succession of contradictory and complementary pairs of metaphysical conjectures and shows that in every case both sides of the pair must be rejected, such that metaphysics ‘does not endorse a positive result’. Many published philosophers seem unaware of this basic fact. It would be vital here that we pay it close attention, for if we do not see what the problem is then we cannot hope to solve it.
There is no need to say more about this issue for now, but if we do not recognise this initial rough analysis then we must discuss it until we do. We do not have to agree with yet, but we should not have any objections that we feel would force it to be changed.
Note that there is no attempt here to gainsay anybody. We are merely conceding a fact. I am unable to think of a philosopher who has attempted to refute this fact, albeit that many ignore or do not see it. We will return to it shortly since it is central, but for now it is mentioned as a preliminary to the main event in case it needs some initial discussion. I’d like to get this point out of the way before proceeding or else it may come back to clutter things up later. Also, once agreed it establishes some sort of baseline of understanding. If this summary of the problem of metaphysics is clear and not strongly objectionable to anyone then we can move straight on to building a metaphysical theory that would not cause cognitive dissonance.
Discussions of metaphysics are usually plagued by woolliness and over-complication. One can reach the end of a book or article and still have no idea why it was written or what it is trying to say. I purchased The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics a couple of years ago and could understand no more than perhaps 25% of it. The rest was incomprehensible to me. For anyone who thinks the approach taken here is complicated I would recommend this book.
Let us not go down that road to nowhere. For each of the following posts the proposition at the head of it together with its accompanying definitions are all that really matter. The rest of the post will be explication and ‘matters arising’. For the underlying formal argument that is unfolding the only issue that matters would be the truth or falsity of the propositions. These propositions are global, truly metaphysical, and thus condense a great many issues and claims into very few words. As a consequence they are completely crucial.
The universe is reasonable.
Definitions: As this is a metaphysical discussion, the term ‘universe’ here will generally be used to mean ‘Reality’, ‘Cosmos’ or ‘Everything’, such that there would be no plural. The term ‘reasonable’ would mean that a true explanation would be consistent with Aristotle’s ‘laws of thought’ and rules for the dialectic, or, if you like, with the way human beings usually think.
Discussion: This proposition states that a true description of the universe would not require a modification to the laws of the dialectic as described by Aristotle nor ask us to abandon our usual way of thinking. There would be no true contradictions. The universe would not be paradoxical, logically absurd or terminally incomprehensible. There would be no reason why omniscience, were we ever to achieve it, would cause us cognitive dissonance. The universe would make sense, in principle, even if it might be extremely difficult to make sense of it.
Here this proposition is stated not as a fact but as a necessary initial axiom for any investigation and for the construction of a formal metaphysical theory. If metaphysics is the intellectual/logical analysis of questions about the world as whole then we might as well begin by assuming that there is some purpose in all this activity. If the universe is unreasonable then logical analysis cannot be trusted to reveal its true nature and we might as well not bother, other than to discover that this is the case. In metaphysics logical analysis is our principle method and we have no choice but to trust it. Philosophers must begin by assuming the reasonableness of the universe and maintain this assumption unless and until they feel forced to abandon it. It is also relevant, as Bradley notes, that it would be impossible to logically refute the claim that the universe is reasonable since no reasonable counter-argument could ever be effective. It would be self-defeating. Accordingly, this first proposition is logically unfalsifiable and safe as houses. Whatever its truth or falsity, only if the universe is reasonable can logic and reason be of much use to us in our efforts to backwards-engineer it in pursuit of an understanding of its origin and nature, so we might as well start by adopting its reasonableness as an axiom, especially as we know we will never be able to prove it is not the case. We can always return to this axiom later if problems arise that force us to retrace our steps.
Usually philosophers adopt this ‘reasonableness’ proposition as a starting assumption and then go on to assume, in addition, that it must forever remain no more than an assumption. We must start in the same way but we need not go on to make this second assumption. Later we will present this proposition as a definite philosophical fact, one that can be demonstrated in metaphysics. For now we can only adopt it as a theoretical axiom and basis for our methodology, but it is on our list of factual propositions because it can be left out of our initial axiom-set and established as an analytical result. The proof is too tautological to be overwhelming in my opinion, but it is good enough for me.
Oddly, it is not important to our argument that this first proposition is true, but completely vital that we assume it is true. If it is not true then we must abandon Aristotle’s dialectical method for a different logic that better describes the world, or abandon logic entirely, but our argument is otherwise unaffected. We are searching for the best theory, the one that best accords with our reason, but metaphysics is not about establishing what is actually true and false in the world. That would be an empirical matter. If we do not assume its truth, however, then we have no method for making decisions or comparing rival theories, and our investigations and arguments cannot even begin.
I feel it is important that we strongly believe that the universe is reasonable, even insist on it, because in my experience this usefully pushes us to rely on cold and clear logic when we investigate metaphysics, and, most importantly, to assume that where the world seems paradoxical to us there is something we are not understanding which we might be able to understand with more work. Bradley’s calls metaphysics an ‘antidote for dogmatic superstition’, (for examples he cites materialism and ‘commonplace’ theism), and this is because he approaches it as he would mathematics, convinced that whatever else the world may be it cannot be logically paradoxical and trusting to his calculations.
Another reason for beginning with this axiom is to make it clear here right from the start that the approach we will be taking to metaphysics is essentially rational. It will lead us to the view of the Buddha and Lao Tsu, admittedly, (might as well reveal the plot), but it makes no ‘appeal to mysticism’, miracles or ignorance along the way, or to any privileged knowledge. The common idea that there is some clash between logic and mysticism such that a ‘rational’ philosophy must exclude the possibility that the perennial philosophy is correct is catastrophic for metaphysics, and in this internet age, with so many fabulous explanatory texts available on demand, it can reasonably be called a beginner’s mistake. The correct approach would be to logically prove that a rational thinker must reject the perennial philosophy. When we attempt this we discover that no such proof is possible.
Proving that Buddhism, Taoism and so forth are a lot of nonsense is the sort of thing I used to assume professional philosophers got paid for doing. After all, they usually express strong views on these matters. I was very naïve. It turns out that those who get paid to do philosophy rarely think about these issues, preferring to endorse a communal fantasy rather than do the research. And then they wonder why they cannot understand philosophy! Colin McGinn’s book The Making of a Philosopher, in which he charts his intellectual development from teenager to tenured professor, seems a very useful and entertaining introduction to philosophy and I often recommend it. I do so here. I envy his communication skills. It is also a very good illustration of what happens when we buy into the modern philosophy department’s absurdly blinkered idea of what constitutes intellectual development. The tenured professor can no more solve a philosophical problem than the teenager, lost in a world where everybody knows that metaphysics is incomprehensible and that mysticism is nonsense. It does not seem to occur to the inhabitants that these two beliefs might be causally connected.
A lot is implied by this simple first axiom and it is worth pondering. If the universe has a reasonable explanation then only its true explanation would be reasonable. This gives us a sure-fire way of testing theories and making clear decisions in metaphysics. A metaphysical theory must be completely general and leave nothing out. In this case, only a reasonable explanation of the universe can be complete. A false explanation would become unreasonable at some point, making it impossible to complete, and thus would not qualify as a genuinely metaphysical theory. In this case we could argue that there is only one possible metaphysical theory. When we examine metaphysics we find some evidence for this.
The failure of western academic metaphysics to solve any of its problems is a symptom of its failure to construct a systematic metaphysical theory within which these problems would not arise. What we see are arguments for and against this or that local metaphysical conjecture, and only very rarely do we see an attempt at a global theory. Where we do, as in Kant, Hegel, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Bradley and a few others, it is usually dismissed for being too ‘mystical’ and thus, of course, not at all ‘rational’. Once they are dismissed no global theories remain, just lonely isolated conjectures about freewill, materialism and so forth, like darts thrown into a board by a blind man.
This first axiom, then, implies that there is just one possible metaphysical theory and that it is reasonable, namely the correct one, while all other contenders must remain partial conjectures and scattered hypotheses. In the natural sciences a theory might focus on some sub-group of phenomena in the way of, say, the Standard Model, so that its completeness is not an issue. All will be well as long as it is as complete as it needs to be and works for the phenomena it describes. But a metaphysical theory must, in order to qualify, be complete in the same sense that the universe is complete. If a theory is not complete then it is not a genuinely metaphysical theory but a hypothesis about some aspect of metaphysics. One the greatest mistakes we can make in metaphysics, in my opinion, would be to assume that we can solve its problems one at a time. If we stand back we can see that they are too closely interconnected for this approach to work. We must think globally at all times and have no choice but to attempt to solve them all at once. As Heidegger observes, there is really only one metaphysical question and many different ways of asking it.
Note that by remaining above and beyond the details of any particular metaphysical problem we are able to keep things quite simple. Later we will see that the solution for metaphysics endorsed here is so astonishingly simple that it can be stated in just four words. Understanding the solution would be another matter, of course, and would require a study of the details, but first let us solve metaphysics at the level of principles so we know what it is we would need to understand.
It will be vital later that we closely examine Aristotle’s rules for the dialectic and when we do the meaning of ‘reasonable’ here will become more clear and explicit. In order to move on, however, we would only need to be happy to accept this first proposition as an axiom. Not a big ‘da da’, but it needs to be got out of the way, and it also serves as a statement of intent. I am fed up with all this ignorant idiocy about mysticism being irrational. It is this objection that is demonstrably irrational.
I’ll pause here for comments, objections, questions, criticisms and so forth, and for time to write the next episode. In case you’re wondering, we will need just two more propositions to dispose of metaphysics at the level of principles, so apart from the chit-chat we are actually moving along quite quickly.
POST III – The Plot Thickens
Let me be very clear here about the seriousness of my jokey opening ‘money-back’ offer. By the time we have come to the end of this discussion and list of propositions the participants should feel that they have a better understanding of formal metaphysics than Plato, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Russell, Wittgenstein, Feynman, Kripke, Searle, Dennett, Chalmers and, more generally, almost all living professional philosophers, or they can ask for their money back.
It is difficult to say something like this without it seeming off-hand, or for it to come across as hyperbole, even lunacy. Yet consider this. Bertrand Russell was of the opinion, and firmly states that it is the case, that there is no knowledge to be gained in metaphysics. He was well read, and yet he could see no sign that even one of his illustrious philosophical predecessors or contemporaries had gained any knowledge from their study of metaphysics. He thought it perfectly safe to say so and not even rude. He is speaking two thousand years after Plato and summing up the results of an entire tradition of thought. How hard could it be, then, to surpass this level of understanding? It would certainly not be hubris to imagine that we can do better, and according to Russell it would be impossible to do worse.
I offered this generous hostage fortune for two two reasons. Crucially, the course is free. It is just a chat through the issues. But the real reason is my belief that just about anyone can outperform Russell at metaphysics. How can this be so, when most university philosophers still cannot do it? I’m not entirely sure. One factor may be that people usually investigate metaphysics by endlessly examining the individual pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. We are not doing this. We are concerned only with the picture on the box. We are starting at the point where most people are trying to end up in order to be able to then turn around and explain how all the details fit together within a global theory. This is a much easier way of doing metaphysics. We could think of it as the difference between seeking the centre of a circle by starting at the circumference and seeking the circumference by starting at the centre.
I do not have a new theory, there is no need for one, just a modern and simple way of discussing, viewing and logically proving a very old one in the context of formal metaphysics. That the result of this approach is a very simple view of metaphysics would be explained by our humble acceptance of the facts. Philosophers commonly rant and rage against them, determined to prove that this or that positive metaphysical position is true, the gladiators in Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’. We, to the contrary, are stating that they are all logically absurd, as is the case. Immediately we have done away with the need for all the complex sophistry that would be required to argue against or disguise this fact.
These posts are an explanation of the doctrine of the mystics, the perennial philosophy, nondualism, the philosophy that emerges from the description of the world given by those who explore consciousness to its limits, in the limited technical form in which it has to appear in formal metaphysics. As a metaphysical theory this is not only unfalsifiable but demonstrably so, for reasons that we will begin to examine in this post. There is no chance whatsoever of anyone proving that what I am proposing here is incorrect. It is bullet-proof. If you endorse this view no metaphysician will ever be able to rattle your cage.
The real issue here is whether you will agree by the end that looking at metaphysics in this simple way – it should seem simple by the end or we will have not reached the end – helps us to better understand it, and whether you would agree that logical analysis can logically prove that the teachings of the Upanishads are the only workable and plausible explanation of everything. If so, then you would have to agree that you have a better understanding of metaphysics than those on the list above, and cannot ask for a refund. Hopefully the analysis should also shed light on what the Upanishadic view actually is
We will not, by the end, needless to say, know whether any particular metaphysical theory is true or false. The map is not the territory. What should be true according to logic may not be. We may have concluded, however, that there is only one theory that works in metaphysics and be able to see that nobody could ever falsify it. This is quite a lot. We can know these things because they are matters of logic.
We come now to our second proposition. This is the big one. It encapsulates the whole of metaphysics.
All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible
Definitions: The word ‘All’ here makes this a global proposition. It is an unequivocal statement about one entire class of metaphysical positions and it takes no prisoners. A ‘positive’ position would be one of the two extreme position (the horns of all those famous dilemmas) that we might take up on any metaphysical question. Synonyms would be ‘partial’, ‘extreme’ or ‘selective’. A metaphysical ‘position’ would be our answer to any of these questions. ‘Logically indefensible’ would mean capable of being reduced to absurdity in the (Aristotelian) dialectic by demonstrating that it gives rise to a self-contradiction. Synonyms would be ‘unreasonable’ and ‘logically absurd’.
Discussion: I have written at length about this proposition in various posts and essay on this blog. The best of them are up at the philpapers archive, and perhaps Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time? would be a relevant essay at this point. I feel it is revealing as to the appalling state of academic metaphysics, and the price it must pay for refusing to take the Buddha and Lao Tsu seriously. http://philpapers.org/profile/16982
We all know that metaphysics is hopeless when we do it in the way that university students are taught to do it. This second proposition explains why this is so. Students are taught to examine a long list of problems and to assume that their solution in each case would be the adoption of a positive metaphysical position. We have known for centuries that none of these positions work, but academic tradition demands that we carry on regardless generation after generation.
Kant stated long ago, ‘All selective conclusions about the world as whole are undecidable’. Why is this? It would be because our second proposition here is either true, unfalsifiable or both. As a consequence, endless metaphysical dilemmas arise in the form of the question ‘Does two plus two equal three or five’. More recently Bradley has stated, ‘Metaphysics does not endorse a positive result’. He might as well have said that the problems of metaphysics as formulated and approached by philosopher who endorse the view that mysticism is not worth studying are intractable and will forever remain so.
The typical university philosopher would struggle to concede this point. He or she would concede that all positive positions fail, since this is discovered by anyone who studies metaphysics for a week or more, but they would insist that one of them must be true, after all, and may spend much of their life trying to prove it. They will assume there is no alternative since they will not normally be students of philosophy as a whole but just what is left over after they have rejected the perennial or Upanishadic explanation of philosophy. Here we are going to concede the facts. If all these extreme positions fail in logic then according to our first proposition they are all false or inadequate. In this case we must abandon them and move on.
If we abandon them and move on then we have abandoned the ‘western’ or ‘rational’ tradition of thought as usually defined for the global phenomenon that is mysticism, out of which emerges the perennial philosophy with its ’empirical’ claim that all partial metaphysical views are not just logically indefensible but also false. This seems to be the main reason why university philosophers refuse to take this step./ As long as they go on refusing to take it the rest of us will easily be able to surpass their progress.
This second proposition was logically proved by the Buddhist philosopher-monk Nagarjuna in the second century CE for his exegesis of the Buddha’s cosmological scheme, placing Buddhist metaphysics on an unshakable and clearly-defined foundation. It is later proved less formally and at far greater length by Bradley in his metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality. Philosophers can hold whatever opinions they like, but they will never be able to second-guess Nagarjuna. They must take him seriously or fail to solve metaphysics. The evidence is overwhelming.
If we can see that this second proposition is true, and that it would explain why philosophy can seem so difficult, and that it has vast ramifications, then we have a gained a pretty good handle on metaphysics. One or two more posts and we will have dealt with it once and for all. This proposition states the central problem of metaphysics and we can move on to solving it. Note that this proposition will have no strong implications or force to change our thinking unless we assume that our first proposition is true. This would be the ‘get out’ clause for those who wish to avoid facing facts. We can always claim that the universe is absurd, and if we do this then we can believe whatever we like, regardless of common sense or logical analysis. It is surely setting oneself up to fail.
I will not add more for the moment although there is obviously a great deal more that could be and perhaps should be said, but will wait for questions and objections. I’ve written so much about this proposition that I would rather refer you to other essays (via the link above) than repeat it. If we are not sure that this second proposition is true then we are not ready to move on, however, so we must stick with this one until we are sure. It may help to go back to the DNA-helix model of metaphysics discussed at the start. This proposition states that all of the theories we listed in the two columns of contradictory and complementary positions (theories, conjectures, hypotheses) are wrong and must be abandoned. This proposition represents, therefore, a massive and almost total simplification of the issues. A study of first principles should lead us towards ever-greater simplicity, and so we are probably heading in the right direction.
Over to you for any responses. I hope it makes sense and is not too scrappy to follow. The next proposition will give the solution for the problems raised by this one, but first let us be sure we agree on this one and that it is clear what it states. Note that shorn of the definitions and accompanying discussion our explanation of metaphysics and argument for its solution consists so far of just two short sentences.
I must apologise for some very sloppy writing in the previous post. It should be a little better now.
Right, with Proposition II we have diagnosed the problem of metaphysics, now we can begin to solve it.
A neutral metaphysical position is logically defensible
Definitions: A ‘neutral’ metaphysical position is the rejection of all positive positions. It represents a ‘Middle Way’ solution for all the famous undecidable questions that arise when we do not reject them. The phrase ’doctrine of the mean’ would be a suggestive synonym. ‘Logically defensible’ would mean irrefutable in the dialectic, unfalsifiable or in accordance with the ‘laws of thought’.
Discussion: This idea of calling the metaphysical scheme of nondualism ‘neutral’ may be the only novelty in this discussion. The only other use of it I’ve noticed is by Charles Peirce, and he uses it to mean something quite different. Wherever a metaphysical theory or conjecture has a contradictory and complementary counter-theory it would imply the possibility of a neutral position. We would follow Lao Tsu, for whom the universe cannot be described as this or that in any respect. The universe would be a unity and all division and distinction would be a conceptual overlay.
A neutral position has an explanatory reach that extends beyond properties and attributes, describing a world that transcends not just our physical senses but even the reach of our intellect. Kant, exploring this idea in respect of psychology, concludes that that basis for our intellect, or any intellect, must be a phenomenon that is ‘not an instance of a category’, a unity free of division and distinction. Plotinus calls it a ‘Simplex’. Peirce calls it the ‘First’. Kant proposes that this phenomena is the ‘proper subject for a rational psychology’. If only he had had access to the internet. The evolution of the academic tradition that claims him as theirs might have looked quite different had he had access to a wider world of philosophy.
A neutral position would see the space-time universe or ‘world of opposites’ as being constructed from the categories of thought, which by reduction (or Hegel’s more profound psychological process of ‘sublation’) would be emergent and thus metaphysically unreal. ‘Emergent’ here would be a vague term but it should strongly imply an original or fundamental phenomenon. A neutral metaphysical position rests solidly on a foundational phenomenon, and would not entail Nihilism or an appeal to ex nihilo creation.
This third proposition is perhaps the most complex on the list because establishing its truth would require a study of Aristotle’s logic, about which there is much confusion in philosophy. To save time here and save repetition let me refer you to a longer discussion. If you have objections please make them here. I’m having a devil of job raising any objections from the pros. http://philpapers.org/archive/JONDWR-2.pdf
In his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way the Noble Nagarjuna famously makes clear the connection between the soteriological teachings of the Buddha and the neutral metaphysical description of Reality given by the perennial philosophy. Nagarjuna shows that Proposition II is true and his proof, as a process of dialectical refutation, takes Proposition I for granted. Some of his interpreters conclude that he rejects all positive or extreme views and puts nothing in their place, as if he did not have a view of his own, but this, in my opinion, is an utterly implausible and wildly ungenerous interpretation. It would make his metaphysical argument a logical proof of his ignorance. Better to assume that his argument endorses a neutral metaphysical position, the abandonment of all wrong views for the one he knew to be the correct one, the universe as described by the Buddha.
The logical issue would be this. If we see the two horns of a metaphysical dilemma as ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ for a logical argument, such that one is the opposite of the other and together they exhaust the possibilities, then we will become stuck where most philosophers become stuck, with a long list of undecidable problems that seem to be intractable dilemmas and mysterious paradoxes. Aristotle would not endorse this approach to logical analysis. He would say that whether two propositions about the world form a contradiction would be an empirical matter, a matter of fact, not something that can be decided in logic. Thus if we see, say, Materialism (matter-only) and Idealism (mind-only) as the two horns of a dilemma, as a contradictory pair for the dialectic, such that one must be true and the other false, then we will have painted our intellect into a corner. We have made a guess at the truth and by so doing artificially limited our options to dualism, the idea that a unity can be divided into this and that in any other way than conceptually. This particular pair of selective theories is undecidable because neither works, so to assume that there could be no other option would be philosophical suicide. Better, surely, to assume that they do not work because they are wrong, or inadequate to the truth, and look for an alternative.
If this is a new idea to you then I would suggest picking a metaphysical dilemma of your choice and exploring the possibility that it is not a dilemma after all, but a false contradiction. Philosophers quite often see this possibility in the case of Freewill-Determinism problem, adopting compatabilism of some sort, but rarely do they see that the same solution would work across the board. They continue to reify the distinctions on which all these problems depend, thus placing an immovable barrier to knowledge across their path. This is, I believe, due to a misunderstanding of Aristotle and a misuse of his logic. A neutral metaphysical position would state there is no such thing as a true contradiction, out there in the world, and that no logical contradictions would arise for a true description of it.
A neutral position is not quite the opposite of a positive position. It would state, rather, that positive positions, while wrong, may represent aspects of the truth, not entirely false ways of imagining it but woefully inadequate. Hence Heraclitus, when he says ‘We are and are not’, rejects both these views if stated in isolation but endorses them as aspects of the truth, aspects about which we must speak in order to speak of it at all.
Here we come to Nagarjuna’s doctrine of ‘Two Worlds’ or ‘Two Truths’, which explains that we can speak conventionally or ultimately about the world, but not both at the same time unless our words become seemingly paradoxical and self-contradictory. This explains the Buddha’s ‘three turnings of the wheel’ whereby he speaks differently depending on the level of truth being discussed, and also Lao Tsu’s remark, ‘True words seem paradoxical’. This is sometimes translated as, ‘Words that are rigorously true seem paradoxical’, and this longer version may make the meaning more clear and indicate the rigour with which Lao Tsu himself invariably speaks.
But we are wandering off-topic, or too deep into the topic. Proposition III makes what is really a quite simple claim that is testable, and the first question for philosophers is not about its myriad ramifications but simply whether it is true or false. If it is true, then we have found the solution for metaphysics, or the best we will ever have. We have rejected all theories except this one and this must be judged the ‘best’ and most plausible metaphysical theory according to logic and reason. If this proposition is false, on the other hand, then we will have to reject all theories and must endorse the idea that the universe is unreasonable, after all, such that there are true contradictions and it is incomprehensible, as we would have to for Priests’ ‘dialethism’, Melhuish’s paradoxical universe, Chalmers’ ‘naturalistic dualism’, Carnap’s logical positivism, McGinn’s mysterianism and Russell’s general pessimism.
Don has commented that the East-West division as applied to philosophy is misleading, since geography has nothing to do with anything. I agree, but still find it a useful shorthand. The first two propositions are fairly harmless to ‘Western’ thinking and may be encompassed within it, at the cost of some cognitive dissonance, but this third proposition requires that we abandon this tradition and investigate the philosophy more often associated with the East. We are heading where for the most part the professionals fear to tread, or cannot be bothered. The professional website and bulletin board dailynous.com currently has up the results of a survey of university philosophy reading lists, and it reveals an impoverished approach that could almost be called propaganda for the philosophers that are carefully omitted.
What we have so far is this.
PI – The universe is reasonable
PII – All positive metaphysical position are logically indefensible (unreasonable)
PIII – A neutral metaphysical position is logically defensible (reasonable)
Ergo, a neutral metaphysical position is the only one that survives analysis and so must be judged the most plausible of all possible metaphysical theories.
We would need to explore the ramifications of this theory in order to test whether any absurdities arise when we assume it is true, for they yet might do so, and also to understand what the theory really means. But the main work of metaphysics is done. For our global theory we have narrowed the possibilities down to one by a process of refutation, and in a formal analytical kind of metaphysics we cannot do more than this.
We now have all the weaponry we need to defend our view against all comers. The historical evidence clearly suggests that nobody can falsify these propositions. All three are demonstrably irrefutable. The first proposition is as yet an axiom, but if we say that the second and third are true, such that a neutral position would correctly describe the universe, then the first can be seen as a conclusion rather than an axiom. If a theory of the universe works, is reasonable and is the best available then universe must be judged reasonable.
I’ll pause for matters arising. Please follow the earlier link if you want more discussion. (I need the statistics). Next will be the final proposition, and I thought I’d pick out one metaphysical problem as an example and explore how this solution would work in a ‘live’ situation. That would be the end except for tidying up any loose ends.