On the Importance of Metaphysics

By way of advertising here is a short extract from my essay From Metaphysics to Mysticism.  Personal blogs are often unreliable so I’ll mention that this was a dissertation and was judged rigorous by an academic panel, so that if it is not then the author is not entirely to blame. It explains the whole of metaphysics in principle, giving answers to all of its problems including consciousness, freewill, origins, solipsism and more.  Whether the answers are correct is for the reader to decide, but an explanation is given for why they cannot be falsified.  I attempt to show that according to reason and logic the doctrine of mysticism must be true, while in the process giving the sceptic something more to get their teeth into than what may often seem to be woolly claims about cosmic energy or the power of love.  For opponents of religion the view presented in this essay is the one that must be defeated for a final victory, and for supporters of religion it offers a worldview and set of arguments that cannot be defeated by science or logic.

From Section 2. An Argument from Metaphysics

For those who believe that its questions ought to be decidable metaphysics is a famously frustrating business. By the same token, it is a source of reassurance for those who believe otherwise. Into this latter category would fall the mystics of all ages and cultures. It is because they believe otherwise that a formal argument for their view can be made from within metaphysics. It is old argument, an extension of one with which Buddhist philosophers will be most familiar. It can be arranged into something like a syllogism.

a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible
b) A neutral metaphysical position is logically defensible
c) The universe is a unity

As it stands the argument is casual but it is at least metaphysical. Even so, if these three propositions are not true, once given their intended interpretation, then the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is not true. This little argument is therefore of great importance in the philosophies of both East and West. If we can refute the first or last of these statements then we will have refuted the philosophy of Lao-tsu and the Buddha. If we cannot, then we must concede that it is at least logically sound. Because these statements make no ‘appeal to mysticism’ this little argument allows us to test the plausibility of the metaphysical scheme of the mystics from within metaphysics, as just another putative theory. Such an exploration will be the task of this essay. We stay mainly with the first two propositions.

Proposition a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.

We can know from the failure of metaphysics to endorse a positive position that in respect of logic there is nothing to prevent the ideal reasoner from concluding that Proposition a) is true. Unless we conjecture that most philosophers are muddled thinkers, and all of them muddled in just the same way, then their ubiquitous conclusion, or failure to reach a conclusion, is powerful evidence for its truth. If this proposition is demonstrably false then the doctrine of Buddhism is demonstrably false, so clearly it is not easily falsified. Its truth is already taken for granted in most of philosophy.

Oddly, however, and on reflection it really is quite odd, while the logical indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions can be established in philosophy and has been many times, the idea that such positions are indefensible because they are wrong, because they do not correctly describe the universe, is usually considered heretical. It is an obvious inference to make, and it might even seem a little perverse not to make it. It would be in this sense that when we make it we are adopting a naïve approach to metaphysics, for we would simply be going with the flow of our reason. So why do we not all make it?

One reason for not immediately conceding that the truth of Proposition a) would imply the falsity of positive metaphysical positions is that when we extrapolate from their logical absurdity to their falsity in the real world,  as we normally would for an absurd theory or idea, our view immediately becomes approximately consistent with that of Lao-tsu and the Buddha. Not everyone is tempted to set out on such an adventure. So what else can we infer from it? The only alternative is to conclude that according to reason the universe does not conform to a logically defensible metaphysical position, and thus that philosophy is largely a waste of time. Russell opts for this pessimistic view, writing forthrightly in his Problems of Philosophy, ‘Knowledge concerning the world as a whole is not to be obtained in metaphysics.’ But Russell’s pessimism was largely self-inflicted. A different view of metaphysics is possible, one by which his view would be contingent if not actually temperamental. For many philosophers, among them his colleague G. S. Brown, for whose book on mathematics, metaphysics and mysticism Russell wrote a glowing endorsement but seems to have awarded only a superficial reading, the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions would be a vital piece of knowledge concerning the world as a whole, the most important that could be obtained in any strictly scholastic metaphysics, a secure fact from which it would be possible to derive an entire cosmological scheme. On this view, the failure of metaphysics to endorse an extreme metaphysical view would be a proof of its importance and value as a discipline.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On the Importance of Metaphysics

  1. Jack Saunsea says:

    Metaphysics has problems?

  2. Where did you arrive at the doctrine of Buddhism? It sounds like a rephrasing of Clinging to Views or Greed for Views, but even then there seem to be some subtleties (depending on how one reads it).

    More interestingly is its relation to suffering. If there’s a central doctrine in Buddhism, it should be related to suffering, desire, clinging and self. Granted, Buddhist schools have went far afield in many cases, but as a general stance on Buddhist doctrine, I would think something along the lines given above would be more in line with what Buddhism in general teaches.

    • Guymax says:

      Yes, quite so. The point is that the doctrine regarding suffering, desire, clinging and self have a philosophical foundation, and this is what I am discussing. The philosophical soundness of the doctrine and its ability to solve important problems is not yet recognised in much of philosophy and more or less all of physics, and this may be partly because of the (perfectly proper) focus in the literature on soteriology. I am not trying to teach Buddhism as a practice, (as if!), just explaining that it has the only philosophical doctrine that works, that it would be comprehensible to non-practitioners and has no intractable problems, and that it explains why the practice is as it is. For suffering, desire, clinging and self there is the sutras and an ocean of good books by people who are qualified by their practice. Rarely, however, is the philosophical underpinning explained in the kind of terms used outside of mysticism. Or at any rate, whatever the reason, it is still much misunderstood.

      • So the doctrine of suffering and its transcendence flow as a consequence of this philosophical foundation, which is considered primary? If so, I’d love pointers to additional readings that develop this!

  3. Guymax says:

    I feel it would be better to say that the doctrine flows from experience or empiricism and that the philosophy comes along with it. We would discover the veracity of the Four Noble Truths through our own practice or not at all, but either way these truths would be justifiable or explicable in philosophical terms. Thus it would be possible to become convinced by the doctrine on philosophical grounds alone, on the basis of analysis, as I was initially, but this would be a useless conviction unless it motivates a dedicated practice. It would be the difference between knowing that Paris is a place on the map and actually visiting it. Thus the Buddha does not bother with metaphysics since his concern is soteriological, the achievement of liberation, and he leaves it to Nagarjuna and others to explain the metaphysics.

    It would not be a question of which is primary but of which we are interested in. If we seek the end of suffering then merely reading about philosophy is obviously not the way. We may need some convincing before taking up the practice, however, and knowing that the Buddha’s teachings make sense in philosophy and would allow us to solve important problems could only help.

    In this context Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ would be my main reference rather than the sutras. Two good discussions of this text would be Khenso Tsultrim Gyamptso’s ‘Sun of Wisdom’ (Shambhala) and the (difficult) translation and commentary by Jay Garfield (OUP). I’d also recommend Radhakrishnan, ‘The Philosophy of the Upanishads’ (George, Allen and Unwin) . There’s a bibliography at the end of ‘From Metaphysics to Mysticism’ that mentions these and other books and articles, but I have to say that there’s a dearth of good books that show how nondualism may be integrated with common sense, physics and what the academic world inexplicably calls ‘rational’ philosophy.

    I should add that this is not to promote Buddhism over other major religions, but to promote an interpretation of religion that brings them all into line on the main issues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s