In the previous post about Hesse’s Glass Bead Game I suggested that it would be possible to play philosophy not just for fun, but to win. Most of my writing is an attempt to show that this is a game that can be won, even if this idea is heretical in some circles, but I must admit it is usually over-long and not as clear as it should be, and may even end up giving the impression that winning would actually be very difficult.
This has to do with various problems, not least that writing intelligibly has been a problem for all of my life. Also, while winning at philosophy, in the sense that ‘winning’ is meant here, may be quite easy, it remains very difficult to explain how this can be so. Even with the best of intentions explanations soon become complicated and evolve into a flurry of words.
In part this would be because where an explanation is put too briefly it ceases to be an explanation and becomes a riddle. Lao Tsu’s simple statement, ‘True words seem paradoxical’ has the inherent potential to explain more than most books on philosophy, and yet as it stands it can hardly be called an explanation of anything. For the most part, however, the problem is that so many people assume that it would be impossible to win this ancient game, or at best only possible for great scholars and sages, and they will often have endless objections to the idea that anybody could ever win, let alone that they themselves could succeed. Meeting these endless objections requires many words and it adds numerous complications to any discussion of the topics, such that the objections may become self-fulfilling.
Yet I believe that most people could win at philosophy if they put their mind to it. It would only be necessary to have an open mind and to avoid becoming bewitched by the details.
How? In order to win at philosophy we would first have to verify for ourselves, to our own satisfaction, that this statement is true.
All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.
Equivalent statements would be:
All selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable.
Metaphysics does not endorse a partial metaphysical theory.
Metaphysics does not produce a positive result.
That’s about it really. Once we have done this will then we will be in a position to make the final decisive deductive move and win the game.
Now to add some more words to confuse the issues.
To verify the truth of the statement above we would have to prove, or become convinced, that according to reason there is only one metaphysical theory that works and that can be true. This is because a verification would require the refutation of all positive metaphysical theories. What would then remain is the only metaphysical theory for which the statement above could be true, for which it would have to be true, that would predict and explain its truth. What remains would be a neutral metaphysical position, the only theory for which all positive position would be not just logically indefensible but also false. Their logical indefensibility would be explained by their falsity. If the world is correctly described by a neutral metaphysical position then we would expect all other descriptions to be logically flawed, and they are. Almost all philosophers agree that they are flawed. This is, after all, the reason why academic metaphysics and philosophy of mind is at a standstill.
When we have verified the statement above we will have identified the only plausible metaphysical theory and will have an unfalsifiable solution for all major problems of philosophy. This would be not quite the end of the game. For the decisive final move we would have to start actually believing that this theory is true and gives the correct solution for philosophical problems. That is to say, we would have to buy in to our calculations. By adopting a neutral metaphysical position we become invulnerable in philosophy. We can refute all metaphysical theories except our own, while our own is demonstrably irrefutable.
Is this not winning? It is well known that metaphysics refutes all positive or partial metaphysical positions. What can we do but abandon them? This leaves us with a neutral position. Job done.
This is what I was getting at by suggesting that philosophy can be won or lost. Winning would be only the beginning of the glass bead game, but it would at least qualify us as a player. By rejecting all positive metaphysical theories we have made the winning philosophical move. The Devil can no longer trap us in an endless series of stalemates where we cannot make any progress but are forced to prevaricate for centuries between the two horns of one of numerous ancient and mysterious metaphysical dilemmas. Philosophers who do not know how to win at philosophy often call these dilemmas ‘barriers to knowledge’. Ridiculous. They are not barriers to knowledge, they are indisputable evidence that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.
We may not understand the philosophical position into which we are forced by this result of metaphysics. Few people could say that they understand the remaining world-theory well, perhaps only great sages and monks, for to understand the theory it would be necessary to understand the world. But this would be beside the point. Our understanding is our own problem. We have at least understood that there would be no point in wasting our time trying to understand any other general theory than this one, so have massively simplified the task of understanding metaphysics. We have made all the key decisions, and now need only to understand where they have led us.
For an understanding of our winning move, (the adoption of a neutral metaphysical position), which may at first seem more like a trick of logic than a solution for anything, we would have to study its implications by exploring many profound connections between metaphysics, mysticism, music, psychology, mathematics, physics, biology, soteriology, logic, philosophy of mind, ethics, alchemy and anything else in which we happen to have an interest. By adopting a neutral metaphysical position for all questions regarding the world as a whole we will have qualified for the glass bead game, (with apologies to H.H.), and can now start building an extended conceptual model of the world beginning with sound first principles. A neutral metaphysical position is completely general, making predictions for almost every area of knowledge, and so our model may quickly become intricate and extensive.
The model we build can never become a dry and lifeless scholastic abstraction. It must encompass many areas of scholarship, certainly, but almost immediately the ramifications of its axiom will extend into our everyday life and have an impact on our ideas about what it means to be a human being. We would be constructing a wireframe model of the universe out of terms and theorems, concepts and relationships, a multi-dimensioned web of glass beads and cotton threads representing a systematic, correct and comprehensible theory of everything.
This would be a game of model-building that cannot be won or lost, we can only be better or worse at it. We would be building a formal model of the world as it evolves from an ‘axiom of neutrality’, the adoption of a neutral metaphysical position, mapping out its ramifications as they unfold through other specialist disciplines and into our lives. If we are sceptical and think this is all a lot of nonsense, and wish to refute this axiom of neutrality, then we would have to explore its ramifications in order to show that they would render the axiom absurd, for it cannot be refuted in metaphysics. But even if we are not sceptical we would have to do this in order to understand what the axiom means. It is not difficult to see that a neutral metaphysical position is the most plausible in logic, but not at all obvious how it would work.
So maybe this would be one way to interpret Hesse’s glass bead game, as the game we have to play, and can only play, once we have won at philosophy. This would explain why even though his game has no winners or losers, not just anyone can play.
Fortunately for the players there is a vast explanatory literature. The entire edifice of mysticism depends for its plausibility on a neutral metaphysical position, and most of its literature serves as an explanation of the implications of such a position. Mainly it is concerned with soteriology, but there is also much on mathematics, physics, logic, psychology, music and so forth, and more all the time. The internet is awash with relevant articles and papers. (See ‘recommended links’ for some ideas).
Still sceptical that philosophy can be this easy? Consider this. Most philosophers spend their lives trying to falsify the claim that all positive metaphysical theories are logically indefensible by proving that some positive theory is true. None have ever succeeded. For them philosophy is very difficult, even impossible. By contrast, the Noble Nagarjuna went to a lot of trouble to logically prove the truth of this claim in his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. This is a widely famous proof. Even today, many centuries later, large numbers of highly trained and often brilliant theologians and philosophers work around the clock trying to avoid arriving at his conclusion, and the result is a rat’s nest of sophistry that does nothing but demonstrate its reliability. So why complicate the issues? To win at philosophy we would not need to know all about the theories that fail. It would require only that we identify the one that succeeds. We have done this as soon as we have verified that all positive theories fail.
If we concede that all positive metaphysical positions are not only logically indefensible, as metaphysics proves, but also false, as common sense would suggest, then we will have qualified to play the glass bead game and can start building a useful, elegant, systematic, comprehensible and unfalsifiable model of how the universe works, starting with an axiom of neutrality, with no worries that this axiom could ever be refuted or falsified. The Devil has been defeated, and we can now relax and just enjoy building our model and thus develop our understanding. We need not fear objections. If our initial axiom is unfalsifiable then so are all of its ramifications. Our theoretical model is bound to be robust as long as it remains systematic. We can even build in seemingly paradoxical theorems like ‘True words seem paradoxical’. Nobody can prove it is not so, because it would follow ineluctably from our axiom of neutrality.
The only difficulty for this approach would be that we are required to abandon all positive metaphysical theories. This is likely to include some of our own favourites. This is not a complication, but it may be a difficulty. It is not a philosophical but a psychological problem. Nevertheless, it is a problem that has an impact on philosophy. If we cannot overcome this psychological difficulty then philosophy cannot be won. We would be unable to join the glass bead game because we would not be willing to follow its rules or even learn what they are. We can attempt to build a competing glass bead model of the world, of course, but if we try to build a model founded on any other metaphysical principle it will fall apart quite quickly as its logical incoherence undermines its architecture. Only one metaphysical theory can be true, and so only one can be built on a firm foundation and extended as a stable structure.
Putting it simply, then, to win at philosophy we would only have to accept the results of logic, backed up by two thousand years of philosophical analysis, and endorse a neutral metaphysical position. To join the glass bead game we would then only need to do one more thing, which is to ask: If a neutral metaphysical position is the correct one, then what would follow? Our glass bead and cotton thread conceptual model will be the answer to this question. As a public project it is a vast collaboration taking place all over the internet, with more players joining all the time. It is even possible that physicists and philosophers are beginning to see that it is the only game in town.