The Simplicity of Metaphysics

I took up my investigation of metaphysics quite late in life, and right from the start my intention was to simplify it. A background in management had taught me that a good decision depends entirely on having a clear understanding of the problem at hand, and that the only sure sign that one has a clear understanding of a problem at hand is that it appears to be quite simple. Exactly what ‘quite simple’ would mean here will vary from person to person, but I think most people would agree that when we examine a problem that seems to us to be quite simple then we feel we have a clear understanding of it, while if we find a problem complicated we do not feel this.

To my surprise, I quickly discovered that it is not the complexity of metaphysics that makes it difficult. As a system of calculation, a method of thinking logically about the world, its result can be encapsulated into a single sentence. It is the enormity, profundity and downright weirdness of the concepts and ideas with which we have to deal as we perform our calculations that make for the difficulty. As the mathematician Robert Kaplan speculates, and as some would say is an empirical fact, it is perfectly possible that the world as a whole, the Cosmos seen as a singular phenomenon, is more simple than we can think. On this view the principle difficulty of metaphysics would be that it is far too simple.

The reason why simplification seemed important to me from the start was that it is clear that metaphysicians do not usually get anywhere with the problems they study. When I set out this was about all I knew for sure, that academic metaphysicians were still arguing about which of the ancient Greek philosophers were right or wrong and showing no sign of ever reaching an agreement. Three years spent investigating the complexities of the problem of consciousness had led me to believe that things just had to be more simple than this. Either that I would never understand them.

It was my view, and still is, that it would be no use having an explanation of consciousness that hardly anybody would be clever enough to understand. Then hardly anybody would be able to know whether it is plausible or not. This is what allows many complicated and mutually inconsistent books on the topic to be published. For an understandable explanation we would need to ignore the details and get down to basics, and metaphysics is the only way to do this.

Metaphysics, as it is done in our universities, consists of a long list of metaphysical conjectures each of which has a counter-conjecture that is more or less equally plausible, such that they together they form a long list of ancient dilemmas something like a double-helix. All other theories are rejected, in particular anything that might be considered ‘Eastern’. In order to identify and understand all these endless dilemmas we would have to study many philosophers and do a great deal of thinking, but an overview can be quite simple. Wherever a metaphysical conjecture has a counter-conjecture such that each of the two conjectures is assumed to have an unambiguous truth-value, we find ourselves unable to decide which of them true because both conjectures are logically indefensible. Kant made this clear long ago, and he was far from the first or last to do it.

In this case, if ordinary logic is to be trusted, the world must be such that by reduction it is a unity. This would explain why we cannot prove in metaphysics that it is not. This approach to metaphysics could not be more straightforward.

What would not be at all straightforward is the task of making sense of the unified phenomenon that metaphysics implies. This would have to defined as lying being beyond the categories of thought since this would be what metaphysics proves, that an unthinkable phenomenon would be required for a fundamental theory. So, although it might be argued that metaphysics can be simplified to a few basic facts, it could never be argued that it would be easy for anybody to interpret those facts.

What facts? The result of a few millennia of careful analysis is that all partial metaphysical theories give rise to contradictions and can be refuted. They can be abandoned. Metaphysics becomes the study of the only coherent theory that remains. This could never be an easy study, but it is the profundity of the necessary ideas that make it so and not their complexity.

Plotinus calls ultimate reality a ‘Simplex’. This is the idea we would have to grapple with in order to conquer metaphysics. A Simplex has the property of not being at all complicated. It would be too simple to think since the categories of thought would have to be transcended and thought cannot transcend itself.  Still, we can define a phenomenon that is too simple to think and use it in a theory. The Tao cannot be spoken, says Lao Tsu, but he also says that it must be spoken. It can be defined negatively and spoken of by referring to its definition. Only empiricism could give us any real understanding of what we are talking about, but as theoretical term Tao is perfectly useable. If Tao is a reality then all partial metaphysical views must be false. We already know that they are logically absurd, just ask a logical positivist or dialethist, or just about anyone who thinks metaphysics is a waste of time, so really metaphysics could be seen as a ‘no-brainer’.

We could make things a lot more complicated, but why bother?

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7 Responses to The Simplicity of Metaphysics

  1. I can’t remember where I came across this, but somebody once said that particle physics and zen are both difficult to understand but for different reasons. Particle physics is hard to understand because it is complicated. But zen is hard to understand because it is simple.

    Enjoyed the post. I wish I had more time, and space in my head, to dedicate to studying philosophy properly, but grappling with zen gives me enough of a headache!

    • PeterJ says:

      Oh no! Don’t even think about studying philosophy. It can be of little use to someone already practicing Zen, and might even be seriously detrimental to progress. Or so it seems to me. It is fascinating, but rather like studying a map instead of making the journey. You end up still in the same place but now even more sure that you ought to be somewhere else. Where it would be vital is in making a sound logical case for Zen and what it says about the world. Once the case is made it is probably best forgotten.

      Although, I think maybe an understanding of Nagarjuna’s philosophical proof could sometimes be useful in Zen practice. It seems that he thought so too. It does at least cut off many lines of speculation.

    • anchord says:

      Concepts will become a burden after a while, as addiction of thought(to any kind of philosophy) can be a serious/devastating problem. But the mind wont give up (on anything), if it cant convincingly see for itself that this is in fact just an addiction not anything of real substance (or reality changing thing). Logic usually works wonders on mind-changing. Or if it can see something can be beneficial, that works too.

      Ideally, we need to get our selves into a self-less state (addictions = 0; ego is addiction of self), only then can we have true freedom. Only then, true objectivity is possible (full wisdom). Incidentally, It is a state where any thing a mind perceives is itself (there is no distinction between “self” and the “world” = non-duality). When the world is self, what else is there to worry/fear, it is nirvanic. The world(life) wont be a burden any more.

      It can be like a skill initially, but becomes second nature, and eventually no distinction. Some people think this as losing self (some take it as depressing thought, almost like suicide), but its actually gaining one’s true self (the real deal, kind of immortality if there is one, of course conceptually).

  2. anchord says:

    if you let human mind do its thing, it will create universe(s) out of anything.

    One big difference between eastern metaphysics and western, is that the eastern one’s(particularly buddhist, some hindu sects) literally “live them”. So all of what nagarjuna says, could be “experienced” even by lay people with out even basic education (most of it has to do with observing one’s own mind, being a witness/aware of mind). The concepts of dependant-origination, or karma, can be observed (by any human). And there is always an end-goal (end of suffering, nibbana) for them – anything until then is just means or utility. So metaphysics, for them, is not end-goal in itself (self-perpetuating to infinity and beyond).

    if you are a fan of nagarjuna (i’m a fan), i would suggest reading his follower(or influenced) shantideva’s notes as well. (particularly chapters 8,9, though all are good ). I notice your bibliography/references do not cite other nagarjuna’s writings. For example, Ratnavali. Depending on his audience, he usually focuses on different things, but never the less, you can see his thinking.

    For some reason, i feel buddhist metaphysics is not just theory, but real wisdom that any human (even one’s without basic education) can apply to day-to-day life, and realize what’s said. And eventually gain nibbana. 100% guaranteed (or full refund 🙂 , they cant go-back to old-ways if they really understood even a piece of it)

    • PeterJ says:

      Hello anchord. Thanks for the comment. I’d agree with it all. Clearly Nagarjuna did not depend on a logical argument for his view but simply used one to explain it. Empiricism always trumps logic.

      • anchord says:

        And empiricism backed by logic, and applicable equally to everybody, is a solid foundation. I’m of the opinion it is practical (street-smart/common-sense) too. Almost like physical phenomenon – touching fire burns one’s finger, ego equally (or more) burns (even more devastating) , though its a different kind of burning. Same thing with all other human conduct, that has bad consequences. Sometimes I feel why majority of humans on this planet cant seem to realize this, and why the scientific (or society) not explore these areas. If we have this foundation from childhood, the world would be better place. People would intuitively conduct themselves (its in their self-interest…just like touching fire). Indeed, the world is self, and self the world.

      • PeterJ says:

        Yes. Agree again. I believe things are changing, but probably too late to prevent a meltdown. .

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