(Philosophy Pathways 171 – April 2012)
Metaphysics serves as a common foundation for the natural sciences and without it they would not, so to speak, have leg to stand on. So it is odd that these days the study of it is commonly dismissed as a waste of time. Perhaps to some extent it is a consequence of poor media management. Certainly a scientifically inclined layman reading the preface to The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics, (2002 edition, Ed. Richard M Gale), a collection of essays by various authors, would have no difficulty in concluding that the subject is not worth their effort. It occupies only a couple of paragraphs but as a review of metaphysics it is devastating.
It is not an accident that none of the included essays attempt to say what metaphysics is, to describe the methods for doing it and the rules or criteria for assessing the success of a metaphysical theory. For all such metaphilosophical attempts have failed miserably.
It is difficult to see any other interpretation of this statement than that metaphysics is for people with nothing better to do. That such a statement can appear in such a context makes abundantly clear the failure of western academia to understand even the simplest thing about the metaphysics of the Buddha and Lao-tsu, perhaps even that there is such a thing, for this is a complete dismissal of it, and it seems equally oblivious to important parts of the Western tradition. Regardless, a person new to the topic, who might naturally assume that a respected publisher’s general guide might be a good first book to tackle, would almost certainly take it for granted that this statement is true, and if it is true then the rest of the book and the whole of the discipline would have to be a waste of time. If any doubts remain they are soon banished.
But the history of metaphysics, as well as the essays in this volume, shows that one can successfully engage in the metaphysical language-game even though one cannot articulate the rules of the game in virtue of which we can keep score and thus determine who wins and who loses.
It seems unlikely that many people would agree that engaging successfully in a language-game of this kind would be a worthwhile ambition or even a challenging one. A game for which nobody knows who is winning with rules that cannot be articulated, if such a thing is logically possible, would not be a game worth playing. What would it mean to ‘successfully engage’ in it? The next sentence nails the lid shut on the coffin.
Not all philosophers accept this favourable evaluation of the history of metaphysics.
It may be true, for truth may be stranger than fiction, that some philosophers hold a lower opinion of metaphysics than this. Far more important, however, and it is a fact that we might expect to see mentioned in this context, is that not all philosophers would judge this to be a favourable evaluation. Some would see it rather as a hatchet job. By what criteria might we judge this evaluation favourable? Does it not clearly state that metaphysics is an unscientific, inconclusive and largely pointless exercise?
…there are deconstructionists of traditional metaphysics who see it as a shocking scandal because it is a history of perennial and intractable disagreements. The disputants cannot even agree upon a decision procedure for resolving their disagreements. This demand for a cognitive discipline to have a decision procedure for determining who is right smacks of scientism…
How can a cognitive discipline have no procedure for making decisions? The idea is surely incomprehensible. In what sense would it be a discipline? The demand for a decision-making procedure carries no whiff of ‘scientism’. A person approaching metaphysics who does not make this demand might as well not bother. If metaphysics is not a science of logic then it is idle speculation. It is little wonder that so many scientists despair at the uselessness of metaphysics given this very public assessment of the discipline by a serious practitioner, nor that many people see the whole of philosophy as not worth their bother. Metaphysics is reduced to a farce by such words.
The only effective response to the deconstructionist’s scientistically-based indictment of metaphysics as meaningless is to do more metaphysics.
A less Orwellian language would have chosen the phrase ‘scientifically-based’, and the use of it would have made this a more clearly ludicrous statement. What would be the point of doing more and more metaphysics if we can never make any progress and have no method for measuring it even if we do? In what way would failing more energetically and more often be an effective response to scientifically-based criticism of metaphysics, or even a response at all? Those of us who see metaphysics as the only way forward for theoretical physics and scientific consciousness studies, the only discipline capable of a fundamental theory of any kind, must despair at the way in which it can sometimes be presented even by its friends. A great many metaphysicians hold a strikingly different view from the one presented in these pessimistic and frankly unscientific remarks, and would regard this characterisation of their field as unrigorous and dangerously misleading. Here is an alternative view, one that would be no less legitimate.
Metaphysics can be defined as the study of first principle or the world as a whole. Its task is to identify cosmological theories or ‘theories of everything’ which would contradict logic, reason or the scientific facts, and in this way sieve out those theories that would be most plausible as descriptions and explanations for the existence of the world and the phenomena studied by the natural sciences. The principle method by which it proceeds is that of dialectic refutation, the falsification of propositions by the derivation of contradictions. It is by virtue of the rules for the dialectic that we decide whether propositions are true, false, meaningless or undecidable.
The method works well and produces no results known to conflict with scientific observation or reported personal experience, an outcome that cannot plausibly be a coincidence. By the use of this formal method, the rules for which were codified by Aristotle, albeit with more subtlety than they may often be applied, metaphysicians are able to determine that all metaphysical position except one are logically indefensible, can be logically refuted, are ‘wrong’ according to the rules. This is the most important and best known result of metaphysics, the main reason why it is so difficult to do in the first place, and possibly the most important fact that an academic guide to the discipline could be telling us. If this were not the result of metaphysics, and if it were not very well-known, then there would be no justification for philosophical approaches such as ‘logical positivism’, ‘dialethism’, ‘naturalistic dualism’ and ‘mysterianism’, and nor would there be any justification for the dismissive remarks made about metaphysics in the Guide quoted here. It is only because metaphysics produces this result that it has such a long history of unresolved disagreements, for because of it we are led to argue endlessly for the truth of theories that are no more defensible than those of our opponents. Hence Kant’s observation that it is ‘an arena for mock fights.’
This result states that all positive metaphysical theories are logically self-defeating. It is only when this result is unacceptable to us, and clearly to many metaphysicians it is, or at least they see no alternative to rejecting it, that we need to question the rules of the game or even the point of playing it. In a reasonable universe we would expect a rigorous process of abduction to falsify all world-theories except one, perhaps two or three at most if they are nearly equivalent, and if this is what metaphysics does then it cannot be criticised for it. It is a result that we would expect, even hope for, and it gives us confidence in our method. There cannot be more than one completely correct metaphysical theory and, if the universe is reasonable, no more than one that is logically defensible.
What we find when we investigate metaphysics is that it does not endorse any partial, selective or positive world-theory. All such theories are found to give rise to contradictions such that if any of them were to be correct the universe would have to be paradoxical and remain forever incomprehensible to us. If metaphysics refuses to produce a positive result, however, then this does not mean that it produces no result. This is a result, and a very trustworthy one. It does not entail that we must dismiss metaphysics as useless but merely steers us towards a different kind of metaphysical theory.
The problem here, if there is a problem, is simply that the nondual metaphysical scheme of the Buddha and Lao-tsu now becomes highly plausible, and not all philosophers are prepared to investigate this potential solution. It is not illegitimate, for Nagarjuna, Bradley, Spencer-Brown and others have shown how it can be justified in logic, employing the same Aristotelian rules as we usually do. It is just unpopular and widely ignored, and even in modern consciousness studies has attracted little attention. Yet the situation is quite simple. For as long as metaphysics fails to demonstrate that the nondual metaphysical scheme endorsed by the Buddha and Lao-tsu is wrong, it will remain possible that metaphysics does its job admirably according to tried and trustworthy rules. Any other scheme will remain both redundant and implausible, requiring that we abandon the laws of thought and adopt a view we know can be refuted as a dialectic thesis and then have to defend this strategy by claiming that metaphysics has no method for making decisions.
The metaphysical scheme of Middle Way Buddhism, which to metaphysicians may be the most accessible form of the ‘perennial philosophy’ or ‘doctrine of the mean’, is not partial, selective or positive. It cannot be refuted in the dialectic as long as we stick closely to Aristotle’s rules and is the only cosmological doctrine for which this can be said. It is not demonstrably correct, and can never be so, for logic cannot prove what is true and false in reality, that is a matter for empiricism, but it is at least unique among metaphysical theories, if we treat it as such, in that it is not demonstrably wrong. On this view metaphysics is a quite straightforward study by which we eliminate logically indefensible theories to leave only those that might be correct, given only the starting assumption that the universe obeys the laws of dialectic logic or ‘laws of thought’, in order to produce a clear, reproducible and well-documented result. That this result may appear to be incomprehensible would be the central problem of metaphysics, not demonstrating it.
It is this perennial metaphysical result that divides discursive philosophers into two distinctive camps, often clumsily identified as ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’. From a certain perspective the defining difference for philosophers in these traditions would be their respective willingness to accept or understand the results of their own calculations. Nagarjuna, the most famous of all Buddhist philosophers, goes to great lengths to show that metaphysics produces a clear result and systematically proves what it is. There is no talk of changing the laws of thought, no apology for having no rules for deciding what is right and wrong. The result of Aristotelian metaphysics is presented as a proof of what is true, of what is the case. It is interesting to wonder on what grounds this information can be omitted from a modern guide to metaphysics.
If we take this more simple and optimistic view then we can explain why so many people, even many philosophers, consider metaphysics to be an unimportant or even pointless exercise. Such pessimism can be explained by the fact that the metaphysical scheme of mysticism is uninteresting to many people and therefore much misunderstood, thus widely considered to be a waste of time and certainly not a plausible solution for metaphysical problems. It must seem clear to most metaphysicians that mysticism has no systematic metaphysic underpinning all its fine talk of cosmology, soteriology, psychology and phenomenology and a dismissive view persists in large areas of metaphysics. The same view persists in physics, consciousness studies and all other disciplines where it is an orthodoxy that metaphysical problems are too hard to solve and metaphysics more or less useless. This is the fault of metaphysics. By leaping to this conclusion about mysticism metaphysics shoots itself in the foot, for if there is no systematic and logically defensible metaphysical scheme underpinning the teachings of the Buddha and Lao-tsu, and if all other schemes are logically indefensible, then metaphysics can never have a solution for its problems and must be useless as a path to truth, doomed to remain forever Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’, a more descriptive phrase than ‘waste of time’ but closely equivalent, and will always be facing demands for a more scientific approach.
Fortunately, it has never been shown that this low view of mysticism is justified. This is to the credit of metaphysics. In metaphysics, if we play by the rules, we cannot dismiss the philosophical foundation of mysticism as either false or a waste of time, since we cannot show that it would give rise to logical contradictions. We cannot even show that it would not represent a solution to important problems. All we can do, and even then only on an individual basis, is to dismiss our method of refutation as a waste of time for failing to falsify it, as, in effect, the Blackwell Guide advises us to do. Only if it is false would we need to doubt a decision-making procedure that concludes it is true. There is nothing to stop us doubting our result, clearly not, but there is a high price to pay. Now we cannot complain when other people dismiss our discipline as unscientific or pointless, for it is ourselves who have made it so. Were we to stick to our method and pursue our analysis to its bitter end, then we would arrive where logical analysis always arrives, at the conclusion that all positive metaphysical theories are unsatisfactory. Now we face a simple choice. We can choose to see this conclusion as a dead end, or we can see it as a secure fact from which to derive an extended metaphysical theory. We have no other option. We cannot simply undo our calculations but must choose on which path to continue, where one heads West and the other East.
The confusion, depression and stagnation we see in our stereotypically ‘western’ philosophy is, on this view, caused not by its failure to produce a clear result but by its refusal to accept its clear result and to accept the consequences. The claim that we have no rules for decision-making might allow us to avoid having to accept this result but this is to deliberately upset the board at the last minute in order to avoid losing the game, which up until this moment we have been playing by the very rules we are now denying. Metaphysics is then reduced to the sham science described by the Blackwell guide to it. Such a metaphysics might well be thought of as a waste of time, for while it is capable of establishing the problems of philosophy it rules out of consideration the only available solution for them. This is not, however, all of metaphysics, merely a particular approach to it, one we have known not to work since the days of Plato. In addition to this approach there is the metaphysics of Parmenides and Zeno, Heraclitus and Plotinus, Kant and Hegel, Heidegger and Jung, Schopenhauer and Schrödinger, Bradley and Nagarjuna, Shankara and Plotinus, Bradley and Spencer-Brown, Lao-tsu and the Buddha. For this we would need to accept rather than fight against the results of metaphysics.
In answer to the question in the title, then, we could say that whether we see metaphysics as a waste of time will depend crucially on whether we accept its results or ignore them. In our Western tradition they are ignored, thus the negative evaluation that so many people award the discipline, while in the tradition of the East they are accepted, explaining not only the greater optimism but also how it is possible that the metaphysics of the East can appear so very different from ours that we may miss the fact that it would qualify as part of the same discipline. Having missed this, we are likely to find ourselves proposing that metaphysics is a game that cannot be won, not noticing that there is a vast and these days easily-accessible body of literature containing countless explanations of how to win.
It may not be an easy concession to make, that metaphysics and mysticism are not irrelevant to each other, that one may shine a light on the other, but once we make it then metaphysics becomes easier to do, at least up to a point. The demands that it makes in an academic context are considerable, but asking a metaphysical question and trying to answer it is all that would be required for actually doing it, and asking a few of them soon brings even the amateur investigator to the point where the two main traditions part company, which is on how to interpret the failure of metaphysics to reach a yes or no answer on any question of first principles. Now we have found the exit from the arena and must choose whether to stay or leave, choose whether to accept this strange result or reject it. Once out, if we choose to accept it, all theories except one can be abandoned and we can focus on reaching an understanding of just the one that remains, the one that predicts the failure of all positive metaphysical theories. Thus metaphysics becomes a lot easier to do, at least in the early stages, for those who do not try to fight against it.
When starting out. whatever our academic achievements, it is almost certain that we will adopt a more a less correct method. Aristotle’s rules for the dialectic are intended as a formalisation of the way in which human beings naturally and perhaps unavoidably think. We are normally using these rules effectively by the time we are able to talk. They describe the way our minds work, and we need not study the method in order to at least get started. We might perhaps start with the Something-Nothing problem, the question of whether the universe begins with, reduces to, is emergent from or simply is one or the other. This may be one of the more approachable of metaphysical problems. Discussions of it tend to be more brief and straightforward than for some others, even if they are ultimately no less confusing. Most people, if they ask themselves this question, will soon discover that the idea that the universe begins with Something or Nothing makes no sense. Both horns of this dilemma can be refuted in the dialectic, this is why they form a dilemma in the first place, and ideas that can be logically refuted never make sense to us. We may reach this conclusion after quite a short time and in a quite casual way but we should not doubt that it is an important philosophical result. It tells us something quite extraordinary about the universe and about the way in which we think. Perhaps it tells us that the universe is more extraordinary than we can think. Or, at least, it will if we trust our reason and accept this as a result and do not dismiss it as a failure of logic.
If we proceed in this fashion, approaching in turn the dilemma of freewill-determinism, externalism-internalism, mind-matter, one-many, dualism-monism and so forth, then we will eventually end up having to choose between the view that metaphysics and mysticism are in full agreement such that neither is a waste of time, and the view that metaphysics has no decision-making procedure and is a mock science, with the ineluctable implication that mysticism has no defensible philosophical foundation and is also a lot of nonsense. It is an all or nothing decision, and they must stand or fall together. There would be no requirement for us to work through all the different problems since metaphysicians have done the hard work. All we need do is confirm that the Something-Nothing problem and all similar ancient metaphysical dilemmas remain as much problems in metaphysics today as ever, something we can do by reference to a general introduction, an online browse or by extrapolation from the preface to the Blackwell guide to the subject. If all these questions are still problems today after centuries of painstaking analysis by thousands of greater minds than ours, then it can only be because all of their positive answers would break the rules of Aristotle’s game such that they must be judged unsatisfactory. Once we have noted that all these dilemmas are formed from pairs of contradictory and complementary positive metaphysical positions. then we have reached the fork in the path, the exit from the arena, and must decide whether to follow the Buddha or the Blackwell Guide.
If we choose the former, then rather than being self-effacing about our discipline we can say that if metaphysics has refuted all positive or partial metaphysical theories then this is its proudest achievement. It tells us what the world is really like, and in such a way that we might expect the scientists to sit up and take notice. Things would be different if there were no alternative to these refuted theories, if all metaphysical theories could be refuted, for then some despair might be justified. But if the alternative to these failed theories is the one endorsed by the Buddha and Lao-tsu, with all that this would imply for the natural sciences, the nature of reality, the meaning of life, the relationship between science and religion and who knows what else, then it would be difficult to argue that metaphysics is not a vital area of study. Only if we reject its conclusion would it have to become a snake-pit of competing theories none of which work, scorned by physics and consciousness studies for its endless prevarication, absent any method for making decisions or exiting the arena and having to print endless public apologies. If we do not reject it, then we can say that metaphysics it is a quite straightforward scientific or formal discipline akin to mathematics, one that may be used to show that all but one metaphysical theory gives rise to logical contradictions, this being in philosophy a form of global compatibilism as endorsed by all the world’s wisdom traditions, without need of further complication or fear of contradiction.