About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ah, metaphysics!

The other day I went to a talk about the fall and revival of metaphysics, given by Sebastian Kolodziejczyk at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Metaphysics these days has a bad reputation even among philosophers, so I was aware of its “fall,” but I was rather curious about the possibility of a “revival.” I came out of the lecture without much conviction that the 21st century is going to see anything like a resurrection of metaphysics.

Metaphysics, of course, is that classical branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental nature of the world. Or is it? That was what Kolodziejczyk called “the Aristotelian model,” where philosophers who engage in metaphysics ask questions about the nature of space, time, causality and so on. It is an honorable tradition, of course, but it has ceded most of its terrain to fundamental physics. These days those philosophers who have something to say about such issues are likely to be philosophers of science or mathematics working in fields such as quantum mechanics or string theory. Saying that “water is the principle of all things,” as Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BC–ca. 546 BC) used to do, just doesn’t cut it anymore.

After Aristotle, for a long time metaphysics was taken over by theological considerations, from the Scholastics to Hegel, and it became increasingly esoteric, self-contained, and at every iteration, inching closer and closer to complete absurdity. The Monadology (1714) by Gottfried Leibniz was one of the last pre-physics attempts to account for fundamental aspects of reality by simply thinking about it, but again to say that monads are a basic unit of perceptual reality is to assert something rather obscure without a shred of evidence, and moreover something that has been superseded by much clearer and more evidence-based accounts provided by modern science. And let us not even get started with all the metaphysical fluff about the existence of god, of course (if someone mention’s the ontological argument I will reach for my metaphorical gun!).

It was within this context that the 20th century saw the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) critique of metaphysics by the logical positivists, whose position was that metaphysical concepts — in philosophical parlance — have no referent. In lay terms, metaphysicians talk literally about nothing, and therefore do not and cannot make any sense. These days it isn’t polite in philosophical circles to show much sympathy for the neopositivists, but I must admit that as far as certain kinds of metaphysics are concerned, it seems to me that they got it largely right.

How, then, do we save metaphysics? Well, how about by simply redefining it? One of Kolodziejczyk’s major points was that there are other, radically different, ways of conceiving of what metaphysics is. For instance, for philosophers like Wittgenstein and Derrida (!!) metaphysics is an exploration of concepts, while for people like Heidegger (again, !!) it is about our experience.

There are two problems with this approach: first, it is not at all clear what these new ways of understanding metaphysics have to do with, well, metaphysics! Wouldn’t it then be more honest to say that (classical, Aristotelian) metaphysics has run its course, it has achieved what it could achieve, and has now receded into the background and left the initiative to physics? Secondly, exploring the meaning and structure of concepts smells a lot like philosophy of language, if not like linguistics itself, and investigating phenomenological experience quickly leads to psychology and cognitive science. Where’s the metaphysics?

If philosophers insist in saying things like “persistence is the only unchangeable reality” (quoted in the handout from Kolodziejczyk’s lecture) one is perfectly within their rights to ask what the devil does “persistence” mean in this context, and what exactly is the meaning of saying that it is the only unchangeable reality? This is the sort of fluff that gives all of philosophy a bad name, but that ought to be confined to only a sub-group of misguided philosophers who mistake obscurity for profundity.

We finally come to Kolodziejczyk’s own proposal, which was better — in my opinion — than Heidegger’s (then again, almost anything is), and yet somehow not exactly the harbinger of a new revolution in metaphysics. Kolodziejczyk’s idea is that metaphysics is the “analysis, description, and explanation” of what he calls “basic metaphysical beliefs.” Such as? His examples include “things surrounding us exist,” “things we are talking about are distinct in space and time,” “[things] are similar in many ways,” and so on.

Well, maybe there is some analysis to be done of such simple concepts, though it is hard to imagine that a very thick book will ever be written about these matters. But as for a satisfactory description and explanation of our basic beliefs about the world, it seems to me that they are much more likely to come from, respectively, the cognitive sciences and evolutionary biology than philosophy. Moreover, as someone pointed out in the Q&A following the lecture, we know now (thanks to fundamental physics) that a lot of our folk metaphysics is, in fact, wrong, which is not surprising considering that we have evolved as macroscopic animals needing to be equipped with ways to handle those aspects of the world pertinent to our survival and reproduction — aspects that don’t include an understanding of quantum mechanics or string theory.

What, then, is metaphysics good for? Other than its (invaluable, I think) historical contribution to human thought, there are two things that modern metaphysics can do for us: on the one hand, aspects of it can serve as good models for a fruitful relationship between philosophy and science (think of attempts at understanding the nature of time and space, for instance); on the other hand, it is a constant reminder that even science can get started only on premises that cannot be justified empirically within science itself (think of causality, or reality). But please, no more nonsense about unchangeable persistence.


  1. It is time to have a funeral and bury metaphysics.

    Physic, linguistics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and other sciences have replaced it.

    What is needed is a means of teaching critical thinking.

  2. Hi,

    (Sorry in advance for my poor English).

    I'm pretty sure, the speaker at the talk is not a professional philosopher, perhaps not even a student. Because metaphysics enjoys in these days a respectful, healthy, intelligible, and perfectly rational life. Just see some of the introductory works by E. J. Lowe, Jaegwon Kim, John Heil. Another good landscape view of the field is the entry at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available in the Internet, see also the one on "categories"). Old "aristotelian" problems remain (the nature of causation, particulars, etc) and genuinely new ones arise (physicalism of several brands compete with each other, new issues on categories, etc).
    To sum up, we don't have to accept the concept of metaphysics drawn by positivists. Moreover, metaphysical posits of this philosophical school became, at one point in the history, totally unpalatable (the so called sense data theory, for example).

    Congratulations for the blog.

  3. Unfortunately, nonsense is unchangeably persistent.

  4. But as for a satisfactory description and explanation of our basic beliefs about the world, it seems to me that they are much more likely to come from, respectively, the cognitive sciences and evolutionary biology than philosophy.

    This sounds to me like a task for anthropologists, historians, and literary scholars, but then perhaps I focused more on the descriptive part and you focused more on the explanatory part.

    I think the issue boils down to this: So long as there are people (including professional philosophers) who are unsatisfied with naturalism, there will be people pushing allegedly new ideas in metaphysics and epistemelogy.

  5. Jose`, actually the speaker is a professional philosopher from Poland, who has been visiting the Graduate Center here in New York for the past year or so.

  6. Are you familiar with the work of Quentin Smith? He has done some work in metaphysics and I'm curious about your opinions on his ideas.

  7. Massimo,

    In the past I've found your writing about philosophy to be very illuminating, but I'm afraid this post "just doesn't cut it". Your main points seem to be:

    * Metaphysics is out of fashion
    * A lot of metaphysics has been replaced by science, especially physics
    * A lot of metaphysics is "fluff"

    I suspect that much of this is correct. But the conclusions in your final paragraph don't follow from this. The most fundamental questions that metaphysics focuses on have not been answered by science, nor can we expect them to be. Answers to these questions may not be forthcoming, but that doesn't mean we should stop thinking about them.

  8. Do you think it is possible to "make" gold out of say, coffee grounds?

  9. To ask unanswerable questions is not to be wise or insightful. Especially not if the questions are nonsense.

  10. I have to agree Massimo. As my recent rant pointed out, I don't get philosophers who deny what physics says in favour of the likes of Descartes (i.e. mind is immaterial substance causing an effect in material body/brain). Sometimes I think that metaphysics is what we label our ignorance.

  11. I agree with the comments pointing to the fluff which sometimes masquerades as "the new metaphysics." Facile claims like these can short-circuit the rigor of naturalism and of scientific investigation, BUT I also worry that there are areas within the sciences where indeterminacy and even non-computability are glossed over in favor of a dogmatic insistence on coherence where none exists.

    We need to admit that there are stubborn areas within the sciences which have not yet [and indeed may NEVER] lend themselves to the rigid taxonomy of extreme, over-specialized minutiae, but in order to admit this, we would need to stop hiding behind our false hubris.

  12. Nick,

    sorry to disappoint you, but I don't see why you are disappointed. You seem to agree with most of what I say, and my conclusion doesn't seem (to me) to be as strong as you take it to be.

  13. We need to admit that there are stubborn areas within the sciences which have not yet [and indeed may NEVER] lend themselves to the rigid taxonomy of extreme, over-specialized minutiae, but in order to admit this, we would need to stop hiding behind our false hubris.

    Comments like this often presage woo. I apoligize if you're not a purveyor of said bull dust. No one says that science knows it all or is the elixir that will cure your epistemic syphilis. What is said is that with science, we at least can test what we hold to be true and conditionally confirm it. In theory at least. Metaphysics of a certain type (I'm ignorant of all that uses that term as an umbrella) is not testable, and thus just a flight of fancy.....Like Kant's description of Aristotle as dove imagining that by leaving empirical reality it could fly with more ease....

  14. There is nothing wrong with saying "I/We don't know the answer".

  15. Your knee jerk criticism of me, Brian, reflected in your observations that my earlier comment: "presage[ed] woo" and, as you further said, that I'm "a purveyor of said bull dust. No one says that science knows it all or is the elixir that will cure your epistemic syphilis."
    [I edited out your equivocations to distill your real subtext. I hope you don't mind.]

    Convince me that you have missed the crux of my point. You will likely disagree with me just as strongly for the point I'm really trying to make, but it is vastly different from the position you're attributing to me.

    I was talking about the limits of science from a position of Popperian pragmatism, not from some sort of "New Age Speak" or whatever your accusation entails.

    Actually I was thinking both about what Massimo Pigliucci says in this current blog and some points he included in an article he wrote for the current [July/August] issue of Philosophy Now.

    In the Philosophy Now piece, he points out that scientific research can really be thought of as trial-and-error and not strictly speaking as abstract hypothesis creation, and he quotes Popper in support of this. Implicit in that, unless I'm over reading him, is the idea that science is not and can't be a search for absolute truths.

    Nicholas Rescher's new book "Nature and Understanding: The Metaphysics and Method of Science" is an eloquent examination of these and other pragmatic limitations inherent in scientific methodology. In many ways it is a reexamination of Popper's "Conjectures and Refutations."

    Of course, I guess you can now accuse Popper of committing the error you're referring to in your "Kant's description of Aristotle as dove imagining that by leaving empirical reality it could fly with more ease...." But I think the opposite is actually the case.

  16. Perhaps the metaphysics balloon is inflated within the epistemology balloon (metaphorically speaking, of course), and the latter has expanded as far as possible within the boundaries of the former.

    I do disagree with the idea that there can be no wisdom in asking unanswerable questions. Doing so can challenge us to use our minds in different ways, and keep our mental processes flexible and resilient.

    Whether or not a question is unanswerable depends quite a bit on the model one is thinking within. Since our most reliable models incorporate the understanding that the answers they provide always include some uncertainty, thinking "outside the balloon" really ought not be ruled out as a useful exercise.

  17. "on the other hand, it is a constant reminder that even science can get started only on premises that cannot be justified empirically within science itself (think of causality, or reality)"

    Is there much to say about what these things are? Could that be a real use for metaphysics and not just a reminder?

  18. Oops...swap "latter" and "former" in my earlier comment, and it'll be right.

  19. 2bsirius, I was having a bit of fun or a bit of a dig. I over did it. I apologize. It's quite hard to type and convey the feel that I wanted to convey. Added to that, I'm probably just not funny in any case.

    Again sorry, I'll leave it at that.

  20. hello Massimo, I just literally Stumble(d)Upon your site. I'm someone who goes randomly via SU, lands at times on web sites where the theists & atheists alike lack the scientific, philosophical, or historical perspectives you obviously bring. Complimenti! So, do forgive my leaving an apologia behind. the anti_supernaturalist

    Natura naturans: atheists restore to nature its "innocence"

    The de-deification of western culture (including the sciences) is our task for the next 100 years.

    1. we free culture from the dead hand of near eastern mythological speculation

    A mishmash of near eastern magical texts makes spurious claims of being god-given. Their nihilistic dualism and androcentric understanding of the universe and paternalist model of human nature are too damaging to contribute to a humane planet-wide ethos.

    2. we free culture from a death impulse characterized by "sin" and "guilt"

    The universe evinces neither affect, nor morality, nor intellect. Neither physical nature nor human nature say anything about a superordinate, supernatural realm populated by creators or law givers.

    Nature is silent. There is no concept of truth in nature. Indeed, there are no concepts whatsoever in nature. Nature knows nothing. Natura naturans. Nature acts.

    Nature is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort (natural theology) nor a source of despair (existentialism). Both are rooted in the same mistaken presupposition that supernatural meaning can be found by searching “the starry heavens” for gods or by quarrying human inwardness for moral laws.

    3. we show that religion is a cultural artifact

    Religions belong to cultures embedded in nature. And cultures are our distinctive human-all-too-human handiwork. Religions are obsolete, replaceable cultural artifacts.

    Any specific religion reenacts and institutionalizes cultic myth. It gets spread through recruitment, custom and conquest -- financially supported by tax code and state funding -- enforced by indoctrination, intimidation and violence. Too high a price for psycho-social comfort.

    5. alleged god-given morality is rooted in ancient imperial propaganda

    Xian mythology, like related big-4 monotheisms zoroastrianism, post-exilic judaism, and islam, posits a moralized universal order which never existed. No more can be found in “the starry heavens” than the ancestors put there. (Theology is fifth-rate fan fiction.)

    Some pseudo-meaning derives ultimately from Sargon I’s (2334-2279 BCE) imperial propaganda when the very first violent yoking together of disparate Sumerian city-state cultures occurred in what is now Iraq. Sargon I appears on a low relief sculpture as a god receiving a legal and moral code directly from a greater god enthroned above him.

    The first myth of divine origin of emperor and empire-spanning morality turns out to be ancient political spin. (Still works today, doesn’t it?)

    6. we present a "way" of knowing superior to world hating monster-theisms

    Adjust your understanding, adjust your expectations, and you will have a right relationship with the only total reality there is, natura naturans. Nature naturing — acting as it always has without any gods’ assistance.

    the anti-supernaturalist

  21. my conclusion doesn't seem (to me) to be as strong as you take it to be.

    Massimo, your final paragraph seems to leave little to metaphysics. You suggest that metaphysics only has value (1) from a historical standpoint; (2) as a model for how philosophy and science can interact; and (3) in reminding us about the limits of science.

    As it happens, your second and third points do open rather wide doors to metaphysics, though you seem to de-emphasize that. You give the example of attempts to understand the nature of time and space, which are closely connected to the issue of causality, a key concern of metaphysics, and one that science cannot answer. You also note that “science can get started only on premises that cannot be justified empirically within science itself” and again causality comes up, along with other metaphysical issues.

    You say nothing about philosophy of mind. Although neuroscience and cognitive science are making great progress in understanding how the brain works, they are incapable of explaining the subjective experience of consciousness, self, or the enigma of free will. Science can provide hints, but these are not scientific questions.

    At some level each human faces, or perhaps chooses to turn away from these metaphysical questions, along with what may be the most mysterious question of all: “Why IS there ANYTHING?” I suspect we won’t find the answers, but I do think there is value in carefully thinking about these questions, and untangling our understanding. If nothing else, we may be able to rule out some answers, or lines of reasoning.

  22. Nick B says: If nothing else, we may be able to rule out some answers, or lines of reasoning.

    I wish I had a dime for every time I've heard a philosopher says X is a priori impossible when I had already seen research that does precisely X. Metaphysics starts with the intuitions of philosophers and, treating them as a priviledged source of knowledge, draws the logical conclusions that follow from them. Unfortunately, the intuitions of even full-blown professors are a fairly poor guide to what the world is actually like. That's why we have to pay all that money for expensive colliders and such like. Indeed, it is science that has taught us just how bad a guide to reality intuitions are. All the time, people try to postulate limits as to what science is incapable of doing and while they may be correct at the time of writing, they will ultimately turn out to be false, so long as it is humanly possible to have any knowledge of the matter in hand. This is because science is not a pre-determined set of methods, that have a clearly delineated limit to their applicability, but a constantly growing family of methods that are developed in response to new problems. In short, if it is possible to know something then, sooner or later, science will be the best way to get to know it. This may sound grandiose but it simply acknowledges the basic fact that science constantly adjusts to fit reality, both in terms of the claims it makes but, more importantly, in terms of the methods it uses. Issues in the philosophy of mind such as consciousness are no different. Indeed, it has been science - cognitive science - that has had the running on explaining these phenomena for the last twenty years, at least. That is where we should be looking to for explanations of these phenomena in the near future. Not to the intuitions of members of the homo sapiens species that hold positions in philosophy departments. And I speak as very much a member of that last group.

  23. I have not seen Ontology mentioned here. This is cofused with metaphysics in the minds of some.

    To distinguish between things and events seems, to be, a fundamentally important distinction. Likewise, to distinguish between modally distinguishable instances of the same (physical, linguistic, economic, etc).

    Is this so much passe thinking? Or is it something distinct from metaphysics proper?

  24. I'm working on my masters in English, and so am taking "Critical Theory." Heidegger, Foucalt, Derrida, Freud--why are these guys still being taught? What's the appeal of purposely opaque prose and Delphic, unfalsifiable pronouncements? Anyone know of a sensitive way to suggest to a professor that his "Critical Theory" class needs a dose of critical thinking?

  25. "Anyone know of a sensitive way to suggest to a professor that his "Critical Theory" class needs a dose of critical thinking?"

    No, but I can think of many creative and funny non-sensitive ways. Of course, that would get you into trouble...

  26. So let's sum it up:

    1. Conjure the usual positivistic myths about metaphysics
    2. Utilize metaphysics in all sorts of ways in your thinking to explicate the denial of metaphysics.
    3. Mention of your blind faith in atheism via a side-ways reference to the ontological argument
    4. Pretend what you stated is defensible and intelligible when it's not.
    5. Assert in a typical knee-jerk fashion the dogma of scientism.
    6. Collapse into philosophical obscurity just like every other atheist/positivism puppet.

    Metaphysical issues have not now nor will ever be resolved by science (although science may help inform in some limited way) simply because science as an limited enterprise is inept to address them, not to mention depends upon them to even exist as a social process within the human domain. Not to mention that quantum theory itself is itself a journey into the metaphysical... Ironically a verification of some of its central concepts in fact.

    Your "argument" (if you can even call it that) is nothing but an argument from ignorance. Well done! :)

    PS. The most laughable of your assertions was that somehow physics has replaced classical metaphysics.


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