Re: MD A metaphysics

Date: Sun Aug 17 2003 - 00:38:09 BST

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    The disappointed and embittered idealist (or, simply, "idiot") wishes to speak on his own behalf:

    Joe said:
    a metaphysics describes the most basic things I know.
    Platt, you have stated that a metaphysics is a belief system. I think Matt also assumes that a metaphysics is a belief system. He does not believe in metaphysics.
    Both of you seem to accept that a person only has a belief in words.
    Is it any wonder that you find agreement while disagreeing?

    Michael is right, people do use different definitions to words. They use whatever definition works, is handy, feels right. Joe defined metaphysics as "the most basic things [we] know." Would I subscribe to such a definition? No. That's why Joe is wrong when he says, "Matt also assumes a metaphysics is a belief system." He most certainly wouldn't and still try and hold that he doesn't believe in metaphysics. As DMB so eloquently put it, that would be stupid. I'm not stupid. Just wily.

    I had some very long discussions about what metaphysics is or was with Scott and Wim a while back. And I haven't changed my opinion or my tune. I also haven't thought of a new way of putting my point. So, if I still get charged with stupidity by people who have read my last 6 months worth of statements up to and including this, well, darn.

    Wim wanted metaphysics to simply mean "one's deepest beliefs" which is basically what Joe, DMB, and Michael would like metaphysics to mean. I don't want metaphysics to mean that because there is something about what philosophers have traditionally thought about their deepest beliefs that I think is extraneous cargo that can be purged. This superfluous cargo has traditionally been called "metaphysics." Michael is right that metaphysics asks the question, "What is real?" That is the no-no question that pragmatists like John Dewey, William James, Richard Rorty, and Donald Davidson want to get rid of. But that question has nothing to do with metaphysics being "one's deepest beliefs" or "system of belief". To conflate the two is to make the mistake that Plato made.

    "What is real?" only makes sense when "real" is conterposed on the other side by "apparent." (That's right boys and girls, did you expect any less? Cue "appearance/reality" speech #16) The full, implied question of metaphysics, traditionally conceived, is "What is real and what is apparent?" That's what Plato and Socrates were involved in, make no mistake. And that's what most philosophers have been involved in since them, which is why Whitehead said we are all footnotes to Plato and Pirsig said systematic philosophy is Greek. When "real" isn't weighted down on the other side by "apparent" than the question becomes fairly easy to answer. "What's real? Well, everything you experience. How couldn't it be." Even hallucinations and dreams, which kept Descartes awake at night worrying, are real in the non-counterposed-by-apparent sense. They are real because you experience them. However, those particular bits of reality have special notes attached to them because of t
    he way we experience them (i.e. sleeping, on drugs, etc.). They can be distracting when trying to cope with the rest of reality, like flowers and man-eating tigers, so for purposes of expediency we say that they aren't real.

    Socrates, Plato, and Descartes analogize all of reality to hallucinations and dreams. They say, "Well, what if things that we experience everyday and take for granted aren't real? What if they are like hallucinations and dreams?" Thus was born the skeptic, the evil strawman that Plato and Descartes built the entire edifice of Western philosophy to defend against. Plato's answer was that all of reality we experience via our senses _is_ a dream, a massive hallucination, but we do have the tools to reach reality, so don't worry too much. Just wait for the smart people to tell you what reality is. Descartes' answer was a little more sophisticated. The existence of God proved that all of reality wasn't a massive hallucination.

    The appearance/reality dichotomy (along with the subject/object distinction) is part of what Dewey called "that whole nest and brood of Greek dualisms". Dewey and his heir-apparent, Rorty, think we can get rid of these dualisms. That our life would be so much easier to think about if we just stopped trying to dig down deep and penetrate to what the essence of reality is. Some people think we can succeed; call them Platonists. Some people think that we can't succeed, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying; call them Kantians. Some people think that we can't succeed, but that we couldn't stop even if we tried; call them psychological metaphysicians. The pragmatists think the first set of people are using an 8-track after the CD's been invented, the second set of people are using a feather-duster to pound in a nail, and the third set of people are pessimistic. All three sets are metaphysicians in the sense of trying to pierce behind the appearances to reach the real

    Like Plato, the Platonists are optimistic that we as a species will someday hold reality in thought. We will someday succeed by some method or other and when we do, the world will be our oyster. The pragmatist has no idea what the terms of success would be. When she points this out to the Platonist, he replies that we will have a method that will rigorously and ruthlessly cut out all the bad beliefs and leave only the good ones. The pragmatist presses her point by asking how the Platonist will know if the beliefs being cut out are bad ones and not good ones. The Platonist becomes a little bewildered at this point, accuses the pragmatist of being a skeptic, trots out some surface-to-air anti-skeptical weapons, and in the end says, "Well, we'll know when we get there." The pragmatist says, "Right, nice argument."

    Like Kant, the Kantians lost their optimism of ever knowing reality as it is in itself. They instead say that, no, we will never know it, however we can find out some interesting, indubitable things once we make this realization. Kantians say that we can trace the outlines of what we can never know, and then use that as a foundation upon which to put the rest of our knowledge. The pragmatist, smelling a Platonist in disguise, asks how the Kantian how he is going to know whether his foundation is working. The Kantian replies that he will know because he will have reached bedrock beliefs that won't change for anybody. The pragmatist replies that she doesn't believe his bedrock beliefs, as they are now, so what good reason does the Kantian have to think that there is such a thing as bedrock beliefs that won't change for anybody. The Kantian becomes a little bewildered at this point, accuses the pragmatist of being an irrational relativist, trots out some surface-to-air an
    ti-relativist weapons, and in the end says, "Well, we'll know when we get there." The pragmatist says, "Right, nice argument."

    The psychological metaphysicians see all of this happening and say to the pragmatist that, even though we will never know reality in itself and even though we will never have a foundation upon which to put our other beliefs, we still can't help but search for the essence of reality. It is in the very nature of humans to _know_ things, to know them as they really are. The pragmatist, becoming quite good at detecting ever more clever Platonists, asks the psychological metaphysician how he knows that it is human nature to know things as they really are. He replies that we are doing some important research into the depths of the human mind and we are finding stunning similarities between humans, implying that there is a universal character to the human brain. The pragmatist says that all the psychologist has found is that humans tend to react in the same way to man-eating tigers when they are being chased by them. The psychological metaphysician says that, neverless, the im
    plication is that, given enough time, we will uncover these hidden depths. The pragmatist asks how the psychological metaphysician knows that these "universal" characteristics will extend to interesting things, like human nature, and not stay at the point of including only uninteresting things, like how humans react to tigers. He says that we won't know until we've tried. She replies how will you know when to stop, when you've failed. The psychological metaphysician becomes a little bewildered at this point, accuses the pragmatist of being an effete, anti-scientistic Romantic, trots out some surface-to-air anti-Romantic weapons, and in the end says, "Well, we'll know when we get there." The pragmatist says, "Right, good argument."

    The pragmatist sees all three of these characters in a dialectical sequence. Each one is further along the same 2,000 year old path, learning from the mistakes of its predeccessors. The pragmatists, however, see the same person standing at the end of the road: Dewey. Dewey looks back at the last 2,000 years of philosophy and goes, "Well, maybe its too harsh to say that it was a complete waste of time, but its gonna' be a complete waste of time if we keep it up, so why don't we do something else." That's what me, Rorty, and the pragmatists think about metaphysics, defined as the traditional question of "What is real?" The point of the above three "arguments" between the metaphysicians and the pragmatists is to punch up the fact that the language-games we play are optional. It is difficult to have a good ole'-fashioned argument if you don't agree on terms. I'm not arguing with Wim, DMB, Joe, Platt, or Michael right now. I trying to explain to them why I wish to change
    the subject, why I'm being evasive and wily, because if I agree to their terms, I will lose. So I don't and I'm trying to show why my definition is better, more useful (or, at the least, explain what I mean by "metaphysics"). That's not an argument, but an explication. There's no expectation of agreement here like in an argument. Arguments function when people agree on terms and can then argue about the consequences of those agreed upon positions. If agreement of terms is not had, there can only be explication, where people tell little stories and give little examples of why they think their terms are better, more useful. 'Tis why Platt can say, despite our many metaphilosophical disagreements, "I agree with Matt on many things, mostly his interpretation of the MOQ." Platt and I agree on many of the terms we use in interpreting and explicating the MoQ (in some cases, not all) and so we end up in agreement, particularly if we argue using those terms.

    Now, I've said that I wish to not conflate "system of belief" with the question "What is real?" On this point, I think I'm in agreement with Wim and DMB. Wim is pragmatic enough to be antiessentialist and DMB's argument against me (though I haven't quite figured out how its against me) lately has been, "Where and who are all these Platonists, Kantians, psychological metaphysicians, essentialists, ahistoricists, universalists, and foundationalists? I need names!" (Apparently Searle, Chomsky, and Platt don't count.) So, no "What is real?" Its out. Then they try to rehabilitate the word metaphysics to be synonymous with belief system. I don't see the point. In fact, if we do that, I'm left without a word to describe my philosophical opponents. And so are they. I figure, leave the word to the people who created it: the Greeks. And with it, leave the tendency to ask, "What is real?" I'm against the conflation because I want "system of belief" without the question, "W
    hat is real?"

    As a sidebar, Rorty's philosophical terminology already accounts for this. He calls the "most basic beliefs" of a person their final vocabulary. What determines whether or not you are a footnote to Plato is your orientation to your final vocabulary. Metaphysicians think that we must get our final vocabulary closer and closer to the Way Things Really Are and ironists are simply content to try and make our final vocabularly better and better.

    Now I'll simply answer two specific things people have said during the time its taken me to write this:

    Michael said:
    It's important to point out the fact that much of contemporary thought has started to lean towards the subjective side. In my opinion subjective is all we really have as individuals. ... I guess what I am trying to get to is that most people have different definitions for every word they use.

    I think this is the wrong conclusion to draw, at least if you are a pragmatist. If you are a Platonist, you might agree, but then you go on to lament this state of affairs. You would wish that more people would agree with, well, you. When Dewey and the pragmatists dissolve the metaphysical dichotomy between objective and subjective, they relieve the two words of their former function: objective as praise, subjective as comdemnation. Many people on their way to becoming pragmatists note that we are becoming more subjective, then eventually they stop lamenting it, and then finally they stop using the word at all. The two words formerly meant "external" and "internal". The "objective" can be corraborated by the Way Things Really Are Out There and the "subjective" springs from somewhere inside of us and so can't be corraborated or really agreed to in any rational way at all. The first stop on the dialectical journey that is intellectual history are the British Empiricists
    . With the phrase, "tabula rasa," Locke effectively said that there is _nothing_ deep down within us (of course, for Locke, there was still something "out there," namely God). When you put the empiricist point together with the point that there is nothing "out there" you get pragmatism. The question is then, "Where do beliefs come from?" Well, they come from out there, not "out there" with scare quotes, but literally _out_ _there_, as in other people. Thus the birth of intersubjective agreement, the analogues upon analogues handed down to us by our culture that Pirsig talks about. Subjective in the common parlance of our time typically pans out to mean, "from your point of view." This only makes sense when it is weighed down on the other side by "objective" which would mean something like "nature's point of view" or "God's point of view" or "science's point of view." The pragmatist denies that these things have points of views. The only kind of thing that has a point
     of view is a person. So, the pragmatist would say after being accused of being subjective, "Of course its my point of view. Who's else would it be?" Everything is from a point of view, so the epithet loses its force. The idea is to determine whose point of view is better. That's still under deliberation. What subjective and objective pan out to mean in a pragmatist world are "hard to agree on things" and "easy to agree on things," respectively. So, if a tiger jumped out of the jungle and started running at us, you can say, "It is an objective fact that there is a tiger about to eat us," I would disagree in so far as the tiger isn't going to eat me because during the time it took you to note that objective fact, I've gotten a headstart running away. And as they say, you don't have to be fast to run away from a tiger, you just have to be faster than the person you are with.

    Platt said:
    To have a belief and hold it to be true are the same thing. Matt has beliefs but denies his beliefs are true in any absolute sense. His denial, of course, is an absolute.

    My denial is absolute only if you hold that having a belief is the same as holding it to be _absolutely_ true. I agree that "to have a belief and hold it to be true are the same thing." However, I don't quite know where the absolute part comes from.


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