Against metaphysics

by Neil Rickert

For me, metaphysics is a bit of a puzzle.  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, “It is not easy to say what metaphysics is.”  I take it that ontology, the question of what exists, is an important part of metaphysics.

Here’s my own tongue-in-cheek daffy definition:  Metaphysics is that core part of philosophy where many fundamental mistakes are made.  The rest of philosophy builds on those mistakes.

The main reasons that I am against metaphysics are:

  1. I have not found it useful;
  2. It seems to be a source of mistaken ideas.

What makes it a puzzle, is that some other folk seem to consider it important.  For example, when I explained why I am not a materialist, quite a few comments attempted to persuade me that metaphysics is important.  And when I posted on the ontology of mathematical objects, several comments tried to persuade me that it is important.

Personally, I am a mathematical fictionalist.  I don’t believe mathematical objects exist, except as useful fictions.  Most mathematicians are said to be Platonists.  They believe mathematical objects exist in some platonic realm.  So that’s an ontological (hence metaphysical) disagreement.  Yet the way that I do mathematics is pretty much the same as the way that a Platonist mathematician does mathematics.  So the metaphysical disagreement seems to be of no importance.

I remember, many years ago, attending a dinner.  And following the dinner, a philosopher gave a lecture to the captive audience.  His lecture was on the question of whether skating is an art or a sport.  His conclusion, unsurprisingly, was that skating is an art.  I have neither a tape nor a transcript, but I take his reasoning to be mostly metaphysical.  It all seemed foolish to me.  That skating is an art, it seems to me, is entirely a matter of cultural tradition.

As best I can tell, metaphysical questions do not have clear answers.

Philosophers seem to want to restrict their methods to the use of logic.  And the trouble with logic, is that it requires premises before one can start.  So philosophy seems to need metaphysics as a source of premises.  I would prefer to see philosophers enlarging their toolkit, so as to remove that dependence on metaphysics.

I’ll end with a note on my daffy definition.  If metaphysical questions do not have clear answers, then when we rely on metaphysics we are likely to have some mistaken premises.  Applying deductive logic to mistaken premises can amplify the mistakes.

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4 Comments to “Against metaphysics”

  1. Hi, Neil.

    I don’t think the question of whether skating is art or sport is metaphysical (and it’s not really fair to take every question you think is dumb and call it metaphysics). But whether or not there are mathematical objects IS metaphysics, and you indicate that you don’t believe there are. Hence, you are a metaphysician. The fact that one’s metaphysical positions don’t affect one’s daily lives is unsurprising–not being empirically decidable is almost part of the definition of a metaphysical question. So, of course there’s a sense in which the subject isn’t useful–in fact, it’s not even as useful as the art/sport question. In spite of that, one’s metaphysical positions–conscious or unconscious–underlie all of our non-metaphysical positions. Do we see chairs or retinal nerve endings? Is it objectively wrong to use chemical weapons or is it just a matter of personal or cultural choice? Will this thing actually fly even though it’s only been designed in my head? All the answers require metaphysical underpinnings. Of course, nobody is required to engage in metaphysical discourse if they don’t enjoy it or find it interesting, but human beings are in large part metaphysical animals and have considered these “useless” questions almost since they began talking.

    Best,

    W

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    • I don’t think the question of whether skating is art or sport is metaphysical (and it’s not really fair to take every question you think is dumb and call it metaphysics).

      It was an essentialist argument, and I think essentialism counts as metaphysics.

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  2. After many years of hearing the word “metaphysics” and reading definitions of it, to be frank I still don’t totally understand exactly what the field fully entails. My own layperson definition is “field which thinks about the very foundations of all of reality”. I also describe it as “stuff we wanna know but seems so out of reach of us knowing”.

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    • I have the same problem. I am not at all sure what “metaphysics” means. The name comes from one of Aristotle’s books, so I suppose he defined the term.

      There’s a recent blog post by Massimo Pigliucci, “The metaphysics wars” that I found useful. Massimo is not trying to define metaphysics, but he dissects it, and I found that clarifying.

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