Thoughts about metaphysics

by Neil Rickert

Hmm, it’s been quite a while since I last posted anything to this blog.

Dan Kaufman is rethinking metaphysics, as indicated in a recent post:

Judging by the relatively small number of comments, I don’t think there’s a lot of enthusiasm among readers.  But I will be looking forward for continued posts on this topic.

In agreement with Dan, I do want to see some rethinking.  And that’s why I started this blog.

I’ll use this post to give some of my own ideas on the topic.  I expect that some of them are very different from Dan’s ideas.

Basic realism

I am assuming some sort of basic realism.  That is to say, I assume that there is a reality which is human independent.  And we interact with that reality.

I’m calling this an assumption, because I see no possibility of proof.  But it does make clear that I reject Berkeley’s idealism.  I don’t think anything important depends on this assumption.

Strictly speaking, basic realism, as defined above, is false.  We ourselves are part of reality.  And anything we do affects that reality.  So reality cannot be strictly human independent.  That is to say, the idea of basic realism as a convenient over-simplification.

Metaphysical realism

I do not see any possibility that there could be a human-independent true description of reality.  How to describe reality is not given to us.  We have to invent ways of describing our world.  And how to describe the world is vastly underdetermined.

As usually described, metaphysical realism has to do with the existence of true descriptions of reality.  By denying the possibility of human-independent true descriptions, I am rejecting metaphysical realism.  I’ll note that in the linked post and comments, Dan Kaufman has been clear that he rejects metaphysical realism.

Ontology

Dan questions materialism.  I have previously posted on my view of materialism.  I don’t think I have ever been a materialist.  Chairs and tables are material objects.  But cats, dogs, butterflies, etc seem very different kinds of things.

What makes something a cat is not the matter.  After a month or two, most of that matter will be elsewhere, replaced by different matter.  And it isn’t the arrangement of matter, for that arrangement changes depending on whether the cat is sitting, standing, running, etc.

What makes something a cat, is that we perceive it as a cat.  Berkeley was right about the importance of perception, although he took that idea too far.

I have never seen the point of ontology.  When we say something exists, that licenses us to talk about it.  When doing mathematics, I talk of numbers existing.  We have existence theorems for the solutions of equations.  But people typically want more than that for using “exists”.  And I don’t see that there is anything more for numbers or other mathematical objects.  That’s why I’m a mathematical fictionalist.

For tables, chairs, rabbits, etc, there is more than just talking about them.  For example, we can perceive them.  So we use “exists”.  But most of philosophy is concerned with what we can talk about.  Of course, it can be of interest to discuss whether gremlins exist.  However, mathematical platonists and mathematical fictionalists seem to be able to discuss their mathematics in spite of their disagreement over what can be said to exist.

Causation and free will

Some of the discussions on causation and free will are puzzling.  It seems to me that the way a scientist tests causation, is by attempting to control events.  When a scientist says that A causes B, he tests that by attempting to use A to cause B.  In effect, a scientist is testing what he or she can cause either directly or indirectly.

But then some people conclude that science shows that we have no free will and cannot cause anything.  To me, this denies how scientists go about establishing causation.

Arguments against free will often talk of the world being governed by the laws of physics.  I’m skeptical of that use of “governed”.  Yes, if we use a cue stick the right way, it sends a billiard ball in the pocket.  But the billiard ball isn’t paying attention to the laws of physics, so “governed” does not seem the right word here.  As I look at it, the laws of physics are not rules for billiard balls to follow.  Rather, they are laws for humans to follow.  And if we follow them, then we can do very well at predicting the motion of billiard balls.  So I see the laws of physics as governing the behavior of physicists, not as governing the behavior of inanimate matter.

28 Responses to “Thoughts about metaphysics”

  1. There’s a lot to chew on here, so I’ll just focus on the Determinism-vs-Free Will segment. In my view, the debate involves rationalism (i.e. logical arguments) and not empiricism (i.e. scientific processes). I’m quite attuned to the activities of science, and whether the realty we humans can perceive is purely predetermined or not isn’t something most scientists spend much time thinking about because it cannot be proved one way or the other. For a good scientific perspective on this, I recommend watching the recently concluded Cosmos/Possible Worlds series narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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    • In my view, the debate involves rationalism (i.e. logical arguments) and not empiricism (i.e. scientific processes).

      I had not thought of it that way. I was mostly reacting to Dan Kaufman’s comment.

      What I always notice about those who deny free will, is that (a) they deny that we make choices, and (b) they argue that we should therefore make some choices now that we know we don’t have free will. The don’t seem aware of this apparent contradiction.

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      • Yes, that’s why I prefer the provable over the hypothetical. I suspect reality lays somewhere in the middle between the extremes of determinism and free will, but science just doesn’t know at this point – maybe some day.

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  2. I’d been following the recent inquiries and conversations along these lines at Electric Agora as well, and especially became re-interested as a resulted of the most recent dialog between Massimo and Dan, clustered around panpsychism. It was interesting to me to hear the generally shared distrust of anything revisiting ‘first philosophy’ during that dialog. Especially since I believe just such a thing is in order, as was quietly called for by Thomas Nagel in 2012. (At least that is how I read it.) I would place epistemology and metaphysics about as close to the core of first principles as one can get within philosophy, so it is therefore interesting that Dan,as you say, wants to re0examine the latter. (I have not yet read the new DK piece.) Perhaps I will return to re-read your piece after digesting his, and comment further. Massimo in particular does not want to let go of or re-scrutinize physicalism, and even made the sort of absurd argument that one metaphysic is as good as the rest and therefore why worry.

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  3. Realisms: Basic & Metaphysical. I would have to say that at this point I do not clearly grasp the distinction between these two concepts. If you wish to clarify that distinction maybe I will say more, or perhaps I can gain something from Dan’s piece. If we accept the conventional current consensus about natural history, then we have the notion that the earth and numerous other life forms existed before humans did. Similarly we have the notion that much of the universe existed before earth did. Therefore, even with confining oursekves within the limited physicalist sphere, ‘reality’ does not presuppose humanity. That said, the argument you seem to be making at the conclusion of your Metaphysical Realism paragraph seems to be insisting that exclusively human cognition is necessary to conceptualize reality and any prior or different cognition is to be dismissed, I cannot see why.

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    • At least, as I read it, metaphysical realism is concerned about questions such as whether scientific theories are true. What I called “basic realism” is little more than a rejection of Berkeley’s idealism.

      You seem to have misunderstood what I was trying to say. Maybe I didn’t express it well.

      My point was if some other group came up with a description of reality, there’s no reason to believe that it would be the same as the descriptions that we give. How we describe reality is very much tied to our biology, and probably also to our culture.

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  4. Ontology: I too do not find any flavor of materialism or physicalism to be persuasive, or in fact anything more than a desired belief. Mathematically, I am a Platonist. When I did creative math first, as a child, my perception and intuition was very much that I was discovering and cognitively witnessing things or phenomena which were true about reality and which exist and have a universality about them. I’ve heard no persuasive arguments otherwise since. Perception cannot ne limited by physicalism conceptions if one is committed to abandoning physicalism. Perception is not exclusively sensory; we also perceive concepts.

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  5. Causation and Freewill: Again here, I do not see why we would infect the discussion about causation with physicalist concepts such as billiard ball motion and things which scientists investigate, modern science being completely under the sway of materialism. To approach freewill as a question, even to begin to do so, one has to grapple with aphysical causation, things like agency and intention, and sustained focus.

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    • To approach freewill as a question, even to begin to do so, one has to grapple with aphysical causation, things like agency and intention, and sustained focus.

      I think that was Dan Kaufman’s point. He sees the denial of free will as implicitly denying agency. And he disagrees with that. I agree with Dan on that point.

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  6. Yes. Was commenting more about your points however, not his.

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  7. Hi Neil Rickert,

    You wrote,
    “I am assuming some sort of basic realism. That is to say, I assume that there is a reality which is human independent. And we interact with that reality.”

    Why do you assume some sort of basic realism and how does this reality act on you and how do you act on this reality?

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    • Why do you assume some sort of basic realism

      It seems to make more sense than an alternative such as Berkeley’s idealism.

      and how does this reality act on you and how do you act on this reality?

      I’m not sure what you are looking for there. I agree with Kant’s view, that we have no access to the world in itself. We can only access our experience of interacting with the world. Anything we can know about the world is built on that experience.

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  8. I find discussing this subject with you very interesting and I like your thinking. You have expressed some good ideas in this post.

    “It seems to make more sense than an alternative such as Berkeley’s idealism.”

    Most people think that the reality is as humans perceive it (more or less). They think that reality as humans perceive it is the same as reality is in itself. In other words they they do not distinguish between reality on one hand and reality as humans (including science) perceive it on the other hand.

    What do you think about it?

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    • Most people think that the reality is as humans perceive it (more or less).

      Yes, this is a very natural way of thinking. But when I try to understand how perception works, I have to give up that viewpoint. Perception is, unavoidably, creative. An ant or a bee would see the world differently. Our biology affects how we perceive reality. And our culture likely also affects it.

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  9. Very good. I agree completely.

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  10. There are many many more things which I do not understand on this subject of different perceptions and experiences of the reality in itself which I do not understand and I will continue to raise questions.

    I find it very interesting to discuss things with people who are willing to question their own beliefs and convictions.

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    • Here’s my current view of perception:

      We carve up the world into parts, and give names to those parts. The names are not determined by reality, but that’s not really important. The carve lines are also not determined by reality, and that is more important. In effect, how we carve up reality affects what is our ontology.

      We don’t see the world, and then carve it up. Rather, it is the carving it up that gives us the ability that we call “seeing”. We use trial and error methods, to find out ways that work well.

      There are actually some pretty good pragmatic reasons why we divide up the world the way that we do. That suggests that our carving up the world is pragmatic, rather than a matter of truth and logic. And pragmatic answers do depend on our biology and, to some extent, on our culture.

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  11. “We carve up the world into parts, and give names to those parts.”

    I suppose that by “we” you mean humans.

    What do you mean by “world” which humans carve up?

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    • I suppose that by “we” you mean humans.

      Yes, that was the primary intention. However, it seems to me that perception has to work something along those line, so it probably applies also to other animals.

      What do you mean by “world” which humans carve up?

      That was intentionally vague. It’s the world that we are able to perceive. To a first approximation, it is mainly the neighborhood where we live. But we extend that with travel. And we somewhat extend it with the use of language (listening to people describe their experiences elsewhere). And, of course, we extend it with scientific instrumentation.

      Of course, perception is not only visual. So the world includes sounds, smells, what we sense with touch, etc.

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  12. “We don’t see the world, and then carve it up. Rather, it is the carving it up that gives us the ability that we call “seeing”. We use trial and error methods, to find out ways that work well.

    There are actually some pretty good pragmatic reasons why we divide up the world the way that we do. That suggests that our carving up the world is pragmatic, rather than a matter of truth and logic. And pragmatic answers do depend on our biology and, to some extent, on our culture.”

    Very good insight. I agree.

    But address my preceding comment .

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  13. What do you mean by “world” which humans carve up?

    “That was intentionally vague. It’s the world that we are able to perceive.”

    Yes, that is right. I wanted this point clarified.

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  14. Now I want to ask you that when you perceive a chair, then how does this perception happen? Can you describe the different steps by which you are able to have this perception? why do you perceive a chair when you do perceive a chair instead of perceiving a table?

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    • Now I want to ask you that when you perceive a chair, then how does this perception happen?

      We are applying some sort of criteria to recognize a chair. But these are private criteria. How you recognize a chair is likely different from how I recognize a chair. How I recognize a chair now is likely different from how I recognized a chair when I was a child.

      We have some sort of neural circuit in the brain, for recognizing chairs. J.J. Gibson called this a “transducer” in his theory of perception. This chair circuit is not innate. Rather, the developing brain created it when it became apparent that recognizing chairs was important. And this circuit is being tweaked from time to time, to improve its recognition of chairs.

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  15. Another question:

    Can something which you do not perceive affect you, your mind or body? Can the reality which may be unperceivable to humans (incuding human science) affect you? Can the reality in itself (reality as it is in itself) affect humans?

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    • What does it mean to say that something affects me?

      If something affects me enough that I notice, then I do perceive it. That’s how perception works, by using the way that things affect us.

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  16. I think that my last two questions need explaining on my part.

    I will try to explain after a few days.

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