10 June 2015

Metaphysics does not 'bury its undertakers'

I apologize in advance for what I'm about to do. See, through a somewhat random assortment of clicks in a long session of dicking around on the internet, I happened upon Ed Feser's blog — in particular, a post in which he was going after Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College, for dissing one of Feser's favorite topics: metaphysics.

I've found myself disagreeing with Pigliucci on more than one occasion, but I can definitely jive with his skepticism and general dismissal of metaphysics. And while I could probably spend a long afternoon combing through Feser's post picking out each of the statements I disagreed with, there was one in particular that jumped out at me that I think cuts to the heart of why, in my opinion, metaphysics is pure, unadulterated bullshit that exists on the highest plane of highly refined rhetorical sophistry. And that's this line:

Like the rationalists, Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophers hold that there are metaphysically necessary truths which can be known with certainty , but they reject the rationalist view that such truths are innate or that metaphysics is an essentially a priori discipline.
It's tough to explain why exactly I think this whole sentence is a steaming pile of drivel, though Sean Carroll did a bang-up job of it in his lecture, "God is Not a Good Theory". Essentially, I take Feser's meaning to be something as follows:

1. You make observations through empirical experience

2. You use these observations to infer fundamental truths governing reality

3. You apply logic to these fundamental truths to extrapolate even deeper truths about reality, such as whether God exists

See, my problem with metaphysics is that it's generally viewed as a philosophical study of some fundamental level of reality. This level is non-physical, it's a-temporal, it's... well, I'm not sure what it is, exactly. It's like a set of principles that exist in some ambiguous state in some ambiguous parallel ether that underscores and governs all of reality. Whenever I press these philosopher types for a clear answer on what the bloody hell that is, they always just say something like, "Dude, it's metaphysical. Don't you get that?" No, I'm sorry, I don't. But I don't think I'll be losing any sleep over my apparent metaphysical ignorance, because I don't think you get it either. 

Anyway, here's the problem. In order to get to that level of the metaphysical ether (as I'll call it for the sake of discussion), you have to begin with certain assumptions about the inferences you're making from your experiences. So naturally, when people skeptical about 'metaphysics' as an enterprise start asking pesky questions, we're trying to get at the assumptions underpinning those grand metaphysical principles. And since we usually don't get clear or concise answers, we tend to treat this whole 'field' of metaphysics with a hand-wave and then move on to doing things that are actually interesting and productive. But then we're told that in dismissing metaphysics, we're assuming our own set of metaphysics! Darn the luck! So the saying goes, "metaphysics buries its undertakers".

Except here's the thing: if you just want to call assumptions "doing metaphysics", then all you've done is define 'metaphysics' in so broad and nebulous a way as to make it an utterly meaningless term. I assume I exist (honestly, I don't have much choice in the matter). I assume my sensory perception is reliable to some degree or other (ditto). I assume that the reliability of observations is a useful indicator that it could be used to successfully predict similar future observations. (Yes folks, the "problem of induction" goes away when you recognize that all induction is really just a bunch of provisional assumptions.) But I don't think anyone in their right mind would see any value or purpose in calling such assumptions 'metaphysics'. 

Assumptions are fine. They're great. Everyone makes them, even your mom. The problem comes when we run into claims like that in Feser's quote above: there are metaphysically necessary truths that can be known with certainty. Really? I think that's wrong. Actually, it's not even wrong. What is 'metaphysical', again? What is something 'necessary' for, again? What is 'truth' and 'knowing'? Do we even want to go there?

Let's take an example from Feser's own review of Avicenna's Argument from Contingency. In the first part of his review, he lists the premises of the argument, which begin...
1. Something exists.
2. Whatever exists is either possible or necessary.
3. If that something which exists is necessary, then there is a necessary existent.
4. Whatever is possible has a cause.
5. So if that something which exists is possible, then it has a cause.
And so on. There are 15 premises in that monstrosity, but I only really need the first two.
Obviously we all agree that the first premise is true. But the bullshit wagon comes careening through town square right in the second premise, because it requires that one accept some obscure, idiosyncratic, and somewhat ambiguous definitions of the terms possible and necessary. Physically possible? Logically possible? Necessary for what? The trick is that how you answer those questions reveals the assumptions that underlie your arguments. And the conclusions you draw from your premises depends on the assumptions underlying those premises in the first place. Arguments like this often get mired in semantic debates because not everyone agrees on how terms like possible and necessary are being used, but that distinction is absolutely critical for the argument to be both valid and sound. Any sufficiently educated armchair philosopher can construct a logically valid argument based on dubious premises; but an argument being valid only tells us that the conclusion is true if the premises are unequivocally true. Only if that condition is met is the argument both valid and sound. So how do we know if an argument is sound? Well, we have to know whether the assumptions underlying the premises are good and reasonable assumptions to make. And how do we know that? Through induction, the ocean of reliable empirical data from which our assumptions emerge.
Aristotle: A smart man who figured out... nothing, really.
ARISTOTLE: A SMART MAN WHO FIGURED OUT... NOTHING, REALLY.
To see why induction is so fundamental, let's take the claim that anything at all can be known with certainty. How did that come about? If metaphysically necessary truths are derived from induction in the first place, how could we possibly know whether they actually are 'necessary truths'? They'd only be as good as the inductively-derived assumptions underpinning them, which means their soundness is contingent on the availability and reliability of evidence — something we know changes over time. Now I concede that it's entirely possible that a means of acquiring certain knowledge exists, and maybe even the Scholastics have found it (as they seem most confidently to have done!). But I think we have good reasons to operate on the provisional assumption that is very likely not the case. To understand that, we can look more closely at how such a 'metaphysically necessary truth' is formed in the first place. And to do that I'll recruit everyone's other favorite uber-Christian charlatan, William Lane Craig.

Alert readers are well acquainted with the fact that Craig favors a version of the cosmological argument called the Kalam, in which the first premise is, "Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence." In a coincidence that would surely tickle Feser's undercarriage, this bears striking similarity to something Thomas Aquinas claimed in his 'Third Way':
The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing.
Craig has said that the first premise in the Kalam stems from the, and I quothe, "metaphysical principle that something cannot come from nothing". How does he justify this principle? He says it "seems to me to just be evidently true." Checkmate, atheists! Seriously, though. In the linked discussion, Craig gives lots of everyday examples, saying "if something can come into being without a cause then why doesn't just anything and everything come into being without a cause? Why doesn't root beer and bicycles and Beethoven pop into being uncaused out of nothing?"
Craig has seen these types of everyday examples his entire life; he's consistently observed them empirically, and the way they work seems intuitively true. And, as long as he just said that it's a generally good assumption to make within the confines of one's empirical experience, he'd be off the hook. But instead, he turns his a posteriori knowledge into a principle than can be applied a priori: nothing comes into being without without a cause. He then holds this to be true not just within the realm of his experience, but in all possible existence. This principle transcends the universe itself, governing both physical and non-physical things. Wow! Or, not wow. Unless you mean, Wow, that's bullshit!
It's not bullshit because anyone can show it to be false, but rather because no one can possibly know whether its true. As revealed in his weaselly excuse for a rationale in saying that his principle "seems to be to just be evidently true", Craig can't actually tell you how he got from there to here, from a useful empirical inference to a transcendent, necessary truth. In that article, an anonymous questioner is quoted as challenging Craig's 'principle' on just such grounds:
What I’d like to know is how Craig has managed to convince himself that his intuition is not ultimately reducible to induction. How could this causal principle be anything other than an inference, conscious or subconscious, Craig has derived from his empirical knowledge of ex materia causality in the physical world. Does he honestly expect us to believe something like this is knowable in the absence of any and all sensory experience?

Craig's answer is... well, not even anything resembling an answer at all; he more or less just re-states his assertion:
It’s perfectly consistent to say that this is a truth that one would only come to grasp if one were a sensing being in the world, but, that once you come to grasp it you can see this isn’t based on experience, it’s a kind of conceptual truth.
But of course the very question is why we should make the assumption that it is a "conceptual truth" at all! And Craig is woefully unable to provide an answer. What Craig is actually doing is making an inference based on his experience, then making the assumption that his inference is a transcendent, immutable principle — what Feser would call one of those "metaphysically necessary truths we can know with certainty". But metaphysicians can't seem to answer that ever-important question of how an empirical inference graduates into an immutable truth.

That's my rub. Philosophers making assumptions based on inferences, and then calling them necessary truths or some such bullshit. They then apply some type of formal logic to those necessary truths and claim they have solved great existential mysteries, right up to and including the claim that they've deductively proved the existence of God. That, ladies and djentlemen, is "doing metaphysics". It's a transparent charade of sophistic pedantry, a kind of intellectual masturbation taken up by those who saddle themselves with Godly guilt for doing the fun kind. 

Astute skeptics have pointed out, as Sean Carroll did in the above lecture, that this kind of inferential catapulting actually demands a more rigorous methodology of justification: science. That's for a simple reason — it may be true that, as a matter of principle, (say) "something cannot come from nothing" or that things can be neatly subdivided into categories delineated by very specific definitions of "necessary" and "possible". But, super duper importantly, it may not be true. If metaphysical principles are derived from empirical inferences, it behooves us to be mindful of the limits of our empirical experience. Perhaps our immediate experiences, and our intuitions about those experiences, are not actually sufficient to allow us to unlock the deepest mysteries of existence, like "Why is there something rather than nothing?", "Where did the universe come from?", or "Would I look good in a v-neck?" What these armchair explorers have actually done whenever they claim that an assumption based on an inference is some kind of immutable, transcendent principle, is make an empirical claim about reality. 

I know, that might just sound crazy. After all, the people who "do metaphysics" are fond of telling us that metaphysics go beyond empirical inquiry, and even underscore it — you can't even do empiricism unless you assume the metaphysical principles I assume to be immutable after I inferred them from empirical experience. Checkmate again, atheists!

But when you recognize that these purportedly immutable principles are really just inferences that have been launched into untested realms by a trebuchet loaded with assumptions, a simple objection emerges: maybe not. Everything that begins to exist has a cause? Maybe not. Something is either possible or necessary? Maybe not. The problem is that unless we could somehow project ourselves beyond our meat-bag bodies and transcend the physical universe itself, we can have no way of actually knowing whether those principles held as immutable actually are immutable. That's what Craig's anonymous interlocutor meant when he asked how Craig could know that his metaphysical truth isn't just reducible to plain old fashioned induction. 

Carroll goes on to make a larger point: that our experiences, and the things we take to be intuitively true, are governed by a very specific set of physical laws and boundaries. The idea that things need explanations for their existence makes perfect sense in the narrow realm of our empirical experience, and seems like a generally useful and reliable assumption to make within that realm. But do as Leibniz did and turn such empirical inferences into an immutable, transcendent principle, and you've stepped to the murky realm of Possibly True But Unjustifiable Assumptions. Asking "What caused the universe to exist?" is like asking "What is South of the South Pole?" — there's a very specific experiential circumstance that governs how we navigate the world around us and develop intuitions about it, and it's not at all clear that "THE UNIVERSE", whatever exactly you take that to mean, can fit into such a tiny little box. It might. I mean it really, really might. Or... it might not. Until some amazingly smart person can conjure up a way to test the reliability and validity of metaphysicians' claims in such ethereal and mysterious possible realms of existence, metaphysics isn't just dead — it was stillborn to begin with.

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