Monday 13 July 2015

The reason and function of (my) basic (metaphysical) beliefs

What is metaphysics? In order to clarify and explain, I will use an example.

Metaphysics consists of statements about the basic structure of reality- metaphysics is the statements, it is not the reality itself.

And because it is the statements, any statement may be misunderstood - furthermore any finite statement must usually be assumed to be an incomplete and therefore biased summary of the totality of reality.

(Can we really expect to capture the fundamental nature of reality in a few sentences?)

But strictly, to assert that reality is more complex than the set of statements about reality is already doing metaphysics.

Here is one of my metaphysical beliefs: Everything in the universe is alive and to some extent conscious - all differences in consciousness are difference of degree; however, these differences in aliveness and consciousness are very great.

This exhibits many of the characteristic features of metaphysics. It is obviously a statement about the fundamental nature of reality. And, as such, it is not something which can be proven or disproven by observation or investigation.

For example, a scientist could not report that he had disproven my thesis by finding something that was not alive. If he did claim this, then the response would be that everything is alive - therefore there was something wrong with his research: either his concept of 'life' is incomplete, or else his instruments are too insensitive, or he just made a mistake... but the real problem is that the metaphysical aliveness of everything is assumed - it is not a scientific hypothesis to be tested, it is not some kind of inferential conclusion  derived from multiple observations.

So, if this metaphysical assumption is in place, then all possible science is an investigation of living things - more-or-less living things, with different types of consciousness.

The typical modern mind would tend to say, at this point, that if that is so - and science cannot prove or disprove metaphysics, then metaphysics is serving no function and does not make any difference. We could say that everything is alive, or nothing is alive - science cannot test either statement - so it makes no difference which statement we choose to believe.

However, in practice this is not true. It would be true is a single metaphysical statement such as 'everything is alive' was assumed perfectly to capture the whole of reality. But because each metaphysical statement is assumed to be an incomplete and biased statement of reality, then we can, should, in practice must evaluate metaphysics in terms of systems of metaphysical assumptions.

So, on its own, a metaphysical statement seems a pointless thing - but in real life, each statement is part of a jigsaw.  

Think of the first metaphysicians - the Ancient Greeks. Some said everything stays the same and change is an illusion, some said everything changes and stasis is an illusion - Plato said some things are eternal and changeless while other things do change. When I read about this as a teenager it seems like silly quibbling over nothing.

But the meaning of these metaphysical differences was embedded in the lives of the philosophers, and their general world view. Those who said everything stayed the same were concerned that otherwise nothing would have any identity, or meaning - all identity and meaning - all possibility of knowing anything about anything - would be swept away. Those who said everything changed were concerned about different matters: they focused on the fact that in the world as we see it, there is movement, there is birth, growth, ageing, and death - and their metaphysics puts this 'common sense' reality at its heart.

So, what about 'everything is alive and conscious? What difference does that make compared with the alternatives? Well, the difference is one in the context of life in this world - and how we actually interpret and react to life versus not-alive. Somebody might argue that 'everything is alive' amounts to the same thing as 'nothing is alive' - but that would only be true if each single statement was regarded as capturing all of reality perfectly.

However, if we assume that each metaphysical statement exists in a context of other metaphysical assumptions, then 'everything alive' is recognized as very different from 'nothing alive'.

Alive carries implications of some kind of purpose, consciousness, self-causality, relationship with other living things; but not-alive carries very different and opposite implications such as passivity, being a consequence of causes, purposelessness. For instance, an alive thing can suffer, a not-alive thing cannot.

What about the alternatives to these metaphysical statements of everything versus nothing being alive? Well, other possibilities include that some things are alive - and that things are neither alive nor not alive.

Some things are alive requires that we be able to distinguish between those things that are alive, and those that are not. This used to be regarded as straightforward, but is now regarded as so problematic as to be impossible - in the past the grey area (such as viruses or prions) between alive and not alive was regarded as not-affecting the argument - nowadays the existence of a grey area is regarded as invalidating the distinction between alive and not alive -- for moderns 'grey area' = no-difference.

That is the context of modern metaphysics - one in which any imprecision, overlap, blurring, ambiguity, problem of classification, even a hypothetical or imaginable grey area in a 'thought experiment' - is taken to invalidate distinctions.

So much so, that modern biologists have all but given up talking about 'life' and have thereby destroyed the foundations of their own subject.

(Which does not trouble modern biologists so long as they keep getting jobs, promotions and grants - the vast majority of modern biologists are not scientists engaged in discovering the truth about reality; but bureaucrats attempting to survive and grow their bureaus in competition with other bureaucrats - and so modern 'biologists' are happy to 'think', say or do whatever-it-takes to sustain their careers.)

So, the actual situation concerning the question of 'what is alive' is one in which we are forced either to say everything is alive and conscious (in different degrees and ways) - which means treating everything as purposive and in-relation on a continuum of alive/consciousnes-ness  -- Or assuming nothing is alive and treating everything (including humans!) as purposeless and fundamentally isolated entities - subject to causes but themselves unable to initiate action - which is pretty much what has happened, but implicitly.

Or else, simply not to discuss aliveness - to rule-out the subject matter, stop thinking about it - make the subject unfashionable, regard such discussions as gauche, naive, childish - which is also what has happened within the subject that used to be defined as the study of alive things.  

So, metaphysics does make a difference, and does matter in practice - despite that metaphysical statements cannot be tested by observation or investigation. Metaphysics makes a difference because it 'sets the agenda' for observation and investigation; and because each metaphysical statement exists in a context, and therefore has consequences.



Leo said...

Very thoughtful piece on a subject I haven’t thought much about. I am not trained in either philosophy or metaphysics. Everything is of one piece and connected and there are continuums, yet there are dividing lines. It would help me in this discussion to define “alive.”

I offer this poem from Gerard Manly Hopkins:

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Sackerson said...

The Noosphere?

pyrrhus said...

A remarkable piece! Your point about the aliveness of the Universe echoes the beliefs of some modern astrologers, who have shown that it underlies the workings of that practice. Although despised by most academics as "unscientific", astrology has a pretty good track record.....including the role of William Lilly in the English Cvil War.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Leo - Alive can be not so much defined as exemplied - by lining up in a sequence those things that we consider most and least alive - a dog, tree, amoeba, prokaryotic bacterium, virus, prion, then on into the mineral world.

That is a truly great poem - I haven't read it for a few years. I think it is Hopkins best.

@Sackerson - I'm not sure. I haven't read TDC but I thought the Noosphere was the interconected living surface of the planet? But I think the planet itself - the rock - must be alive in its way.

@pyrrhus. I tend to think astrology must be correct in the premise that planetary and stellar bodies (etc) influence things on earth - after all the moon very obviously does. But I doubt whether this general principle can be used to make predictions using human knowledge, ability, methods - it would seem to requires supernatural assistance.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. The idea that everything is alive is also explored in great length some of the later work of the (incredible) architect and mathematician Christopher Alexander, especially in his four-volume 'The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe', especially the first and final books.

Nathaniel said...

If you will please excuse going off-topic -

How does something cross the threshold from being a derived understanding to a metaphysical view? For example: on its service, something like human equality seems like it should be derived, but it is presently treated as a metaphysical assumption in the media. Is any statement that is treated as unquestionable a metaphysical reality even when it isn't something we can know without being educated into that understanding?

I think I'm not getting it, because it seems almost anything could become a metaphysical assumption if so educated, or indoctrinated, etc.

Leo said...

Another favorite poem of mine is Hopkins' Spring and Fall to a Young Child

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Leo said...

As a student of chemistry back in the day, it was made clear to me that elementary particles, e.g. atoms, electrons, etc., obeyed both the strong demands of the laws of thermodynamics and the strange laws of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics allows a particle a certain amount of chaotic behavior. They may be to some extent inherently chaotic. The particles may be elementary, but their behavior is not easily understood by our common experience with macroscopic objects. And all of matter is made up of these maddeningly hard to pin down particles, which are both orderly and chaotic. I finally gave up trying to understand it all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel. I agree that equality operates as a metaphysical assumption in modernity - but as such, it is not part of a coherent metaphysical system, because it conflicts with other modern metaphysical assumptions - such as the relativity of all knowledge claims.

One major problem with modern metaphysics is that because it is incoherent, it is destructive - it cannot sustain a way of life, or a set of practices - it can and does only erode, subvert, destroy - because one metaphysical assumption clashes with another, and nothing can be defended or built upon anything else. That means it is objectively evil - in the sense that it has an innate tendency to destroy the good.

(Modern metaphysics does not *only* destroy good things, it also destroys evil things! But it is intrinsically evil because *all* good things are up for destruction by it - not simultaneously, but serially, or in rotation - as we see from the moving target of political correctness which uses the 'injustice' experienced by group A to damage group B, then group C to damage group B, then A to damage C - in a roundabout of destruction.

The point about metaphysics is that it is primarily a description of fundamental, basis assumptions. These underlying assumptions can be voluntarily changed by choice (as I have 'chosen' to believe that everything is alive - or chosen to go-with that innate primordial belief (instead of other contrary acquired beliefs), or involuntarily changed by experience (or propaganda) - but the focus should be on what these assumptions *actually are* in lived experience; rather than what they might theoretically be.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Leo - Quantum mechanics is 'just a theory' - however useful. It should not be regarded as the ultimate truth - or, at least, there is no reason why we should regard it as such, especially as it has changed substantially several times already. Einstein famously regarded it as a mere approximation - which would, or ought to be - superseded some time (and perhaps would have been, if another person or group with Einstein's genius had emerged); and I am happy to believe his instinct on this matter.

Leo said...


Yes, QM is just a theory, a theory "stranger than we can imagine." Yes, it troubled Einstein. Then again, modern chemistry eluded Newton. The father of Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the LDS First Presidency, was Professor Henry Eyring, a notable physical chemist. I had the honor to take quantum chemistry and statistical mechanics classes from him. He was a genius. I was not, but he was sympathetic towards me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Leo - It has to be a personal decision. Modern science *may* be a revelation- but mostly it is not!

Plenty of people seem to agree with Frijtof Capra that modern physics points at 'Taoism' or some synthesis of Eastern mystical religion. On the other hand, many or most really top theoretical physicists (like mathematicians) are Platonists (abstract theists) such as Roger Penrose (or Einstein). Freeman Dyson self-identifies as a Christian.

But the main problem - the core problem - is that the assumptions of physics (like all sciences) are non-religious - supernatural evidence/ mechanisms/ arguments are excluded - so it can never really discover evidence of God. It is a specialism, it excludes almost everything! Therefore, although it can be fitted into theories-of-everything (i.e. religions) with varying degrees of success - physics can never be used to constrain theories-of-everything.