Wednesday 14 December 2022

How do you know when your metaphysical assumptions are wrong?

 An example came to mind from the ancient Greek (pre-Socratic) philosophers; among whom there seem to have been two recognized possibilities concerning the nature of reality - which have (as is the way of things) persisted to the present day as being almost the only possibilities underlying a superficial diversity. 

The first is the assumption that: that which is real does not change. Thus reality is eternally-static, is 'outside of Time'. Truth is this reality; therefore truth does not change but is eternal. 

Therefore order is primary and fixed; and movement, time, disorder - chaos or dis-order is a kind of temporary, surface illusion - or delusion.

The other assumption is that reality is always changing, every-thing is in flux. Therefore reality is chaos, and truth can never be known because it is always changing. Nothing can ever be known, because reality is chaotic, without pattern. 

Therefore claims to know truth or to describe reality are mistaken, delusional, illusory patterns - merely a product of limited perspective over a limited timescale.

These two recognized possibilities - stasis versus dynamism, or order versus chaos - are seen to underline all the mainstream religious/ philosophical/ ideological 'options'.  

But they are not the only metaphysical possibilities - because since the 19th century at least one other has been suggested - and this is the possibility I have been describing on this blog over the past eight or nine years. 

This is that reality is divine creation; and truth is harmony with divine creation. Creation is understood as dynamic and also permanent; because creation originated with God and is continuing. 

The permanence of creation lies in the permanence of God, and of other Beings that inhabit God's creation. 

The dynamism of creation derives from its being ongoing, consisting of the eternal elements that are Beings and also continually added-to in an open-ended fashion. 

Now that there is this third possibility for metaphysics; it is easier to see why neither of the earlier options was satisfactory; because both of them required Men to violate very fundamental intuitions. 

The assumption that reality was static order required Men to believe that all change was illusory - yet, paradoxically, there could not be any source of illusion in an ordered static reality. 

On the other hand; the assumption of universal flux and no possible knowledge is self-refuting from a version of the 'Cretan Liar' paradox: if knowledge of reality is not possible then we could never know that knowledge of reality was impossible. 

So far; I have not been able to discover any such fundamental paradox in what might be termed my metaphysics of divine creation; operating in context of what might be termed an animistic universe (in which living, conscious, personal Beings are primary). 

And, since it does a good job of explaining what I feel most needs to be explained: I am sticking with it!


Note added: Furthermore; since I believe that this is the best metaphysics (of which I know); I think that Christianity should depend upon it; rather than (as has been the case since shortly after the death of Jesus) a static-changeless metaphysics that (among other things) makes it impossible to explain (without paradox or hand-waving distractions) the necessity and work of Jesus Christ, the presence of evil, and the reality of human agency.  

Fortunately! - many of the most important aspects his metaphysics was first understood, and developed by the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, and the (not very many!) metaphysical theologians in that church. So a lot of the heavy-lifting has already been done.

What remained was to integrate this with 'Romantic' philosophical ideas (including a restoration of aliveness and consciousness of all of divine creation - including 'minerals', as well as plants) - and the most useful to me here have been insights from Blake, Coleridge, Steiner, Barfield and Arkle.   


william arthurs said...

From memory: there is a chapter, or maybe an appendix, entitled "Quicunque vult", in R G Collingwood's Essay on Metaphysics (1940) in which Collingwood argues with great force that (what may appear to be pedantic) credal formulas of Christianity -- seemingly remote from the simplicity of hearing Christ's call and walking with him -- in fact encode essential metaphysical and epistemological propositions.

Whenever Collingwood is discussed I also always like to mention in passing that his solicitor, in the Lake District, was Beatrix Potter's husband William Heelis.

Off topic: last week I made a mini-pilgrimage to the Goetheanum in Dornach (world HQ of Anthroposophy). As I sipped my expensive biodynamic fruit juice and ate my potato and onion soup in the cafe, I felt immediately at home amongst all the other late-middle-aged men with neatly-trimmed goatees and ponytails, wearing woollen clothing. My "personal style", if you can call it that, is like a stopped clock, but it allowed me to blend in on this occasion. The bookshop is amazing. Shelves and shelves about beekeeping and biodynamic horticulture, including their flagship equivalent of Old Moore's Almanac, which tells you when the waning moon is in Sagittarius so you can plant your broccoli. Also shelves about medical topics, although this is a cargo-cult version of medicine. That being said, there were some recent publications containing material that was spot-on about the pic-pic and other nonsense that TPTB have been serving up to us. I just bought the guidebook, in the end.

HAJ said...

Dr. Charlton,
In this post you seem to be saying that until the last century all thinking (in the west?) fell into one of these two opposing metaphysical ideas--either pure stasis or universal flux. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) Just as a matter of history this seems false. You're right that in pre-Socratic philosophy these were the two big themes, and Greek philosophers in that time do generally seem to fall into one camp or the other. But post-Socratic philosophy doesn't seem to fit this simple picture at all.

Plato did identify ultimate reality with something unchanging and timeless, but he didn't claim that the world of change and time was simply an "illusion" or "delusion" (as you put it). He just claimed that this world of change and time was less real than the other one. It's even harder to understand how Aristotle would fit into your picture. He doesn't claim that ultimate reality is changeless or timeless, or that everything is always changing and unknowable.

These are two of the most influential thinkers of western civilization but their ideas don't seem to fit your description.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HAJ - "all thinking (in the west?) fell into one of these two opposing metaphysical ideas--either pure stasis or universal flux"

I'm not saying all 'thinking', but all metaphysical philosophical/ theological discourse fell into one of these two - in the sense of, at bottom, being reducible to one of the two.

I suppose I should also clarify that a lot of this discourse is plain incoherent, and denies that incoherence - such as (a topical example) all the preachers of oneness who strongly assert the rightness of some morality (invariable leftist!). Coherence dictates if oneness - no morality; if morality -not oneness... But they want to say both, and do.

I would say that Plato was very clearly an example of a philosopher for whom stasis was ultimate reality.

Aristotle's is a closed reality, claiming truth is eternal and unchanging - and also on the 'stasis' side (and has been used as such in Thomism - where it is integrated with the view of God as monotheistic, omnipotent, creating from nothing etc).

I would regard the role of change/ time etc in Aristotle as very much secondary and inessential to ultimate reality. I feel that Aristotle's is more practical, less metaphysical, less fundamental, more epistemological style of philosophy that Plato and the Pre-Socratics - in a sense he takes from granted an underlying changelessness of ultimate reality, and instead focuses on the issues of Men living this changeable mortal life.

This aspect of Aristotle could be regarded as another route that more 'modern' philosophers took (since the 17th century) - whereby they ditched metaphysics, and ended up being at first servants of science, then (because this was self refuting) either agnostic (= atheist) expositers of platitudes (i.e. pure logicians) or else went down the path of pure relativism by using philosophical 'tools' against philosophy - to demonstrate that nothing was coherent ("continental philosophy" - the school from Nietzsche - or at least an aspect of Nietzsche).

Recent philosophy (the high status stuff) either ignores or rejects metaphysics - so that its metaphysical basis is implicit, and must be inferred.

But I think it would be seen to fall into one of the two categories, if one could bother to make the effort - when the philosophy itself is typically so trivial or wrongly-motivated that it seems a waste of anybody's time to bother with it!.

Bruce Charlton said...

@william a - I have a prejudice against Dornach! I think it was a mistake that Steiner tried to crystallize his ideas in an institution, and this was exacerbated by making a headquarters. Also, I overall dislike the architecture, and - in general - style of Steiner related 'things'.

I hadn't realized that the goatee was a part of it! Perhaps, as a wearer, you might consider a post I wrote from a few years ago?

Unchained metaphysician said...

If you believe, that there is no truth, you're in a bad situation, since this must be truth statement itself

Bruce Charlton said...

@Um - Indeed. But then every person I have ever come across who professes to believe there is no truth - also makes statements he expects to be regarded as true.

If somebody really did believe that there was no truth, he would say nothing.

william arthurs said...

If it is any consolation, Dr C, I'm not sure the Goetheanum has much of a lifespan ahead of it -- the concrete is decaying because surface erosion has permitted water ingress, and patching it up beyond the relatively small areas that they have tackled already will cost a huge amount -- for an organisation that is currently running at a loss.

These fellows in the cafe. You could tell they were old money -- their woollen garments were seasoned with age and would have been expensive when new. Steinerism as it now exists is a social elite thing -- for example, the educational deficiencies of a Steiner education may just not matter to these folks, or are soluble through expensive private tutoring. But I don't believe there is a mega-donor to bail out the whole operation.

"Never trust a man with a beard" always used to be generally good advice. In the past it's saved me money and also avoided other problems. But is it still good advice? Being descended from a long line of sailors, nearly all of whom sported the full set, I wouldn't ever apply this to my own family -- for them, as for me, it's simply a low-maintenance option which provides some warmth at times. And I don't think I myself am signalling "Trust no-one, not even me." I am instead signalling "Please give up your seat on public transport for me, I have a white beard -- and am therefore old."

The goatees you discussed are now just a tiny part of the broader context of male grooming and personal style -- AN ARMS RACE of shower gels, conditioners, cures for baldness, and so on, all of which suck up time and resources and I would therefore classify them as Distractors.