Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What is metaphysics?

To: Wendy B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is Metaphysics?
Date: 18 December 2003 13:37

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your essay, which I received on 8th December in response to Question 1 of the Metaphysics program units 1-3, 'What is metaphysics? Is there anything special about the methods of metaphysics, or about its subject matter? Illustrate your answer with one example of a metaphysical problem or controversy.'

Your essay raises some basic questions about the nature of metaphysics and the point in studying it.

First, let's get clear about the point of the reality principle. It is not, as you seem to suggest, a principle governing the way we investigate this or that claim. Yes, we should always consider the objective evidence, as best we can. Sometimes, this does involve a consensus of opinions. Consider, for example, trial by jury. Or a commons committee. In fact, we have to ask *who* is 'considering the objective evidence'. Evidence has to be weighed and interpreted.

The reality principle is meant to work at a more fundamental level. Whatever your metaphysical theory about the nature of reality, it must have the consequence that judgements can be false. You might think it is just obvious that judgements can be false. Consider, however, naive idealism which says that the only thing that exists is my present experience. The reality principle says that naive idealism is false, because it rules out the possibility that I can ever make a false judgement. - It will be a question to consider later on in the program just how 'idealist' or 'anti-realist' you can be without violating the reality principle.

You ask, 'How do I know that which is beyond my experience? by intuition? Here is a simple, mundane example. I know, not from experience but by mathematical calculation that if I attempt to store any more computer files on this floppy disc I will get a 'disc full' message. I would know this by experience if I didn't bother to calculate, but just tried anyway.

Mathematics is one example of a branch of human knowledge which does not rely on observations of the world around us. Hume's famous challenge to metaphysics (Essay Question 2) is whether the philosopher is able through reasoning alone to discover truths about reality, or whether philosophy is merely an activity of logical analysis. On the first view, the philosopher is able to discover 'metaphysical truths', while on the second view, the philosopher merely helps us clarify our concepts.

I won't say much here about idealism and anti-realism as you will encounter these issues soon enough. The thought that the world is merely 'a figment of my imagination' is the thought that leads to the theory I termed 'naive idealism' above.

Good question about 'where Arthur Conan Doyle is now'. We have to distinguish between the empirical or mundane question of *how we know* that Conan Doyle really existed, which can be investigated by looking at historical records etc. and the metaphysical question of how we are to *understand* statements about objects which 'no longer exist'. This broadens out into the question of the nature of time itself, and the reality of the past. You can be a 'realist' or an 'anti-realist' about the past, and this will have consequences for your view of what it means to say that 'there was' an author called Arthur Conan Doyle.

A more general question can be raised about what we mean by the term 'exists'. Is 'exists' a property which you and I have and Arthur Conan Doyle once had but now lacks? If so, does that mean that there is an entity which you and I refer to as 'Arthur Conan Doyle' which has certain properties (is an author, is British, is the son of Mr and Mrs Doyle (or Mr and Mrs Conan Doyle?)) but lacks the property of existence? That makes it sound as if when we die and 'go out of existence' we are replaced by a shadowy entity which people refer to when they talk about us.

This isn't anything to do with belief in souls. Exactly the same point could be made about my Lancia Thema which was sent to the scrap yard after a drunk motorist pursued by the police crashed into the back of it at three o'clock in the morning. When I now refer to 'my Lancia', am I referring to? Whatever the answer you give to that question will be the same answer that you give to the question about Arthur Conan Doyle.

All the best,

Geoffrey