Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Metaphysics and philosophical terminology

I do my best to use philosophical terms in their canonical sense, i.e. the sense that the preponderance of writers in the generally accepted philosophical canon (and the professors of philosophy who establish that canon) use them. Thus I'll use epistemology to talk about knowledge, ontology to talk about existence, and so forth.

Keep in mind too that I'm an amateur without formal education. I haven't had the four to eight years of indoctrination education by a coherent philosophical faculty that an ordinary person receives to obtain a legitimate BA, MA or Ph.D. in philosophy. I just don't have the time to drop everything for eight years to get a formal education; should I therefore not think deeply about ideas and the world? I do the best I can with what I have.

Some terms seem tremendously abused in the philosophical canon. There really is no consensus on what they mean, at least not one I can determine from my own reading. Far and away, the most abused term is "metaphysics". As best I understand, the term was coined to refer to literally the book Aristotle wrote after his book, Physics. It's been defined as ontology and theology; New Age woo-woos try to define it as an antonym to materialism; The Logical Positivists tried to define metaphysics as sheer nonsense.

I basically believe reductive materialism: nothing exists but fundamental physical entities and their interactions. I do not believe there is any sort of "metaphysical" reality above, beyond and/or separate from physical reality, and we can obtain knowledge of physical reality only by appeal to the evidence of our senses.

Still, I think the term is too useful to simply abandon; it's an enormously useful term to apply to statements, propositions and beliefs. Our description of reality is not the reality we're describing. "The map is not the territory." To describe some statements as metaphysical does not entail that one is describing the content of those statements as metaphysical.

To be more specific, a metaphysical statement is a statement with content that we do not evaluate according to a formal, symbolic method or process. By this definition, statements that define a basic formal, symbolic process for evaluating statements are therefore metaphysical, because how are we to evaluate such a definition? To evaluate a formal symbolic process, we would have to define another formal, symbolic process to to perform the evaluation, making the original definition not basic.

But this characterization is not a characterization of how reality works at a basic level, it's a characterization of how human intelligence works. And human intelligence, existing as it does as an emergent, abstract property of an organ with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, the outcome of 500 million years of evolution, cannot be called "basic" in any profound sense.

When I talk about the metaphysical definition of science, I definitely do not mean that there's this actual thing we call "science" that exists on some non-material, metaphysical plane. I mean "metaphysical" in the statement-oriented sense. The definition of science is the definition of a formal, symbolic process to acquire knowledge; it is a definition of what the word "knowledge" means: statements justified according to a specific process.

5 comments:

  1. The ontology, this is metaphysical existence of stuff. Even it is so before u make physical, like with the Holy Qu'ran, before layat-al qadr- and Allah sent down the Holy Qu'ran to the rasul- do u think there was no Holy Qu'ran? This is what we are meaning then by ontology, cos if there was no Holy Qu'ran before the rasaul received it- then there was no word of Allah also- this is impossible- so? So things exist and u can't see them- it must be so, must be u can say. And it's not only Holy Qu'ran (cos i am a apostate), but the general idea is true for books as such, it must be. Not only me believes such stuff, i watched a interview with director David Lynch (Twin Peaks etc)- he told the same, it's a key question then- do u make art, or 'discover' it. Must be the last one - of course, we know this cos we can use the Holy Qu'ran as the reference and precedent.
    Now I have a intuitive understanding that this is true and so i kindly submit me question. Is it actually true?Another, maybe it's not very intelligent me question as such, so please ignore if u think it's not good.
    Ok then, what about me books and stuff? I mean, do i write a book, or did it have the ontology before i wrote it, that is to say it had a metephysical existence?
    Why am i telling about a book and not a chair or a table, can a carpenter not feel the same? I dunno, cos i am not a carpenter, but as a *compulsive* writer i have a deep sense that i write me stuff according to a prescribed unseen plan, that this is not how i wrote it- but it was how it had to be wrote. And thusly, i always feel i am following a design, this is hidden, no one knows where also, like it's somewhere; Holy Qu'ran and all ideas and all books emmanate from this place also maybe. Now me, i just access that design and the ontology and write me book- but it has independence of existence u can say. Now when i am editing me work- i can remember each and every word from countless thousands and i say to meself,"Yes, it HAS to be like that according to the metaphysical pre writing existence of me book, there's no other way it could be actually."
    So is this true or no, does me books and stories exist (the ontology) before i write them or not? This is what i want to know.
    Ok, bye bye then, Jasmine
    ** Me culture has got clear ideas on this- it's telling it exists as a formation or outline, this is sure***

    ReplyDelete
  2. As best I understand, the term was coined to refer to literally the book Aristotle wrote after his book, Physics. As I understood it, some guy compiling Aristotles works thought that the 'metaphysics' should be studied after the physics. Hence meta (after) physics. Aristotle didn't use the term. He just thought it was ontology or being if I remember correctly.

    If you think every basically reduces down to mater and interactions then your metaphysic is naturalism. Science relies on methodological naturalism, it doesn't require that there not be metaphysical stuff out there, it just can't deal with anything metaphysical, it's method works with the natural (material). If you believe that science is on the money, and say that's all there is, then you've gone from methodological to metaphysical naturalism. A perfectly good metaphysic to hold.

    If any of that made sense it's because, as you've stated, the term metaphysic is so abused as to be near useless.

    ReplyDelete
  3. If any of that made sense it's because, as you've stated, the term metaphysic is so abused as to be near useless.

    Heh. Indeed. '-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Here's food for thought:

    MetaPhysics = Metaphor for Physical
    Metaphor = of, beyond, above, about

    It's a small world after all. ;)

    Mark
    Aurora, CO

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.