What’s so meta- about metaphysics? (Further Fundamentals)

Picking up where we left off

IX. Consequences of entities are indistinguishable from consequences of sets of propositions.

Entities are generally thought to be different from propositions. Propositions are mere words — puffs of air, pixels organized alphabet-wise — which refer, in turn, to “ideas” or “beliefs” which are even less substantial. But both propositions and entities can have real consequences. (To be more precise: both the existence of an entity and the truth of a set of propositions can lead someone to draw inferences about the course of future events. When hindsight reaffirms his predictions, he will generally take it as proof of his good judgment.) Any type of event which is a consequence of an entity’s existence could also, in principle, be a consequence of a set of propositions, and vice-versa. Moreover, for any particular entity-consequence relationship it is always possible to rearrange the relationship in the form of a set of propositions that makes no reference to the existence of the entity.

(Corollary to IX: As a species of error, a metaphysical illusion amounts to nothing more than an incongruous set of proposition.)

It follows from -IX- that when two groups have an irresolvable disagreement about the world, metaphysical principles about what sorts of entities are possible are never at the root of the dispute. Beliefs about effects of “spooky” entities are no different from beliefs about consequences of sets of propositions, grouped/labelled/reified, so the accusation that one’s opponent accepts the existence of non-existent entities does not in itself identify an error he has made or explain the crux of the disagreement. Whatever error there is in his position, it would be equally evident if his position were framed relative to entities whose existence you not only deny, but deny a priori, or relative to propositions which you reject.

X. To fail to notice or anticipate a distinction does not efface the distinction.

When I say that a certain object is an X, not a Y, but I can’t point to the practical difference it makes whether the object is X or Y, the distinction is not for that reason metaphysical, “spooky”, or meaningless. Perhaps I can’t even come up with an example of an existing object which is a Y, rather than an X. Perhaps I can’t even explain the meaning of the definition of Y to you. Conceivably both the existence of some Y and the meaning of the definition of Y are beyond our individual cognitive powers (mine and yours both), so we could never find a tangible example of a Y or an intelligible (to us) definition of Y, no matter how hard we tried. Nonetheless, a distinction will endure in the face of our ignorance of it, and if the distinction has material consequences its effect on us will not be less because of our blindness.

XI. The measure of incoherence is not inaccuracy, but pointlessness.

Pointlessly convoluted theories are often described as having “epicycles” — particularly when the convolutions are added in an attempt to squeeze new, and unanticipated, data into an old theoretical framework. But the problem with epicycles as a feature of Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmology wasn’t that they were wrong. Many excellent theories have failed to obtain anything close to the arbitrarily-good fit to the data which epicycles allowed. But a good theory should generate insights and techniques which go beyond the narrow question of prediction/observation fit in one narrow domain of investigation.

XII. Equivalences determine principles, but are not equivalent to principles.

”Values” start out as equivalences. “Equivalent” means of equal worth. If I assert that two things are equivalent, I imply there is some context in which the one is as good as the other. What things we are willing to admit as equivalents ends up determining our principles and our objectives, what we find fascinating or irrelevant, and even what we judge plausible or implausible, true or false. In realizing that equivalences have this effect, the word we use to describe the equivalences in light of their effect (first “values” or “valuations”; later “evaluations”, “worldviews”, “interpretations,” and many others) undergo a traumatic metamorphosis under the heated pressure of social scrutiny. Once it is understood that men who use different systems of equivalences in weighing different objects and situations are often led by these equivalences towards different conclusions about moral, political, and metaphysical principles, people begin to treat the equivalences as though they were simply a different way of stating the principles they cause their adherents to accept. A certain label (initially, “value”) continues to designate the equivalence-proposition even as people begin to treat it as a statement of moral principle, which changes the received meaning of “value” to the point that people look for a new word to denote equivalence-propositions (e.g. “interpretation”), which immediately begins to suffer the same fate.

XIII. Belief is path-dependent because trust is.

Everyone holds grudges. Grudges bias perception. Even in unusually clear-eyed cases, people use inference/loyalty heuristics which are based on their past history with others. Personal record, reputation, status, these all matter. To unwisely forgive is not only dangerous, but invites contempt. But who we trust determines who we hear good and bad things about… which determines who we trust in the future. Meanwhile, each advisor/informant has his how history and his own rivals whom he distrusts, and his own colleagues he relies on. To be accused of bias does not mean you must deny the bias or that you must turn back time to undo the bias. Rather, you must be aware of the structure of authority and faith so that you are equally understand how your faith in men can get out of sync with what they deserve, and how to adapt when you recognize a misalignment.

XV. A tempered skepticism should not amount to perpetual indecision.

There are no general considerations about the nature of knowledge or reality which should bias us towards tardy or faint-hearted decisions. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. If you hesitate before stepping out onto a busy street, that is because it is far better to stay on the curb if the alternative is getting hit by a car. Any general account of the epistemological uncertainty involved in crossing a street at a walk signal, amid a crowd of pedestrians, while all the cars are stopped at a red light must draw a distinction between the metaphorical “uncertainty” of this second situation and the literal uncertainties involved in the first situation.

More generally: in any domain where there are incompatibilities between the beliefs of the various participants in the domain, a skeptic must be able to distinguish between having reasons to be uncertain whether X or ~X, and being uncertain whether one’s reasons (whether they entail X, ~X, or uncertainty) are better than the reasons which have led another to a different conclusion. Imagine different groups of survivors setting forth in life boats from a sinking ship: some of the life rafts may believe the nearest land is to the north and head that way, while others head west, but having chosen one or the other it is critical that each group of survivors pursue its path steadfastly. The survivors express their uncertainty, not by zigzagging back and forth and making no headway, but by hoping that if they perish, their “rivals” at least will find dry land.

XVI. Self-deception is the prelude to self-overcoming.

Self-deception is the psyche’s way of purging elements that it no longer wants — or at least getting them to go along with what could turn into preparations for a possible purge. People are accustomed to thinking of self-deception as a special case of deception in general, with the special goal of hiding all signs of mendacity. Perhaps this is sometimes the case; but the most common problem that thinking organisms face is inconsistent bundles of judgments and/or desires, which lead to irrational behavior in all its glorious self-destructiveness. But you cannot simply decide to get rid of ill-fitting judgments and desires, anymore than you can simply decide not to want what you want, or not to believe what you believe. If the psychic element is independent enough to resist dismissal, it is strong enough to avoid an environment which will remold it, as well. Thus the need for secrecy and misdirection in psychic life.

(The same applies to groups as well, in a straightforward manner.)



10 thoughts on “What’s so meta- about metaphysics? (Further Fundamentals)

  1. “X. To fail to notice or anticipate a distinction does not efface the distinction.”

    This is good. This get’s to the heart of one of the mistakes of Logical Positivism.

    Thomas Nagel made the same point in the View from Nowhere and the Last Word.

    Assuming realism, it is both logically and physically possible that X exists, but it is also possible to not only have no evidence that X exists but that the possibility of ever having evidence of X is impossible. However, this lack of evidence does not mean that talk of X is either incoherent or meaningless or even pointless.

    The conclusion is that the necessary conditions for meaningful discourse is easier to meet that the necessary conditions for knowledge.

    Nevertheless, this conclusion does not negate the utility of something like a reformed verification principle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right. I find the topic easiest to think about in actual cases where I took two stabs at understanding something (usually involving either formalisms of some sort or a “cultural context”, but sometimes just requiring broader personal experience of the world), separated by a long gap of time, and wherein I was seized by a strong impression of gibberish even charlatanism the first time, but then everything made perfect sense the second time. Then the question becomes: (a) what should I have done, recognizing that the distinctions in question might be opaque (to me, at least) without being unintelligible? (b) What could the authors have done differently to handle their stiff-necked readers better?

      I tend to think Nagel is kinda-sorta spitballing in his more abstruse speculations, and I’m not committed to the kind of metaphysical realism you’re talking about (although it is certainly important to note that realism *does* entail the possible existence of necessary unknowns, since naive realists often take themselves to be ruling out such entities), but the general principle that you can have meaningful discourse about the unknown is important because we human beings are often in the position of discussing topics without knowing whether they are knowable or not!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You might find this funny, but I was “trained” by a Catholic philosopher who was big into St Thomas and Bernard Lonergan. He claimed that Lonergan supplied the infamous “known unknowns” for “Rummy” because Rummy was trained by a Catholic philosopher (I don’t know if this is true.)

        So, we have:

        1: A Known known.
        2: A known unknown.
        3: Unknown unknowns.

        The positivist seems to deny 3, but a metaphysical realist will affirm 3.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hmmm you know, I recall reading something about the intellectual origin of Rumsfeld’s 2×2 schema (don’t forget the unknown knowns!), or at least some writer who came extremely close, but it wasn’t Lonergan.

        I take Rummy’s mot to be about epistemology and inference/prediction rather than about ontology. An ontological misconception could certainly create an unknown unknown, but the 2×2 table is more or less a direct implication of decision theory, no matter what other philosophical positions you endorse.

        (So for example a positivist might deny any ontological status to the proverbial teacup orbiting Jupiter, but he would at least need to admit a category of “catastrophes that could occur on a mission to Jupiter which haven’t occurred to me yet”.)


      3. It can, I suppose, but if you take “unknown” to refer to an entity rather than a proposition you are in an obscure muddle. In my earlier comment I was using it as a shorthand so you knew the referent already, but in a general case: is it the *existence* of the entity that is known, its *type*, the existence of (some) entities of that type, or the form (or essence, definition, whatever you prefer) of the type? This is before getting into modality or any other further complications.

        So I think that when Rumsfeld says “There are unknown unknowns” you have to take him to be referring to a classification of the proposition-space (there are some facts which are we don’t know, and we don’t know that we don’t know them) rather than making a claim about the existence of entities à la “There are bears”. — Can’t say whether this is an important or irrelevant distinction in this context, though!


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