Stumbling Around and Mumbling about Metaphysics

By | March 10, 2010

…metaphysics is that division of philosophy that deals with first principles and seeks to explain the nature of being or reality (ontology), and deals with the origin and structure of the world (cosmology). It is closely related to the study of epistemology.

From Webster’s definition of “metaphysics”

Metaphysics has also often been called “speculative philosophy.”

Question: If one attempts to clarify and explain the nature of human existence, is one doing a type of metaphysics?

The same question can be posed concerning attempts to explain what we mean by the self and mind.

Questions and issues such as those concerning “language and the world,” “science and truth,” and “religious culture and truth” may also be part of a contemporary effort in metaphysics. But this would have to be clarified.

Let’s try a working “definition” of metaphysics: for much of modern, critical philosophy: it is an attempt to sort out and clarify concepts like ‘reality,’ ’existence,’ ‘truth,’ ‘matter,’ ‘mind,’ ‘subject,’ ‘object,’ ‘cause-effect.’ It is a project in conceptual analysis and explication.

Traditionally, metaphysics has been the attempt to explain the nature of reality, or to give a comprehensive picture of reality; or to show all that is presupposed by our language and concepts regarding the world, or to disclose the reality that underlies appearances or the phenomenal world.

Of course, today, many hold that constructive, speculative metaphysical systems are rendered obsolete by the work of the sciences, both natural and social. (Of course!)

For a good, philosophical treatment of the subject see Bruce Aune, Metaphysics, The Elements.


Questions and thoughts after reading Reuben Hersh’s book
What is Mathematics, Really?

Does mathematics discover truths about a super-sensible realm (Platonism) or is mathematics just a very complex, logical game (Formalism)?

Reuben Hersh points out that work in well-established regions of mathematics is much like discovering new ‘facts’; whereas innovative work that results in new theorems and new insights is akin to creative work (inventions?).

Suppose we think of math as a structure. What kind of structure is it? Is it analogous to the Himalayas and the Grand Canyon? Alternatively, is it analogous to the skyscrapers of New York City?

Mathematics is in part a structure (an object?) and in part a process. The term “object” connotes some stability and endurance.

Hersh’s discussion of the difference between object (a ‘continuant’) and process is relevant to any attempt to analyze (describe) reality. (A song and a symphony can each be understood as an “object” and, alternatively, as a process.)

On some interpretations, modern physics implies that all physical-material reality can be described as processes, that there are no such things as static objects. (..unless we allow mathematical objects).

Time is an important factor: Over a relatively short time a person may seem to be an object. (It seems correct to say that persons are entities enjoying an objective, real existence.) But over longer periods of time a person’s existence is more of a process: infant, child, youth, adult, middle aged, and oldster. (“time-worms”?)

Intuitively we take a body as an object, but more accurately it is a body-in-process.

Mathematics and religion (theology) contribute to our habit of seeing ultimate reality as a grand object, deity as an absolute, transcendent object. We then tend to overlook aspect of reality which is process.

[“Human existence is a process in which objects come and go.”]

Our reality features processes, events, happenings and constantly changing scenes.
In some cases, we see a progression, a movement towards a goal. Time plays a crucial role.

Quantum physics tells us that at the sub-atomic level the distinction between process and object-hood disappears. And at the atomic level, things (atoms) seem ambiguous between process and object-hood.

Language and thought reify the world:
Can we say that most things that we recognize as (categorize as) objects are really objects-in-process? (Didn’t Immanuel Kant teach us that categorization precedes recognition?) For example, language categorizes things (cup, house, tree, dog) as objects having relative stability and endurance. But over a relatively longer period of time, they are more clearly processes. Time is an important factor.

We think of the human brain itself (the human nervous system) as an entity, but surely the brain (nervous system) is an organ (organism?) in process.

It is our thinking and our language that categorize the world into entities and relatively static objects. In actual reality most likely nothing is static. (No physical entity is ultimately static!)

Maybe processes-events, rather than objects, should be seen as the “constituents” of the world.
(Was this Whitehead’s metaphysical philosophy? Did Bertrand Russell also view reality this way, in one of his many philosophical phases?)

The natural universe is a vast, magnificent process. Within it, an individual life is just a very brief interlude.
(With apologies to Shakespeare: An individual life, a poor player who stumbles on stage and mumbles a few lines, a few insignificant lines, and then is extinguished.)

Is reality an interplay between limited stability and endurance, on the one hand, and process (dynamism, change), on the other?

By means of abstraction (language, concepts, mathematics) we impose the illusion of stability on a fluid reality.

The illusion of stability (and objectivity?) ignores the crucial role that time plays. [Did Plato have an aversion to time and change?]

“You cannot step into the same river twice.” (Heraclitus?) On subsequent entries, both the river and you have changed. In a strict sense of “same” the river is no longer the same and the subject is no longer the same. Endurance, stability, object-hood are relative concepts. Are they ultimately illusions?

How much stability and endurance are required to apply the term “same thing”?

Our sense faculties, our brain, and our language categorize aspects of our experience into objects (things that have stability and stand apart from our experience. (e.g. the cup and pencil on my desk, my very desk itself).

Over a relatively short period of time, one may correctly (in a practical sense) refer to such things as “objects,” having some stability and endurance. But over longer periods of time, it is more correct, more accurate, to refer to these ‘things’ as mere phases of a long process. (A some point in time, they were manufactured out of other material; for a time they have endured as familiar objects: pencil, cup, desk. But later they will break down, deteriorate, decompose, and the material composing them will become parts of other processes.)

By extension, the same can be said about our entire world (the world that we experience) and the same can be said about ourselves (humanity).
[Related notions here: entropy, slippage, “the wearing-down effect of time”]

Absolutely objective, stable, enduring existence is reserved for God, Platonic realms and mathematical ‘objects’. Here we have the “timeless” realm of theologians, Plato and Platonic mathematicians and certain metaphysicians. [Mathematical ‘objects’ are better described as “tense-less.”]

Physicists tell us that entropy is a diminishing of heat-energy-organization.

There are temporary suspensions of entropy (a temporary hold on “slippage”):
There is a modicum of stability within a context of persistent change.
There is enough stability for culture and language to take hold.
Our biological nature (nervous system), our culture and language build a working world, but underlying this is a reality of evolution, unceasing process and change.

Some writers (e.g. Bruce Aune, Metaphysics, The Elements ) divide up the subject of metaphysics as follows:

a) Ontology – analysis of the general category of ‘being.’ Associated concepts are those of ‘reality,’ ‘existence.’ This is an attempt to say what the general nature of reality is. Sometimes it will also involve the distinction between concrete and abstract reality, and that between appearance and reality.

b) Special metaphysical issues such as those of determinism and freedom; material and mental existence; nature of personal identity; God and spiritual realms; reality and appearance.

Metaphysical philosophy cannot be advanced independently attention to epistemological issues. But many enthusiasts of metaphysics and mystery forget this.

Let me recommend a scientific metaphysics: reality is substantially what the sciences say it is.

Reality is what is disclosed by the natural sciences, historical sciences, empirical investigation and rational inquiry.

Of course, there are dissenters. Some serious and philosophically interesting; some starry-eyed, undisciplined and given to rhapsody. The world, whether object or process, is large enough for all of us.

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