Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Why Metaphysics?

Posted in: Philosophy

Aristotle said that all men desire to know. We regularly ask questions about the world around us. These questions include questions about emotions, human nature, knowledge, ethics, politics, religion, history, and free will, just to name a few. It is clear then, that we find value in the sheer gaining of knowledge. We understand that knowledge is valuable for it’s own sake and for the sake of achieving some other end.

In our search for knowledge we are confronted with problems, puzzles, and difficulties. When confronted, we often ask ourselves questions that help us solve these problems. For example, when confronted with the question of the ethical status of abortion, we often step back and ask fundamental questions that are related to the topic at hand. We may evaluate whether or not there are such things as objective morals. We may look at whether or not persons have intrinsic value. We may also look at whether or not the person in question is a human being. Ultimately, however, all of these questions rely on our metaphysical position.

For example, how you answer the question of the objectivity of morals is largely dependant on your metaphysical assumptions about the status of transcendentals. The question of whether or not a fetus is a human being is entirely a metaphysical question. In fact, it is the pivotal question when discussing the issue of abortion. If metaphysics is fundamental to answering one of the most important ethical questions of our day, then those who say that metaphysics is the pretentious pursuit of impractical philosophical knowledge are clearly mistaken. Metaphysics is profoundly practical.

Metaphysics is also necessary as a proper support for the sciences. All people, including scientists, have some notion of what it is to be real. These ideas carry over into all fields of study. A psychologist may conclude that people should be treated as objects because he has a metaphysical commitment to some form of materialism. The psychologist, knowingly or unknowingly has worked out his metaphysics into his psychology.

The physicist may conclude that subatomic particles "pop" out of existence and then "pop" back into existence. This conclusion is often arrived at without the physicist realizing that he has just entered the realm of metaphysics. When the particle ceases to exist and comes back into existence in another place, the metaphysician immediately asks about the identity of that particle: a question physicists may not be inclined to ask. However, the question of the identity of the particle is certainly an important one for the theoretical physicist.

Another benefit of metaphysics is that it brings unity to the sciences. All sciences study real things. Biology studies plants and animals. Sociology attempts to study social tendencies. Epistemology studies knowledge. Only metaphysics studies the real, which is common to all sciences. A proper understanding of the real offers a context in which to make accurate scientific inferences.

Finally, the study of metaphysics helps to unify our own person. Most people go through life with a fragmented self. They are unable to connect ideas from different areas of their life. Their work is unrelated to their religion. Science and ethics are in mutually exclusive categories. Politics is something that politicians should concern themselves about, but we should be concerned with putting food on the table. Metaphysics helps us begin to put together the pieces and gives us a framework from which we may order our knowledge.

7 Comments:

Blogger Skeptical Dualist said...

Matthew Graham,

I totally agree with you here.

In fact it is the *metaphysical* quest for understanding the foundations of reality that makes intelligible any attempt to understand the properties and/or forces of reality themselves (whether they be spiritual or natureal ones).

Science is more than blind without any accompanying metaphysic...it is meaningless (in my opinion anyway)?

At any rate, check my latest post at Dualistic Dissension here:

http://dualisticdissension.blogspot.com/2005/07/heart-of-materialist-mindset.html

All the Best

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Brian Sumner said...

Excellent post overall, but I think it overstates the position in a few places, weakening a quality argument for the value of metaphysics.

"The question of whether or not a fetus is a human being is entirely a metaphysical question." This is really untrue. If I give a scientist five fetuses from different species and ask "Which of these is a human being", he will set about counting the chromosomes. There are a multitude purely physical characteristics that identify an object as a human being, whatever stage it may be in. The reason that this is viewed as a metaphysical question has to do with the philosophy surrounding abortion. In general, people believe that human life has value that should be preserved. To make abortion, a core issue in gender feminism, philosophically palatable it is necessary to attack either the fetuses status as a human being or the innate value of human life. The feeling that human life is valuable is deep seated, argueably primal; whereas the identification of a fetus as human, although clear from a biological perspective, is knowledge we acquire via the life sciences. We have no viceral attachment to the idea of fetus as human, therefore it is easier to attack, despite the fact that it sits on solid scientific grounds. In advancing the cause of gender feminism it was expedient to follow the path of least resistence, thus today we consider the humanity of a fetus in question. To see how invalid this viewpoint is, try destroying a condor egg and arguing you should not be imprisoned be cause it wasn't a "condor being" and therefore not covered by the protection of endangred species laws. You will quickly end up in jail.

"When the particle ceases to exist and comes back into existence in another place, the metaphysician immediately asks about the identity of that particle: a question physicists may not be inclined to ask. However, the question of the identity of the particle is certainly an important one for the theoretical physicist." The question is not asked by the physicist because it is the question of the particl's identity is irrelevant. All subatomic particles of a specific type are by definition exactly equivilent. There are so few degrees of freedom for particle that the particles type perfectly defines each degree of freedom. Thus, any two particles are identicle by any logical or metaphysical criteria. The only meaningful ways in which two particles can differ is location, which is arguably also irrelevant.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Matthew Graham said...

Thanks for your comments guys.

Brian, your point about the status of a fetus being overstated... point taken. The question of what a human being essentially is, is a metaphysical question, but whether or not a particular being is a human being takes into consideration a beings biology.

I would disagree with your notion that the question of a particles identity is irrelevant. You said, "All subatomic particles of a specific type are by definition exactly equivilent." I am not sure how this supports your above claim. Surely you wouldn't claim that there is only one of each kind of subatomic particle in the universe?

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Brian Sumner said...

Matt, in rereading my response, the point on the fetus is embarrasingly overstated :-) As to the question of what I human being is, reading your response, it seems my problem is mostly semantic. "What is a human being?" can be taken to ask "What are the characteristics that equalify an object as being human" which I would maintain are largely physical, which is the sense I took it in. Alternately it can mean "What is the characteristic that human animals percieve themselves to have that sets them apart from other animals" traditionally regarded as a soul. In that sense, I appreciate your point that it is a metaphysical question.

The argument for my comment about the of identity of particles is summed up here
A counter arguement is also presented, but I'm inclined to side with Teller. As it relates to my comment on your post, it was essentially that if we believe the interpretation of results from quantum physics that particles are indescernible, asking about the identity of two particles becomes an unproductive point from both a physical and metaphysical perspective.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Brian Sumner said...

Matt, in rereading my response, the point on the fetus is embarrasingly overstated :-) As to the question of what I human being is, reading your response, it seems my problem is mostly semantic. "What is a human being?" can be taken to ask "What are the characteristics that equalify an object as being human" which I would maintain are largely physical, which is the sense I took it in. Alternately it can mean "What is the characteristic that human animals percieve themselves to have that sets them apart from other animals" traditionally regarded as a soul. In that sense, I appreciate your point that it is a metaphysical question.

The argument for my comment about the of identity of particles is summed up here
A counter arguement is also presented, but I'm inclined to side with Teller. As it relates to my comment on your post, it was essentially that if we believe the interpretation of results from quantum physics that particles are indescernible, asking about the identity of two particles becomes an unproductive point from both a physical and metaphysical perspective.

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Brian Sumner said...

Apologies for the dupe, my internet screwed up while I was publishing the comment.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Sal Monella said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:28 AM  

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