Monday, July 26, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 1

Preliminaries. What on earth is all this nonsense that goes under the name “metaphysics”? Rand defined metaphysics as “the study of existence as such or, in Aristotle’s words, of ‘being qua being.’” Well, that sure narrows it down! More insightful is George Santayana’s take on the subject:

Metaphysics, in the proper sense of the word, is dialectical physics, or an attempt to determine matters of fact by means of logical or moral or rhetorical constructions. It arises by a confusion of those Realms of Being which it is my special care to distinguish. It is neither physical speculation nor pure logic nor honest literature, but (as in the treatise of Aristotle first called by that name) a hybrid of the three, materialising ideal entities, turning harmonies into forces, and dissolving natural things into terms of discourse. Speculations about the natural world, such as those of the Ionian philosophers, are not metaphysics, but simply cosmology or natural philosophy. [Scepticism and Animal Faith, vii]


I have tended to follow Santayana’s usage of the word, regarding metaphysics as, in the main, empirically irresponsible speculation. Even when used to defend postulates that are basically sound, metaphysics remains, in the words of F. H. Bradley, “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.”



There is, however, one other usage of the word that should be noted. Karl Popper applied the word metaphysics to any claims or conjectures that are not empirically testable. Popper’s usage, while entirely blameless, is not one I normally honor.

Now following Santayana’s usage, I inevitably open myself up to complaints, often introduced in an angry tone, that, I too, have a metaphysics; that indeed, “having a metaphysics” is inevitable, since everyone has a “basic view of the world,” that is to say, a “metaphysics.” However, following Santayana, I don’t choose to call my so-called “basic view” of the universe metaphysical. It is merely, as Santayana calls it, cosmology or natural philosophy. And I entirely reject any attempt to determine matters of fact by means of logical or moral or rhetorical constructions. Such devices, I hold, cannot lead to truth, but only encourage rationalization and empty speculation.

What, then, is my “basic view of the universe”? In the broad essentials, it is not so different from Rand’s. It involves the fundamental assumptions involved in living. I presuppose, for instance, the existence of time, including a past that is gone and a future that is to come; the existence of a physical universe made up of gross objects in space; and the existence of consciousness, which perceives existence through the veil of ideas. Unlike Rand, I don’t believe these basic presuppositions can be defended or validated via axioms or logical argumentation. All these fundamental presuppositions may conceivably be illusory—that is to say, the arguments against them cannot be decisively refuted. They are presuppositions which nature has bred in us (probably via evolution) and which have proved their worth, not by logic, but through centuries of practice. They neither require nor are amenable to logical justification.

Rand takes a very different approach. She is an extreme foundationalist who believes that man’s fundamental presuppositions requires explicit logical justification; that in the absence of this justification, people will lose their ability to think for themselves and will become incapable of supporting a free society. Is there any evidence to support this contention? None that is convincing. The belief that all human contentions and presuppositions require explicit philosophical justification constitutes a false demand. Few people understand, let alone care, about such arcana. Rand’s foundationalism only serves to encourage rationalization, verbalism, essentialism, and other modes of empty speculation, and is often symptomatic of a dogmatic turn of mind that has trouble accepting the provisional and conjectural nature of knowledge. Rather than being an ally of realism, foundationalism tends to undermine it, as it forces the philosopher to adopt premises that are at odds with realism.

But more on this anon.

4 comments:

DocBadwrench said...

I've never been adept at philosophical discourse.

I eventually came to take Randian statements about 'metaphysics' to be a blank check to talk way over my head and then dismiss me as a simpleton for not accepting their complicated rationalizations.

This post helps me to more plainly understand the 'term'. Hopefully, in this series, I'll learn a bit more.

Thanks, as always.

Anonymous said...

" Rand’s foundationalism only serves to encourage rationalization, verbalism, essentialism, and other modes of empty speculation, and is often symptomatic of a dogmatic turn of mind that has trouble accepting the provisional and conjectural nature of knowledge."

This is very well stated.

I'm sure Rand would reply that if people accepted (say) Newtonian physics as a "theory" (provisional and conjectural) rather than an absolute truth, we'd then be on the slippery slope to unrestrained relativism, like New Age stuff or the worst excesses of Postmodernism.

And for some reason, Rand treated the existence of any metaphysics other than her own as weirdly apocolyptic -- as if the survival of the species was threatened by the presence of ideas other than her own.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>I'm sure Rand would reply that if people accepted (say) Newtonian physics as a "theory" (provisional and conjectural) rather than an absolute truth, we'd then be on the slippery slope to unrestrained relativism, like New Age stuff or the worst excesses of Postmodernism.

The irony is that the most sympathetic interpretation of Rand's epistemology is that, contra her rhetoric, it is itself skeptical; that a "contextual" theory of truth is indistinguishable from the idea that truth is provisional. For example, the statement "We may know p, but p may be false" is equally compatible with skepticism and Rand's "contextual" theory.

That's the sympathetic interpretation. The less sympathetic (and more accurate IMHO) one would be that Rand's "contextual" truth is flat out subjectivist/relativist. It's only Rand's extraordinary talent for self-delusion that allows her to berate subjectivists, relativists and skeptics whilst propounding a theory that entails the same conclusions!

Linda Onita Hardin-Atkins said...

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My desire to study metaphysics from a personal perspective and the results of my experience,

Thanks!