OUT OF PLATO’S
by Herbert FJ Müller
6 September 2008, posted 13 September 2008
When I received ‘Every Thing Must Go’ in the mail, my first interest was how Ladyman et al. justify writing a book on metaphysics in this day and age. But they don’t quite explain why they think it is a good idea to believe in discovering a pre-fabricated mind-independent reality. I agree with their ‘polemical’ statement in the introduction that ‘contemporary analytic metaphysics … fails to qualify as part of the enlightened pursuit of objective truth, and should be discontinued.’ But then they add that this describes ‘only part of the first chapter’ and that they want to ‘encourage truly naturalistic metaphysics by example’.
Nor is this question addressed by Butterfield who writes in his review (TA110 ) : ‘The book's governing question is: what sort of metaphysics should we adopt in the light of natural science ?’ And he concludes  that ‘a logical framework appropriate for structuralist metaphysics does not yet exist. … But I hope that they or their fellow structuralists will soon address those questions in full detail … .’
The authors describe themselves as ‘naturalists’ and ‘structural realists’ (p.67), they like ‘objectivity’ and want a ‘positive account of the nature of the world’ (‘neo-positivism’, p.303). In the first chapter (p.9), Ross & al. say that there has been a ‘revival of metaphysics after the implosion of logical positivism … accompanied by the ascendancy of naturalism in philosophy’; and that metaphysics should be ‘descriptive’ (as suggested by Peter Strawson) based on science, for instance ‘Special Relativity ought to dictate the metaphysics of time, Quantum Mechanics the metaphysics of substance’. But then, ‘science underdetermines the metaphysical answers’.
In this comment I will only discuss their stated aim. In general terms it seems to me that naturalizing metaphysics is as impossible as objectifying the subject, and for the same reason : it turns the question on its head. The subject-objectification attempts defeat efforts to study the mind-brain relation puzzle (Müller 2007). But the chief problem of this book is the promotion of metaphysics per se.
The term ‘structuralism’ originally referred to structures of language. Around 1900, Ferdinand de Saussure was able, starting from existing linguistic structures, to make predictions for the structures of other languages, and they turned out to be correct for the Hittite language which was discovered 20 years later.
Others were so impressed by this success that they tried to use the same method in other fields, for instance Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology and the explanation of myths. One tries to find and analyze existing patterns in language and behaviour, and from there to arrive at general laws and perhaps make predictions. The structures are handled as if they were self-contained (‘objective’) and not produced by subjects, even though the anthropological studies evidently deal with people. (These efforts are similar to the study, by some mathematicians and analytical philosophers, of people-produced logical and mathematical patterns, but without the people, with the aim of finding a formal mind-independent truth, suitable for machine-processing.)
According to Wikipedia, ‘ In the 1980s, deconstruction and its emphasis on the fundamental ambiguity of language -- rather than its crystalline logical structure -- became popular. By the end of the century structuralism was seen as a historically important school of thought, but it was the movements it spawned, rather than structuralism itself, which commanded attention. ’
Piaget examined psychological structures but emphasized that there are no structures without a construction. This statement points to the difference between structuralism, which tries to treat structures as objective mind-independent entities, and epistemological constructivism (vonGlasersfeld and others) which is concerned with the development of mental structures in experience.
Constructivism is not compatible with the notion of a mind-independently pre-structured reality, which is implied in the concept of metaphysics. Instead all mental structures are created pragmatically, as needed, within encompassing experience which is not structured except for them; that is to say they are not taken from any pre-existing structures (zero-derivation, 0-D). What is called ‘metaphysics’ by many philosophers is an additional layer of mental structures, as I will explain further below.
REALITY AND METAPHYSICS SINCE PARMENIDES
In one of the two conflicting intuitions of Parmenides (though he himself apparently did not see a conflict between them), the mind-independent existence and structural form of reality was decreed, he said, by a Goddess; it was neither proven nor even questioned. The motivation for this proposal was presumably the desire for a reliable structure which is guaranteed from outside the individual, from ‘above’; it pre-supposed - or entailed - the belief in a primary (ontological) split between subject and object (‘the world’).
This interpretation was then accepted into Plato’s view of supposedly mind-independent real but unknowable forms or ideas. To wit: mind-independent ideas (!) are true but inaccessible entities being lit from behind by a fire in the background, and we can only see their shadows on the wall in a cave. Plato endorsed the ontological subject-object split.
Then it was further transformed into the universals of Aristotle’s metaphysics-ontology, which likewise provided an unknowable real reality behind the appearances. The problem with Aristotle’s proposal is that, although he rejected Plato’s ideas, he and most of his followers interpreted the universals too as mind-independently pre-structured, rather than as word-conceptual design tools that develop as needed within subject-inclusive experience.
It is really astounding that this perplexing interpretation of the world as mind-independently pre-structured ‘reality’ (MIR), yet also out of reach, has survived in occidental epistemology for 2500 years. Metaphysics is still active, recently for instance in the work of the phenomenological-existential as well as of the analytic-formalistic philosophers. As Whitehead (1927 / 1979, p.39) observed : ‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.’ The book by Ladyman et al. is an example. And MIR-belief is also still the prevailing view in science, often in the form of naϊve metaphysical realism, despite serious conceptual problems in some areas of study.
Objects are commonly mis-understood as being independent of mental activity. This feature may lead to the erroneous (ontological-metaphysical) interpretation that reality somehow structures itself, independently of the subject’s mental activity. This interpretation is possible only when an ontological subject-object split is pre-supposed. In effect the subject is excluded, only a bystander at best, if he does not disappear altogether, as Wittgenstein suggested when he wrote that referring to subjects is a disease of thinking, and as it happened in Crick’s ‘Astonishing Hypothesis’.
This MIR opinion is strengthened by attaching words to them, forming word-gestalt-concepts. Words have a potential for wide human communication; thus they have a supra-individual reach which may be seen as universal and even God-like. In addition, words can obtain an identity and even authority of their own (‘in the beginning was the word’). This is an unclear proposition, unless God’s activity, as in scholastic philosophy, or something similar, is postulated.
Wrong theories can turn out to be very productive, including in science. This seems to work largely due to efforts to prove or disprove them, as it happened in the case of assumptions like the existence of ether and absolute time and space. And this has been the case too for classical metaphysics, which has spawned many attempts to prove it or to get rid of it, or else to modify it. But there are limits to this paradoxical usefulness, and beyond these limits wrong theories become obstructive. MIR-belief about reality eliminates the mind (subject) from consideration, and thereby it blocks the access to the study of the mind-brain relation puzzle.
reason for MIR-belief seems to be that Plato and Aristotle felt, and many
epistemologists still feel, more at ease with the incomprehensible
metaphysical-ontological view than with the other side of Parmenides’ opinion
: that knowing and being are identical,
εστίν τε και
είναι – a view that is compatible with
constructivism. The wish to have
responsibility for one’s mental structures shifted to an outside authority is
indeed the most likely factor for the preference of metaphysics-ontology, as
Heinz von Foerster has suggested in order to explain the popularity of
‘objectivity’ where the scientist’s ‘observations are done without him’, and
the responsibility for the structures is delegated to an authority called
‘Nature’ (as successor to the Goddess of
Subject-inclusion does not prevent the use of the objective method (in an as-if fashion). In constructivism the ideas of a persistent reality are created and maintained, within encompassing subject(s)-inclusive experience, to provide a stabilizing people-inclusive agency. The subject is separated from ‘the world’ only in a secondary (pragmatic) fashion, and crucially : also active and responsible for the forms, ideas, existences, universals, etc.
It may be surprising for many to realize that an alternate (non-ontological) view has actually been available for as long as the classical Greek metaphysics, in the form of the Buddhist epistemology with its unstructured base, and the opinion that trying to ‘find’ true reality ready-made (as per ‘ἀλήθεια’) is futile - which is self-evident if one realizes that we participate in its structuring (see TA109 and its discussion).
Metaphyics-ontology must go. Here are more reasons why :
PHENOMENA VERSUS ONTA
The following quotation from Merleau-Ponty (1945 p.381, = p.330 of the English translation) is an example of the relation (one might even see it as a battle) between subject-inclusive gestalt-based phenomenology and the ‘ontological leap’ to subject-exclusive metaphysics.
" Même si finalement je ne sais pas cette pierre absolument, même si la connaissance en ce qui la concerne va de proche en proche à l'infini et ne s'achève jamais, encore est-il que la pierre perçue est là, que je la reconnais, que je l'ai nommée et que nous nous entendons sur un certain nombre d'énonciations a son sujet. Ainsi il semble que nous soyons conduits à une contradiction : la croyance à la chose et au monde ne peut signifier que la présomption d'une synthese achevée, - et cependant cet achèvement est rendu impossible par la nature même des perspectives à relier, puisque chacune d'elles renvoie infiniment par ces horizons à d'autres perspectives. Il y a, en effet, contradiction, tant que nous opérons dans l'être, mais la contradiction cesse ou plutôt elle se généralise, elle se relie aux conditions dernières de notre expérience, elle se confond avec la possibilité de vivre et de penser, si nous opérons dans le temps, et si nous réussissons à comprendre le temps comme la mesure de l'être. "
Merleau-Ponty here illustrates the conflict between (i) a phenomenological description of an asymptotic approach of ongoing experience to a transcendent word-concept meaning on the one hand ("la connaissance en ce qui la concerne va de proche en proche à l'infini et ne s'achève jamais") and (ii) MIR-belief on the other ("la croyance à la chose"). This contradiction then prompts (iii) an attempt to reconcile the two. But this attempt finishes in his proposal to comprehend ‘The Being’ as measured by ‘The Time’, that is to say in terms of Heidegger’s opaque ‘fundamental ontology of Dasein’. Such an ‘ontological leap’ becomes redundant when a subject-inclusive world-design tool, with the needed accrued responsible subject-agency, is accepted.
THE METAPHYSICS DILEMMA
Traditional MIR-metaphysics causes a dilemma for the concept of ‘reality’ :
The first horn of the dilemma : the postulated external certainty of MIR is accepted and used due to the stability (certainty) expected from it, which works best if MIR is believed without doubt. The imagined MIR-world is said to be represented, intended, referred to, given, self-evident, manifest, revealed, etc. And because traditional metaphysics has this needed and expected stability (security) function, attempts to simply abolish it - or even only to de-emphasize it - tend to end in relapse, if the origin of metaphysics in the ontological subject–object split and the wish for guarantee from outside is not addressed.
The second horn of the dilemma : one cannot study a posited extrapolated fictitious mind-independent nature-in-itself. Only experience, action, and the self-created tools (e.g., qualities, words, numbers, concepts, theories) are available for examination (as for instance Vico (1710) emphasized). And further, mind and reality cannot be independent of each other. Traditional MIR-belief, for instance in the form of subject-exclusive objectivity, cannot deal with the mind–brain question, etc., because the mind cannot become mind-independent.
This problem was addressed in different ways in the Anglo-American and European Continental epistemologies. Subject-free views predominated in the former, and ambiguous efforts to re-include the subject(s) in the latter. But despite some promising starts, neither of them has resolved the metaphysics dilemma to the extent needed to address the mind-brain relation, with the result that the obstructive MIR-belief persists. The reason for the failure, I suggest, is that the subject(s)’ structuring activity remained unrecognized, even by the phenomenologists and existentialists, who made subjective experience the focus of their efforts.
How did we get into this dilemma ?
LIMITS OF GESTALT FUNCTION
In view of these long-standing difficulties with the metaphysics-ontology problem, its development in relation to gestalt-function, and an alternative understanding, are of interest. The gestalt function (the visual one is the main tool in humans) is a subject-inclusive, mostly involuntary, mental instrument that produces structures in ongoing experience which, as Jaspers has emphasized, encompasses all structures. They are incomplete momentary ‘apparent’ or ‘phenomenal’ structures, not complete objects (for instance the crescent moon compared to the complete celestial body). But despite their incompleteness they may be mistaken for given onta.
Ambiguous drawings relate to more than one complete object. The reason is that they are structurally under-determined, compared to the complete mental-reality structures they relate to. Sometimes we can add the missing structure-elements more or less at will, for instance the depth dimension in the Necker cube, since we think in terms of more complete (for instance three-dimensional) visual-object entities. In that case we can switch between two (or more) possible complete gestalt entities. In other ambiguous structures we are also reminded of more than one complete object and can choose (switch) between the completed ones. Something similar can happen when looking at cloud formations, or trying to identify objects in a fog.
Metaphysics is an attempt to obtain a complete reality which does not depend on, and is external to, the individual and which agrees with, but goes beyond (‘transcends’), the incomplete gestalt function, preferably as guaranteed by a postulated higher, theistic or naturalistic, authority.
DESIGNING THINGS BEYOND GESTALT
If metaphysics is to be jettisoned : where do complete objects and a complete world come from ? The answer becomes clear if we manage to overcome the reluctance to accept our own agency : we use a subject-inclusive design tool that reaches beyond phenomena, producing within the primarily unstructured encompassing experience a realm of complete structures extrapolated from gestalt function that are trusted to be reliable, and may - in that sense only - be called ‘real’. Although they are in principle temporary they may for practical purposes (though in principle erroneously) be ascribed permanence. These ‘real things’ and other real (and/or true) entities constitute a mental mind-and-world-and-all reality that is compatible with ongoing perceptual activity. The design function involves more deliberation than gestalt-function does.
( In the past I have labelled this procedure ‘working-metaphysics’, generalizing from ‘working hypothesis’; or ‘operational metaphysics-ontology’ using Percy Bridgman’s term of ‘operationalism’; or ‘as-if’ metaphysics-ontology, which is extrapolated from Hans Vaihinger’s ‘philosophy of the as-if’. But it was pointed out to me, correctly I think, that these expressions can be mis-understood in the sense that I accept metaphysics-ontology, which is not the case. A label like ‘world-design tool’ ought to avoid this problem. )
But the created world goes beyond the ongoing non-deliberately structured experience, and is therefore not directly supported by it. The phenomenal structures of ongoing experience are compatible with, and hint at, the world-structures. In case of discrepancies, corrections are needed. To repeat, the world-structures transcend = are under-determined by, the phenomena (as Ladyman &al. point out for metaphysics, see <3> above).
THE WORLD-DESIGN TOOL REPLACES ONTOLOGY-METAPHYSICS
to design become evident during use of the structures. They do not require the assumption of
pre-existing mind-external structures.
The latter are impossible in any case, because all structures, and the
differences between them, are pragmatic and not ontic.
Until further notice I suggest that the idea of a subject-inclusive design tool for world-structures is a better method for dealing with experience, in science and elsewhere, than the subject-exclusive metaphysical-ontological assumptions which since the time of Parmenides have never been freed of their internal contradictions. The 0-D design principle converts metaphysical propositions into working instruments. And the viability of the non-metaphysical Buddhist epistemology for the same length of time as classical Greek metaphysics indicates that this is not an empty dream; but the details need filling in.
Must then Every Thing Go ? Not quite, but the objects change : from being mind-independently real but unknowable to our tools which we do know, having structured them, and which in order to make thinking easier can often be treated as if they were mind-independently real. But we have to be aware that this assumption of mind-independence is a shortcut, and not reality as provided by a Goddess or by Nature.
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Herbert FJ Müller