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Pathways to Philosophy

The Case for a Neutral Metaphysical Position

by Peter Jones


Reason in metaphysics, even if it tries, as it professes, only to gain a priori insight into those laws which are confirmed by our most common experience, is constantly being brought to a standstill, and we are obliged again and again to retrace our steps, as they do not lead us where we want to go. As to unanimity among its participants, there is so little of it in metaphysics that it has rather become an arena that would become especially suited for those who wish to exercise themselves in mock fights, and where no combatant has as yet succeeded in gaining even an inch of ground that he could call his permanent possession.

Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason

1. Introduction

One of the stranger properties of our universe is that it does not seem to conform to any clearly identifiable metaphysical position. In the 'western' or 'rational' tradition of philosophical investigation, firmly rooted in the system of philosophy, theology and teachings which was eventually to dominate medieval western Europe, we have been searching for a metaphysical position which would be consistent with reason and also account for the facts for more than two millennia and have not found one.

Yet if the universe is 'reasonable,' in the sense that we ourselves would judge a correct explanation of it reasonable if we knew and understood it — as we must assume would be the case if we are rational philosophers — then there is at least one metaphysical scheme which would meet this specification. But where is it? Why is it so difficult to find?

In the natural sciences we can turn a blind eye to this problem for most practical purposes. We can simply say that metaphysics has nothing to do with us. Yet by ignoring this problem we do not make it go away. Once we have buried our heads in the sand in this way we can build only sand castles. In the natural sciences we do not yet have a plausible fundamental theory of anything at all, and we will not have one until we have solved all, or at least most, of the mysterious paradoxes and riddles that arise for any speculative investigation of first principles.

Nor do we find a plausible solution for this problem in any common monotheism. Whitehead notes that Christianity may be fairly characterised as, 'a religion in search of a metaphysic,' and it is almost proudly so. On this basis we might want to dismiss certain of the Church's teachings as false, but we cannot dismiss a cosmological doctrine on the grounds that it is metaphysically flawed while we are unable to show that there is even such a thing as a logically defensible metaphysical position.

I believe that the difficulty of showing that there is such a position arises because metaphysics is in fact incapable of producing a positive result. From the study of it we learn only that all questions about the nature and properties of the universe as a whole are formally undecidable. The study of the universe as a whole is predominantly the study of undecidable questions, and if a question is not undecidable then it is unlikely to be interesting in metaphysics. All our perennial 'problems of philosophy' can be shown to have their origin in the undecidability of these questions, or the inability of metaphysics to produce a positive result. As Paul Davies makes clear in The Mind of God and The Goldilocks Enigma, many longstanding and seemingly intractable problems in physics arise from the same source.

Faced with the intransigence of this problem we might conclude that metaphysics must remain forever what it was for Whitehead, a 'series of footnotes to Plato'. If we do reach this conclusion we will be in good company. In consciousness studies, for example, David Chalmers has argued that we must settle for a nonreductive mind-matter theory, since the more deeply we explore the question, 'Is mind or matter fundamental?' the more clear it becomes that neither answer is logically defensible. In contemporary physics there is even talk of ex nihilo creation, so impotent can rationalism seem in the face of the riddles of existence.

There is, however, as we would expect, a solution to this problem: What we should do is interpret the fact that metaphysics cannot produce a positive result as the most important result that metaphysics can produce. That is to say, we would interpret the ongoing failure of metaphysics not as evidence for an ignoramibus or barrier to knowledge, as we normally do in physics and philosophy, but as an opportunity, a vital clue for our investigation into the origin and nature of the universe, an empirical fact from which we might be able to extrapolate to a logically defensible metaphysical position.

Why do we not usually do this, or try to do it? Why do we not usually take this naive approach to metaphysics rather than make the issues more complicated? One reason must be that as soon as we do so we are forced to adopt a neutral metaphysical position, having eliminated all others from our investigation. This is not obviously a viable position to take up. It appears to be paradoxical, absurd, irrational even, not so much a metaphysical position as the absence of one. How can the answer to the question 'Is Mind or Matter fundamental?' be no? To take this seemingly naive approach, therefore, is not to make the issues any less complicated.

Yet it can be argued that the cosmological scheme endorsed by all the world's principal wisdom traditions is metaphysically neutral. Indeed, a significant minority of philosophers have made arguments for this seemingly paradoxical position. Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plotinus, Spinoza, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bradley, Schrodinger and George Spencer-Brown would be prominent examples, and Kant only narrowly avoids endorsing it in the Critique.

2. An Argument from Metaphysics

While metaphysics is a source of frustration for those who believe that metaphysical questions should be decidable, by the same token it is a source of reassurance for anybody who believes otherwise. In this latter category would be the mystics of all ages and cultures. It is because the mystics believe otherwise that a formal argument can be made for mysticism from metaphysics. It is old argument, one with which Buddhist philosophers are very familiar. At first glance it may seem to be straightforward. It can be roughly stated as a syllogism.

a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.

b) A neutral metaphysical position is not logically indefensible.

c) The universe is metaphysically neutral.

In this skeletal form the argument is less than overwhelming, but its essential structure can easily be grasped. To examine the relationship of entailment between these three propositions and to make explicit the background assumptions without which they would not form a valid argument would be impossible in a short essay, but I will say a little about the first two, defining the terms and outlining some of the arguments for their truth, in order to put this discussion of metaphysical neutralism into some sort of context.

a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.

There may be some metaphysicians who would object to this first proposition but I imagine most would not. To me it seems a safer and more philosophically useful axiom than cogito. It is certainly very difficult to refute it since if it is false then the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is nonsense, and nobody has ever shown this. What may be more objectionable is the idea that positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible because they are false, as they would have to be for a neutral metaphysical position.

This is an obvious inference to make, but if we extrapolate from the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions to their falsity then our view becomes consistent with that of Lao-tsu and the Buddha. Not everyone is tempted to set out on such an adventure, even if the only alternative is to say that according to reason it is impossible to determine whether the universe conforms to any logically defensible metaphysical position, positive or otherwise; a conclusion which renders philosophy largely a waste of time.

Russell opts for this pessimistic alternative, writing forthrightly in his Problems of Philosophy, 'Knowledge concerning the world as a whole is not to be obtained in metaphysics.' But Russell's pessimism was self-inflicted. A different view of metaphysics is possible. For many philosophers, among them Russell's colleague George Spencer Brown, (for whose book on mathematics and metaphysics Russell wrote a glowing endorsement but otherwise seems to have completely ignored), the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions is knowledge concerning the world as a whole, one of the most important truths it would be possible to establish by reason and logic.

That it is a truth can be determined within metaphysics, with no need for any appeal to mysticism. Reduced to its essentials a metaphysical question presents us with a choice between two positive metaphysical positions. The questions, 'Is Mind or Matter fundamental?' and 'Does the universe reduce to Something or Nothing?' would be typical. Such questions ask us to decide whether the universe as a whole is this as opposed to that, has this property as opposed to that property. There are dozens of such questions we might ask. Is Scepticism true or false? Is Internalism or Externalism true? Is the universe One or Many? Is space-time fundamental? Does freewill exist? Do I exist? Does anything exist?

Built into each of these questions is the questioner's expectation of an unambiguous answer, an expectation which arises in each case from an assumption that the universe must conform to one of two directly opposed positive metaphysical positions.

Some questions are metaphysical in character but do not ask us to adopt a positive metaphysical position. Examples would be: Why are there laws of nature? Why does anything exist? If God is Good why is there suffering? These are not exceptions to the rule but second-order questions. They are predicated, respectively, on the assumption that there are laws of nature, that anything exists and that suffering is real, and do not directly address first principles. First-order questions would be: Are there laws of nature? Does anything exist? Is suffering real? Each of these questions asks us to adopt a positive metaphysical position.

In the language of Kant, a positive metaphysical position would be a selective conclusion about the world as a whole. For Kant we cannot reach such a conclusion in philosophy because we find that all such conclusions are logically indefensible. Consequently, all questions about the world as a whole which demand a selective answer are undecidable.

For a positive metaphysical position, then, we would have to ignore Kant and assume that not all such questions are undecidable. If all of them are undecidable then our position is logically indefensible. In the philosophical schemes of Hegel and Bradley, for which the psycho-physical universe would reduce to a pristine unity free of any hint of duality, a positive metaphysical position would be any one for which plurality is more than mere appearance. We can note that for all three philosophers the paradoxes of metaphysics would arise from a confusion of appearance with reality. In consciousness studies this view has appeared as 'relative phenomenalism.'

Examples of positive metaphysical positions would be all the common forms of materialism, idealism, theism, dualism, monism, neutral monism, anomalous monism, nihilism, realism, solipsism, scepticism and epiphenomenalism. All of these positions make an explicit or implicit positive claim about the universe as a whole. In physics and philosophy a theory for which the universe is assigned fundamental or absolute positive or negative properties will embody a positive metaphysical position, while in religion, equivalently, a cosmological doctrine will embody a positive metaphysical position if it is not rigorously apophatic.

To say that a theory is 'logically indefensible' is to say that it gives rise to contradictions, that it is logically absurd, that it can be refuted by the use of Aristotle's three laws of logic and dialectic method. In practical terms, therefore, one consequence of the truth of the first proposition of our syllogism would be that wherever a fundamental theory implies a positive metaphysical position it can be logically refuted.

We need not examine the theory closely, the details will make no difference. The theory will rest on an assumption that metaphysics can produce a positive result, that not all selective conclusions about the world are undecidable, while if we learn anything for sure from the study of metaphysics it is that it is a zero-sum game, Tic Tac Toe for two ideal reasoners, a game of chess with the Devil which can at best only end in a stalemate.

The proposition that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible is unfalsifiable in philosophy. At the same time its truth is undeniably plausible, for if it is true this would be the simplest explanation for why metaphysics cannot produce a positive result. If this proposition is true then it would be unnecessary to interpret a metaphysical question as a disguised form of the liar paradox or dismiss it as meaningless, two common but difficult to defend strategies for explaining away the undecidability of such questions. Metaphysical questions would be meaningful, and they would be undecidable for the same reason that the question, 'Would two plus two equal three or five?' is undecidable.

There are few formal proofs of the first proposition for our syllogism, but two are widely known. Bradley's metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality is one. Here Bradley systematically refutes all positive metaphysical positions, and challenges his readers to explore the ramifications of his result. His argument is a prose form of the proof presented much earlier in verse form by the second-century Buddhist philosopher-saint Nagarjuna, the most widely studied of all Buddhist philosophers.

In his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way Nagarjuna demonstrates by way a series of terse reductio arguments that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible. That is to say, what Zeno of Elea does for some positive metaphysical positions Nagarjuna does for them all. This proof sets the scene for his 'theory of emptiness,' which is the philosophical foundation or expression of Mahayana or 'Greater Vehicle' Buddhism. This is the famous 'Middle Way' doctrine, so named partly because it does not embody a positive metaphysical position. For the Middle Way doctrine we would have to approach metaphysical dilemmas as do the professors at the Colleges of Unreason encountered by the hero of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, who take the view, 'Extremes are alone logical, but they are always absurd; the mean is illogical, but an illogical mean is better than the sheer absurdity of an extreme.'

The proofs of Bradley and Nagarjuna are made by abduction, the method recommended by Sherlock Holmes for solving cases involving multiple suspects and only circumstantial evidence. One by one the suspects are eliminated from the enquiry and when there is only one left, as there eventually is for Bradley and Nagarjuna's investigation, then the case is solved. If all positive metaphysical positions can be ruled out as logically absurd, then the only metaphysical position it would be rational to adopt is a neutral one. Or, at least, it would be the only rational position to adopt just so long as it is not also logically indefensible, and this is why the second premise of our syllogism is required.

Of course, if a metaphysical position is logically indefensible it need not follow that it is false. This is one reason why the syllogistic argument above is not valid as it stands. We usually take it for granted that if a proposition is false then it will be logically indefensible and that if it is logically indefensible then it will be false. This is because we usually assume that the universe is reasonable. We cannot take this for granted, however, or at least not when everything depends on it. For a valid argument we would have to close this loophole or add a proviso.

Aristotle spots this problem and in De Interpretatione tells us that whether we can legitimately apply his three laws of logic to the world, as we must assume for our syllogism to be of any use, is not something that be known a priori but is an empirical matter. Nagarjuna expects his readers to take it for granted that the universe is reasonable, but Bradley tries to persuade us that we must believe it is, since any attempt to logically prove that it is not would be self-defeating. This, however, is less than a proof that it is actually is reasonable, and Aristotle must be right to say that this question cannot be settled except by empirical means.

It may be possible to logically prove that the best explanation of the universe would be that it is reasonable, simply by extending our syllogism and employing the proposition 'The universe is reasonable' as both its initial premise and final conclusion. But a sceptic could still argue that what appears to be the best explanation of the universe may not be the correct one. Perhaps in philosophy the most we can hope for is a proof that it would be unreasonable to believe that the universe is unreasonable, and in philosophy, apart from a few proponents of dialethism and mysterianism, we probably all believe this already.

b) A neutral metaphysical position is not logically indefensible.

For a neutral metaphysical position we must eschew all positive metaphysical positions. There is, therefore, only one such position, for if we deviate even a fraction from neutrality we abandon it. In this negative way it is possible to define metaphysical neutralism briefly and precisely, it being quite easy to say what it is not. It is a lot more difficult to say what it is, but we need not do this quite yet. All that matters initially, for the sake of the case I am trying to make here, is that in metaphysics there are powerful reasons for investigating whether the second proposition of our syllogistic argument is true or false.

If we can show that it is false, then, as we have seen, while metaphysics may always be useful as an antidote to dogmatic superstition, as a path to positive knowledge it would be a dead end. The universe would be incomprehensible in any rational philosophy, since all possible metaphysical positions would be refutable. The most we could ever hope for as metaphysicians would be an immediate revelation or intuition of the truth about 'life the universe and everything,' and the study of metaphysics is not known to increase the likelihood of having one of these.

By contrast, if we can show that this second proposition is true, and if the first is also true, then metaphysics would be a very direct path to knowledge, for it would be a way of working out that the metaphysical scheme proposed by the Buddha and Lao-tsu is logically defensible, and that it is the only one that is. Deciding this second proposition is therefore an immediate and unavoidable challenge in metaphysics, though it is rarely taken up. We must take it up, however, once we have acknowledged the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions.

Now a neutral position is our only hope, and there is nothing else we can do but try to show that it is logically defensible. This will be the case regardless of what a neutral metaphysical position actually is, and whatever it implies for the origin of consciousness, the background-dependence problem, the existence of God and so forth.

So, while I must end this essay before making a start on describing what 'metaphysical neutralism' actually is, it may at least show that there are good reasons for taking the idea of a neutral metaphysical position seriously in metaphysics and, if it can be shown that the doctrine of mysticism is metaphysically neutral, for taking mysticism seriously also.

Mysticism is implausible hocus-pocus to many people, a hodge-potch of incomprehensible competing doctrines, and a lengthy discussion of it would seem a waste of time. I have great respect for this view since until quite recently it was mine, and so before moving on to discuss mysticism at greater length one in particular of a number of loose ends here must be tidied up, namely the claim that there is not only such a thing as 'the doctrine of mysticism,' but that it is metaphysically neutral. If this claim cannot be justified then then the case for a neutral metaphysical position would not quite be sunk, but it would be considerably weakened.

© Peter Jones 2008

E-mail: peterjones111@btinternet.com