This is the fourth in a series of guest posts* by Elijah Millgram (Utah) based on themes from his new book, The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy for an Age of Hyperspecialization. (Here are the first, second, and third entries.)
Metaphysics by Forgetting
by Elijah Millgram
We all remember the scene where Dorothy and her friends, standing in awe before the enormous visage of the Wizard, realize that Toto has pulled back the drapes on the side of the room, revealing the operator of a steampunk AV control panel. “Pay no attention,” the Great and Powerful Oz booms, “to that man behind the curtain!” That moment could serve as something of an emblem for metaphysics as it’s practiced today.
It’s not a new idea that intuitions are views, or perhaps intellectual habits, that were arrived at for some reason or other, only we’ve all forgotten what it was. We mostly still don’t realize what our technical term for this is, the one we use to mark simultaneously having forgotten how we came to think something, along with our dogged insistence on the something we nonetheless continue to think. That term is “a priori”.
Metaphysics as it is mostly practiced today purports to be an a priori science of invisible but awe-inspiring objects, forces and the like. (Think of necessity and possible worlds, supervenience and ontological dependence, substances and selves… and bearing in mind that metaethics is the metaphysics of ethics, nonnatural moral properties and normativity.) The deliverances of the alleged science are tethered to philosophers’ intuitions. Accordingly, our working assumption ought to be that its secret ingredient is memory loss.
However, ordinary people don’t take public and available considerations to support views about bizarre objects that no one can see. If the forgotten reasons behind those intuitions must have been public, then somehow conclusions about other matters have been converted into ontology. What could those conclusions have originally been? The obvious hypothesis is (to a first approximation, but only a first approximation): policies.
Right now, instead of taking an example from The Great Endarkenment, I’ll adapt one from Edward Craig’s short gem of a book, Knowledge and the State of Nature. It would be very inconvenient not to have a generic and transmissible certificate for information (that is, one whose use isn’t too closely tied to the details of the user’s circumstances, and which you can pass on to someone else). So we’ve invented such a certificate (we say, “I know it”), and as with any certificate, it’s a token in a system of policies, here, information management policies. But metaphysically inclined philosophers act as though knowledge were a very strange state, one whose essence is to be revealed by systematizing intuitions. When policies are in this way transmuted into a kind of item, and we forget the very practical considerations that motivate them, we too often swallow the idea that what matters is having the old-school metaphysical analysis of the items. (E.g., knowledge just is justified true belief, or tracking, or whatever; truth just is correspondence, or coherence, or whatever; necessity just is truth in all possible worlds… and so on.) But these analyses are our version of “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”: there is this thing, say, metaphysical necessity, it is just that way, and we’re sure because our intuitions say so—which again is what we say when we’ve gotten used to doing it one way, and can’t remember why. The subtext is that there’s no need to reconsider how we do do things.
But why does this account of metaphysics come up repeatedly in The Great Endarkenment—that is, in a discussion of the challenges posed by hyperspecialization? We’re much more specialized than we used to be, even just a couple hundred years ago; the extreme difference in degree has become a difference in kind. Now that we are so much more specialized, we need to reconsider many of our cognitive policies. Picking up that example from Craig, knowledge isn’t nearly as central an epistemic success concept as it once was. Expertise often isn’t so much a matter of having lots of knowledge as being competent with approximations, idealizations and so on: none of which you know, because you understand perfectly well that they aren’t true. And thus (or so I’ve argued in an earlier book, Hard Truths) what we need now are ways of certifying those for one or another use.
The intellectual devices in our repertoire are hard to rethink, not least because they present as quasi-magical objects that are just there. Pulling back that curtain (and getting rid of the humbug) is needed to correctly characterize how we now manage our reasoning— and then to figure out how to reason differently, in a social world that is ever more carved up into different domains of expertise.