Metaphysics by Forgetting (guest post by Elijah Millgram)

Metaphysics by Forgetting (guest post by Elijah Millgram)


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 Endarkenmentthat 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.

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Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
5 years ago

I have not yet had the privilege of reading The Great Endarkenment, so I can’t comment on the ways in which “metaphysics” comes up in that work, but I have been thinking a great deal lately about metaphysics/ontology. In short, I think a revision of some of our traditional “intuitions” so as to be more consistent with what we have been learning from science, while remaining “meta” to it by continuing to address issues that go beyond the purvey of empiricism, could help in providing us with a common core of understanding despite our hyperspecialization. I suggest putting the phenomenon of LIFE at the center of our metaphysics, since without being alive ourselves none of our fine philosophy or anything else we humans have constructed would exist–something which we all too casually take for granted, but should not. Moreover, the fact of our being living, autopoietic entities that share basic metabolic processes with all other lifeforms on Earth, all of which, we now realize, have to have their own ways of perceiving and responding to their environments in order to stay alive, means that we can radically simplify our thinking about certain things (if not in others, since science still does not fully understand what life as a phenomenon “is” or how it “works”)–no more need to puzzle about how “minds” conceived only in anthropocentric terms connect with “bodies” if we understand that some sort of subjectivity goes “all the way down” the Tree of Life, and no more need to try to convince ourselves that our own mental lives are merely epiphenomena because we’re trying to force the world into a life-less reductionism that is now badly out of date given the science of biological complexity.

We might also consider recognizing the fairly obvious ontological distinction between those things that exist independently of us–like organisms and the biosphere–and those things that “exist” only because we collectively believe in them–things like money and nation-states–not only because it IS, or should be, quite obvious (but often is not due to our traditional “intuitions” and the overlay of obfuscations that have grown up around them), but because this would give us some traction in dealing with real-world concerns like climate change, the effect of pollution on human bodies, and so on in the face of what we seem to tacitly accept as deterministic “laws” of economics directing us to violate organismic and planetary integrity in service of what is only a mathematized symbol, money.

I realize this suggested move will seem overly simplistic and will likely offend the sensibilities of many philosophers who would prefer to continue to dwell in their highly abstract areas of hyperspecialization that make very little contact with the real world (and may even deny that there is such a thing), but I would argue that there is a great need for philosophers to come back down from the clouds to serve humanity once again. We may confabulate endlessly about “possible worlds” where climate change and all our other human-caused problems don’t exist, but when we get up from our armchairs we must confront the fact that there is actually only one real world that we share, and thinking clearly about it is necessary for us to make good decisions about what to do–i.e., our ethics lies downstream from our ontology, so our ontology ought to defensible and sharable.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

I think some of the basic ideas here are correct, but they are stated in a really strange way. The “metaphysically inclined” philosophers who try to analyze knowledge using intuitions are analytic epistemologists. And in order to understand anything about something you have to try to say what it is. The whole bit about policies vs. things is thus a red herring. Policies themselves are things, and we can ask exactly what kind of things they are. Moreover, I don’t think it’s right to say that we’ve forgotten reasoning that lead us to intuitions. Sometimes that may be true, but more often than not we simply come to have the intuition. The author’s point can be better stated as follows: we improperly assume that our intuitions are psychologically brute when in fact they often have a complex etiology, and it can sometimes be more fruitful to reflect upon that etiology than it is to simply rely on the intuitions themselves as a direct from of evidence.

The point about the etiology of our intuitions is a good one, especially wrt the idea that the concept of knowledge is partly grounded in social utility. Craig was the first to push this, but the idea is gaining traction with other epistemologists (e.g. Steven Reynolds at ASU and Sinan Dogramaci at UT Austin are working on this sort of thing), as well it should. However, a clearer way to put this is that knowledge is a sort of social-functional property rather than a natural kind. I also don’t think knowledge is the best example for the author’s purpose. I suspect the vast majority of epistemologists will admit that they are engaged in conceptual analysis. So they haven’t simply assumed that their intuitions provide them with direct access to mind-independent reality in the same way that metaphysicians do when they talk about possibilia or causality.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
5 years ago

Perhaps I should apologize to Professor Millgram for being conversation-stopping (for the second time?), or perhaps other philosophers simply haven’t been interested in commenting on his guest post today (which I find unfortunate, since I was looking forward to seeing some other comments). But I’d like to add to the above that I think Millgram is quite right that much of what makes up our traditional metaphysics is a matter of “intellectual habits, that were arrived at for some reason or other, only we’ve all forgotten what it was.” I also agree that we need to “figure out how to reason differently, in a social world”–a social world per se, that is, because I am unwilling to give up on our human ability to think “autonomously” while utilizing a common core of basic knowledge–but a social world that we recognize as making a difference to the way we think, since another way in which our “intuitions” need to change is in getting over the extreme individualism that has been the default assumption in philosophical theorizing for so long. It may be that “the man behind the curtain” is simply other people–our patterns of thinking resonate with each other within our network of beliefs and assumptions, such that new “cognitive policies” that lie relatively far afield from the commonly accepted box are ignored or rejected because of social feedback processes that often lie well below the level of fully conscious thought.

I can think of two candidates for the category of “some reason or other” that have led to so little attention having been given to taking the phenomenon of LIFE as metaphysical grounding for our approach to the world. One is anthropocentrism, our self-centered fixation on strictly human interests, our particular human ways of perceiving and cognizing, and our peculiarly human constructs, to the exclusion of giving consideration to the way other lifeforms live, perceive, respond, and construct their worlds and how these might exist in continuity with ours; the Cartesian dualism that separates not only minds from bodies but humans from all other living beings certainly serves our exploitative interests, if we can declare all others officially to be “dead matter” and thus use them as we will. The other, I would say, is less self-interested but more “social.” As I piece it together historically, our strangely persistent tendencies toward extreme reductionism seems to date back to the struggle between “mechanism” and “vitalism,” which–having forgotten the details of how it came about, as Millgram notes–we seem to think was decisively won by “mechanism” when urea was successfully synthesized in a laboratory in 1828. But this feat, if remarkable for its time, certainly did not overturn the fact that there are very definite physical (and metaphysical) differences between what is living and what is dead, with no need to postulate “quasi-magical objects” such as “entelechies.” It seems, however, that “vitalism” has, as a result of being declared the “loser,” become “so disreputable a belief” (in the words of Ernst Mayr, as quoted by Wikipedia) that still today very few dare to look more closely into what the implications of taking the phenomenon of LIFE seriously on a metaphysical level might be–apparently the whole approach still “has cooties” out on philosophy’s elementary-school playground, and people even shy away from notions like “emergence” and sometimes even from publicly admitting that their own subjective experiences might be “real.” When you stand back and appreciate how strongly the herd effect–the pull of our entrenched “intuitions”–seems to operate, on this and many other topics within academia today, it’s really quite sobering.Report

BLS Nelson
5 years ago

I like Elijah Millgram’s amnesiac account of intuitive etiology largely because it fearlessly tackles one of the supposedly core features of pre-theoretic intuitive contents — i.e., its sui generisness. That said, I agree with Anon Grad Student that it is hardly the only account of the sui generisness of intuitions, and certainly not the canonical statement. And I join them in probing for more details, being curious how the story plays out.

One of the most important things you have to do when coming to an amnesiac account of intuitions is to state clearly what you mean by ‘forgetting’. There are at least two sorts of ways we might “forget” something: (a) we tacitly abstract away certain causal details from some mental state to make its mundane features seem grand, and/or (b) we run afoul of a source monitoring error. I think the first makes sense of what Elijah has said, but the second one strikes me as closer to what Anon Grad has suggested. They are not mutually exclusive options, but they’re not the same either.

While I am partially attracted to the amnesiac’s account of intuitions, I also have some worries that it lacks the capacity to generate further convictions. Suppose we say (as he sometimes does) that if something plays a suitable role in our intellectual life we owe it to ourselves to construct a metaphysics around it. If that’s the case, then it would seem that something more than a game of coordinated forgetting is afoot.

I have a more radical view. Consider the following ethnographic hypothesis: sometimes, professional scholars of philosophy will appeal to intuitions, not because they can’t explain their origins, but because they are just plain tired of arguing that those origins are of such a kind as to recommend the intuition as a reliable source of evidence. So, e.g., it seems to me that some scholars will sometimes say they have arrived at an “intuition stalemate” with their interlocutors when they are done with trying to persuade someone with reasons, and have gotten to the point where they are either going to stop talking altogether, or are just going to explain where the reasons come from without pretending to argue for them. It’s not that they’ve forgotten where intuitions come from; it’s that they’re sick of the dialectic.

My own account is to say that intuition qua intuition makes no ontological commitments, and is a form of mental representation that has no truth-conditions. This is to cover the inscrutability of intuitions, whether that fog falls over intuitions by design, or accident, or as an excuse to leave a conversation early. I would no more say that intuitions qua intuitions are grounded in social reality than I would say they are grounded in real reality. The more that we actually do discover and talk effusively about the etiology of intuitions, the more that they shall seem like beliefs (or other mental states with respectable ontological commitments). This account has a lot of benefits: it has the benefit of explaining why talk about intuitions is so fraught, why so many people seem to disagree about the phenomenon, it explains what is sui generis about intuitions, and probably other things. (The downside is that it leads to skepticism, but I don’t care much about that.)Report

Josh Parsons
5 years ago

I’m disappointed with this installment of Millgram’s posts here, having enjoyed the previous ones. I fear he may have fallen prey to what I’ll call “The Unger Effect”: whereby a philosopher of approximately 60 years of age suddenly snaps, like a Vulcan losing control of his (and so far it’s always been his) emotions, and starts flailing around wildly at the evil way metaphysics / epistemology / ethics / whatever is done “these days”. The criticisms are never new – they’re always recycled positivism, neo-Kantianism, skepticism; they’re never as sophisticated defences of any of those positions as was ever given by their originators; and they’re always so weak as to be practically self-refuting. I’m not sure that that’s where Millgram is going (I’ll have to read his book) but he’s getting perilously close with his two paragraph discussion of metaphysics “today”. A loose list of topics that have been studied by philosophers for between 100 to 300 years does not an argument that metaphysics these days is rubbish make. “Ordinary people” do not think that publicly available considerations can evidentially support “bizarre” conclusions? How did you figure that one out? Oh, you did it a priori, didn’t you. I’ll stop dissing Millgram now, because I really do think this is a slip on his part, and I hope that he returns to his former good form.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Metaphysics is my chosen obsession and I have to say that I do not understand this article. For me metaphysics is about logic and analysis and is the study of intuitions rather than the unthinking acceptance of them.

“The deliverances of the alleged science are tethered to philosophers’ intuitions.”

This will depend on how careful we are with our calculations. If we are careful and honest it will not be true. If it were always true then metaphysics would be useless. To put it another way, if we do metaphysics by relying on our intuitions then we are not going to get very far and will probably be heading in the wrong direction anyway.Report

AnonGrad
AnonGrad
5 years ago

I’m going to assume Josh Parsons is not being serious. I cannot see him standing straight-faced behind the ad hominem, the specific universal generalisations and the cheap point-scoring contained in his comments.

As to the traditional criticisms levelled against metaphysics besides the ‘recycled positivism, neo-Kantianism, skepticism’, Parsons’ arguably missed two more Elijah Millgram is bringing to our attention (only obliquely, unfortunately — at least to this reader) in his knee-jerk reaction to anti-metaphysics: conventionalism and pragmatism.Report

Elijah Millgram
5 years ago

I agree with both Yet Another Anon Grad Student and BLS Nelson that there are various backstories to different intuitions. I don’t know that it’s helpful to say that we “simply” come to have some of them, but there’s a tradition of explaining intuitions by, for instance, conditioning and its relatives. (Looking back a bit, John Stuart Mill, who devoted a good deal of attention to this sort of explanation, could serve as an icon of the approach.) Or again, it does seem to me that Nelson’s “ethnographic hypothesis” (that appeal to intuitions can be an excuse to leave a conversation early) is worth bearing in mind; I hadn’t thought of it, but I’ll keep an eye out for this sort of motivation in future conversations. Nonetheless, in The Great Endarkenment I focus on intuitions that screen off forgotten reasons, partly because there seem to be cognitive function stories to be told about how that happens, and also partly to set up a forward-looking agenda for metaphysics.

To preview what sort of agenda I have in mind, let me help myself to Ronnie Hawkins’s recommendation that we take an interest in the metaphysics of life. Now, what topics metaphysics should take up is orthogonal to the issues I wanted to broach in the post above, having to do with how we understand the enterprise itself. But I have no problem with the proposed subject matter; in fact, the metaphysics of life comes in for brief discussion in The Great Endarkenment, mostly in footnotes engaging Michael Thompson’s Life and Action. (I should say that I’m a great fan of that book, though that’s not the same thing as saying that I agree with it.)

One way to characterize Thompson’s treatment (from, oh, 50,000 feet up) is: a marvelously sophisticated instance of the sort of metaphysics I was gesturing at in the entry above. In a beautifully crafted argument from specifically logical intuitions, Thompson reconstructs the notion of a species that is now built into our forms of thought. Now, it’s quite likely that getting to those forms of thought was a great intellectual victory on the part of our distant ancestors; they didn’t simply *come to have* the delicately integrated logical and conceptual apparatus, but rather won their way to it. There were reasons for thinking this way, and they’ve been lost in the mists of time. (Well, maybe not completely; possibly Aristotle’s writings contain a record of some of them.) However, and now I’m anticipating my next post, it could be we want to retool; if you’re a philosopher of biology, you might well second Hawkins’s next recommendation, that we revise the older conception so as to make it “more consistent with what we have been learning from science”. And you might want to revise it for a further reason, the need to accommodate the sorts of thing that Monsanto has been doing to corn, and that we’re likely to see a lot more of.

Turning now to Josh Parsons’s worry that maybe I have, as he put it a bit bluntly, snapped, I hope the impression results from the brevity of the exposition. If I’m hearing him right, the phenomenon is that of a philosopher abruptly stepping outside his former method or tradition, and criticizing it in a way that is no longer sufficiently rooted in the practice to avoid straw-manning it. I’m aware of the danger, and The Great Endarkenment does its very best to avoid it. Just for instance, modal cognition gets two chapters. The first of them works within the world of David Lewis; it’s very much an exercise in old-school metaphysics. It’s only once the need to invoke cognitive function has emerged in the course of the guided tour of Lewisiana that the next chapter advances a cognitive function analysis of an aspect of our modal conceptual apparatus, and one in which systematic forgetting plays an important role.

Finally for now, Nelson’s distinction between two aspects of this kind of forgetting was helpful. Thanks.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
5 years ago

Sorry to come late to this thread. Elijah I have been thoroughly enjoying these posts for your highly original take on the current philosophical landscape. I’m finding the freshness of your diagnoses exhilarating.

I personally identify as a philosophical pragmatist and want to recommend that tradition in terms of some of the issues you are discussing. So for instance when you suggest that ‘knowing’ has transitioned in philosophers’ minds from a ‘policy’ to a kind of ‘strange state’, and that this emblematises a general ‘reification gone nuts’ in philosophy, I think that these ideas were also put forward by the later Wittgenstein (who fits in the pragmatist canon, for me):

“P.I. 308. How does the philosophical problem about mental processes and states and about behaviorism arise? The first step is the one that altogether escapes notice. We talk of processes and states and leave their nature undecided. Sometime perhaps we shall know more about them — we think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter. For we have a definite concept of what it means to learn to know a process better. (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.) — And now the analogy which was to make us understand our thoughts falls to pieces. So we have to deny the yet uncomprehended process in the yet unexplored medium…”

On the overarching issue of these posts and your book, though – intellectual hyperspecialization, and the consequent inability of inquirers to talk to each other – I think pragmatism offers an answer. Peirce’s pragmatic maxim says (essentially) that if you want to understand a general concept, think about specific consequences in specific situations. Consequently, it is in solving specific concrete problems that the various hyperspecializations can and do communicate. Thus for instance, a specific concrete problem such as managing diabetes requires chemists, biologists, cooks, and exercise therapists to work together, and they do manage to understand one another when specific outcomes like this are at stake. In your otherwise rich epistemological discussion – don’t lose the world!

I will try to have a look at your book at some point. Cheers.Report