This is the fifth 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, third, and fourth entries.)
Metaphysics as Intellectual Ergonomics
by Elijah Millgram
There’s an old Harry Harrison short story, “A Tale of the Ending,” in which the characters come to realize that, although they think of themselves as human, they belong to an alien species that has very, very quietly replaced humanity. Let’s imagine that’s actually happened. The humans, who formerly led simple lives performing a handful of stereotyped functions—as farmers, hunters, fishermen, warriors and, occasionally, merchants—have vanished. In their stead are pod creatures with a much more complex form of social organization; as in Harrison’s story, they are much, much, much more specialized. If the displacement has gone unnoticed, the pod creatures seem likely to assume that the philosophical problems they face are the ones that preoccupied the humans of old.
Suppose they do. Would they be right? Well, suppose that metaphysical problems are philosophical if any are. And suppose that metaphysics isn’t after all the enterprise of producing peculiar theories about impossible-to-observe features of the universe; suppose instead that, unbeknownst to most of its declared practitioners, it’s really an engineering science. (I know, it’s a lot to swallow all at once; work with me on this.) And suppose further that its turf is the design and implementation of intellectual devices that facilitate effective reasoning. If their more complex form of life made demands on the pod creatures’ reasoning that the humans hadn’t faced, maybe they’d need better such devices.
Let’s take a step back, and try squinting at one or two traditional metaphysical topics, seeing them, if we can, as products of (and occasions for) intellectual ergonomics. Metaethics is the metaphysics of ethics, and metaethicists discuss oughts; oughts seem to have a cognitive function. When I declare that you ought to do it, I’m marking a course of action as supported, while screening off the support. That is, I’m signaling that there’s an argument (or maybe something on a par with an argument) for doing it, but without telling you what it is. You can see why we might have such a device in our repertoire; screening of this kind is anyway a time saver for bosses (and parents) who like to supply reasons on a need-to-know basis.
Or again, necessity is a metaphysicians’ staple, and it plausibly has a cognitive function also: it tells you to ignore, anyway for the purposes of theoretical reasoning, anything outside a given range of alternatives. So it’s an attention management device. Teaching people that two plus two has to be four is a huge time saver, sparing them all the thought and energy that would have gone into doublechecking whether, this time, it’s maybe five or three.
Let’s keep supposing. Suppose something like all of that is right. Might the pod creatures need to do some rethinking of the humans’ philosophizing?
The aliens have experts who deliver information and advice that’s supported by considerations the clients can’t actually understand—not without picking up extra PhDs. So there’s room for repurposing some older oughts: they’ll serve to mediate the transfer of practical expertise across disciplinary boundaries, by announcing that the expert’s instruction is supported—even though he can’t explain how to laymen (or lay-aliens).
Back in the early human world, it was pretty much the same necessities for everyone. But when it’s specialists guiding outsiders, the pod creatures need a way of confining attention decisively and permanently to a specified range of alternatives. When one expert is talking to another, he can often explain, with a good deal of nuance, what’s worth paying attention to and why; when it’s an outsider, he can’t explain, and so he just says that it has to be like that. Evidently there can be some repurposing of the necessities, too—and in The Great Endarkenment, I also consider other ways necessity can be used within a specialized field.
That went by pretty fast, but keep on supposing. Suppose we’re right to conclude that—if we grant all those assumptions—the pod creatures are ready for a metaphysics upgrade. That is, it’s a good idea to review whether these cognitive devices are working well as is, or whether they need adjustments to suit them to their new applications. If so, we are about due for some new metaphysics. In Harrison’s story, the space aliens realize that there’s been that big change when they notice that humans used to have only five fingers on a hand. But to a philosopher, the change that matters isn’t the number of fingers; it’s the specialization. And so if the imaginary pod creatures need to rethink their intellectual ergonomics, so do we.
Metaphysics isn’t rarefied, useless theory. The Great Endarkenment is making the case that it’s an enormously important, fully practical enterprise. We’d better get working on that upgrade.