Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Metaphysics, Theology and Philosophy

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, Oct 28, 2007 (I think)

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

- Alice in Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll


Metaphysics was once considered the "The First Philosophy" (Aristotle), the "Queen of the Sciences" (Kant). It has traditionally been an study of "what exists?", consisting of ontology, logic and theology.

In the rise of modern philosophy, metaphysics has been subject to a great deal of criticism. David Hume argued that much of what passed as metaphysics was merely "sophistry and illusion". Immanuel Kant argued against knowledge beyond the world of our perceptions. Alfred Jules Ayer and Karl Popper claimed that many metaphysical statements could not be verified.

This presentation discusses on whether modern philosophy should embrace unverifiable statements from metaphysics or whether theology and philosophy should be separated with the latter incorporating the newer discipline of epistemology, the study of knowledge.

Metaphysics: A Definition

Metaphysics investigates principles of transcending reality. It is concerned with explaining the ultimate nature of being and the world.

The prefix meta- ("beyond") was attached to the chapters in Aristotle's work that physically followed after the chapters on "physics", in posthumously edited collections. Aristotle himself did not call these works Metaphysics. Aristotle called some of the subjects treated there "first philosophy."

Ontology: The study of Being and existence; includes the definition and classification of entities, physical or mental, the nature of their properties, and the nature of change.

Theology: The study of a God or Gods; involves many topics, including among others the nature of religion and the world, existence of the divine, questions about Creation, and the numerous religious or spiritual issues that concern humankind in general.

Universal science (or more accurately, logic): The study of first principles, which Aristotle believed to be the foundation of all other inquiries.

Some example questions raised in metaphysics

Abstract Entities: Real, Conceptual or Nominal?

Some philosophers endorse views according to which there are abstract objects such as numbers, or Universals. Conceptualists argue that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality. Nominalism claims that that there is abstract predicates but that neither universals or abstract entities themselves do not exist

Never Mind, or It Doesn't Matter?

Idealism argues that the ultimate nature of reality is based on mind or ideas and that reality is cannot be separated from pereceptive consciousness. Materialism argues that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions; therefore, matter is the only substance. Both are a type of monism ...

Is it the One, the Two or the Many?

Monism argues that reality is infact one thing (or one God) despite apparent diveristy; "all is one". Dualism argues that there are two separate categories (e.g., mind and matter). Pluralism argues that ultimate reality consists of a great quantity of elemental entities.

How did you determine that you have free will?

Determinism argues that all actions, including thought, are causally determined by an unbroken chain. Advocates of free will argue that rational agents control their actions and decisions. Indeterminists argue that there is chance and necessity; sometimes determinism is true, sometimes it is not. A compatibilist, or soft determinist, defines free will so that it does not require prior causes. Incompatibilists (either of the free will or hard determinist variety) argue that determinism and free will are logically incompatible categories

and so on...

The Gradual Fall of Metaphyiscs

With the rise of modern philosophy, a separation with theology began. Whilst the validity of ontology and logical was retained, theological speculations were criticised:

David Hume argued with his empiricist principle that all knowledge involves either relations of ideas or matters of fact:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

From: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Hume's assertion, it has been argued, is self-defeating if it itself is not self-evident or empirically verifiable.

Immanuel Kant prescribed a limited role to the subject and argued against knowledge progressing beyond the world of our representations, except to knowledge that the noumena exist:

though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.

From: Critique of Pure Reason

Kant (effectively) sought the sources and limits of human knowledge; in other words, a nascent epistemology to replace a dying metaphysics. However in asking for the source of knowledge he still retained a metaphysical element. Kant can be correctly considered the end of theological metaphysics and the beginning of modern epistemology.

Logical Positivism

In the early 20th century, the strongest denunciation of metaphysics to date was carried out by the logical positivists. A.J. Ayer in "Language, Truth and Logic", by using the verifiability theory of meaning, concluded that metaphysical propositions were neither true nor false but strictly meaningless See also A.J. Ayer "Demonstration of the Impossibility of Metaphysics" (Mind 1934) and repsonse by W.T. Stace (Mind, 1935) "Metaphysics and Meaning". From the former;

"... any attempt to describe the nature or even assert the existence of something lying beyond the reach of empirical observation must consist in the enunciation of pseudo-propositions ... a s et of words that may seem to have the structure of a sentence but is in fact meaningless."

The point is not to side with materialism vs idealism, for example, but to reject the question entirely as unanswerable.

From the latter:

"... presumably the central tents of many of the most famous philosophers of the world, such as Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bradly, and the HIndu Vendantists, must fall under this condemnation [of meaningless]. For all these philosophers maintained that reality is quite different to anything which ever appears, though they differed among themselves as to its nature. Spinoza called it Substance, Kant the thing-in-itself, Bradley the Absolute, and so on. And by these different words these philosophers purported to convery different meanings. But according to the contention of the Viennese circls and their followers, none of these philosophical creeds possess any meaning at all"

A.C. Ewing's response (Mind, 1937) was the verification theory of meaning itself is not verifiable and neither is the verification theory of meaning is not susceptible to a priori proof. Instead a move is made towards an alternative criteria of meaningless based on philosophy of language; meaningless statements which are (a) exclamations, wishes, exhortions etc - they do not contain propositions, but they are understandable (b) incomplete sentences (Cambridge is between York), (c) sentences that include words that do not stand for anything (d) sentences which break rules of syntax ("are of fond not dogs cats) (e) sentences which include unqualified determinate values ("Quadratic equations do not go to race-meetings" - a statement which is true but meaningless and (f) self-contradictary sentences.

From an observer:

"Metaphysics is that part of philosophy which has the greatest prentensions and is exposed to the greatest suspicions. Having the avowed aim of arriving at profound truths about everything, it is sometimes held to result only in obscure nonsense about nothing." (The Consise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy, Hutchinson, 1960)

Universal Pragmatics and Verification

A common error is to assume that because logical positivism failed to establish that empirical values are the only meaningful statements that one can return to pre-modern metaphysics as a field of inquiry. The point instead is to elaborate logical positivism's verification theory so it does not apply just to positive values but also to normatives and expressives. This project has been carried out in particular by Habermas' "formal pragmatics" which creates "rationalisation complexes" from orientations (constatives, normatives and expressives) and worlds (objective, intersubjective, subjective). By cross-referencing the two the potential for verification is elucidated, pragmatically bound in language and thought of all sapients. e.g., a constative approach to the objective world is a rationalisable scientific question, a normative approach to the subjective world is rationalisable moral question and so forth. In particular there are three irrationalisable (i.e., unverifiable) complexes; constative/subjective, normative/objective, expressive/intersubjective.

The theological aspect of metaphysics is thus extracted from philosophy and replaced with epistemology leaving us with core philosophy: logic, ontology and epistemology and statements of verification become pragmatically bound: "A difference that makes no difference is no difference" (William James)