Philip asked:

Is there a possibility of Metaphysics?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Is metaphysics possible? In this day and age?

One answer would be of course metaphysics is possible because philosophers are doing metaphysics. In any English speaking university you will find courses that include discussion of the so-called ‘problems of metaphysics’.

Just to give you a taste, here is a selection of essay questions for the University of London BA Philosophy Metaphysics paper taken by students on the International Programme:

* Times can be thought of as past, present and future or as earlier and later. Is one of these ways of thinking about time more fundamental than the other?

* What do all red things have in common?

* Can arguments be given to establish that your pen is not a bundle of ideas?

* Can a fully objective view of human beings account for the subjective qualities of mental states?

* ‘A cause has its effects in virtue of its properties. So causation cannot be a relation simply between particulars.’ Discuss.

* ‘If I were to divide into two people tomorrow, neither of the resulting people would be me. But this would not be as bad as death.’ Is this true? If so, why? If not, why not?

* If ‘free choice’ is to be better than something random, must determinism be true?

* Is an army truly a substance?

* Can we intelligibly claim that Sherlock Holmes does not exist?

* Can two objects be in the same place at the same time? Justify your answer.

* Is an object identical with the parts that compose it?

* ‘A stone is a particular, but a stone’s falling is not.’ Discuss.

So we have here the nature and reality of time, the nature of universals, events and substances, identity and spatio-temporal continuity, personal identity, causation and free will, the nature of existence, etc.

All of these topics can be handled by the methods of analytic philosophy – the discipline I was trained in. But I have come to be dissatisfied with this way of approaching metaphysics. Surely the possibility of answering these kinds of question is not put in doubt when one asks, ‘Is metaphysics possible?’ And yet I think it is a legitimate question.

There is another way of thinking about metaphysics. Here is a quote from the Inaugural Address from Hegel’s Lectures History of Philosophy which gives a sense of the kind of thing I am talking about:

“But in the first place, I can ask nothing of you but to bring with you, above all, a trust in science and a trust in yourselves. The love of truth, faith in the power of mind, is the first condition in Philosophy. Man, because he is Mind, should and must deem himself worthy of the highest; he cannot think too highly of the greatness and the power of his mind, and, with this belief, nothing will be so difficult and hard that it will not reveal itself to him. The Being of the universe, at first hidden and concealed, has no power which can offer resistance to the search for knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker – to set before his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.”

When Hegel talks about ‘science’ he doesn’t mean empirical science. He is talking about metaphysics. As metaphysicians we are after nothing less than the ‘Being of the universe’, the ultimate nature of things. Post Hegel, philosophers have come to doubt that such a thing is possible. And for good reason, you could say. What gives us puny beings the right to think that we can reason out the universe to its very ‘depths’?

I mentioned analytic philosophy, but there are other traditions which can also be seen as a reaction to Hegel’s bullish optimism about the powers of human cognition such as pragmatism, phenomenology, existentialism, each of which embraces human finitude as setting limits to what can be known concerning the ultimate nature of things.

The problem with accepting limits is that we can’t know what our limits ultimately are, any more than Hegel can be sure of the ‘power of mind’ that he talks of. I prefer to keep my options open. I don’t know what is possible, or what is impossible. For that, you need to assume a theory, and I prefer not to make any assumptions. So I will continue my ring quest for metaphysics and see where it takes me.