Why Metaphysics Matters


Metaphysics has acquired a bad reputation. I want to show you why metaphysics matters. Metaphysics is all about describing water to a fish. 

Metaphysics means different things to different people. In the history of philosophy it has become somewhat a catch-all for all types of meta-philosophizing. Metaphysics can be reclaimed by examining its roots in mathematics and geometry — which no one would argue don’t matter to physics. The theoretical mathematician, creating mathematical frameworks that are built up in rigorously logical ways, through complex rules of translation, are the most obvious creative metaphysicians of all. Metaphysics in this regard is the study of, understanding of, and creation of conceptual frameworks that can function in a variety of ways: for beauty, for usefulness, for meaning-making, for deconstructing limiting frameworks, for experimenting, for trying something new just for the hell of it, for creating new languages such as writing computer codes or “inventing” non-euclidian geometry, for creating fantasy worlds in literature or virtual reality.

Metaphysics gets into trouble when it tries to make truth claims about the world. No true metaphysician would make such claims, because the pre-requisite of a valid metaphysics, is that it understands what underlies all truth claims, namely a conceptual system, aka a metaphysical framework.

To live in a post-metaphysical world, therefore, does not mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater. A post-metaphysical orientation is to realize that there is always 1) either an implicit or explicit ontology operating in any truth claim and 2) either a transparent or hidden metaphysical framework that is foundational to that ontology. Metaphysics is like mining — the deeper you dig, the more gold you’re likely to find. For the metaphysician “gold digging” is all about looking for what is implicitly functioning but not yet explicitly known, and the ambitious gold digger wants also to reveal the hidden metaphysical framework.

Metaphysics is all about describing water to the fish.

Here is a useful diagram The Matrix of Existence

matrix of existence

As long as metaphysics sticks to the Right Hand quadrants, it is safe from the post-modern critique. Kant described the “stuff” in the RH quadrants as “transcendentalia”, and henceforward we were left with the uncanny prospect of “mapping territories” as the number one project of human knowledge building. On the other hand, the post-modernist has completely eliminated the “stuff” in the Left Hand quadrants — namely, that there are concrete observables with or without human conceptualization — and curiously, paradoxically, and rather humorously, have thus anchored themselves firmly in the RH world of Kant’s transcendentalism and the metaphysics they so strongly deny. Gotta love that twist.

What the metaphysician can do, however is help describe what I call the “existential status” of “things” with the help of this illustration which I call “The Matrix of Existence.” It says, quite naively and without a lot of “to do”, that all this stuff really exists, but there is a range or field of existence — some of which is concrete and obvious (the UL), some of which is more subtle and less obvious, some of which is so subtle that it needs more “help”, conceptually and imaginatively to bring it into awareness, and some of which is unknown, but none-the-less part of what is “really existent” because everything is mutually independent (all causes, conditions and effects are mutually arising), and some of this stuff is so very subtle, that it exists in potential only.

Depending on who you are, and how you relate to different “stuff”, you will assign more or less “existence” to them. Some mathematicians for example, think numbers are really very real, so that numbers, which are UR quadrant stuff, would be assigned a much higher level of existence by them than by your average textile worker. For the mathematician, numbers are more like the territory, but for the textile worker, they are more like the map. Plato placed a high level of existence on ideas, that’s why he capitalized the word. A fun parlor game is to sit with your friends and parse out what fits where in the matrix of existence, and grade them according to the status of existence you would give them. You might discover that metaphysics not only matters, but that it can be fun, and can reveal the rich multi-layered textures of existence itself. Which actually, is what metaphysics is for.

When we add a process inquiry to the question of metaphysics, we get into some really tricky territory. How, for example, does stuff move through the levels of existence? How do subtle experiences become solid objects that are easily shared? Where do we place stuff like “causally effective illusions?” — which , like the rope that is mistaken for a snake, is an observable (rope) improperly entangled within a conception(snake)? What is the relationship between the left and right quadrants, or the upper and lower ones? Do we invent new ways to discover stuff?- a scenario where the RH quadrants lead — or is all the stuff in the RH quadrants “products” of LF operations (as Johnson and Lakoff might argue).

So let’s not go softly into that dark night of “post-metaphysics. Rather shout loud and far “Long Live Metaphysics.” Because, it matters. At least to me. That’s a start.


6 thoughts on “Why Metaphysics Matters

  1. I don’t know about textile workers. But most people I know would agree that numbers are more like the map than the territory. Great piece. Thanks.

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