With my latest article but this one, The ‘Superfluity of Metaphysics’1, I published a pamphlet upon the use of metaphysics in both philosophical and everyday reasoning. In a discussion of the article, a friend of mine accused me of not giving actual arguments but merely making bold claims. Therefore, I shall attempt in this article to refine and explain my strategy.
I intentionally wrote the article as a pamphlet, that is to say, in order to provoke some reaction to it. I do not resort to simply saying metaphysics were bad or useless, however. In the first place, I outline an explanatory argument in terms of evolutionary theory with respect to the origins of metaphysical beliefs. To object that this be an empirical argument would only apply if I accepted the premise that empirical data were irrelevant for philosophical discussions. I do not accept this premise, though, upon the grounds that many philosophical problems only arise in virtue of philosophical misconstruals of phenomena. In other words, empirical data do bear upon philosophical discussions inasmuch as they prove philosophical doctrines or arguments wrong. Yet even if the objection applied, there would still be four other points I make left.
First, we usually try to explain a phenomenon as simple as possible. Of course, this does not entail that the seemingly simplest explanation is always the best or even correct. But if I can explain phenomenon φ1 by means of either entities ε1 and ε2 or by means of entity ε1 alone without any explanatory loss, there remains no reason to include ε2 in the explanation. Otherwise, we may as well argue that a logically valid argument be enhanced by adding further, albeit without any bearance upon the argument’s validity, premises. Needless to say, the argument
P1 All humans are mortal.
P2 Socrates is a human.
C Socrates is mortal.
does not become any less valid by adding the premise
P3 Elephants are mammals.
Yet neither does it enhance the argument’s validity. It is simply superfluous.
In the case of metaphysics, we encounter this phenomenon not only in one or other superfluous entity but in the form of an entire sphere added to our ontology. Now, how, exactly, is the sphere of metaphysics, say, in the form of Plato’s Realm of Ideas, superfluous in regard to our ontology in the sense that it renders it unnecessarily crowded? The problem of universals, which Plato attempted to solve with his Realm of Ideas, has a much simpler solution. With Wittgenstein, we can simply say that in fact there are no such things as universals but only resemblences which we, in turn, can subsume under a term in virtue of family resemblences. Thus, there is no single characteristic all games have in common, yet although we cannot say what, exactly, a game be in form of a definition, we know what games are because of their family resemblences.2 Notice that this does not necessarily lead to Nominalism. To reject the metaphysical sphere, for instance in form of Plato’s Realm of Ideas, does not force us to interpret all words as names.3
Second, if it be sound to say that the physical (natural) world need a metaphysical support, there is nothing to prevent a vicious infinite regress. For if the physical (natural) world need support by another sphere, what reason would there be that this metasphere were not in need of a metaspherical support? I am open to any arguments; I am simply saying that to my knowledge, no one has ever given any conclusive argument as to this. For this reason, I conclude that we arrive at the following dichotomy: Either the physical (natural) world is self-sufficient, or every sphere needs a metaspherical backup.
Third, another problem with the metaphysical sphere lies in the following logical dichotomy: Either the sphere, or at least the entities it comprises, are investigatable, which would render them part of the physical (natural) world, or it is unfathomable, so that no meaningful statements can be made about it.
Fourth, metaphysical explanations are pseudo-explanations because they do not explain anything but only crowd our ontology with further unexplained entities. Thus, to say that a demon causes a thunderstorm not only leaves us with no explanation how the thunderstorm comes about – at best, it tells us why – but also adds the unexplained entity ‘demon’ to our ontology. We thus get to know neither in what manner a demon bring about the thunderstorm nor what a demon be or what it be like and how, exactly, we know of its existence.
Notice that this last point is a classical dilemma, for either way, metaphysics are superfluous.
I hope that the above remarks help clarify what I meant to say with my original article ‘The Superfluity of Metaphysics’. Of course, my arguments do not, as every logically valid argument, apply absolutely but within a given context. Every good argument, or combination of arguments, is open to objections. I am yet waiting for any valid and valuable objections to be made.
2. Confer: Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Philosophical Investigations; The German Text With a Revised English Translation; Third Edition; Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001; especially §§69–75.
3. Wittgenstein points this out as a mistake in §383 in op. cit.