Pragmatic Metaphysics: Strategic Ontology In A Scientific World

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« on: November 08, 2019, 04:20:50 am »
Pragmatic Metaphysics: Strategic Ontology In A Scientific World

Though the 20th century was largely defined by a science that espoused a metaphysics of materialism, more recent developments (and lack thereof) point to the insufficiency of a substance-based, physicalist ontology to explain the nature of reality. The ‘hard’ problem of consciousness shows no signs of abating, while quantum phenomena such as the observer effect are continuing to demonstrate that mind and matter are fundamentally connected (Barad, 2007; Radin, 2006). Consequently, ontological conjectures hitherto dismissed are being given extra layers of texture, and validity, from scientific inquiry. This essay will evaluate the revival of some of these conjectures within a scientific world, and propose a suggested route forward for the re-integration of metaphysics into broader discourse. To set the context, I will begin by outlining the centuries-old decline of Western metaphysics and demonstrate why physicalism has failed in its attempts to fill our ontological void. I will then proceed to evaluate alternative ontologies to physicalism — panpsychism, relational ontologies and monistic idealism. I will argue that although a step in the right direction, panpsychism’s position as a quasi-materialist ontology cannot overcome its combination problem, while relational ontologies fail on the account of what I refer to as pragmatic metaphysics. To conclude, I argue that monistic idealism succeeds philosophically and pragmatically where other metaphysical systems fail: it is not only conceptually sound, but also scientifically congruent with regards to quantum revelations, parsimonious, intelligible, accessible and of net good for the world, factors I argue should be given more weight in metaphysical discussions as we attempt to strategically re-integrate questions of existence into the mainstream.

In essence, Kant believed metaphysics at- tempts to infer a priori synthetic knowledge from pure concepts without sensibility, a project destined to fail since “concepts without intuitions are empty” (ibid). Since Kant posits that the mind structures reality (rather than the converse), he insists we are incapable of knowing things in themselves as we cannot discern between what is in our own minds vis-a-vis what is a feature of the thing-in-itself. Thus, according to Kant, since knowledge is limited to appearances, we cannot effectively speculate as to the nature of being itself. With this understanding, metaphysical inquiry torpedoed into terminal decline (Sjostedt-H, 2015).

Subsequent to Kant’s subjective critique, logical positivists such as Ayer emphasised the verification principle, which holds that a statement is meaningful only if it is either empirically verifiable or else tautological, of which metaphysical inquiry is neither. Subsequently, Wittgenstein (1966) ap- peared to put the final nail in the coffin of metaphysics with his argument that the very linguistic nature of metaphysical statements are meaningless, and that their place in discourse is just part of a multitude of language games. Both linguistic and thought-based arguments can be thought of as variants of correlationism, a term coined by Meillassoux (2008, p49) to depict the “idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” For correlationists, it is assumed that one cannot know the reality of an object in and of itself since we cannot discern between its objective properties and the subjective properties that give access to the object.

Emergentism often draws parallels between consciousness and matter and structural examples such as whirlpools emerging from water, or water emerging from hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Yet the change in parts of the brain that give rise to emerging mental phenomena is not of the same category — these states are unobservable, unquantifiable, and lack any known trans-or- dinal laws that would bridge matter to mind (Sjostedt-H, 2015). Advocates of this physicalist school of thought imply that sentience can be inferred from biology in the same way that biology can be inferred from chemistry, despite no explanation as to how sentience can emerge from insentience. For Strawson, (2006a, p15), “intelligible emergence can be drawn from given a single set of conceptually homogeneous concepts. But it’s very hard to see how any set of conceptually homogeneous concepts could capture both the experiential (i.e., consciousness-involving) and the non-experiential (non-conscious-involving).”

This rebuke to emergentism, and thus materialism, can be developed as follows. Let us take the emergent property B as a derivative of a prior form A. For B to emerge from A is for B to arise from A given how A is. B must emerge or be given in A in a non-arbitrary way in order that it arise in the first place. Thus A has everything to do with B’s emergence. Some essence of B has to be already, in some configurative constituent, within A. “It is in essence an in-virtue-of relation [and thus] cannot be brute” (ibid).

Moreover, emergentism cannot, given its materialist foundation, accept that mental events can impact the world (such as through intention) since mental phenomena are not accepted forces of nature (Sjostedt-H, 2015). Emergentism developed to its logical conclusion thus refutes the possibility of mental causation in a physical world. Yet since emergentists also often reject epiphenomenalism (Chalmers, 2014), the notion that mind is the mere residual consequence of physical processes, they are stuck in the middle ground of neither accepting nor rejecting mental causation (Sjostedt-H, 2015). Thus to reject the upward and downward causation of emergentism, one could argue we ipso facto must accept that mind always co-existed with matter. This opens the conceptual door for the embracement of an alternative that transcends such problems, such as panpsychism, as consciousness is seen as a fundamental characteristic.

Since our understanding of the nature of matter has been evolving over time, it is impossible to take a firm position on a substance-based metaphysics. Moreover, said ‘understanding’ of matter is an abstraction taken to be real, in which it is known only as for what it does rather than what it is. Our materialist paradigm thus accounts for ontology through physical structure rather than content (Sjostedt-H, 2016). This is a perfectly valid position if attempting to account for the behaviour of certain particles, but does not go beyond abstract description of be- haviour into what a particle is, in and of itself. We have no thorough account of the intrinsic nature of matter, leaving the door open to debate as to what ontologically underpins it.

The ontological architecture of panpsychism makes for a convincing argument given the problematic prevailing paradigm of emergentism. Emergentism fails to provide an intelligible account of sentience from insentience and situates itself in a physicalist paradigm that has no sound laws for the interconnection between mental phenomena and physical constituents. Indeed, the emergentist argument positions itself as a physicalist account for which the empirical evidence it bases its endeavours is nonexistent. A simple Occam’s razor argument, one could argue, would invite the notion of panpsychism, which transcends the limitations of physicalist ontology in suggesting that consciousness itself is primary (either as protoconsciousness or some other version of sentience).

Combination problem

Yet panpsychism suffers from the combination problem, which challenges the validity of pervasive constituent-level sentience. In short, the question arises: how do the experiences of micro-level entities such as protons combine to give rise to human and animal consciousness?

It seems perfectly reasonable for micro-entities to exist in summation without a necessary flaring forth of a macro-entity. Applied to human consciousness, why would the summation of distinct conscious entities give rise to a single conscious mind? As Coleman (2014) argues, since each phenomenal micro-entity has a viewpoint that is its own, if micro-entities are to combine to form a universal experience, then said experience would have to combine each entity’s individual experience at the expense of all others as well as the same all other entities. This is a contradiction (assuming each entity has a different phenomenological experience). Other variants of the combination problem include the palette problem (Chalmers, 2014) (how can a limited number of micro qualities give rise to the complex array of macro phenomena of colours, sounds and smells?) and the grain problem (Lock- wood, 1993) (how do microexperiences result in homogenous macroexperiences such as the colour blue rather than a mass variation of distinct qualities?) It is clear that any refutal of the combination problem would have to take into account all of its iterations, less it be a rebuttal of a single strand.

Relational ontology

Let us proceed to an alternative to the panpsychist perspective, and move beyond its substance-based ontology and into a dynamic, relational version. A substance-based view of reality has been critiqued as overly “individuated, formalized, mechanistic, and reductive to make proper sense of our existence” (Asch, 2004, p20), yet to discuss a relational ontology within the linguistic con- straints of philosophies we are habituated to employing is a difficult task. Relational ontology sug- gests that being is dynamic rather than static, and that this dynamism should be the focus of our on- tological investigation. Western metaphysics holds within it an implicit assumption that the cosmos is constructed of substantial constituents, in which the fundamental units of reality are static and undifferentiated (Seibt, 2018). In contrast, relational ontologies hold the premise that reality is, instead of consisting of individual objects with attributes, ‘made’ of interconnected processes of becoming. The idea that individual objects exist is the result of our tools of perception (we perceive separate objects in an external reality for everyday purposes (Bergson, 1903)) and a consequence of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (Whitehead, 1929), which holds that we believe single lin- guistic terms reflect individual objects, so that our language solidifies a reality in motion. In other words, our everyday navigation and language systems are built around an implicit atomistic ontology, with objective reality described in terms of nouns rather than dynamic verbs.

Arguably the most comprehensive metaphysical system based on this understanding is Whitehead’s (1929), though his framework is often deemed somewhat impenetrable. That said, one can see that Whitehead’s view of subjectivity is conceptualised in a temporal manner, an act of becoming. Whitehead places events and the processes of their arising and passing as the most accurate descrip- tion of ontological reality, as opposed to the prevailing (un)holy trinity of space, time and matter. He also employs a version of panpsychism that holds that the events that constitute reality (actual occasions) enjoy and exhibit some degree of subjectivity. Although avoiding some of the core prob- lems of substance-based panpsychism, this ontology still fails to account for the combination problem articulated previously.

Versions of relational ontologies are contained within the new materialism movement, a group of philosophical perspectives that do not seek to homogenise matter, but rather make room for its heterogeneity. The new materialists argue quantum experiments have put an end to substance-based ontology and that we must begin to see matter not as substance but rather as force or movement (Meillassoux, 2008). This is a promising movement for metaphysics in that its offshoots take into account quantum processes that physicalism fails to address, such as the measurement problem, whilst also overcoming post-Kantian anthropocentric ‘limits’ on metaphysics. A key thinker in this space is Karen Barad, who proposes a relational ontology of “agential realism” in which matter is seen as a dynamic expression of intra-active becoming. For Barad (2007), agentiality is occurring in a world that is becoming different than it is at all times, and phenomena and objects do not exist prior to their relationship but, rather, objects emerge through ‘intra-actions’. Agential realism implies a ubiquity of meaning (versus panpsychism’s ubiquity of mind) but does not address the par- ticular component parts in terms of their relationship to the whole. Instead, each expression is seen purely as an unfolding of the entirety. It remains to be seen, however, whether agential realism is legitimate in its transposition of indeterminacy at the quantum level to the macro level.

Although the relational ontologies of Whitehead, Barad and other new materialist thinkers act as marked improvements on physicalist ontology, several core issues can be raised. Without a substance-based metaphysics, it is not clear how one can define a dynamic process category feature, (though this critique could be nullified as language evolves more dynamic descriptive capacities), while there is as yet no indication from an ontological perspective how a philosophy of becoming corresponds to a reality of space and time. Yet I believe pushback against relational ontologies relate more significantly to issues of pragmatism, as outlined below.

An inaccessible metaphysics saturated in complexity, while potentially an improvement upon materialism, does little to re-integrate metaphysics back into mainstream discourse. It maintains, and indeed widens, the chasm between philosophers and the populous. I believe it is essential for the flourishing of society for us to widen the net of metaphysical reach, so that we begin to look beyond the superficial consciousness of materialism. If we are to re-establish metaphysics as a driving force in everyday life, in our systems and our institutions, as Panikkar (2010) suggests we used to, then factors such as intelligibility and elegance should be important considerations alongside philosophical thoroughness. Relational ontologies fail on these accounts. In fitting with this, I propose a perspective of pragmatic metaphysics.

Pragmatic metaphysics would rank metaphysical systems not just in terms of their philosophical rigor but also in terms of their applicable impact, so that the strength of a metaphysical theory would be judged not only by its conceptual thoroughness but also by its ability to positively impact life itself. Put differently, the validity of the ontological conjecture would be seen as inextricable from its practical applications.

Monistic idealism avoids the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness of physicalist ontology whilst also overcoming the combination problem that plagues the perspective of panpsychism. In relation to the aforementioned conditions, monistic idealism has been thoroughly articulated philosophically in various Western and

Eastern traditions (Kastrup, 2010), is consistent with old and new forms of science (Radin, 2006), is parsimonious (Kastrup, 2010), intelligible (“all is contained in a single awareness), accessible (Spira, 2017), and emphasises interconnectivity, thus satisfying the proposed conditions.

I have been drawn to monistic idealism (and non-dual philosophy) since a particular course of med- itation designed to invoke persistent non-symbolic experience (Martin, 2017) left me with an insight into the nature of reality that I fundamentally intuited as ‘more true’ than the relativistic un- derstanding I had been living by. Somewhat Bergsonian, it was my intuition that pointed towards my Being-ness as nonlocal awareness, the sense that universal consciousness just is, and that ‘I’ am said consciousness individuated. This ‘understanding’ stayed with me for several weeks before I lost its essence after taking a break from practice. This catalysed my interest in idealism, since it was a consciousness-only paradigmatic experience that I had stepped into. In considering why I felt it to be ‘more’ true, my experience of reality was not that there is no distinction between objects, but rather that the base ontological container and nature of said objects is the same — consciousness. It was a prolonged experience of lucidity, the dirt cleared from my windscreen, an intuition that consciousness (though not thought itself) is fundamentally primary, the screen upon which the film of reality is projected.

To ensure my attempts to provide ontological rigour are not overtly coloured by my personal experience, I will examine idealism from the lens of Kastrup (2015), who holds a unique vantage point, much like Barad, in that his training is both in physics and philosophy. As with panpsychism, there are a multitude of iterations of the category, but for the purposes of this essay, let us propose ideal- ism to be based upon two central claims. First, that consciousness is irreducible, and second, that the entirety of nature is reducible to unitary consciousness. Kastrup (2015) outlines several scientif- ic facts about the nature of consciousness and reality (such as there are tight neurological correlates between the brain and experience) and concludes in various iterations that the most parsimonious ontology, “that which requires the smallest number of postulates whilst maintaining sufficient ex- planatory power to account for all facts” (Kastrup, 2015) is one of monistic idealism.
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