Between reality and metaphysics

The term “meta” is en vogue now. Meta means beyond. Metaphysics means philosophy today, but at the time it was just a term to describe what Aristotle did beyond physics. We now use it for anything self-referential: a met-analysis is an study of studies and a meta sandwich would be a sandwich made of sandwiches. Maybe I should change the name of this blog to Metathinking.

Metaphysics is really the science of that which isn’t immediately tangible. It isn’t knowable. David Hume destroyed it. He basically said that if it cannot be experienced, it doesn’t exist. For example, causality cannot be experienced – or verified. Hence, philosophy is largely left with nothing to say as it is not empirical. Arthur Schopenhauer believed metaphysics was there, but said it wasn’t knowable. Immanuel Kant restored it. Kant analysed epistemology. He argued that it is impossible to know, or experience, anything without certain made up a priori concepts – that he called synthetic (as distinct from analytical concepts, but just like empirical). These synthetic concepts are more abstract and general rather than purely random and logical like empiric observations. For example, he argued that time and space aren’t part of our experience, but a condition that makes our experience possible. Concepts like quality and quantity are in this same category. However, this still mean that metaphysics couldn’t hold – as it is entirely outside of experience. As such, his problem with concepts like god was that they are full of non-falsifiable statements. If it cannot be verified, it doesn’t make sense.

Kant came up with his own metaphysics. To him, the mental apparatus required to experience things were metaphysical: time, space, necessity and being vs not being. So he came up with something else instead – that which wasn’t metaphysical, which isn’t empirical, but necessarily precedes the empirical. His categorical imperative was that one has to act in a way that one would wish the rest of the world acted. This is how he said it:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”.

Sounds a lot like,

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

However, unlike Jesus (and others to whom this was attributed in different religious texts), Kant didn’t tell people what to do, he just opened that up for discussion. There isn’t a moral charge in this. Another interesting thing is that Kant’s imperative inherently presumes that we should assume that others are motivated by the exact same things we are motivated by, being rational beings. Big assumption.

Kant’s philosophy is attractive because it provides a context for real events rather than going off into the ridiculously theoretical. At the same time, because it lies in that grey are between the empirical and the theoretical, to me it still feels like metaphysics.


Philosophers: practicing what you preach

Children are a spectacular audience in that they have a great BS filter. It is quite common in paediatrics for kids to be very skeptical of advice. I recall an overweight doctor working in paediatric endocrinology giving dietary advice to a diabetic child. Let’s just say, the poor doctor was informed of the value of giving advice that they themselves don’t follow.

Through the years, I’ve met many smoking surgeons, neurotic psychiatrists and overweight dieticians (but never a less than glowing dermatologist). It’s not necessary to practice what you preach to give good advice. However, going directly against what you preach, what you are meant to be good at – does raise authenticity and competence concerns, not always fairly, but we would be worse off without this filter.

Whatever about overworked doctors, my real question is about philosophers. Schopenhauer is widely regarded as having been an intolerable hedonistic psychopath and a chauvinist. It is well known that he nearly pushed a woman down the stairs – for being annoying. He bailed on a woman who was pregnant with his child. Hegel did something not entirely dissimilar. Nietzsche didn’t have much of a social life, except for in brothels (not unlike Schopenhauer, actually). Kant didn’t have one at all. Gazillionaire Seneca denounced worldly possessions. He was clearly preoccupied with a fear of poverty. At times, in his letters to Lucillius, he sounds like he’s trying to calm himself down more than anything else. I strongly believe he has what modern day psychiatrists would call a passive death wish. Marcus Aurelius was born into being arguably the most powerful man in the world – and so his advice sounds good, but it’s not clear of how much use it was to him. Seneca’s and Marcus Aurelius’ explanations often reference two separate entities: luck an the gods, without really examining the nature of these. Machiavelli, regarded by many as the ultimate weasel and plamaser, didn’t exactly fare so well at court. Freud came up with a theory that is to philosophy as Newtonian physics is to physics. Nonetheless, there is some outrageous stuff in there too. And if you say enough – some of it is going to be right, a bit like a broken clock is right twice a day.

Two quotes come to mind. Both from Seneca. The first I will use as a disclaimer:

“I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good”.

The second, the one I am actually interested in is:

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

What if replace the word religion with the word philosophy? Let’s be honest, philosophy is nearly more powerful than religion – because it spreads more insidiously. There’s no discrete baptism, no conversion, no point of no return – just silent incremental exposure. And so, I wonder, we treat philosophy with such reverence, but should we?

philosophy practice what you preach