Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Metaphysics Prior to Epistemology

It seems to be generally accepted that metaphysics is posterior to epistemology. After Descartes and Kant nearly everyone seems to take it for granted, even scholastics. For instance, the two books in the previous post, Degrees of Knowledge and Insight, both attempt, each in its own way, to construct a Thomistic-type metaphysics on the foundation of an analysis of the intellect and intellectual processes.

On the other hand, I'm very tempted to argue that the assumption that ever since the formation of the "critical problem" any future metaphysics must be constructed over an epistemological substratum is false, both according to 1) the order of being and 2) the order of knowing.

1). A. Metaphysics is first philosophy. But if it's posterior to epistemology then it's second philosophy. Ergo, etc.

B. Metaphysics is conceived by Aristotle as a science. But according to Aristotle science is certain knowledge logically derived from self-evident necessary first principles. But no singular contingent truth is necessary. Therefore no singular contingent truth is a principle of metaphysics. But the "critical problem" - how can I trust my senses, how do I know I'm not a brain in a vat, therefore how do I know my concepts conform to reality, etc. - is concerned with our knowledge of contingent truths. Therefore a resolution of the "critical problem" is not a necessary precursor to metaphysics.

C. Metaphysics is a science of the necessary, not of the contingent. There is no science strictly speaking of the contingently true. Therefore metaphysics is concerned with a) what is necessarily actual, and b) what is necessarily possible, but not with what is contingently actual. But however the "critical problem" is resolved, it is resolved to a contingently actual truth. For instance, if my senses are generally reliable and I usually perceive the world as it is, taking into account the ordinary risk of error, the fact that this world exists and that I know it is still contingently true. But if I am a brain in a vat and my perception is an illusion, this is also contingently true. Therefore the science of the necessarily actual and possible does not depend on the solution of the problem either way.

D. An accurate metaphysics can persist even if all of my judgments about contingent facts are false. For instance, if I were a brain in a vat, my conception of substance and accidents would remain unaffected. I would be in error about particular substances, but not about the underlying theory. A brain in a vat remains a substance, and its color an accident.

2. A. The possibility of attaining knowledge is not dependent on a proof that the knowledge is possible. A child does not learn semiotics before learning his letters. Phenomenology does not come prior to perception. If I can't prove I'm not a brain in a vat, that doesn't mean that I don't really know who the President is. So, to generalize, a proof that knowledge about reality is possible is not necessary in order to have knowledge about reality.

B. Furthermore, it is licit to argue from actuality to possibility. So: I do know who the President is. Therefore some knowledge about reality is possible. How? That's another question. The fact that I can't show how doesn't prove that it isn't so. A radical doubt which refuses to admit that I know who the President is or whether I have two hands is not asking for epistemology, but something else. It also redefines "knowledge", since it is obviously and trivially (pre-philosophically) apparent that I have knowledge of this kind. If Cartesian radical doubt insists that it is not knowledge in the most perfect sense of "science," then I readily grant this.

C. Even brain-in-a-vat type questions presume a metaphysics. If I am a brain in a vat, then there are bodies with certain properties, and a distinction between material and formal causes, and essentially ordered causal chains, and so forth. A radical skepticism which eschews all metaphysics whatsoever, which makes no claims at all about reality, can be nothing but simple negation. But no science can be founded on a negation. Ergo, etc.

I could go on about why I think the whole notion of Cartesian doubt (as opposed to something like Husserlian epoche) is a serious mistake, but that would take me away from the present topic. As for the thesis, I'd be very happy to read any refutations.

5 comments:

AT said...

"But according to Aristotle science is certain knowledge logically derived from self-evident necessary first principles."

There are some self-evident principles everyone knows: the principle of contradiction, a whole is greater than a part, etc.
But the self-evident first principles of metaphysics or physics takes years, or centuries, or millennia to discover. In physics we haven't even scratched the surface.

If science is of the necessary the first task is to show that there is something necessary, that not everything is contingent. This wouldn't even be possible unless we had some knowledge of contingency. Descartes' error seems to be he wanted a necessary self-evident first principle from which to show the existence of the contingent. The error lies in the fact it may have been self-evident but it isn't a first principle.

Lee Faber said...

Then does the proof for the existence of God pertain to physics? If you recall, Scotus moves from the contingent to the necessary.

Also, Henry begins his Summa with epistemology, before moving on to the nature of the sciences.

Michael said...

Then does the proof for the existence of God pertain to physics?

I don't think so, unless you use motion.

If you recall, Scotus moves from the contingent to the necessary.

Yes, and this might require massaging my claims somewhat. However, recall that for Scotus any contingency whatever will suffice. We only need a quia determination that some fact or substance is contingent, not a quod est.

Michael said...

Faber, I've been browsing through Henry's Summa. Those first 30 or 40 folios have a lot of interesting stuff in there. Good blog fodder, perhaps?

onus probandi said...

"...how do I know I'm not a brain in a vat, therefore how do I know my concepts conform to reality... If I can't prove I'm not a brain in a vat, that doesn't mean that I don't really know who the President is."

That's just it; "reality" is nothing more than a mental construct designed and governed by either Descarte's demon or his more modern reincarnation, Putnam's mad scientist.

Therefore, any aspect of that "reality" is really subject to the whims of either.

Whether or not the shadows in our Platonic cave is indicative of reality itself becomes moot given this possible (albeit, seemingly risible and even perhaps "imagined") perspective and our escape from that cave to finally the sunny landscape of the outside where everything ultimately becomes illumined is really ludicrous.

When you consider the basic quantum mechanics of our universe where the atom is nothing more than energy vertices (nothing really hard or concrete), drawing the conclusion that everything in our reality is rather illusory is hardly a stretch.

At any rate, very appreciative of another fine post, Michael -- you're on a role!