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Metaphysical Skepticism

Jacob Bell argues that we can’t determine the ultimate nature of reality.

Metaphysics can be thought of as an investigation into the ultimate or fundamental nature of reality. In other words, it is the attempt to reveal and describe how and what things really are at some foundational level.The most popular kind of metaphysics seems focused on determining whether the world is best described as fundamentally physical, mental, neutral, or some combination of these. I have no quarrel with many of the questions that metaphysics seeks to investigate. Here I am concerned with the metaphysical doctrines which make grand claims, such as ‘everything is physical’ or ‘everything is mental’. Popular examples of these doctrines include physicalism and idealism. Less mainstream positions which are gaining in popularity include neutral monism and panpsychism. I will settle for brief descriptions of the two more popular positions. Physicalism refers to the thesis that everything which exists is physical, including thoughts, numbers, minds, and consciousness (if these things exist, of course). Idealism, in contrast, is the thesis that everything which exists is in some sense mental or a product of consciousness, including seemingly non-mental physical objects such as rocks, chairs, and planets. I am neither a physicalist nor an idealist. This isn’t because I take some other metaphysical theory as true, but because I am extremely skeptical of any position that makes grand sweeping generalizations regarding the fundamental nature of reality. Let me tell you why.

The core beliefs of physicalism and idealism are both experientially and empirically inadequate. That is, neither my experience of the world nor empirical investigation into reality can determine which theory describes the ultimate nature of reality, because they are both compatible with my experience and with science. The criticism will differ depending on which type of physicalism or idealism one wants to champion. For example, an eliminative materialist position, which claims that mental states don’t exist, conflicts in obvious ways with my experience, in that as I write this sentence I seem to be experiencing the belief that this theory is wrong. Generally speaking, however, no metaphysical position has any claim to superiority based on my experience of the world or the investigations of empirical science.

This is sometimes even agreed upon by champions of each doctrine, such as John Vervaeke and Bernardo Kastrup. Vervaeke identifies himself with a ‘non-reductive’ physicalism, and Kastrup says he is an idealist. They have agreed that each of their positions is compatible with current science, and neither has made a substantial argument that their position is better suited to explaining our experience of the world. Indeed, each doctrine must make additional arguments to support their position, such as the appeal to emergence in non-reductive physicalism, or, on Kastrup’s version of idealism, the appeal to a cosmic mind dissociation from which allows organisms to have experiences. So, how is one to choose between the many metaphysical doctrines, if experience and empiricism cannot provide substantial evidence that would vindicate any particular metaphysical thesis?

To The Blue
To The Blue, Wassily Kandinsky 1939 Wikimedia Commons

Theoretical virtues are often appealed to as increasing or decreasing the plausibility of a theory. For example, if a theory can explain just as much or more by appealing to fewer concepts, it is a more parsimonious theory. The more parsimonious a theory, the more plausible it is; or so it is claimed.

The problem is that this requires one to assume that reality is simple. A parsimonious theory that appeals to fewer concepts might contain fewer false propositions, but this doesn’t entail that it accurately represents reality. Life, world, and reality, might require a more robust and complex description than strict parsimony would allow. Alternatively, when arguing in support of a position such as physicalism or idealism, one might appeal to the way in which the concepts being used harmonize with one another in a logical, consistent, and coherent manner. In arguing against such theories, one might point to the flawed or inconsistent logic contained within a competing theory. If a theory is logically flawed it cannot be considered a serious contender. However, many competing theories are logically valid, consistent, and coherent. So an appeal to the inner logic of a theory doesn’t seem to be decisive if we are comparing theories which are each coherent. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that a system is an accurate description of reality just because it is internally valid. Many great works of fiction are internally valid, even if they appeal to magic. Likewise, some conspiracy theories contain internally valid systems of logic but don’t reflect reality, since they’re likely to be using false premises. But imagine that we had no way to empirically verify or falsify the premises of a conspiracy theory. How could we then determine that the theory was an inaccurate description of reality? This parallels the problem of verifying or falsifying premises of grand metaphysical theories. If the premises of some metaphysical theory cannot be empirically or experientially verified or falsified, we seem to be restricted to an analysis of its logical validity and internal coherence which leaves us no better off in determining whether the theory accurately describes reality. And a theory that is logically sound and contains no contradictions, but which has no foot in empirical investigation or experience, could be just a fantastical creation of rationality. Therefore we must appeal to experience and empirical investigation in addition to the logical validity of a given theory.

We have come full circle. If competing metaphysical theories are logically sound, and share a similar compatibility with our experience and with science, how is one to choose? I don’t think we can, at least not in a reasonable or unbiased manner. It might be interesting, insightful, or even fun to think about the ultimate nature of reality, but I am wholly skeptical that any particular metaphysical theory can ever be supported or vindicated beyond any others. My skepticism leads me to metaphysical agnosticism, from which I can poke and prod the various metaphysical theses in pursuit of wisdom, but without laying claim to having found ‘the Truth’ in any of them.

© Jacob Bell 2023

Jacob Bell is a graduate student at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. His research focuses on phenomenology and existentialism.

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