Metaphysics is Boring When You Know the Answers

I took a huge number of metaphysics courses during grad school and, over time, I changed my mind about pretty much everything, other than my dogged commitment to the law of non-contradiction. Then I stayed stuck, because, of course, I eventually landed on the correct answers. I thought the NYTM article on free will was pretty good, but I also no longer find the question very interesting. There are lots of uninteresting metaphysical questions. Here are a few obviously correct metaphysical conclusions not worth thinking that much about (to me).

Free will: The universe is either deterministic or it isn't. This has nothing to do with free will. We have it. Yes, we often make mistakes in attributing agency to ourselves and others. But often we don't. It is frequently possible to have done other than what we did in fact do. The trick is understanding the relevant sense of “possible,” which has nothing to do with ultimate issues about the nature of causation.

Ontology: Quine is right. To be is to be the value of a bound variable. That is, if something plays a role in our best explanation of some phenomenon, you should believe it exists. Otherwise, not. God, for instance, is the best explanation for nothing. That's why you shouldn't believe in God, or the posits of string theory. (People like Megan who hesitate to call themselves atheists because they cannot “prove” nonexistence are simply confused about ontological commitment. If Megan's p for “God exists” is so low (“vanishingly unlikely”), then God must play no role in her economy of explanation, which is all there is to being an atheist. You don't just get to decide whether or not you are one.)

Universals: There are “repeatable” fundamental “kinds”, which explains why there are relations of causal necessity. Realism about universals confuses the semantic generality of concepts for ontological generality. “Instantiation” and “exemplification” relations add nothing useful to property instances (tropes). There are individuals and that's it. If two are in different locations but it would have made no difference whatsoever to the history of the universe had they been switched, then they are two of a kind. We can have essentialist scientific realism without essences. But it really doesn't matter much: choosing a particularist or universalist ontology is just a Carnap-style choice of vocabulary. It's an open question whether the more elegantly parsimonious vocabulary works out better in the work of explanation. It's probably easier to think like a realist.

Modality: There is exactly one possible world, the actual one. Pace Lewis, more than one possible world is the best explanation for nothing, so that's that. “Possible” means “not inconsistent with the fundamental laws that govern basic kinds.” Modal statements about fundamental kinds (“gold might have had a different atomic weight”) may be grammatical but are not meaningful. Whereof we cannot speak, etc. Bonus: modal epistemology is just epistemology, and epistemology is the psychology and sociology of truth-tracking. Unless there is reason to think that our haphazardly evolved and organized and imaginative abilities for some bizarre reason happen to reliably track truths about the fundamental laws governing ultimate kinds, it's hard to see what thought experiments about transparent iron or a molecular duplicate but non-conscious Zombie me are even supposed to be about, much less explain.

Qualia: Yes! They play a computational function. (This is a joke! I don't know that at all!)

Don't mean to bore you. It's all pretty obvious when you just come out and say it like that, huh?

Also, it has come my attention that some readers of this blog find philosophical jargon forbidding. Sorry! But if a man can't use clubby, exclusive, abstruse jargon on his own blog, where can he? Anyway, if you end up on a game show, and they need the answer to the problem of universals, you're in luck. OK… Back to hard, interesting stuff, like happiness and inequality.

  • erutan

    An interesting aside:

    I was talking with someone in Canada about how the whole “Queen” thing is silly in this day and age, and their response was quite interesting. Basically because all of the trappings of the office are in the Queen, people are quite free to lambast their PM. In the US our president is the “face of the nation” etc etc – and this leads to a (potentially) dangerous amount of free reign in varoius ways, not just in Obamania but post 9/11 when critiquing Bush policy was seen as being unpatriotic. The whole rally around the flag mentality would be less prone to excess if our executive leader was a bit more distant from said flag.

    Not saying I think royalty would work in the US, and not to degrade the historical importance of our constitutional government, but food for thought perhaps. It seems obvious in hindsight but I’d either forgotten or not hopped aboard that train of thought before.

  • Alan

    Man, I like this “Col Cal”, doen’t he really captures the essence of the Clinton era.? Just visualise it … “semen-soaked liberalism”, Wow! Prizes for the most apposite epitaph of President Bush’s era- shock & awe?-. What about President Obama? Would the “return of the Keynesian kid”, do it?

    • Cool Cal

      It’s hard to top anything as maudlin as “compassionate conservatism” – perfect, I would say, as a huckster’s pitch for Johnsonian liberalism masquerading as a GOP version of the Third Way.

  • erutan

    I bet going back in time we’d find plenty of people on the right that were exhibiting similar traits in 2000, in terms of ideological hypocrisy just look at spending, corruption, separation of powers etc in that admin. I personally think that a lot on the left were so fed up with the Bush administration that these “events” around Obama are cathartic and the luster will fade over time.

    There is also a meaningful difference between a sort of “civil” draft ala current day Germany and being conscripted to fight in a war you don’t believe in.

    I’m personally unswayed by the rhetoric on TV that’s he the next hitler/anti-christ and there will be a military coup against him for violating the constitution blah blah. Just give it time and hopefully perceptions of him will get a bit more grounded (on both sides)

  • erutan

    Geez, someone just got emotional at one of those “yes the Bush administration is really gone” moments. :) I’m sure most people at some point in there lives have anthropomorphized some object.

  • Cool Cal

    I completely agree that conservatives engaged in some ideological hypocrisy, but what strikes me as different (though, certainly no more noble) is that the right has had a certain hypocrisy as regards political power for quite some time. In fact, it would seem that the right has been a fair weather fan of constitutional limits since as long as the Nixon administration. It is only because the left claims an ideological hegemony on civil liberties in the name of various interest groups, for better or worse, that it seems more striking for them to shift simply having been enthralled by their leader. And it is precisely because, through thick and thin, the left has more or less adhered to a certain principled defense of select civil liberties, that a sudden compromise for the sake of power is more craven than seeing the GOP behave as they always have. At least Republicans will admit that they think there are limits to the First Amendment, while the left unconditionally preaches it, and then establishes the Fairness Doctrine.

    And I obviously do not believe that Obama will become Hitler or the Antichrist. Now do I believe that there will be a draft. I was using the language in Rahm Emmanualle’s Civil Service manifesto to propose a hypothetical to serve as an object lesson, and as I said before, it proved correct … the left will most likely support anything the president does, regardless of personal principle.

    In a way it is similar to Bush. He was a Republican after 8 long years of tawdry, semen-soaked liberalism. That was too good to pass up in the name of hair splitting.

  • erutan

    I think most of the left would not be cool with yelling fire in a crowded theatre. :) It’s odd how the big government party has more ownership of civil liberties issues than the limited government / individualist one. But yes, I think there is a definite “trust that he has the plan/answers” which I think is part of a particularly poignant honeymoon on the left and perhaps fear of our current economic situation. I for one don’t really grasp the economic details, and judging by the wide spectrum of analysis out there a lot of the “experts” don’t seem to have either… so the average voters don’t have much else except trust in a sense. Krugman, the ACLU, a few “progressive” blogs/sites (read the obama bashing at, are critical of him. I can recall the outcry over FISA and recent concern over the UK torture case, waffling on executive order privileges re: Rove/Miers (a decision for the justice department? WHY let the executive branch decide it’s privelege?).

    You have closed minded partisans and down the line voters on both sides. I’m just leery of this “THE LEFT” that I get lumped into sometimes haha. We’ve got our secret e-mails and we’re coming to overturn the nation! rawr! Seriously, I just say give it a little time… if people actually get his message it’s that the US parties as professional sports franchises isn’t healthy and the poeple need to give our representative a little kick in the ass sometimes.

    I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth re Hitler/Antichrist, just pointing out the opposite of the “hero worship” out there now. :)

    I’m in no way going to defend Clinton’s personal failings, or his perjury, but at least he left the country in fairly good shape. His foreign policy was kind of whacked, but to be fair the role of the US post coldwar was up in the air and it didn’t have the consequences of this New American Century. But yes, on the socially conservative front I’m sure there was a similar euphoria to him being out of office.

    Thanks for the response, this seems a pleasant place to hash out issues.

  • Alan

    I’m not too sure about what the core of the blog is. What’s with all the Latin stuff? How do you expect me, the “common man” to understand all this foreign b…….t ?( de jure, de facto). As a mere Brit. I need someone to tell me “like it is”. Why is everything made so complicated these days. It’s almost as if those who have a message(politicians, corporate spokesmen, et al (oops I have fallen on my own sword!) feel the need to complicate, confuse, so that the intended recipients of the message end up”switching off”. Do you think this is intentional?. One about old WG,monosyallabic he might have been, but one couldn’t get confused about the message because there wasn’t one. Now this Obama, well, hasn’t he got a way with words?