Metaphysics as a creative craft

In my writings I have not infrequently been dismissive of metaphysics, arguing that most metaphysical claims are meaningless, unfalsifiable, and of no consequence to people’s lives (leaving aside the unfortunate historical fact that many people have been burned at the stake for believing metaphysical claims that others disliked).

Perhaps it is time to relent a little – to give the metaphysicians a little praise. At least I will try. The basis for this attempt is a re-framing of what metaphysics is about. Instead of thinking of it as a quasi-scientific activity of trying to work out ‘what the world is like’, perhaps we could instead think of it as a creative, artistic activity, of inventing new ways of thinking and feeling about the world. Metaphysics as a craft, as delightful and uncontentious as quilting.

Why would anybody want to do that? Well I can think of a couple of reasons, and here they are (except that, like the chief weapons of Python’s Spanish Inquisitor, the number of reasons may turn out to be either more or less than two).

We know that there is a very wide range of human temperaments, longings, fears and attachments. A perspective that is inspiring to one person may be terrifying to another, and morbidly depressing to a third. For instance some people long to believe in a personal God that oversees the universe, and would feel their life to be empty and meaningless without it. Others regard the idea with horror. Some people are very attached to the idea that matter – atoms, quarks and the like – really, truly exists rather than just being a conceptual model we use to make sense of our experiences. Philosophical Idealists (more accurately referred to as Immaterialists) have no emotional need for such beliefs, and accordingly deny the existence of matter, saying that only minds and ideas are real. Indeed some, such as George Berkeley, regard belief in matter as tantamount to heresy, which is why the subtitle of his tract ‘Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous‘, which promoted his Immaterialist hypothesis, was ‘In opposition to sceptics and atheists‘.

So the wider the range of available metaphysical hypotheses, the more chance that any given person will be able to find one that satisfies her, and hence be able to live a life of satisfaction, free of existential terror. Unless of course what they really long for is existential terror, in which case Kierkegaard may have a metaphysical hypothesis that they would love.

One might wonder – ‘why do we need metaphysical hypotheses, when we have science?‘ The plain answer to this is ‘we don’t‘. But although we do not need them, it is human nature to seek out and adopt them. That’s because, correctly considered, science tells us not ‘the way the world is‘, but rather, what we may expect from the world. A scientific theory is a model that enables us to make predictions about what we will experience in the future – for instance whether we will feel the warmth of the sun tomorrow, and whether if we drop an apple we will see it fall. Scientific theories may seem to say that the world is made of quarks, or spacetime, or wave functions, but they actually say no such thing. What they say is, if you imagine a system that behaves according to the following rules – which might be rules about subatomic particles like quarks – and you observe certain phenomena (such as my letting go of the apple), then the behaviour of that imaginary system can guide you as to what you will see next (such as the apple falling to the ground).

It’s just as well that scientific theories say nothing about ‘the way the world is’, because they get discarded every few decades and replaced by new ones. The system described by the new theory may be completely different from that described by the previous one. For instance the new one may be all about waves while the previous one was all about tiny particles like billiard balls (electrons, protons and neutrons in the Rutherford model of the atom). But most of the predictions of the two theories will be identical. Indeed, if the old theory was a good one, it will only be in very unusual conditions that it makes different predictions from those of the new theory (eg if the things being considered are very small, very heavy or very fast). So by recognising that scientific theories are descriptions of imaginary systems that allow us to make predictions, rather than statements about the way the world is, we get much greater continuity in our understanding of the world, because not much changes when a theory is replaced.

I think of metaphysics as the activity of constructing models of the world (‘worldviews’) that contain more detail and structure than there is in the models of science. We do not need the more detailed models of metaphysics for our everyday life. Science gives us everything we need to survive. But, being naturally curious creatures, we tend to want to know what lies behind the observations we make, including the observations of scientific ‘laws’. So we speculate – that the world is made of atoms like billiard balls, or strings, or (mem’)branes, or a wave function, or a squishy-wishy four-dimensional block of ‘spacetime’, or quantum foam, or ideas, or noumena, or angels, demons, djinn and deities. This speculation leads to different mental models of the world.

So metaphysics adds additional detail to our picture of the world. Some suggest that it also adds an answer to the ‘why?’ question that science ignores (focusing only on ‘how?’). I reject that suggestion. As anybody knows that has ever as a child tried to rile a parent with the ‘but why?’ game, and as anybody that has been thus riled by a child knows, any explanation at all can be questioned with a ‘but why?’ question. No matter how many layers of complexity we add to our model, each layer explaining the layer above it, we can always ask about the lowest layer – ‘but why?’ Whether that last layer is God, or quarks, or strings, or the Great Green Arkleseizure, or even Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe, one can still demand an explanation of that layer. By the way, my favourite answers to the ‘But why?’ question are (1) Just because, (2) Nobody knows and (3) Why not? They’re all equally valid but I like (3) the best.

Some of these mental models have strong emotional significance, despite having no physical significance. For instance strong solipsism – the belief that I am the only conscious being – tends to frighten people and make them feel lonely. So most people, including me, reject it, even though it is perfectly consistent with science. Some people get great comfort from metaphysical models containing a god. Others find metaphysical models without gods much more pleasant.

So I would say that metaphysics, while physically unnecessary, is something that most people cannot help doing to some extent, and that people often develop emotional attachments to particular metaphysical models.

Good metaphysics is a creative activity. It is the craft of inventing new models. The more models there are, the more people have to choose from. Since there are such great psychological and emotional differences between people, one needs a great variety of models if everybody that wants a model is to be able to find a model with which they can be comfortable.

Bad metaphysics (of which there is a great deal in the world of philosophy) is trying to prove that one’s model is the correct one. I call this bad because there is no reason to believe that there is such a thing as ‘the correct model’ and even if there was one, we’d have no way of finding out what it is. There can be ‘wrong’ models, in the sense that most people would consider a model wrong if it is logically inconsistent (ie generates contradictions). But there are a myriad of non-contradictory models, so there is no evidence that there is such a thing as ‘the right model’. Unfortunately, it appears that most published metaphysics is of this sort, rather than the good stuff.

It’s worth noting that speculative science is also metaphysics. By ‘speculative science’ I mean activities like string theory or interpretations of quantum mechanics. I favour Karl Popper’s test for whether a model is (non-speculative) science, which is whether it can make predictions that will falsify the model if they do not come true. A model that is metaphysical can move into the domain of science if somebody invents a way of using it to make falsifiable predictions. Metaphysical models have done this in the past. A famous example is the ‘luminiferous aether’ theory, which was finally tested and falsified in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887. Maybe one day string theorists will be able to develop some falsifiable predictions from the over-arching string theory modeli that will move it from the realm of metaphysics to either accepted (if the prediction succeeds) or discarded (if the prediction fails) science. However some metaphysical models seem unlikely to ever become science, as one cannot imagine how they could ever be tested. The debate of Idealism vs Materialism (George Berkeley vs GE Moore) is an example of this.

So I hereby give my applause to (some) metaphysicians. Some people look at philosophy and say it has failed because it has not whittled down worldviews to a single accepted possibility. They say that after three millenia it still has not ‘reached a conclusion’ about which is the correct worldview. I ask ‘why do you desire a conclusion?‘ My contrary position is to regard the proliferation of possibilities, the generation of countless new worldviews, as the true value of metaphysics. The more worldviews the better. Philosophy academics working in metaphysics should have their performance assessed based not on papers published but on how many new worldviews they have invented, and how evocatively they have described them to a thirsty and variety-seeking public. Theologians could get in on the act too, and some of the good ones (a minority) do. Rather than trotting out dreary, flawed proofs of the existence of God. the historicity of the resurrection, or why God really does get very cross if consenting grown-ups play with one another’s private parts, they could be generating creative, inspiring narratives about what God might be like and what our relationship to the God might be. They could manufacture a panoply of God mythologies, one to appeal to every single, unique one of us seven billion citizens of this planet. Some of us prefer a metaphysical worldview without a God, but that’s OK, because if the philosopher metaphysicians do their job properly, there will be millions of those to choose from as well. Nihilists can abstain from all worldviews, and flibbertigibbets like me can hop promiscuously from one worldview to another as the mood takes them.

We need more creative, nutty, imaginative, inspiring metaphysicians like Nietzsche, Sartre, Simone Weil and Soren Kierkegaard, not more dry, dogmatic dons that seek to evangelise their own pet worldview to the point of its becoming as ubiquitous as soccer.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, January 2015

i. Not just a prediction of one of the thousands of sub-models. Falsifying a sub-model of string theory is useless, as there will always be thousands more candidates.

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On mending socks

How fine it is to mend things.

There is a real satisfaction in tinkering with a faulty object, examining it, taking it apart, finding the source of a problem and then coming up with a way to fix it. The satisfaction comes partly from the intellectual stimulation of trying to solve a puzzle, and the pleasure in successfully solving it. Then there is the pleasure in learning something new about the world. Once I fixed a metronome and was delighted at what I learned about the ingenious clockwork mechanisms that were concealed within the case.  I like to think of those creative and resourceful engineers and craftspeople that had remarkable ideas like putting a little doodad here that would tip the whirligig there on every third revolution, which would, via a series of additional baroque interactions, make a little bell chime.

What a brave new world it is, that has such people in it!

But the most important source of satisfaction from mending things is its contribution to sustainability. Every broken toaster, metronome or lamp shade mended is one less piece of rotten landfill and one more set of valuable resources saved to be used for another five or more years.

Quality control in manufacturing is almost non-existent these days, except for products where faults can cause serious safety hazards. It is much cheaper for a manufacturer to dispense with quality control and simply replace any faulty items returned by customers than to maintain an expensive quality management process in their factory. Why do your own quality control when you can get your customers to do it for you, at no cost?

The consequence of this is that an older, mended object is often better quality than a new replacement, because the older item may have been made in a factory that paid more attention to quality.

My abilities at fixing things are very constrained though, and venture hardly at all into the domain of Soft Things. I can, only just, sew a button on a shirt. It will usually stay on for a while, but it’s not a pretty sight. But beyond buttons I am at sea. That is not generally a problem because my partner is highly skilled with soft things, so between the two of us we manage to take care of most feasible mending.

But there is one terrible exception to the portfolio of challenges with which we can cope, and that is the rehabilitation of socks. What I wonder is ‘Why does nobody darn socks any more?’.

Now I am not asking that as a curmudgeon hankering after the days of his youth, when he could barely walk about for risk of getting stuck by the needle of one of the innumerable sock darners with which he was surrounded. No, my youth was in the post-sock-darning era. My mother was an avid mender of all sorts of garments. Some of my school clothes were more patch than original material. But I can’t recall her repairing a sock (Perhaps she did and I have forgotten).

I know there was a sock-darning era, because I have read many times in books of people performing this wondrous act, but it seems to have pre-dated my life.

The art seems to be long gone, yet it seems to be so useful, that one wonders why it has gone.

Let me be perfectly frank about this: I own many, many pairs of socks. So when it comes to things sock-related, I modestly consider myself to be something of an expert. And I have noticed a tendency of some of my socks to develop holes at the end of the big toe. I stubbornly wear those socks for a while, hole and all, but usually end up having to give up and throw them away under the weight of protestations from my family at the shame it brings them to have a father or partner walking around with holes in his socks.

Think how proud they would be instead, if passers-by could all see that my socks had been mended, perhaps with a striking splotch of scarlet thread on the end that darned over the hole. What a grand world that would be, in which people had access to sock darning services, whether from talented friends and family, or from hired artisans.

I don’t know why the art of sock darning disappeared. Some suggest it is that the types of materials used to make modern socks make darning difficult and unreliable. But I blame children’s story books. Let me give one example. Doubtless there are many others.

The other morning I was doing reading assistance with children at the local primary school. The story that my charge chose to read was ‘The Hole in the King’s Socks’. It tells the story of a king that has a hole in the toe of one sock, and gets a cold toe. He seeks advice from all his courtiers as to how he should remedy this, and none of the remedies (eg stuffing it with leaves, as the Royal Gardener suggests) work.

In the end, the Queen suggests to the king that he knit himself some new socks. He rapidly learns to knit, makes some socks, puts them on, and they all live happily ever after, with warm toes.

It is nice that it encourages learning new skills but other than that, this story is wrong on so many levels!

Firstly, why does he need to make two new socks when only one is damaged? We can see from the illustrations that the new socks are identical in colour and pattern to the old, so there is no problem of mismatch (not that that would be sufficient reason to throw away a perfectly good sock anyway).

But more importantly, if he can learn to knit a sock, why can he not learn to darn, and simply darn the hole? That would use only a tiny fraction of the wool needed to make a whole new sock. Yet that option was not even considered. Presumably both the old socks – the pristine one and the only-slightly-damaged one – were consigned to landfill.

I ask you, what sort of message is this sending our children? “If something is faulty, just throw it away and get a new one”. Whether you make it or buy it makes no real difference. The resources used in the manufacture of the old thing are still wasted.

As you would expect, I gave my young, impressionable reader a moving homily on the foolishness of the king in throwing away his socks, and how we should always seek to mend rather than replace. I am not sure if it had any effect. She seemed more interested in trying to balance her pencil on its end while tipping her chair backwards. But one tries to plant the seeds of wisdom, you know. One never knows when they might take root and grow.

In the past couple of decades we have seen a renaissance of previously unfashionable crafts such as knitting, quilting and crochet. Is it too much to hope that the craft of darning socks will also make a comeback? If I can only live long enough to see that, then I think I will truly be able to die happy.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2014