Metaphysical Views

Sandra LaFave

This essay has two main sections:  

1. Brief explanations of several metaphysical views: Substance Dualism, Monist Materialism, Idealism, Neutral Monism, Pluralism

2. How the different metaphysical views treat mental states


Brief Explanations of Various Metaphysical Views

1. Substance Dualism

Substance dualism, exemplified by Descartes and presupposed in Christian views of personhood, claims there are two (and only two) ways to be: either

(res extensa)
(res cogitans)
Physical OR Mental
Located in space OR Not located in space
Can be sensed OR Can't be sensed
Inert and passive OR Alive, active, creative
Has no intentionality or projects (doesn't want or do anything) OR The source of intentionality
Governed by laws of nature — determined OR Not governed by laws of nature — free
Divisible — made of smaller things (e.g., bodies are made of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, etc.) OR Simple and indivisible
Can die or be destroyed if it breaks down into its component parts OR Cannot die or be destroyed because it can't be broken down
Measurable, quantifiable OR Not measurable or quantifiable
"Objective" OR "Subjective"
Public OR Private
The apparent self (the self from the "outside") OR The real self (self from the "inside")
"Lower" OR "Higher"

Furthermore, according to substance dualism, a thing cannot be both physical and mental, since the physical and the mental have contradictory properties.

Descartes argues in Meditation II that since self “from inside” isn’t material, it must therefore be non-material res cogitans and thus potentially immortal.

You remember Descartes' argument:

P1: He doesn't know whether his senses are reliable, whether there is a material world, or whether he has a body at all. All the supposed "knowledge" that comes from the senses turns out not to be knowledge at all, since it can be doubted. As far as Descartes is concerned at the beginning of Meditation II, he doesn't even have a body; and of course, since he doesn't have a body, he doesn't have a brain.

P2: Descartes realizes in Meditation II that he DOES know that he exists as a thinking thing.

C: Therefore, Descartes concludes that his body can't be the source of his thinking. His existence as a thinking being cannot be due to any res extensa.

Substance dualism gives rise to the mind-body problem. — the problem of explaining the relation between, and supposed interaction of, non-material mind and material body; and the problem of explaining how a person could be free in a body determined by physical laws.

2. Materialism

Monist Materialism — exemplified by Hume, Marx, the hard behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, the eliminative materialism of Paul and Patricia Churchland — denies the existence of non-material things, and claims only material things are real, and all real things are material. Everything that is is “stuff” — right out there, sensible, located, public. Monist Materialism’s big problem is explaining our apparent consciousness, values, intentionality, freedom, institutional and social facts.

3. Idealism

Berkeley and Hegel exemplify idealism. Idealism denies that material things exist — i.e., claims only non-material things are real, all real things are non-material. Problems: (1) explaining the apparent persistence, continuity, and consistency of the so-called “world” we experience; (2) solipsism.

4. Neutral Monism

Phenomenalism, Logical Positivism, and most forms of Hinduism exemplify neutral monism. Neutral monism rejects the characterization of all reality as either material or non-material. According to neutral monism, being is neither material nor non-material, but rather something else which is metaphysically “neutral,” e.g., sense-data. Problems: (1) solipsism, (2) Gestalt critique of psychological atomism.

5. Metaphysical Pluralism

Aristotle, pragmatism, Wittgenstein, Ryle, and ordinary language philosophy exemplify pluralism. Pluralists reject the characterization of all reality as either material or non-material; in other words, pluralism says there are many (and certainly more than two) conceivable ways to be. For Aristotle, real things are mostly individual things composed of matter and form. The form determines the “essence” of something — what it means to be that kind of thing. There are many ways to be, and so there are many forms.

Twentieth-century pluralists agree with Aristotle. They say there are many ways to be, and thus many metaphysical categories. Metaphysics has been trying to fit everything into one of dualism’s two categories. Yet what is is in lots of ways — not just one. We should stop thinking of reality as composed of a lot of changeless essences (represented by nouns), and start thinking of reality as a lot of ways of being put together or behaving (represented by adverbs). The way something is is the way it behaves or functions. And how something behaves or functions is public. So, the 20th-century pluralists say, there is only one knowable world, the sensible one. That is, there is one world for epistemological purposes. But there are many ways to be in that world. Furthermore, there is no problem in saying that that an individual exhibits more than one way of being. For example, one can be both a person and stylish.

Cartesian dualism has been particularly pernicious, according to twentieth-century pluralists. It has made human actions incomprehensible. According to Ryle, there are no ghostly mental “events”; there are only publicly observable events, which can be in many ways — not just two ways (material and non-material). For example, disappointment is something (it’s real); but it’s not something either private and unobservable or public and overt. It’s usually both; but an even better way of describing it is to say it’s sui generis (it’s itself), a unique way of being in the world (being disappointed) that has obvious, recognizable, publicly observable characteristics. The same holds for other ways of human being: being thoughtful, shy, desirous, competent, stylish, embarrassed, jealous, willing, fearful, determined, etc. Intentional predicates refer to ways of human being or doing in the (one) world — what Wittgenstein would call “forms of life”.

According to Ryle, Cartesian dualism forces us into category mistakes. A category mistake is a logical fallacy: it’s putting something in the wrong category or logical level.

Ryle says many category mistakes result from our being seduced by linguistic similarities. For example, we compare the sentences “Punctuality is praiseworthy” and “The punctual Miss Jones is praiseworthy” and we think (wrongly) that there must be two kinds of “realities”: invisible universals like “punctuality” and sensible particulars like “Miss Jones” — when in fact what there are are persons who sometimes behave punctually. We say “My mind is alert” and “My dog is alert” and think there are thus two kinds of realities: invisible minds and visible dogs, when in fact there are both persons and dogs who sometimes behave alertly.

If Ryle is right, the mind-body problem goes away. My thinking, wanting, etc. are things I do. They are ways of being in the world. Intentionality isn’t a mystery. It’s not that there’s me on one side thinking and wanting, and my body on the other side inert and passive. If this were right, transactions between me and my body certainly would be completely mysterious. But in fact there’s no problem here in the first place. As John Searle says, “How can mind and body interact? Just watch!” – and he waves his arm. There’s an interaction problem only if you suppose that there are two separate “things” that have to “interact”! But there aren’t. Being a person is one way to be in the world; and then if you’re a person, you can be and/or do lots of other ways too. All of these ways are ultimately able to be sensed. The whole mind-body problem has been caused by inferior metaphysics.

Naive realism is a kind of pluralism, because it holds that the categories of ordinary language correctly account for the real world.

If pluralism is correct, there are many ways to be, thus many ways to be real or unreal, and thus no single criterion of “reality” that applies to everything. (Think of Austin’s examples of the multiple meanings of “real”.) But traditional metaphysics has tried to construct just such general “theories of reality” — general criteria that can be applied across the board to distinguish “reality” from “appearance,” or to distinguish degrees of reality. If pluralism is correct and there are many ways to be, there are no general criteria that distinguish “reality” from “appearance” across the board, so the future of traditional metaphysics is very much in doubt.


Metaphysics and Mental States

Mental States and Idealism

Mental states as experienced by the subject pose no problems for idealism. If everything real is non-material — and thus non-physical, private, mental, subjective, etc., — then mental states as experienced are the paradigm of reality. The problem for idealism is how to explain apparent realities that seem public, objective, measurable, independent of my experience, etc. — things that fit into the material category, like trees, rocks, buildings, refrigerators, etc. In other words, the claim “Everything real is non-material” appears to have too many obvious counterexamples. No sane person with relevant life experiences seriously doubts the mind-independent reality of trees, rocks, buildings, etc. Idealism seems prima facie implausible. Idealism’s category mistake, then, consists in putting all reality into the non-material box.

Social Constructivism – the New Idealism

Idealism nevertheless survives even today as social constructivism. Social constructivism is at the center of much contemporary literary criticism, and is very popular among younger English teachers, some feminists, and other proponents of political correctness. Idealism now goes by names like “post-modernism,” “deconstructionism,” “literary theory,” “theory,” or “criticism,” and is associated with writers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Judith Butler, and Luce Irigaray. People who don’t know much about philosophy often think post-modernism and deconstruction are philosophical movements. Actually, most contemporary philosophers reject these extreme forms of social constructivism.

Philosophers do agree that some realities are socially constructed. So social constructivism is not completely wrong. Kant, of course, began the tradition of reality-construction in his noumenal-phenomenal distinction. Kant says that synthetic a priori constraints of our minds determine the phenomenal world (the world as experienced). But Kant thinks human minds are basically similar, and so phenomenal reality is objective for all humans; in other words, Kant, while he does think reality is constructed, does not think it is culturally constructed. I.e., Kant does not believe that the phenomenal world differs from culture to culture. For Kant, the discourse of science rules in the common phenomenal world of all humans.

Karl Marx says some aspects of reality are socially constructed, and hardly anyone disagrees with that part of Marx’s philosophy. Marx points to the social construction of economic realities like economic classes and private property. Languages are socially constructed, as Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin, and Lakoff, among many others, point out; and of course the language we speak determines our world to some extent; we tend to experience what we can name, and not experience what we have no words for. John Searle, in his book The Construction of Social Reality, calls attention to that fact that money is money only because a culture says it is; that people are married only if a culture says they are, etc.

But post-modernists go further than any of these philosophers. Post-modernists and other social constructivists say that each culture creates all reality within it, and furthermore, that different individuals and cultures can create radically different realities because there is no “objective” reality at all that we could invoke to referee inter-cultural disputes about reality (that’s the idealism part). So for example, if one culture says lightning is a discharge of electrons, and another culture says lightning is Zeus’ thunderbolt, both cultures are equally correct, since lightning is just whatever a culture says it is.

Social constructivists, in other words, say socially-constructed reality is the only kind of reality. Anglo-American philosophers say socially constructed reality is one kind of reality; they also believe trees, rocks, buildings, etc. have an objective, culturally-independent physical existence. Anglo-American philosophy is pluralist: it does not insist that all reality fit in one or two boxes.

Post-modernism is disturbing because if there is no culture-independent way to referee intercultural disputes, the only recourse in cases of disagreement must be force. Whoever has the most power wins, always and inevitably. Philosophers, by contrast, believe that people are capable of reasoning together about our common world on the basis of our shared interests (our common human nature). The principles of rationality are no different from the principles of mathematics, which all cultures agree on. Because we share a common world (reality), some statements are true and others false, in a publicly-decidable way. Because we share a common human nature, we want basically the same things, and we can judge objectively, then, about whether social policies, forms of government, customs, etc. contribute or do not contribute toward the achievement of our common goals. Whoever has the best facts and the best reasoning wins, or ought to win — not whoever has the most power.

Mental States and Materialism

Mental states as experienced pose insuperable problems for materialism. A materialist is forced to say that since mental states and processes aren’t physical, they don’t exist at all. Skinner’s hard behaviorism is an example of materialism; Skinner actually says mental events don’t exist. This seems absurd. What is he talking about when he says “I think” so-and-so, or “I feel” so-and-so??

Materialism’s category mistake consists in putting all reality into the material box, thus implying that everything that is is physical, precisely located in space-time, completely sensible and publicly observable, measurable, inert, passive, determined by physical laws, etc. But we want to say many things are real that do not fit in this box: e.g., fairness, injustice, team spirit, the university, the ideals of the Bill of Rights, consciousness-events such as disappointment, pain, and joy, and social realities such as marriage, private property, and democracy. In other words, the claim “Everything real is material” appears to have too many obvious counterexamples.

Mental States and Substance Dualism

Substance Dualism says everything that is real is either material or non-material. In other words, there are exactly two boxes and everything real must fit into one or the other, and nothing can belong in both. But this means the substance dualist is forced to say that since mental states and processes aren’t material/physical, they must therefore be non-material/mental and hence private, subjective, unobservable, etc. However, mental states and processes are often easily observable (e.g., Palmer’s example of the student pouring ink on him intentionally). Furthermore, the dualist must say that since events in the physical world are public and objectively observable, they cannot simultaneously be private and subjective. But publicly observable events often have real but unobservable subjective components (e.g., intentions, embarrassment, disappointment, etc.). The problem is that once the dualist classifies an event as physical, all considerations of subjectivity must go out the window; and once a dualist classifies an event as mental, all considerations of objectivity must go out the window. This seems at odds with our ordinary experience of ourselves. The dualist analysis lands us squarely into the mire of the mind-body problem: a “problem” created entirely by the dualist categories.

Dualism’s category mistake consists in thinking there are only two boxes of reality, with just the attributes listed above.

Mental States and Pluralism

Enter pluralism (Aristotle, Ryle) to the rescue. Pluralism says there are a lot more than two ways to be.

The pluralist says:

1.      There’s one public sensible world, containing lots of kinds of things.

2.      Each kind of thing is in a particular way (using Aristotelian terminology, its matter is formed a particular way).

3.      Each kind of thing also can potentially be in other ways characteristic of that kind of being. E.g., once you get a dog body, you automatically get the tendency to dig, bark, etc. Once you get a human body, you automatically get the tendency to think, imagine, want, intend, hope, fear, be disappointed, angry, sad, etc.

4.      There’s no mind-body problem; there never was.

If you reject substance dualism, you can also stop worrying about ethical subjectivism (the view that ethical claims are just claims about feelings or expressions of feelings). Ethical subjectivists argue that you can't reason about morality since feelings aren't "objective." But there's something fishy there, no? See Thinking Critically about the Subjective/Objective Distinction.



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